Dateline: April 19, 2012 – Okeechobee, Florida
What is it with Marty and alligators? He’s a great guy and a simply awesome fisherman, but we always seem to end up in some God-forsaken swamp, surrounded by alligators, which make me a lot more nervous than they make him. At least he always teaches me something about fishing.
So there I was in Miami after the IGFA Awards, and with his normal generosity, Marty Arostegui invited me to stay and go fishing for a few days.
Dr. Marty Arostegui scans the lake. No fish is safe from him.
This would basically be a three-day fishing clinic with me assigned to the small, folding desk. First off, my swivels are still just too darn big. Marty’s hardware was almost microscopic, but his Spro swivels were still plenty strong enough to handle fish. We also need to talk about circle hooks. I have never fully trusted them, because, well, they look funny. But they work, and not only do they hook up as well or better than J hooks in most cases, but they are also invariably in the corner of the fish’s mouth, which is better for all concerned. Putting hands into a shark’s mouth is almost always a bad idea, especially if they’re your hands.
Not that Marty was pushy about this. He merely gave his opinion when I asked, but this man has a whole lot more world records than I do and that didn’t happen by putting his hands in the wrong places.
But what to catch? As I mention often and balefully, I am running out of species to pursue in most major destinations, and South Florida is no exception. Still, Marty scrapes up a few ideas every time I visit, and the target this time was the Longnose Gar, which lives in, you guessed it, swamps. Our first swamp would be Lake Okeechobee. (From an old Seminole word meaning “swamp.”)
It was an early morning run up to Okeechobee, and the sunrise provided some scenery to what is otherwise a flat, straight drive. (All the excitement we needed was provided by a truck driver who barreled through a red light in front of us at 60 mph. That woke me up a lot more than a Red Bull. I should have sent the guy a bill for my underpants.)
I am also a big believer in having the best possible intelligence reports prior to hitting the water. Marty takes this to a different level. For our attempt at the Longnose Gar, he didn’t just know the lake or the launch area, he knew the specific lagoon – perhaps a football-field size spot in hundreds of square miles.
The swamp at dawn. Alligators were stirring and starting to look for their first tourist of the day.
Okeechobee was beautiful in the sunrise; quiet, isolated, and primitive. My bait was in the water approximately 15 seconds before I got the bite, and it would have been less if I hadn’t messed up my first cast. Gar are powerful fighters – not tuna-fast, but strong and uncooperative, but we finally got him into the net and added a species.
The Longnose Gar – species #1136.
Even the smaller Florida Gar has an impressive set of teeth.
Marty also knew that this lake held plenty of Spotted Sunfish, and as soon as the Gar bite slowed down, we trotted out the traditional bobbers and hit the secret spot. It took less than 10 seconds to get one – and they are certainly easy to spot, as, like you might guess, they have spots.
Can you spot the Spotted Sunfish in this picture? I am told they get bigger.
Around this time, the alligators began showing up. This never seems to concern Marty, but I have visions of them coming onto the boat and attacking me, or at least stealing my burrito.
Breakfast and Lunch. This may qualify as UMF.
I always ask if we should move the boat, and Marty just smiles quietly. (See https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2011/03/27/cavorting-with-exotic-swamp-creatures/ for some background on this.)
While it wasn’t as big as the Bahamas MegaBarracuda, it was still big, very close to the boat, and seemed to have no fear. I love wildlife, but I love it best when it is scared of me.
This was not the only wildlife we saw – there were birds everywhere, running the spectrum of rarity and beauty from the lovely Purple Gallinule to the less attractive Southern Grouchy Bird.
The Purple Gallinule. It really is called that.
The Southern Grouchy Bird. OK, I made the name up, but the thing definitely was grouchy. These birds are often seen picking clean the skeletons of tourists once the alligators are done with them.
Because I can’t help myself, by the end of the day, I had whipped out some #24 hooks and was drifting a teeny bit of nightcrawler through the submerged brush, catching mostly teeny Bluegill. But I did get some minnow-looking things that I photographed and started investigating that night. They turned out to be Eastern Mosquitofish – thanks to Val Kells for the identification.
The Eastern Mosquitofish. Jaime has never caught this kind of Mosquitofish, and this will probably keep her up at night, seething with competitive rage. (See https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2010/06/21/the-countdown-to-1000-the-worst-little-girl-in-the-world/)
At dinner, we discussed plans for the next morning. Marty thought we should head to an even more God-forsaken swamp – Holiday Park. He said “I’m not sure you’ll find any new species, but it’s a chance for you to do some good in the world.” He went on to explain that we were going to try to load up a portable livewell with as many Bluegill and other native critters as we could catch, then drive them over to the IGFA and release them in the pond there. This would be done just in time for the IGFA kid’s fishing derby, held every year for disadvantaged children in the area. I figured this was worth a day of my time, although the idea of being savaged by alligators still concerned me.
It was another predawn trip over to Holiday Park, luckily not interrupted by any maniac truckers. We launched the boat, which ran a little slower with the heavy livewell in the middle, and headed off into the dawn.
This looks beautiful until you realize that there is an alligator every 12 yards or so.
