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Friday, 18 April 2014

The Ultimate Fishing Challenge - Water, Air, Land

 The leisurely morning was the head fake for what was to come. My daydreaming thought of, "Wow that must have been a big one!", after hearing the splash, was the sucker punch.
  I was up early fishing off the dock of our house rental that backed onto the Palmetto Dune lagoon in South Carolina's Hilton Head. The pine stained waters lazily drifted by as I sipped my coffee and watched the sun's progress from the horizon. Nothing seemed to be going on fish wise. Usually, at least the mullets would provide a little entertainment by leaping out of the water fairly regularly, but not so this am. Even the ospreys who perched high in the trees on our property didn't seem to really be into it today. A few passing glides and then back to their haunts.
  I exchanged fishing rod for flip flops and headed down to the ocean with my wife, Jan, for a low tide beach walk. The packed sand of low tide is great for walking or biking the long wide shorelines of Hilton Head. There is always something to spot in the water and something to look for in the sand, and the early morning means comfortable going as the sun isn't too hot yet. We weren't alone in this idea. Today the Pink Ribbon people were having their walk/run event and there were pretty good numbers of participants from all over the U.S. smiling and chugging along the course.
 Two hours later and we were back at the house but so was the vacation company's cleaning crew so we all had to get out of their way. The three sisters headed for the pool and their husbands headed for the dock. Given the quiet morning and the now high sun we weren't in any sort of overly unrealistically optimistic mood but then again we weren't about to pass up on another chance to go fishing.
  While Sam and Bryon put on cut bait (cut up chunks of dead fish),  I decided to use a technique that was popular amongst the guides in the area. Put a freshly captured lively local fish on your hook as bait and let the food chain follow.  Simple enough, but I didn't have a net to cast for the bait fish so I first had to go fishing so that I could go fishing. Having had to play this game on other trips, I had brought along my ultralight fishing rod and reel that had originally been purchased to enjoy fishing for grayling in the far Canadian north. Light line, a very small hook and a guppy shaped and sized piece of raw turkey bacon soon produced a palm sized pin fish. The fish was then placed a few feet below a bobber and cast out to go on tour and attract Mr Big.
  The trouble with this kind of fishing is that on a warm sunny day, the sun glinting off the water, the bobber, and your beer can, you can fall into a rather meditative state. Conversation had slowed and relaxation had set in. For a while I intensely tracked the touring bait fish. First it went straight out, then upriver to the support walls on the other side, then back in front of me for awhile before deciding to travel downriver to the next dock on our side. By this point/pint I had taken my eye off the ball /bobber and kept looking straight ahead as I thought, "Wow that must have been a big one!" after I'd heard a huge downstream splash.  A few second later my  rod slashed down violently, the line screamed  and I bolted to my feet, fully engaged, shouting, "Fish on!" as I turned  downriver.
 An osprey eagle emerged from the water with my bait fish in its talons. It took off upriver at about 20 feet in the air.  "Hey that's my fish!" I yelled as I pulled back on the line. It wouldn't let go and I was left feeling like I was flying a kite in a wind storm. To add to my dilemma I now gave myself a dark thought. "What if it can't let go because it's hooked?" Oh no, that would be REALLY bad.

  I couldn't just cut the line because that would leave a hook in the bird and the bird would probably die of infection. So that would mean reeling in and removing the hook from one very pissed off fish eagle. That's right - an osprey is a fish eagle, as in a large brown and grey fish eating raptor that sits 24 inches tall and has a wing span of over 70 inches. This thing is built to hunt and kill. It has formidable feet.  Its toes, which are of equal length, grasp their prey two toes in front and two behind, with round talons that have backward facing scales so that slippery fish have no chance of escaping. That black hooked beak is sharp enough to tear through the toughest of fish skin. I had visions of me learning a new definition of finger food if my unprotected hands got too close to this fellow.
  The osprey landed on my side of the lagoon on the top of the retaining wall about 60 feet upriver. It had managed to wrap the line around a light fixture that was affixed to the retaining wall. So for now, the line, the fish, and the raptor weren't going anywhere. We were separated as well, by a row of some sort of bushes that travelled the property line and extended out over the retaining wall.  I knew that the neighbouring house had been left vacant for a good deal of time so I clambered through the untrimmed bushes and prepared to meet my fate.
 At about 30 feet away I started going over my plan. I had my shirt and the small towel that we were using to clean up after baiting fish, so I had something to wrap the raptor in. I had pliers for the hook, Sam had my fishing rod, and Bryon, who is a vet, was there in case either the bird or myself needed medical attention. I slowed my pace but got another 10 feet closer before I had to stop to wipe the sweat that had suddenly started to appear and run into my eyes. This really wasn't such  a great plan, this was going to suck.
 Smaller steps brought me to within 15 feet of a pair of piercing yellow eyes, when suddenly the osprey just spread its wings and flew off. No struggling, no disentangling, just a graceful and powerful lift off. The beggar hadn't been hooked, he was just being stubborn.
  From then on I abandoned the live bait under a bobber method and every time I caught a small fish I tossed it down in the direction of where the osprey was perched. I figured I owed it one.


Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Of Hilton Head River Monsters

 He knew before he did it that it was wrong. He'd only be thirty feet away and only for a minute, and hey, what were the chances?  We all heard it go. The frantic sssssssss of the line followed by a violent popping of metal as the guides were torn off and forced up against the wooden railing on which the pole had been wedged. Three heads turned in unison just in time to see Sam's entire rod and reel set jettison into the air for a ten foot flight and then dive into the stained waters. Gone.
  Over the years I've seen more than a few expensive rigs end up on the wrong side of the boat or the dock but never had I seen one taken so forcefully. Whatever hit this had size and power and was moving at a speed.
 The sting of losing his gear was made all the deeper because Sam and I had just paid to have our rod and reel cases count as a second piece of luggage when we flew down. Bryon, the third fisherman and brother-in-law in the group, had taken the option of buying something when he arrived. Further, Sam is an experienced, careful fisherman and while taking any physical leave, no matter how brief, he had always left his gear in a way that,  if the bait was taken, there shouldn't have been a problem. Rod wedged in tight with a metal guide snug under the rail. Line left slack and the reel tension reduced to let the line more or less run out under pressure. Under normal circumstance he should have gotten away with it, but whatever was plying the water that day didn't qualify as normal.
  The popular TV series, "River Monsters", starring biologist and extreme fisherman Jeremy Wade, often points out that there are creatures both legendary and enormous to be found hiding under the noses of the locals even in the waterways of modern, crowded cities. He tracks them down like a zoological detective and then catches them using both technique and a dogged persistence that as a fellow fisherman I find humbling to watch.
  "So you're a golfer ?" is the usual question from the customs officer when I am crossing the border from Canada into the U.S.A. Hilton Head Island, South Carolina is located north of Savannah, Georgia and south of Charleston, S.C. This bit of coastal low country is a mecca for golfers due to its fine weather and over 20 golf courses. Moreover it  hosts the Heritage Golf Classic, a stop on the PGA tour. However, I never pack a set of clubs as neither Bryon, Sam or myself are golfers. So when I tell the officer, "No I'm going there to fish", it always leads to more questions.
  The island is shaped roughly like a foot with the toes pointing SW and the heel NE. You enter over the bridge at about the ankle. Since this foot is in the water it has about 12 miles (19 km.) of beachfront on the Atlantic Ocean.
  Hilton Head, South Carolina has more than its share of finny fare, for the area has fresh water, brackish water and salt water. Each type of water has its own specific panoply but sometimes crossover creatures can be found.  You can fish the lagoons, the canals, or the ocean.
Though a somewhat hidden gem for fishermen you just can't run all over the place with fishing rod in hand. About 70% of the island is made up of gated communities so you need to know and follow the rules of each particular area. The upside of this is that because access is often restricted the fishing pressure is generally pretty low allowing for an abundance of large fish.
  We had rented a house that backed onto the canal in the Palmetto Dunes area. From there we could walk or bike ride to the beach or watch how the golfers were doing, or relax by the swimming pool. But more importantly we could fish from our backyard. In autumn a lot of the houses are empty. There is little traffic by either kayakers or boats driven by electric motors. The largest number of fishing boats I have seen out at one time in one day is two and that usually includes us.
  Following Jeremy Wade's example we began by listing the possible suspects. From guided expeditions in the area we had learned first hand that when you set the hook it could be a lady fish or a trout or a black drum or a flounder or hopefully a big redfish. Redfish are the target fish of sport fishing because of their size and fighting ability. For those who fish they power through the water and leap through the air like a giant sized small mouth bass. In fact they are often called spot tailed bass based on their acrobatics and because they have one large black spot on the base of their tail. At three years old they go about 6-8 lbs and by the time time they are about five years old they have become the  hefty 27 inch plus specimens known as bulls.
