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John Skinner

John Skinner is the author of Fishing the Bucktail and A Season on the Edge. He’s the creator of the fishing log software FishersLog. He’s a consistent producer of trophy striped bass and holds the current New York State false albacore record.

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April 26, 2012

Knowledge Transfer

by John Skinner

I'm writing this a few days after returning from a week of shore and kayak fishing in the Lower Florida Keys. This was my first trip to the area, and I was excited about being at the novice level again and having to deal with new challenges while targeting some species of fish that I had never even seen before. I was on my own, without any intentions of hiring a guide, but I did months of research ahead of the trip. While some of the fishing was brand new to me, it was interesting to see how knowledge gained from the types of fishing we do here in the Northeast paid off in the southern environment.
The entire time I was there I felt that if I wasn't fishing, I was missing out on something. I fished tarpon in channels at night, and this went so well from the start that I forced myself to ignore tarpon during the day and focus on the flats in hopes of encountering bonefish. Flats wading in a foot or two of water was a totally new experience for me in which it rarely made sense to make a cast until a fish was sighted. Unfortunately, there were no bonefish in the area while I was there, but I got to practice on a few bonnethead sharks. They look like small versions of hammerhead sharks, and put up a nice fight in the shallows if you can make a good enough cast to one before scaring it away. I landed two of those.
After my third session of flats wading, a local tackle shop owner informed me that I didn't "stand a snowball's chance in hell of even seeing a bonefish" and that these skinny water speedsters were "way back along the Gulf". This was consistent with the fact that I had not seen a single flats boat fishing. I decided to back off a bit on the flats wading and shifted some daytime fishing to casting poppers to barracuda that were mostly in the 15- to 25-inch range. It was a little like casting poppers for bluefish, but these fish were much faster. I caught dozens from my rented kayak, and they were a blast. I saw just a handful of big cudas, and while I tempted a couple, I was never good enough to get one to commit. The combination of the gin-clear water and their excellent eyesight make them a challenge.
There were two types of fishing that had strong parallels to what we do up North, and I was able to take some advantage of my northern fishing skills. The first was bucktailing rocky structure in deeper channels that had plenty of current. There was no doubt that my feel for how to keep a bucktail in the strike zone with a minimum amount of weight paid off, but mostly I relied on the advice and precision tied bucktails from John Paduano. Among the bucktails on his website are strikingly realistic jigs that imitate southern baitfish. Given all of the other fishing, I didn't try this type of fishing until the end of the last day of my trip. His suggestion was to throw the jigs to the structure and interrupt the retrieves with fast snapping motions. His lures and advice were right on the money. Within a couple minutes of trying I had a large mangrove snapper in the 3- to 4-pound class. This was soon followed by a blue runner, and then a fish that took me under a ledge after a tough fight and never came out. The next fish fought the same, and this time I pulled it out of the clutter to find it was a sizable grouper. These fish were in extremely clear water, and I never even attempted to throw my plain white bucktails that work so well for me on stripers. I finished that session with a strong jack that engulfed a Calcutta swimshad.
The night fishing was where my northern skills helped the most. With advice from John Paduano and Jim Faulkner, I was targeting tarpon with swimshads in deep fast moving channels. It felt a lot like night inlet fishing for stripers. On my first night I went to where they both suggested, and had a tarpon in the air on my second cast. As most tarpon do, it threw the hook on the first jump. The next tarpon lasted 4 jumps before throwing the lure. I managed only a few other hits that night as I fought a 25-knot wind in my face.
The next day, my non-fishing brother who lives in the Lower Keys mentioned a spot with water flow "like the Shinnecock Canal". I told him I needed to see it, and when I did, I knew where I'd be starting the second night. I put 7 tarpon in the air that night, landing one of the "small" ones of maybe 20 pounds. The best part of the night was when I noticed a rip line well up-current of where I was fishing. "Great striper rip," I thought to myself, and guessed tarpon might also appreciate the distorted water flow. On my third cast there I had my first big TV tarpon on the line and in the air on multiple jumps. The fight lasted only about 20 seconds, but featured breathtaking jumps that were fortunately visible with the help of some nearby street lights. It hit 30 feet in front of me but was soon 200 feet away and going for structure at full speed when it snapped the line in mid air with one of its charging leaps. I remembered Paduano's words about big tarpon "There's no pressure. You don't have to worry about losing them, because you know you're going to lose them". The weightlessness on the end of my line was the most likely outcome, as there is only so much you can do with a 100-pound plus fish while standing on the shore with a 7-foot spinning rod.
I've heard that only about one in ten hooked tarpon are landed, and this includes fishing from boats. By the third night I was thinking the odds of a landing tarpon from shore might be even lower. My hot lure had been a 7-inch Tsunami swimshad. I had one left out of the four I packed in my suitcase, and I was saving it for the "striper rip" that was to form early in the ebb tide. When the time was right, I positioned myself on the rip, planted my feet firmly, and began retrieving casts with my rod angled low and toward the lure in anticipation of burying the hook hard on a strike. On my second cast I yanked back hard on a hit and instantly had another of the big tarpon at eye-level as it exploded into a run. With less current than the previous night, and a few lessons learned, I managed to break it from the main current. After about 20 minutes, more than 10 jumps, and several close calls with structure, I had the leader in reach in a predetermined landing spot on a small patch of beach made up of broken coral pieces. The fish lunged when I grabbed the leader, and I had to let go. After regaining the line, I waded into the water and got behind the fish. At the last moment I tossed my rod onto the shore and used both arms and legs to corral the fish into shallow water where a quick picture was taken before I revived it in the current and sent it on its way.
I have no idea what the big tarpon weighed, but my largest stripers seemed like toys in comparison. However, it was the experience of fishing for those stripers that drew me to the piece of water that produced that tarpon, as well as another about half its size, and several other memorable hookups. My most productive tarpon lures were the swimshads that I had already owned for striper fishing. It was nice to see that what we learn fishing here can go a long way elsewhere.