The water here is divided into a series of long, straight canals, and we set up at some likely-looking intersections and began casting a variety of float and bottom baits. The panfish began biting immediately, and we soon had quite a load of Bluegill and assorted Sunfish. Just to be contrary, I tried one of my micro-rigs on a likely weed edge and caught a lovely new species, the Golden Topminnow.
The Golden Topminnow.
Then Marty did something to irritate me. He caught a Yellow Bullhead. I have not caught a Yellow Bullhead. He was ostensibly apologetic, but I could swear he secretly texted Jaime Hamamoto. Of course, this meant that I immediately switched over to all bottom baits, and I quickly got a huge strike that peeled off line for about 5 heartstopping seconds before the hook pulled out. “That was no Bullhead.” Marty mentioned. “And while you’re at it, don’t set on that circle hook – you’ll pull it out. Just start reeling.” Class was in session, even out in this black lagoon.
About an hour later, I hooked up on a solid fish – not a huge fish, but a solid fish, and reeled in my first-ever Yellow Bullhead. Two unexpected species – the day was already a triumph.
Finally, a Yellow Bullhead. Yes, I know it looks like a garden slug with fins.
Now, if I could just avoid the alligators. Marty smiled and said “I think they can smell that awful gas station burrito you brought.” (Before or after I ate it?)
An alligator, likely attracted by my aftershave, approaches the boat. Marty had a hard time not giggling as I threatened it with a paddle.
I was contemplating some sort of clever retort when one of my bottom rods positively folded over, with line flying off the reel. I held on for dear life, and I did NOT set the hook. Whatever it was tangled in some branches a couple of times, but I managed to pull it out – thank you braided line – and start to win the fight. A few minutes later, Marty slipped the net under a beast of a Bowfin. “I’m guessing that’s what you hooked earlier.” said Marty. He added “Watch out for those alligators.”
This one was about 9 pounds, making it 8 1/2 pounds bigger than my first Bowfin.
We pulled out in mid-afternoon and headed over to the IGFA in Dania Beach. One scoop at a time, we emptied the livewell into the pond, and I couldn’t help but smile at the thought of the fun the kids would have with the panfish. Marty smiled as he mentioned all the kids that would have a chance to learn how to fish.
Steve empties a scoop of panfish into the IGFA pond.
And because we loved the idea of giving one of those kids the catch of a lifetime, we also put one oversized surprise into the water. (No, not an alligator.)
Yes, we relocated the Bowfin.
On our final day together, we had one specific target – the Melanura Cichlid, a resident of the canals in northern Miami. Marty fishes with guide Alan Zembrano in this area, going for a lot of his more esoteric records and doing a lot of high quality Peacock Bass fishing.
The Cichlid was one of those anti-climactic things. We talked about which distant logpiles might hold some, and then I got one from the dock while they were launching the boat.
Steve, Alan, and the Melanura Cichlid. The mission was accomplished before I stepped in the boat.
A larger Melanura from later in the day.
We caught several others throughout the day, and some nice Peacock Bass. (Marty can cast a jig into a 6-inch opening between two pilings at 120 feet. I can cast a jig into a 120 foot opening between two pilings at 6 inches. It’s humbling.)
Steve and Marty with a nice Peacock. I must have missed the cast 25 times, but when I finally landed the lure where Marty told me to, the fish hit it.
There was also a bizarre surprise on the end of the line in mid-afternoon. Thinking I had hooked a sedated Oscar, I reeled up a Sailfin Catfish, also known as a Suckermouth Catfish or Plecostomus. I looked around to see if Abu Bin Garcia was near, but he was not. (See https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2012/04/02/abu-bin-garcia-fishing-freedom-fighter/) Amazingly, this was a different Suckermouth Catfish than the one I got in Thailand, so that’s a surprising bonus species – although the biggest surprise of the day would not come for 3 more hours.
The Orinoco Sailfin Catfish. No, I was not fishing in an aquarium. This time.
They have an adorable smile.
We got home in late afternoon. The Arostegui’s home is on a canal, and, of course, there are fish in the canal. I have already added species from here such as the mighty Crested Goby, but one of the more evident creatures there – the Mullet – has thus far eluded the heck out of me. Since there was plenty of daylight left, I headed down to the back yard with a bag of bread and a hopeful attitude.
Mullet can crush the hope out of even the most optimistic angler, and after an hour of watching them bemusedly ignore my offerings, I was ready to dynamite the place and see what floated up. But there are manatees here, and I couldn’t live with myself if I blew up a manatee. So I found myself tossing a small jig after the Snappers and Barracuda that live in the rocks. A few casts into the session, I got an electric hit and had something big on for a few seconds, with a heavy, shaking fight and big flashes of silver a few feet down. I didn’t know what it was, but it looked cool and different and I wanted it badly. I figured it would bite again quickly, and so, with trembling hands, I cast.
An hour and 45 minutes later, I got another strike. It was another hard-shaking fish, and there were broad, silvery flashes coming up from the cloudy water. As I reeled it to the surface, I couldn’t believe what I saw. It was a Lookdown, a paper-thin, bizarrely tall species that I had failed to catch in years of trying down in the Keys. And here, unaware they even were present, I had gotten one.
The Atlantic Lookdown. I looked down, and there he was.
So thank you again, Marty, for 8 more new species, for your family’s extraordinary hospitality, and for taking the time to share some of your fishing wisdom. But perhaps next time we could go someplace that doesn’t have alligators.