Posted by: 1000fish | November 7, 2019

Hail Caesar

Dateline: May 12, 2019 – Boca Raton, Florida

This episode should really be three separate South Florida blogs, but the complaints would be overwhelming. Miami is always a great place to visit, but, like any spot I have fished frequently, the opportunities get more and more specific over time. This trip was not just about species, however – it was also about seeing some friends and keeping some promises.

My first fishing trip to South Florida was on August 9, 1999 – the day I caught my 100th species – with legendary guide Vinnie Biondoletti. (So you older species hunters can take some solace in this late start, and yes I mean you, Gerry Hansell.) In the 20 years since, the area has always produced, and when I had a business trip to Miami come up, I had a few targets to get after – notably the brown hoplo and the dreaded Caesar grunt – fish that everyone but me seems to have caught.

Even Jamie has caught a Caesar Grunt. Boo.

But first, I needed to get there. United Airlines, who should adopt the slogan “We Make Things Unnecessarily Difficult,” undercut even their low standard. I was flying to Miami through Houston. There was a huge storm heading to Houston.

It didn’t take a degree to figure this out.

There was an alternate flight through Chicago with plenty of seats available, so I asked United to move me. The agent, apparently a meteorology minor at Ohio State, spent 15 minutes insisting that the weather in Houston was fine, and refused to switch me. Of course, Ohio State’s meteorology program is only there for the football team, and Houston was chaos.

But United just couldn’t see this coming.

United was completely unprepared for an airport full of stranded passengers – there were three customer service reps and thousands of people waiting in line, so I just got my own hotel room, at, dare I say, the vilest crackhouse of a Motel Fungus I have ever stayed.

My motel’s soda machine. I think this says it all.

And the frequent flier miles I earned for the trip are worth about half of what they were when I earned them, because United keeps “enhancing” and “evolving” their mileage program. (Which means “making the program even more inconvenient.”) I know air travel is going to have occasional difficulties, but I’ve flown over 2 million miles with United. Silly me for expecting more.

My late arrival into Florida meant that I could not roam north Miami hunting bluefin killifish and sailfin molly, which, in hindsight, was probably for the best. I picked up my intended schedule with an evening venture into the Everglades, where old friend Pat Kerwin had given me one of his inexplicable, “How-the-hell-did-he-find-that” spots for brown hoplo. (My first attempt at a brown hoplo cost me an impressive piece of jewelry for Marta.) There was also supposed to be an oddball South American catfish in the area, so that would be a great bonus if it happened. After covering myself with a mayonnaise-like coating of bug repellent, I hopped in the rental car and headed west, to a dreadful-looking ditch that was already hazy with mosquitoes.

Lovely sunset, but the place was full of insects.

I met another buddy there – Dom Porcelli, a local species hunter and kindred spirit. We instantly saw hoplos jumping, or at least that’s what I believe was jumping – other, more experienced anglers have suggested these were walking catfish, which would have made my optimism unfounded, but in my ignorance, I took it as a good sign. We tried a few different rigs – floats, unweighted, ledgers, but the bluegill were vicious. I finally got a leadhead rig to settle in some of the deeper water, and continued playing with a float. (I even caught a small jaguar guapote, a fish that had caused me to humiliate myself in front of Marty Arostegui a few years ago.)

The savage jaguar guapote.

Moments later, my other rod slammed down and headed for the water. I grabbed it and set the hook, and the fish responded with a surprisingly strong fight. I said hoplo prayers, and as a dark form surfaced, I swung it up onto the bank. It was a hoplo, it had taken less than 10 minutes, and I didn’t have to buy Marta any jewelry.

The hoplo and Dom.

Solid armor. It was only nine inches long, but it weighed almost a pound. Almost.

I expected that I would get dozens of the little beasts, but they seemed to disappear after that one fish, which didn’t please Dom. (He did finally get one about an hour later.) We stayed for about two hours, until the mosquitoes learned to ignore the repellent. In that time, I got a bunch of Mayan cichlids, which are fun but not a new species, and one South American catfish, Rhamdia quelen, which was not fun (four ounces of listlessness) but definitely a new species.

Hey, it counts.

Dom and I had a pleasant conversation about upcoming fishing adventures, including one planned in just a couple of days, and then I headed back to the Hilton and a few hours of sleep.

The next day was about keeping a promise. Of course, you all remember Cris, the Brazilian co-worker with the impossibly good-looking family.

Cris and his impossibly good-looking family. I have trouble figuring out who is the wife and who is the daughter, so use your judgment. There is a son, who is also good-looking, but he is a teenage boy, so he is always out of the house doing homework or helping the community or whatever it is that teenage boys are doing nowadays.

It had been years since Cris and I had gotten out onto the water together – every time I was in Miami, I seemed to end up with something else urgent to do, which, to my lasting resentment, often was not fishing. This is not how we should treat friends. Cris is a dedicated fisherman who has done a great job of learning the local waters, and is always sending me photos of everything from snook to tuna.

Cris’ personal best snook. I think he used my personal best snook for bait.

I was looking very forward to getting out and doing some offshore kite fishing. When we got going early the next day, everything looked perfect. It was warm, it was spring, and it was Florida. We were joined by Cris’ good friend Ricardo, the owner of the Brazilian pond where I caught a 19-pound tiger suribi on trout gear last year. But the Fish Gods rarely put everything in your favor, and when we got outside the protected backwaters, it became clear that we were going to have some wind. The nasty, all-day kind of wind that makes drifting offshore unpleasant. Cris and Ricardo were game and didn’t complain a bit, but it was sloppy out there.

