A surprise catch in the Sunshine State

“Is it really cold, daddy?” My daughter asked.

“Very cold,” I muttered.

“But you’ll be nice and warm in Florida, won’t you?” “

“I hope so,” I replied.

My wife drove carefully through the increasing snowdrifts and we arrived safe and sound at Hector Fargo International Airport. As I unfastened my seat belt, I prayed that my flight would not be canceled due to bad weather. At that point, my phone rang. I took it out of my coat pocket to see the alert from my weather app: “Blizzard Warning”.

I kissed my wife and daughter goodbye and stepped out into the falling snow. As I rushed into the terminal the wind was strong and relentless, blowing against me as if trying to stop a fleeing criminal.

As most anglers in our area brace themselves for the cold of the hardwater fishing season, I chose to head south and fish in the lovely warm weather of Tampa Bay in the Sunshine State. There you can target and hook just about anything – Snook, Trout, Redfish, Black Drum, Sheepshead, Flounder, Grouper, Snapper, Amberjacks, and Pompano. These are all very good to eat. And with short direct flights available from Fargo to Florida right now, you can freeze your catch and bring home some freshly caught fish in your luggage to make your own grouper, stuffed plaice, or pan-seared Pompano sandwiches.

Stringer from White Grunts & Littlehead Porgy.JPG

And a trip like this can be affordable. It costs about the same as a three night / two day guided fishing trip on Devils Lake. I escaped the blizzard in Fargo on an Allegiant Airlines round trip flight direct to St. Pete – Clearwater Airport for only $ 140. If you’re leaving before the peak tourist season begins in mid-February, you can stay at a cheaper hotel in Clearwater Beach, a short walk to fishing boats, great restaurants, and the popular Pier 60 for about $ 120 per night. These budget hotels are probably not what you are looking for if you are traveling with a spouse on a romantic getaway or with the kids on a family vacation. But if you’re not picky, they’re great for a solo trip or an adventure with your fishing buddies.

There’s also no need to rent a car while you’re there. A $ 20 Uber ride will get you from the airport to your choice of beach accommodation, saving you on car rental and parking fees.

There are many great fishing charters to choose from for coastal and offshore excursions in the Tampa Bay area. If you are traveling on your own like me, coastal boating might not be an option on a tight budget. Most half-day tours will set you back $ 500 for one to four people. It’s not bad if you go with a few friends to share the cost. But it was not an option for my budget when there were Christmas presents to buy for my wife and daughter.

As an avid angler who enjoys being on the water for hours on end, I chose a full day Gulf Queen fishing boat tour from Clearwater Beach for a price of $ 85. If you are an active duty military or veteran, the price is only $ 65 with military ID. I didn’t want to carry my own fishing rod, reel, and gear on the plane, so I also opted to rent a fishing rod for the day for the reasonable price of just $ 10. If you are traveling with kids or teens with a short attention span, I would recommend the half day tour at a cost of $ 65 / person which includes your fishing and rod rental.

The ship’s captain, Bob Kirn, greeted me with a warm smile as I boarded the Gulf Queen for our excursion which would take us approximately 20 miles into the Gulf of Mexico. It was a beautiful sunny day with winds of less than 5 miles per hour. I liked how calm the water was. Higher wind speeds mean bigger waves and a greater chance for fishermen to get seasick – a common occurrence on these outings for those who choose not to take the free Dramamine offered to passengers early on. travel. But a pro tip I learned from the boat crew is that it is much more effective to take the motion sickness pill at night before going out on the water.

The next crew member I met was Craig the Cook. He was busy making burgers and ham, egg and cheese sandwiches and selling them for just $ 3. Snacks, pastries, and bottled water were also available throughout the day for just $ 1 / piece. Craig has my dream job. He’s paid to go out on a charter boat, cook for the hungry fishermen when they need something, but he still has time to join us and cast a line himself in the water while we’re busy at to fish and not to think about food.

