Early April 2019
Anglers can’t resist showing off a big fish, where size really does matter. Ever wonder about the back story behind the smiling pix, the agony as well as the ecstasy? Here goes….and this is a true story!!
My erstwhile fishing buddy Bob Wayne and I love to probe hidden backcountry tidal creeks in the Everglades where big snook lurk in narrow channels lined with downed trees and mangroves.
The mangroves are an essential element of the ecosystem here, providing shelter for myriad small fish, crabs, and other life. But their thick, dangling air roots will tangle a fishing line in a flash if a hooked fish dives under them, not to mention they are covered with razor-sharp barnacles that will slice and dice anything that rubs against them.
In these tight quarters only a small, narrow boat like my Gheenoe can squirm through, and our hard-earned experience has taught us it is a real team effort to hook and land big fish successfully.
One Angler with a 6-to-7 foot medium/light spinning rod and 2500 Series reel is positioned upfront on the small bow deck with the Wingman in the back of the boat where he is outfitted with the remote controls for a small quiet electric trolling motor and the shallow water power anchor that with a push of a button unfurls and pins the boat firmly in place. The Wingman doesn’t fish.
Our efficacious technique to land big fish in these mazes has been honed through trial and error, with the emphasis on the latter. By the numbers, here is how it is supposed to work:
#1: Angler up front on bow casts lure very carefully up the creek as near to the mangroves as possible– and even under them is better. He must employ a whole repertoire of casts, including the pendulum, backhand, and skip casts, all depending on the situation such as whether there is vegetation overhanging the creek which would preclude using the standard overhead cast. The Wingman is ensconced in the stern with the aforementioned remote controls for the trolling motor and power anchor. He proceeds slowly and quietly at about 1 mph. maximum. To be able to steer properly, the Wingman must be able to see the head of the trolling motor that is mounted on the bow of the boat. If the Angler up front blocks said view, the Wingman gently reminds him with code phrases such as “stay in your lane bro.”
#2: When the lucky Angler manages to fool and hook a big snook, he must immediately apply maximum pressure to winch the outsized piscatorial species away from the mangrove roots or deadfall and into the middle of the creek. In some quarters, this is known as “horsing” the fish. It is a risky maneuver as it may snap the 30 lb. test leader/line or rod, but must be done quickly before the fish realizes its predicament and dives for safety into the snags.
#3: Mr. Wingman must also react immediately in concert with his buddy. He has three options depending on circumstances: (a) If there is wider space and open water behind the boat, he can throw the trolling motor in reverse and help pull the fish back away from the snags into the open water where the fish can be played more safely, (b) If the creek is too narrow behind the boat, he turns off the trolling motor and activates the power anchor to pin the boat so the big girl (all big snook are female) won’t pull the entire rig into the mangroves, which they are very capable of doing, or (c) He attempts to follow the snook while keeping the boat away from the mangroves.
#4: Angler skillfully plays fish and brings it slowly to the boat, assiduously avoiding the whirling blades of the trolling motor if it is still running and not allowing it to dive under the boat which is an excellent prescription for a broken rod.
#5: Wingman grabs landing net, gracefully comes forward in boat, and adroitly scoops fish up.
#6: After an obligatory round of whoops and hollers, high fives, and fist bumps, the Wingman snaps a couple of quick photos, ensuring the fish looks as big as possible by having Angler thrust the creature towards the camera as photo is taken. Fish released, swimming happily back to lair.
Now that’s the theory and preferred practice. Here’s how it played out with my biggest snook of the year, a 31-inch monster.
#1: Skillful Angler (yours truly) makes perfect cast within inches of overhanging mangroves with favorite Mr. Whiffle, a lure made on Chokoloskee Island where Angler and Wingman reside in winter.
Water explodes as big fish immediately smashes lure. With rod bending at perilous angle, Angler horses fish magnificently into middle of channel while screaming, “Back us out of here!!” Nothing happens.
#2: Wingman retorts, “Trolling motor not working. You must have kicked out the cable plug!!” Angler responds that the green light on motor is on so it must be working. Fish astutely takes advantage of situation by initiating a scorching run upstream, veering under long maze of mangrove roots. Reel singing at high volume as line peels off rapidly. Angler almost falls off front of boat as he stumbles forward pointing rod straight at fleeing fish so as not to break off line or snap rod, all the while uttering loud expletives in general direction of Wingman that can be summed up as “Please back the boat up as quickly as it is convenient for you.” Wingman pleads plaintively, “It WON’T work!!”
