Finding a summer fishing camp for your kids isn’t hard in South Florida. But captain Mike Puller’s Summer School of Fish — now in its ninth year — may be unique among youth angling programs.
Five-day sessions, which began in mid-June 11 and close next week, are conducted almost entirely on the water aboard Puller’s 45-foot charterboat Lisa L, which is docked at Crandon Marina on Key Biscayne. A handful of campers per session (ages 8 to 14) learn how to tie fishing knots, locate game fish, hook and fight those fish, and then gaff or release them.
“This is a real fishing experience. This is not daycare,” Puller said. “You have to teach as you go.”
Many of the 200 or so Summer School fishers are repeaters, such as 11-year-old Sam Liff of North Miami, who attended camp last summer and this past July.
“My first week, I actually caught a sailfish,” Sam said, adding that he learned knot tying and how to hook a fish properly. “Now I know how to give them a little slack so they can eat it completely. Before, I kind of ripped it right out of their mouth.”
On a recent weekday outing, Liff and four fellow campers — all repeaters — accompanied Puller and crew members Javier Bicon and Dylan Thompson on a quest for dolphin (mahi-mahi).
First they stopped at Bug Light, a popular bait fishing spot south of Miami Beach where, to save time, Bicon used a 14-foot cast net to fill the boat’s live well with pilchards. Normally, the Lisa L would have broken out its Sabiki rigs for the kids to catch bait themselves. But Puller wanted to make tracks offshore.
Bicon, Thompson and the kids put out three trolling rods — one with a skirted bally hoo running deep on wire line; and two with feathers trailing from the outriggers.
“We’re looking for floaters, birds, grass, seaweed, anything,” Puller told the campers.
Using both naked eye and binoculars, the entire party scanned the surface, horizon and sky for anything that might indicate the presence of mahi. It was 13-year-old Jordan Kasimow of Aventura who first spotted a small flock of sooty terns hovering and diving in blue water about 1,100 feet deep.
“Get ready!” Puller ordered the crew.
The Lisa L puttered right next to the birds, and Puller looked down to see a large school of small dolphin.
“There’s probably 100 of them, but I don’t see anything legal down there,” he said. “Let’s try to find some bigger ones.”
Puller steered the boat away from the tiny schoolies and headed deeper. Suddenly, Jordan spotted a large school of flying fish clearing the surface far ahead of the boat.
When the Lisa L trolled up to where Jordan had seen the bait, two of the four trolling lines went off. The cockpit turned into a funky-chicken marine dance floor as the youngsters dodged and weaved around one another to keep lines from tangling. No one lost any fish, but the 20 minutes or so of controlled chaos yielded only one legal-sized mahi. The rest had to be released.
Jordan and the other kids spotted a few more flocks of diving birds, and they picked up four more keepers as they moved from one spot to the next. Puller made sure they measured each one before putting it into the ice chest.
Ten-year-old Juan-Diego Vergara of Key Biscayne grabbed one of the mahis and tried to lay it against a cloth measuring tape on the cooler lid. The fish retaliated.