Diligence delivers redemption

Winter weather is a fickle vixen whose mood can change with alarming abruptness. Nevertheless, within the meteorological mayhem often lie isolated opportunities for anglers willing to diligently seek them.

A recent fishing trip to Key West proved this piscatorial postulate. I arrived Feb. 1 and found that with my fourth-floor balcony at the Double Tree Grand Key Resort facing roughly southwest, I could see that the southerly winds had the Atlantic Ocean a little bouncier than I prefer.

However, the island broke the breeze and kept the Gulf of Mexico calm and very fishable. My optimism was validated the next morning, as warm and partly cloudy conditions saw Capt. Ted Lund lead my group into a placid Gulf, where he put us on a load of snapper and kingfish, and brought a 30-pound cobia to the boat.

This morning found clouds breaking up by noonish, and with Key West shielding us from southerly winds, we traversed the Gulf with ease. The next day was quite different, as a cold front slid through the area. Skies remained mostly cloudy all day and a cold northeast wind roiling the Gulf made me thankful I was fishing inshore.

Now, there was no doubt that running around the shallow basins and mangrove shores west of Key West in Capt. Rich Tudor's bay boat would be far more comfortable than bouncing around in the Gulf, or on the Atlantic.
However, the inshore scene suffered, too. As Tudor noted, the shallow water heats up quickly, but it also cools down quickly. Moreover, the persistent cloud cover eliminated the option of sight-fishing for permit and other flats favorites.

Indeed, while leeward shores and protected bays kept us comfortable, the front turned this shallow realm upside down. But ours was not a lost cause, as this southernmost region of the continental U.S. keeps the fishing show going in all but the most extreme weather.

Even in the less-than-desirable conditions of day two, we found some positive notes, specifically, a red-hot mangrove snapper bite with lots of nice sized keepers grabbing free-lined shrimp in the deep undercut "moats" around island edges.

Oddly enough, the highlight of the day came that afternoon with the most unlikely of characters delivering the most unbelievable of saltwater serendipity.

This one needs a little background, so here's the setup: While fishing for snapper earlier, Tudor spotted a juvenile Goliath grouper hiding under a ledge of tangled mangrove roots and tried to hook the 30-pound bruiser on a chunk of cut bait.

The grouper wouldn't bite, but if he had, it would have taken a lot of leverage to dislodge this well-entrenched fish. Knowing this, Tudor had locked down the drag on his Quantum Boca PTs80 spinning reel.

Flash forward an hour and a half and that same outfit stood in the stern rod holder with a chunk of barracuda meat deployed on a steel leader rig for the many sharks that cruise Key West flats.

Tudor had us positioned in a broad basin where Gulf tides created an attractive shark scenario by washing warmer water into the shallows and keeping the place stocked with food sources. Hanging a barracuda carcass from a cleat enhanced the appeal with an irresistible scent trail.

Maybe 15 minutes into our operation, our conversations were suddenly interrupted by that unmistakable screech of a straining drag.

Cool! Fish on!

Not cool — fish breaks off.

Sadly, the excitement was short lived as the leader broke maybe 10 seconds after the rod flexed. Tudor instantly realized what had happened. Although Boca drags are generally silky smooth, this one was still tightened from the Goliath grouper mission and the shark's sudden burst of energy overtaxed the tackle and the fluorocarbon leader snapped from the braided line.

Disappointment was in no short supply, but rather than lament the loss, Tudor tied a new leader and deployed another bait.

Thirty minutes later, his diligence was rewarded as the same rod made another deep flex — this time with a reel ticking at a more even pace. With the appropriate drag setting efficiently handling several strong runs and a stubborn fight, Tudor brought a 5-foot lemon shark boatside.

OK, capturing a Florida Keys shark is a pretty neat deal, but a closer inspection of the thrashing beast revealed a statistical anomaly — the shark had a second leader dangling from its mouth. And not just any broken leader — this was Tudor's original rig that the shark had confiscated on its initial attack.

So, the final score was shark 1*, angler 1. (The asterisk denotes the "evening out" element of the shark returning what he had stolen.)

Tudor summarized an applicable angling axiom: "This is why you shouldn't let (a bad incident) get to you and ruin your day. In all the years I've been fishing, I've never seen a shark break off one leader and then end up catching the same shark. That just goes to prove that you never know what can happen if you stay focused and keep fishing."

Editor's note: David A. Brown has a B.A. in journalism from the University of South Florida and you can see his work in Florida Sportsman, FLWOutdoors.com, Cabela's Outfitter Journal, TIDE, In-Fisherman, Louisiana Sportsman, The St. Petersburg Times and Saltwater Angler. He also ghost-wrote and published "Fish Smart — Catch More!" for Tampa's cable TV host Capt. Bill Miller (www.billmiller.com) and a couple more publishing projects will be docking soon. He operates a professional writing/marketing agency, Tight Line Communications.