By Dean Legg
At the same time my peers were packing their coolers full of cheap beer, my roommate and I were loading his Jeep full of fishing gear. For over a year, my roommate Alex and I had been tossing ideas out for a fishing oriented spring break trip in March. We had two fishing kayaks, my freshwater fishing experience from competing on the Clemson Bass Fishing Team, Alex’s offshore and surfcasting fishing experience, and some combined inshore experience between the two of us.
In the very early stages of planning our trip, we came up with a combined list of fish species we wanted to pursue. This list included Tarpon, Snook, Yellow Tail Snapper, and Peacock Bass. We then proceeded to outline a budget friendly, 10-day fishing plan that would put us near our target species without bankrupting our college bank accounts. Our rough fishing outline was as follows:
- Friday March 11: Leave Clemson, SC and pick up kayaks in Ft. Mill, SC
- Saturday March 12: Drive from Ft. Mill, SC to Sugarloaf Key, FL
- Sunday March 13: Set up camp/explore surrounding area for potential fishing opportunities
- Monday March 14: Patch reef yellow tail fishing
- Tuesday March 15: Bridge fishing for tarpon
- Wednesday March 16: Back country mangrove fishing
- Thursday March 17: Drive to Naples, FL
- Friday March 18: Peacock bass fishing in canals
- Saturday March 19: Various canal/ pond fishing
- Sunday March 20: Drive from Naples, FL to Clemson, SC
In efforts to keep our fishing trip as budget friendly as possible, we decided to split it into two parts. The first part would be to camp at the Sugarloaf/Key West KOA located at the northern end of Sugarloaf Key. The second part would be staying with my relatives in Naples, Fl. In addition to our low cost living, we would not be using any guides while we were on our trip.
We arrived at our campsite around 1am Saturday night. The KOA was very unorganized and management was poor. The only positive thing I can say about the KOA was that the bathhouse was clean. We found a small piece of unoccupied land and set up our tent so that we would be able to sleep. Even though we were exhausted, we couldn’t resist the temptation to wet a line. The bridge spanning the Bow channel in between Sugarloaf and Cudjoe key was within short walking distance from the KOA and had a separate fishing bridge. We were able to catch a few grunts and baby mangrove snapper before we passed out.
The next day we spent the morning turning our last pick campsite into workable living area. We had a fresh water hook up not too far away but no electricity. We walked our campsite and quickly realized that the only fishing opportunities it offered from shore was the Bow Bridge.
We decided to drive our kayaks to Bahia Honda State Park and launch the kayaks there for the afternoon. After anchoring under the highway bridge we quickly caught some grunts and small snapper. We also set up a few shark rigs with chunks of grunt as bait.
Alex quickly caught a small lemon shark on a Shimano TLD 25. In the next hour we both hooked up to large sharks but they were able to break us off on the bridge pilings. We headed back to camp with our feelings slightly hurt but looking forward to the day of patch reef fishing ahead of us. Before we called it a night, we again tried our luck on the Bow Channel Bridge. We were able to hear tarpon eating under the road bridge but we did not have the right type of bait to entice any bites from the feeding fish.
Monday morning we up bright and early to do some patch reef fishing from the kayaks. We stopped at Lower Keys Bait and Tackle and picked up a couple of blocks of chum and frozen bags of shrimp, silversides, and pilchards as bait. We then launched off of Bahia Honda State Park beach to fish some patch reef areas my roommate Alex had fished previously.
After anchoring and setting up a good chum slick in about 15 feet of water, it was just a waiting game for the fish to show up. In the next few hours we burned through our bags of bait as we caught as many yellow tail snapper, mangrove snapper, mutton snapper, and bonnet head sharks, as we wanted. We were even able to land a few keeper sized yellow tail and mangrove snapper.
On our way back to camp we stopped back at Lower Keys Bait and Tackle to pick up some live shrimp in hope of catching a tarpon or snook off of our bridge. The friendly folks at Lower Keys bait and tackle alerted us to a different bridge we might be able to catch some tarpon from. This bridge connecting No Name Key to Big Pine Key was filled with local anglers by the time we showed up. While we could see tons of tarpon we were only able to get a few bites at this location. Before we headed back to camp for the night we stopped at our Bow Channel Bridge and were able to get a few more tarpon to bite but were not able to keep them on the hook.
Tuesday morning came quickly and we decided to be lazy and hang around camp. We caught some more snapper and a few other tropical species of off the Bow Channel Bridge before it was time for lunch.
We decided over lunch that the best way for us to get our hands on some tarpon would be to launch the kayaks at night and fish the Bow Channel Bridge that was right next to our campsite. We spent the afternoon getting the kayaks ready for night fishing and we also reloaded our stock of live shrimp from Lower Keys Bait and Tackle.
We rigged our light snapper rods with 20 lb fluorocarbon and 3/0 light wire circle hooks in hopes the light gear would result in more bites from the finicky tarpon.