  While Sam went on a hunt for new equipment and more information, Bryon and I took up his spot on the bench. Bryon was using cut bait while I had an unweighted live five inch bait fish swimming under a bobber. After Sam's experience we sat right in front of our gear. Rods propped, hands ready. Well not that ready. After awhile I found mine filled with a beer in one and a cigar in another. Both went flying when the hit came. My reflexes were just fast enough to keep the rod on this side of the water. The hit was brutal. Line screamed and the pole bent deeply as I hung on with both hands and the butt of the pole jammed into my waistband.  A few seconds of fury and then nothing. I reeled in slack line to find that the bait and hook had been bitten off, the heavy duty leader severed. Could a red fish really do this?
   In Sam's words, "The  next day I was relaying my sad story to a professional fishing guide, who works this lagoon where we fish daily. He wasn't fazed one bit. Turns out, what I thought was a unique event, is a common occurrence. 'Them big ones'll do that', he said dryly. 'Lottsa tackle layin' in here'. "
 I still wasn't convinced and I became a lot more sceptical when Bryon came running in from the dock to show me a picture that he had just taken. You could just make out the figure of the top of the back and head of the five foot alligator that had cruised by our section of the canal.
I was shocked. We had been coming to this area for six years and had yet to see an alligator in this section of Hilton Head.  What was it doing here?  There is probably no one with a better working knowledge of the ecology of Palmetto Dunes than Captain Trent Malphrus.
  This Hilton Head native has been fishing the lagoon system since he was a kid and has been guiding since he was twelve. He doesn't even have to commute to work because he is also a resident of Palmetto Dunes. It is fair to say that he knows every bit of this 11 mile watercourse.  He is a keen observer of all nature in the area and many people enjoy his birding and nature tours. How important is his local knowledge? One year we rented a house on the lagoon specifically because we felt that it backed onto a good fishing spot. We fished hard for a few days and then threw in the towel and booked a trip with Trent. We had been out with him before and he had introduced a ton of knowledge and technique to us that was a good deal different from the fresh water fishing that we were used to.
  We hopped on his electric powered boat and we began the slow wakeless glide over tea coloured waters. "Don't worry boys. It might take a while to get there but it will be worth it." Some time later we arrived at the back of our house. "You can start throwing casts to the bank starting here.
I looked at Sam, Sam looked at Bryon and Bryon looked at me. Nobody said anything - we just started casting as the boat moved towards its final destination of about three long casts away. From that spot Trent started to put on a clinic, having us landing doubles and triples of redfish and trout on live bait and artificials.  Less than a football field had separated success from failure. "Yeah local knowledge is that important so when it came to information about the local gators I emailed Trent. This was his reply:
"The gators are not extremely common in here but we have had a few. They cannot live for extended stays in the brackish water because of the salinity levels but they seek out the lagoons to clear their skin of mites that attach to them. If he becomes a nuisance or aggressive, definitely let security know. We don't usually have a problem with them bothering anyone but unfortunately pets can be curious and fall prey if they get too close, so if you have a dog or cat with you there, keep them a safe distance. These gators are very quick on land. We look forward to hopefully seeing you guys again this year!"
- Captain Trent
  Well we had our answer to what the gator was doing there but I still didn't think that this was our mystery monster. I have seen alligators feed many a time. They might snap and tug and even throw in roll or two but they don't take off like an aquatic dragster. I ruled out the gators.
  It seemed to me that the best bet for our mystery river monster was a large redfish so in the tradition of Jeremy Wade, the next step would be to track a big one down ourselves. Our timeline was short, Trent was booked, and another guide and client who was passing by that day said that the bite was really slow. This meant fishing outside of the lagoon and that meant only one thing, Captain Mark.
