In many ways, Florida Bay is the ideal wintertime, shallow-water fishing spot. As long as winds don’t blow from the west and water temperatures don’t drop to the 50s or below and stay there, this shallow estuary adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico fairly shouts quality variety fishing.
“It gives us the possibility of everything,” said captain Rick Stanczyk, a five-year veteran light-tackle guide whose dad Richard owns Bud ‘n’ Mary’s Marina in Islamorada.
Stanczyk, 30, wasn’t kidding. On a recent day of calm winds and warm temperatures, he and his dad and their friend Ron Modra of Hollywood set out to see how many species they could catch in a single day. Armed with live shrimp, popping corks, jigs, and a couple dozen pinfish, they caught and released 13 species — redfish, black drum, sea trout, ladyfish, jack, sheepshead, pompano, permit, tripletail, cobia, Goliath grouper, Spanish mackerel and bluefish. The species count would have been 14, but for the elder Stanczyk’s losing a nice snook that broke his line.
The southeasterly breezes and mostly outgoing tide both limited and expanded the party’s fishing territory. The falling tide discouraged Rick from taking his refurbished 20-foot Seacraft to the shallow Flamingo back country of Everglades National Park where snook (and even largemouth bass) abound. But the gentle winds allowed him to venture into open Gulf waters, which boosted the species count considerably. Water temperatures ranging from the low to mid 70s tilted the situation even more in the anglers’ favor.
The group began their outing casting live shrimp on Troll-Rite jig heads toward some overhangs along a mangrove island, releasing a half-dozen redfish in quick succession. When the bite slowed, they shifted to an adjacent island and released ladyfish, jacks, sheepshead, black drum and pompano. That’s also where Richard lost his snook.
Leaving the island, they headed to a narrow channel fringed by sandy holes interspersed with sea grass. Here, the three managed about a dozen sea trout and a junior permit.
Amid breezes even calmer than in early morning, Rick pointed the boat toward the Gulf to look for tripletail among the lines of stone crab trap buoys outside park waters. The Seacraft motored at a good clip parallel to the trap lines as Rick scanned the surface for telltale brown blobs of tripletail using the buoys as ambush points.
Suddenly, the captain slowed and turned the boat around, putt-putting slowly toward a buoy bearing a brown blob.
“Good eye,” Modra said admiringly.
Richard Stanczyk cast a shrimp on a popping cork right next to the buoy, and the blob — actually a five-pound tripletail — eagerly gobbled the bait. Stanczyk reeled it in and let it go, and the party set out to scout more crab buoys.
The next set of buoys yielded an unexpected bonanza — two nice-sized tripletail hanging around a single Styrofoam float. The Stanczyks caught both of them and decided to keep them for dinner.
The next stop was a 14-foot-deep wreck that could harbor just about anything. Modra dropped the anchor, and the Stanczyks baited several medium spinning rods with live pinfish.
A fin breaking the smooth surface just down current from the boat got everyone excited.
“A cobia!” someone yelled.
Rick cast one of the pinfish weighted with a small sinker to the cruising fish and was rewarded with squealing drag. It was an undersized cobia that, nevertheless, put up a spirited fight. The crew let it go, baited another rod with a pinfish and looked for more cobia.
Meanwhile, the elder Stanczyk baited a heavy-duty conventional rig with a pompano from the live well and dropped it to the bottom. Moments later, the rod tip began to bounce. Then the entire rod bent in an arc. Rick reeled up a Goliath grouper that looked to be about 100 pounds.
“Get a pinfish rod ready because a cobia will come up with the Goliath,” Rick said.
Richard dropped a pinfish into the water right beside the huge grouper, and a cobia popped up and ate the pin, as predicted, even before Rick could let the grouper go.
This cobia was larger than the legal minimum size of 33 inches (fork length) and put up twice the fight of its undersized brother. Richard had to sidle around the boat to keep it under control and out of the anchor line. After a five-minute struggle, he brought the fish to the side of the boat and released it.
By all measure this had been an extremely successful fishing day, and many anglers would have counted their blessings, thrown in the proverbial towel, and headed back to shore to celebrate in the closest bar. But Richard, still smarting from the snook loss, suggested they try for yet one more species: Spanish mackerel.
Rick motored for about 15 miles south to a shallow bank where they found another fishing boat already anchored on their spot. Fortunately, the skipper turned out to be the Stanczyks’ friend Andy Newman, who was happily catching Spanish mackerel with buddies Mike Zimmer and Rick Berry. Newman invited them to anchor beside him, as he and his party were nearing their limit.
Within moments of setting the anchor, the Stanczyks and Modra caught the first of more than a dozen Spanish mackerel to about five pounds using jigs tipped with shrimp. They also released their only bluefish of the day.
“My idea was to see if we could catch one of everything,” Richard Stanczyk said.
Not quite everything, but plenty close enough.