As we paddled up to the Bow channel bridge we could see the eyes of hungry tarpon staring back at us. These tarpon were backed away from the fishing bridge out of reach for the bank fishermen but could not escape our kayaks. Within 15 minutes of paddling to the bridge we had attracted a crowd of spectators, as both Alex and I were able to hook and land our first tarpon of the trip.
The rest of the night was unbelievable as I landed a total of 5 tarpon and Alex landed 3.
The next day we headed to do some back country fishing. Poor planning lead to a less then satisfying mangrove trip but we still managed to land a few barracudas and even a baby nurse shark. Even though the fishing was poor, the water was beautiful.
After a slow morning of mangrove fishing we needed another night of exciting tarpon fishing to put us back in the right groove. We again headed back to Lower Keys Bait and Tackle to fill up our bait bucket with live shrimp. The rest of the afternoon was used to prepare the kayaks for another night of intense tarpon fishing.
As we paddled out to our fishing spot we could here the sounds of tarpon feeding on the surface. After 10 minutes of drifting our live shrimp past bridge pilings it was apparent to the both of us that the fish were much more skittish than the night before. Over the next few hours we both managed to get a few bites, but had yet to put any fish in our boats. As I was starting to get frustrated, Alex stuck with it and soon had the biggest tarpon of the trip peeling drag off of a 3000 size Pfluger Arbor. I decided to take a break and paddle over to snag a few pictures of a very nice looking tarpon.
With my confidence boosted, I went back to drifting my shrimp with renewed vigor and soon had my own tarpon pulling drag. After a good fight it appeared I was the victor only to have the hook pull out with my fish on its side next to my boat. I didn’t have much time to feel down. Before I could get more than a handful of casts in, I was interrupted by Alex yelling at me to help him.
I struggled to catch up to Alex as a big tarpon pulled him up current faster than I could paddle. I was finally able to catch up to Alex and attach my kayak to his as the big fish slowed its up current run. The fish then turned 180 degrees and ran back at the bridge he came from. As Alex hung onto his 3000 size Pfluger Arbor, I somehow managed to maneuver both of our kayaks through the two sets of bridge pilings and out the down current side.
For the next 30 min the fish used its large body size and the strong current to pull us 2 miles down the channel. Neither of us had brought anchors with us for night fishing so the only leverage we had against the fish was the drag of the two kayaks and my back paddling. Finally Alex was able to tire out the monster tarpon and pull the fish into his kayak.
Exhausted, and with a long paddle in front of us, we decided to head back in to the boat ramp and head back to camp.
The next day was Thursday and the Keys section of our trip was at an end. We packed up our campsite and headed to Naples. We arrived in Naples late so we did not get to do any fishing. Friday morning we woke up with one goal in mind, catch a peacock bass. We stopped at Estero River Outfitters to load up a bucket of shiners and then headed to Golden Gate Community Park to try and land a peacock bass. We debated launching the kayaks but ultimately decided we would rather be able to hop around from spot to spot rather then dedicate a large portion of the day to launch the kayaks.
After walking the bank for a few minutes I was able to spot some peacock bass cruising the bank and was able to pitch at a small group. As soon as my shiner hit the water the line was tight. After setting the hook, I disappointingly flipped a largemouth bass up on the bank.
Alex immediately flipped a shiner back into the group I had found and his drag screamed as a peacock shot out in to the canal.
After seeing the way Alex’s peacock bass had pulled five times as hard as my largemouth, I had to put a hook in one. Before I got my chance, Alex would land another beautiful peacock bass.
Now that Alex was kicking my butt, it had become personal between the peacock bass and myself. After what seemed like forever, I finally was able to feel the thrill of catching a Naples, FL peacock bass.
For the rest of the morning we caught our fill of peacock and largemouth bass. We even had a few double ups.
After fishing all we could at the Golden Gate Community Park, we headed back to a canal closer to my grandmothers condo. I had fished here before and had caught largemouth, snakeheads, and a few gar.
At the next canal, Alex and I caught a few small largemouth but had not landed any of the more interesting fish I knew were there. I was content with calling our morning a success and was sitting on the bank as Alex rigged up our last shiner. He flipped the shiner to the shady side of a bridge and as soon as it hit the water, a huge head came surging out of the water to eat the shiner. What I first thought to be a giant bass turned out to be a great sized snook and was the perfect way to end the afternoon.
After dinner I took Alex to some of my favorite bass ponds in the world. In the hour before dark, the two of us put a hurting on over 30 largemouth with nothing but a pack of paddle tail worms.
The next day was the last fishable day of the trip and was also my birthday. We were able to catch quite a few peacocks, largemouth, and some Mayan cichlids before an early dinner and packing the car up for the trip home.
A nice birthday dinner was a great way to end an amazing trip. We caught more fish than either of us had expected and caught almost every fish we had put on our list of hopeful catches. Not only will our amazing spring break trip be in our memories for the rest of our lives, we will be returning to Florida next year to catch even more fish. Thanks for reading and tight lines to everyone.