 Sam and I had been fishing with Mark since the days when he would plunk us in kayaks and have us paddle out to the good spots. Sometimes you would have to go through some eye widening waves to get there, but there is nothing like having your boat towed around the ocean by a big red that you have just hooked.
 Mark has since gone on to having us in his nice white 17' Action Craft Flats boat.  The big Yamaha 90 HP engine gets us out to the fish quickly and then the Minkota pilot trolling motor does the fine tuning around fish holding structure. The boat is big enough to handle us comfortably so that we aren't worried about snagging each other's ears when we are standing and fishing the same side of the boat, yet small enough that it can sneak down creeks that would exclude other craft.
  We were pretty keen to get fishing as soon as possible but Mark had us wait a day due to changing weather and timing of the tides. That's one big plus when booking with Mark, he'd rather that you have the best chance at being successful than just take you out in the hopes of catching fish. It might cost him a day's pay to stay ashore but by gaining a reputation as someone who isn't just going to take you for a boat ride, he is gaining a loyal following.
  On a beautiful 62 degree F sunny morning we gently made our way out of the South Beach Marina and then blasted around the corner and stormed at top speed heading for the mouth of one of his favourite creeks. The engine had barely shut off when Bryon got into his first red. I followed immediately with an 81/2 pounder and the tone of the day was set.
 The three of us are very competitive.  One guy's success brings brief heartfelt congratulations followed immediately by deep personal bitterness because he is taking too long to get his picture taken, followed by having his line cast over, followed by him losing his hot spot on the boat because he stepped aside to get some new bait.  If Blackbeard, Captain Kidd and Henry Morgan were to join us, we'd out cut throat the lot of them.
  After a few minutes without a hit, Bryon started complaining that we only had him there to watch Sam and I catch fish.  His next fish was a 10lb red followed immediately by an 11 lb monster  followed immediately by crossed lines and a lost position on the boat. Sam and I countered immediately with double hits that brought in 8 and 9 lb feisty beauties. By this time Sam and I had started to resort to subtle hockey style hip checks to gain bow territory. We refer to this technique as the Deck Rhumba.
  We were catching them by the species - rays, flounder, trout, redfish - and Mark was working hard to keep up with the doubles and triples.  Over the course of the morning we had put Mark through the paces of landing over thirty fish EACH. Guiding probably should be made an official Olympic event. It would include weather reading, marine chart reading, navigation, boat operation skills, equipment selection and repair, tying knots, untying snarls, finding bait, baiting hooks, and  filleting  as qualifying events. In the semi finals it would be  unhooking a fish, measuring, photographing and safely releasing said fish and rebating the hook all at the same time for multiple people. In the final round it would  be poling the boat entirely by oneself in snag strewn shallow water, while lighting a smoke in the wind, passing a beverage, and never losing a beat telling a good story.
  On the way back in, Mark spotted some giant redfish laying against a bend in the shore. Bryon and Sam hooked but finally lost a truly huge fish each. I managed to hang on to mine and although at 12 3/4  lb it may not quality as a true monster, I was thrilled to hoist my biggest redfish so far.

 I'll let Sam finish this story about our mystery river monster:
 "On our next trip with Capt. Mark, ( just over 20 fish each) I also told him my tale of woe, to which he replied with a laugh, 'I've seen guys on my boat have the rods ripped right outta their hands, when a big Red hit their bait!'  His advice - 'always keep a good grip, and never leave your rig unattended when the baited line is in the water. If you want to take a break, reel your line in'. Lesson learned! I just had to ask though - "Mark, just how big do you think this fish is, that made off with my rod?" Without hesitation he replied, 'I'm guessin' 20 to 30 pounds', and chuckles again! 'There's some big ol' Reds in there, 'cause there's no pressure on 'em'.  So, somewhere in that expansive Palmetto Dunes Lagoon, on Hilton Head Island, in South Carolina, is one very large Redfish, towing around one very expensive rod and reel! Until next year......…..

You can reach these two great guides yourself and look for your own monsters.

Trent   and

Trent introduces the boys to flounder fishing.

Mark    and