The third crew member on board was Deckhand Angela Zamarripa. She grew up hiking, deer and bird hunting in the highlands in Wyoming and Colorado. She moved to the Tampa Bay area a few years ago and fell in love with it. “When I got to Florida, I got to fish a bit. The more fish I caught, the more I became obsessed and the more I wanted to be constantly on the water.

Angela currently works as a full-time deckhand five days a week. When the spring break season comes, she will be working six or seven days a week. But all those long days of hard work didn’t seem to bother her. If you’re like me and have experienced an increase in poor customer service during the pandemic, meeting someone like Angela is a breath of fresh, salty air. She was never out of sight of the 15 passengers on board for more than 2 minutes. Constantly running around the boat with a smile, a helping hand and a pair of pliers to get your fish off the hook for you, it was no surprise when she told me her dad was a NASCAR pilot in the late 1960s.

A stringer full of white growls and small porgy heads on a charter fishing trip in December 2021 in Florida.  Jeff Benda / Special at Northland Outdoors

A stringer full of white growls and small porgy heads on a charter fishing trip in December 2021 in Florida. Jeff Benda / Special at Northland Outdoors

After a two hour ride in the Gulf of Mexico, the boat’s engine stopped, signaling that we could drop our moorings. My bait slammed the water and plunged to the bottom about 50 feet below. Next to me was a small bucket of cut squid and whole sardine bait that the crew had provided to each fisherman. Angela had advised me to start with a sardine hanging in the eye with the tail pinched if I wanted to target the prized Gag Grouper. When I hit bottom and felt the slack in the line, I flipped the lever and started to coil it very lightly, so my bait was hovering just above the bottom. I immediately felt a tug on the other end and started to coil it up. As my fish got closer and closer to me, I dreamed that a 24 inch appeared so that I could make my own dish of blackened grouper as I had enjoyed at Crabby’s Dockside restaurant on my last visit to Clearwater Beach.

Angela quickly appeared and ran over to me, and looked over the side to see what I had on the line. As the fish came out of the dark water and headed for the sunlight, she shouted, “Sand Perch!”

“Seriously?!” I screamed. I had just walked 2,000 miles from the Jumbo Perch capital of Devils Lake, ND to catch a perch? I swung the line and fished in the boat so Angela could catch the 10 inch fish with her distinctive vertical dark stripes. “These are great baits,” she said.

“Definitely not! I have to cook this thing and see how it compares to ours at home,” I replied.

Angela held the perch for me so I could take a picture, then disappeared around the corner in the back of the boat to place my precious catch on a numbered spar. I was # 77.

The busy day continued with my fellow anglers and I catching red grouper, gag grouper, gray triggerfish, little headed pig, flounder, tons of white grunts and a few hogfish.

With each fish arriving on board, Angela rushed to remove the fish, then tie it to each individual’s numbered spar in a giant container filled with ice. Once back at the dock, Craig the cook and Angela the deckhand were cleaning our fish out of the goodness of their hearts, but also in the hope of a generous cash tip. Angela told me that a tip of $ 20 / person was pretty good.

A sand perch captured on a Florida fishing trip.  Jeff Benda / Special at Northland Outdoors

A sand perch captured on a Florida fishing trip. Jeff Benda / Special at Northland Outdoors

By the end of the afternoon a few of us had even caught Southern Puffers. Most people call them pufferfish. There are over 100 species of puffer fish in the world and most of us have heard how poisonous they are. But the crew and a few other veteran anglers assured me the Southern Puffer was good to eat when properly cleaned. Anyway, the real novelty of fish is its defense mechanism with which I find great solidarity, especially around the holidays. Under stress, it can swell up to two to three times its normal size.

Clearwater Beach’s main attraction for most Upper Midwesterners is our children’s spring break from school to enjoy the warm weather and beautiful beaches covered with crystal clear sand. Some baseball fans love to come to the area to catch the spring training season which begins in late February. But if you’re an avid angler like me, the next few months might be a perfect time to take a break from drilling holes in the ice and heading out to the dazzling shores of St. Pete – Clearwater.

Having said that, the only way I know of to catch fish is to keep your line in the water. And as I just found out – no matter where you choose to do it – you might just grab a perch.

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