The guys, right before we got into the wind.

We got some bites and landed a tuna or two, and I kept busy fishing the bottom. I got a couple of truly weird catches, like a flying gurnard, but alas, none of them were new.

Despite the name, it doesn’t fly. Sort of like United in Houston.

This happens when you have been fishing an area as often as I have, and truthfully, a good day fishing with an old friend beats a new species. (Mostly. If there had been a spearfish at stake, I might not have been so philosophical.)

When we got back inshore, fishing actually got good.

Tell me that doesn’t look full of fish.

Cris had scoped out the local mangroves for ladyfish, and we spent about an hour casting lures and getting constant strikes. Ladyfish hit hard, jump all over the place, and hunt in packs.

What’s not to love?

When we finally docked and cleaned the boat, the best part of the day was still ahead of us – a home-cooked meal. Remember, these are Brazilians, and all Brazilian food, with the exception of capybara, is really, really good. We ate and talked well into the evening, when it occurred to me that I had another predawn wakeup call coming the next day.

That next day, the plan was to fish the reefs north of Miami with Dom Porcelli. Even though I have explored this area many times, there is always something new to try for, and in my case, the Caesar grunt loomed large. This modest grunt has caused me endless pain, because everyone I have been fishing with in Florida has caught one, generally right in front of me. We’re talking Jamie Hamamoto here. Scott Perry I can forgive, because he rarely fishes and didn’t mean to catch it. Martini, I can forgive, because he is a frighteningly awesome angler and couldn’t help himself. But Jamie?

The weather had not improved, and when we motored out of the intracoastal waterway, it was sloppy. The anchor would hold, as long as we didn’t want to stand up, and as always, there were plenty of fish down there. Dom had caught plenty of Caesar grunts, generally on the Ides of March, and we had the right bait in the right areas. Naturally, I caught everything but a Caesar.

Not a grass porgy. It’s never a grass porgy.

And everything is attractive.

A puddingwife wrasse.

A normal person would be thrilled to be catching reef fish after reef fish on light tackle. Dom knew the areas rock by rock and reef by reef, but to ask for a particular grunt in an area swarming with hungry fish is more luck than skill. At least that’s what I tell myself late at night when I am justifying why I haven’t caught one.

Dozens of fish into the morning, just long enough after my Red Bull where I was getting a little fuzzy, I pulled a smallish grunt on board and was in the process of unhooking it when Dom’s eyes popped out like I had turned into Kate Upton and my top had fallen off. With great relief, I realized Dom was not staring at me – he was staring at the fish. It was a Caesar Grunt, and I might have thrown it back if he hadn’t noticed what it was. It was eight ounces of scaly joy, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out who I texted first.

“Hello, Jamie. Guess what I caught?” “Hello Steve, Mine was bigger.”

The day was complete – I had gotten my 1862nd species, and an emotionally important one. Indeed, if I ever start bringing an emotional support animal on airplanes with me, it would be Jamie.

The day wasn’t complete. We were on the water, we weren’t throwing up, and there was plenty of shrimp left. So we just fished, for whatever happened to be down there, no worries about anything exotic. And usually, when you are being pure to the sport, something unexpected happens. This unexpected thing happened about an hour later, in an oddly familiar location – the end of Anglin’s Pier. (The very same place Scott Perry got his Caesar.) I had just released two nice juvenile rainbow parrotfish, and as my bait settled out of sight, I got hammered. It was an above-average reef fish, and it took a minute or two to get it near the boat. It was a relatively plain parrotfish, but I know these are often odd species, so I photographed the heck out of it. (Val Kells’ book would later show it to be a queen parrotfish, another new species, putting me at 1863.)

The day was officially epic, partly because I knew Skyline Chili awaited me for dinner.

Skyline Chili. It’s a food group.

I couldn’t thank Dom enough for taking the day out with me. The species hunting community is very closely related, and all of us have shared our secret spots with a stranger – I wouldn’t be nearly as far along on my list without a whole lot of help like this. Even from Jamie.

Steve

 

SPECIAL BONUS SECTION – THERE’S A NEW DOCTOR IN THE FAMILY

As a group with a dearth of meaningful accomplishments, my family will take any excuse to celebrate – whether it’s passing junior high school, a birthday, probation, or toilet training. (In Cousin Chuck’s case, all four happened on one magical evening in the early 90’s.) But shortly before the Florida trip, I was invited to share a truly special moment for Martini and the Arosteguis. In what had seemed like only a few months, Martini, Stanford grad and general fishing wizard, had transformed himself into Martini Arostegui, PhD. That’s Dr. Martini Arostegui, with yet another degree, this time from the University of Washington in Aquatic and Fishery Sciences. I was invited to watch him present his dissertation and then to celebrate with the family.

Let’s see … I know what a “trout” is, but the trail goes cold from there.

You have to be good to defend a PhD. But you have to be VERY good to do it in that shirt.

When you figure this guy isn’t close to 30 yet, it’s pretty amazing, and I was humbled to be there. People ask me – “What’s this guy going to do next?” I answer “Anything he decides to.” Congratulations Martini.

How does Roberta keep getting younger?

 

 

 


Responses

  1. […] for Marta’s GPS unit, but it was Martini who actually figured out how to use the thing. He is, after all, a scientist. On our way, we fished some medium-deep bottom grounds – maybe 200 feet. I remembered catching […]

  2. […] One of the first catches was a solid South American catfish – a dignified version of the creature I got in Miami last year. […]


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