#3: Angler turns to cowering Wingman and says sardonically, “How about using the gas motor, Mr. Wayne!?!” By this time snook has threaded through the mangrove roots and is far upstream where it exits to the middle of the channel and executes a beautiful jump. Wingman asks incredulously, “Is that your fish??” “Follow him,” the Angler instructs sternly in a voice approaching 100 decibels while showing early signs of a cardiac infarction.
#4: Wingman adroitly starts gas motor and proceeds to throw it into reverse instead of forward to follow fish, causing Angler to lurch forward (remember, for every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction). He saves himself from dunking by grabbing onto throat of trolling motor. Angler issues torrent of maledictions, which can be encapsulated as “The other way, Robert.” Wingman successfully reverses course to head upstream.
#5: Angler furiously reels in slack as boat jets upstream. When reaching mangroves, he begins attempt to unwind line from the roots of the overhanging trees where it appears to be hopelessly entangled. Upon grabbing the line under the water, he is shocked to feel a strong tug as the fish jumps again upstream. “Holy S***, he’s still on!” Angler exclaims. As Wingman leans out of boat and attempts to assist in unwinding the Gordian Knot, Wingman counsels, “Stay calm, Stay calm, we’ll get him.” Angler resists strong urge to strangle Wingman.
#6: Working as a seasoned team, Angler and Wingman reach deep under roots with fishing rod and unwind a loop around one, then another, then another mangrove root. However, final root will not release line so Wingman reaches elbow deep into water and hoists the whole slimy dripping mess into the boat. Miraculously, the line has sliced into the root instead of wrapping around the barnacle-encrusted exterior, which helps explain the conundrum of why the line had not been sliced off. Wingman extracts line from cut in mangrove root along with a chunk of pithy wood while urging Angler to “Reel it in, reel it in!!!”
#7: Angler attempts to crank reel, but line refuses to respond. Angler then notices with sinking heart that line has wrapped around rod tip and is firmly affixed thereto with no hope of unknotting in near future. Wingman calmly sizes up predicament and screeches, “Hand line it, hand line it!!” By which he means grab the line and haul the fish in. Angler rebuffs that advice, recognizing that pulling in a big fish on a braided line for some distance will likely make mincemeat of his hands. Wingman responds, “Use my gloves, use my gloves.” Knowing that gloves on Wingman’s Lilliputian hands will likely not fit him, and that if the fish is not brought in immediately it likely will get off or die of laughter , Angler rolls eyes contemptuously at this suggestion.
#8: Fortuitously fish has run back downstream and surfaces in mangroves just opposite boat on other side of creek, completely exhausted either from fighting or amusement. Angler pleads with Wingman to motor boat towards struggling fish. Wingman skillfully extricates boat from mangroves on left side of channel, executes 90 degree turn as Angler colors the blue sky bluer with more scurrilities urging Wingman to proceed with all due haste. Wingman promptly buries bow of boat into mangroves on opposite right side of creek, narrowly avoiding collision with struggling fish.
#9: Angler grabs line with hands and slowly threads fish, now only a few feet away, through snags towards boat. In a lusty voice he implores Wingman, “Robert, would you be kind enough to retrieve the net and capture the fish for me.” Or something like that.
#10: Wingman brings net forward and leans perilously over side of boat in heroic effort to net fish and redeem himself. Instead, he rams fish in head with leading edge of net, which antagonizes the finned critter wherein it lunges to other side of front of boat, wrapping the line around the non-operative trolling motor propeller. Angler goes totally bananas, grabs net from Wingman, and successfully lands large snook. Wingman exclaims modestly, “WE did it!”
#11: With hands shaking Angler collapses in a heap on the front deck of boat. After appropriate recovery period, all mishaps are forgiven on both sides, fist bumps executed, and smiling photos snapped. Fish released and swims off diffidently, vowing to look for smarter adversaries.
End of story.
PS: Angler hands rod to Wingman, stating “I’m done.” Wingman steps to front of boat and executes cast into deadfall upstream and proceeds to hook and land a large two-foot snook on first cast with no assistance whatsoever from Angler. Angler glowers at gloating Wingman.
PPS: On further examination, Angler discovers Wingman’s trolling motor isn’t working because the batteries in the remote controller are dead. He valorously resists urge to throw Wingman overboard, and later exhibits true friendship by providing new AAA batteries to his fishing buddy on return to land. Wingman and Angler again absolve each other of all transgressions over thick, tasty steaks supplied and barbecued by Wingman and good bottle of wine provided by Angler.