After 30 years of putting customers on big fish in Islamorada, there’s very little captain Randy Towe hasn’t done in the way of sportfishing: catching sailfish, swordfish, marlin, tuna and wahoo offshore; yellowtail, grouper and mutton snapper on the reef; permit, bonefish and tarpon on the flats; and snook, redfish, and trout in the backcountry.
“Take the conditions you’re given and figure out what is the most successful thing to do,” said Towe, a 51-year-old native of Fort Lauderdale.
With a 34-foot center-console and an 18-foot skiff, Towe is equipped for most fishing styles and conditions. He has won top honors in offshore and backcountry tournaments. He also builds custom fishing rods and custom boats.
“My specialty is, if it swims, go catch it,” he said.
Towe is on the roster of featured instructors tapped to share his knowledge at the Salt Water Sportsman Fishing Seminar, hosted by magazine editor-at-large/TV host George Poveromo, on Feb. 8 in Islamorada. One of the ground rules for the daylong seminar is that faculty members must answer any and all questions from the audience — including those relating to “honey holes,” tides, moon phases and tackle tips — no holding back.
Towe is fine with that.
“After 30 years, it’s fun to share fishing experiences with people,” he said.
The captain said one of the most common mistakes weekend fishermen make is to stubbornly stick to a plan even when it is clearly not working.
“Whenever you have to struggle to catch fish, that’s what turns people down,” he said.
For example, a novice angler hears that snook and redfish are chewing at Palm Key off Flamingo in Everglades National Park. He or she goes there at high tide armed with all kinds of live bait but scores nothing after three hours of fishing. The newbie probably thinks his informants steered him wrong deliberately. In fact, Towe said, the beginner was just there at the wrong tide.
“When the tide’s high, imagine the water equating to a 50,000-acre pond,” he said. “Now reverse that to a low tide and now it’s a 10,000-acre pond. If you want to learn how to fish the backcountry, you go there when the tide is low so you can see where the channels and the flats are. On low tide, the fish come out of the mangroves and off the flats because there’s no water. Until you physically go to see it and understand what it means, you don’t get it.”
Newcomers make similar mistakes fishing the reef for yellowtail, he said. They anchor on what they believe is a productive spot only to find the wind and current are in opposition. Now their chum slick is flowing underneath the boat and their flat lines are drifting up to the anchor line.
“You’re fighting the elements,” Towe said. “Go offshore and drift around in deeper water and see if you can catch a bottom fish out there. The more experience you get, the more you’ll recognize these opportunities when they come along.”
On a recent trip aboard his 34-footer off Islamorada, Towe and a companion found themselves in that sort of “Plan B” situation. After catching a well full of live ballyhoo using Sabiki rigs, hair hooks and — when bait was schooling around the stern — a hoop net, the pair headed out to Crocker Reef to slow-troll for sailfish or whatever else might happen by.
The offshore waters were clear, deep blue and a bit frothy from a steady 15- to 20-knot breeze out of the east-northeast. Conditions looked great, but there was no current — a vital ingredient for attracting feeding game fish. Marine radio chatter among the charter fleet confirmed goose eggs all around.
So Towe, practicing what he had been preaching, headed offshore to a sunken wreck in 150 feet of water. He stopped the boat about 100 yards up-current of the wreck and set up the drift to pass to one side of it instead of directly over it. He deployed two conventional bottom rods, plus a flat line — all baited with live ballyhoo on 5/0 circle hooks. The bottom rods, custom built with stiff butts and soft tips, held reels filled with 65-pound braid tied to 40 feet of 40-pound-test monofilament leader and weighted with a 1-pound sinker. They were intended for mutton snapper. The flat line was for whatever else might come along.
“You have to get the lead away from the fish. They are very sensitive for some reason to the lead,” Towe said of muttons.
On the second drift, he caught a 12-pounder: a delicious dinner that came from following his own advice.