April 07, 2012

A Novice Again

by John Skinner

The start of the striped bass season is upon us, but stripers are pretty far from my mind right now. It's for a good reason though. I'm just a few days away from a week-long trip to the Florida Keys. I have a free place to sleep in Key West, and beyond that, I'm on my own. It will be a week of as much fishing as I can pack in without any obligations. My plan is to focus on the roughly 40-mile stretch between Bahia Honda and Key West. Before the plans for the trip came together a couple months ago, I would have been as likely to believe that "Bahia Honda" was a car instead of an island in the Florida Keys chain. Bonefish, permit, barracuda – I've seen them only on TV and in fishing magazines. I have experience with tarpon though – about two days worth. For the first time in a long time, from a fishing perspective at least, I'm starting off clueless. Maybe that's what excites me most. It's the same excitement I see in the eyes of an angler who catches his first keeper bass and appreciates it more than some experienced anglers appreciate a 30-pounder.
I know how I'm supposed to go about this – hire a guide. In the best case scenario the guide will put me on some bonefish, I'll execute a relatively easy cast, and I'll catch one. 4 hours and $450 later, I'll be able to say I caught a bonefish. Deep down, I'll know it was the guide who really caught it, having done the hard part of providing the opportunity to cast a shrimp in the path of one. The real value of such a trip wouldn't be catching the fish as much as what could be learned from the guide. I could then use that knowledge the rest of the week to help my solo efforts. Given that the guide would likely be fishing areas that I wouldn't have subsequent access to, and the above best-case scenario would be very weather-dependent, I've decided to take half of that guiding fee and use it to rent a good fishing kayak for the week. Shore-based fishing opportunities abound in The Keys, but those opportunities will be vastly increased with a kayak. How do I even know this much? Online research, and it's the same approach that's valuable for Northeast anglers trying to learn or improve on their striper fishing.
I started with simple Google searches on terms like "Florida keys bonefish wading". After filtering through the many guide ads, I had several articles that covered everything from how to catch them to the mile marker numbers of places to park along the Overseas Highway connecting the islands. These were read while viewing the areas with Google Maps. If you're not already using aerial imagery to assist your fishing efforts, you're really missing out. Even given the relatively turbid waters of the Northeast, I've been able to find productive striper structure using these tools. The photos aren't always taken at times when the water is clear enough to see near-shore bottom detail, but you can usually find something useful by going back in time with the historical photos in Google Earth. Of course this was not at all necessary with the clear and shallow Keys waters. What has been remarkably useful and reassuring for me is to use Google Maps street level views to check out parking and launching access. You access these views by zooming all the way in past the aerial photo resolution limits. These views aren't available everywhere, but in the case of The Keys, the coverage is superb. You can basically drive around through The Keys without ever leaving your computer. Doing this has been very eye-opening. Signs like "No Parking" and "Permit Required" that are so familiar to Northern anglers are absent there. Instead the access appears to be widespread, unrestricted, and free. Contrast this with the $300+ I'll spend on my yearly beach access permits this month. I'll say more about this when I get back from my trip and have spent a week using the access points, but my visual impressions are confirmed from a couple of guide books I've purchased that map out and give directions to fishing access and boat launches. This brings me to my next level of research – books.
The experience of lacking experience reminds me why books that I've written sell pretty well. It really is useful to have someone with a lot of experience exhaustively cover a subject in a compact package such as a book. In my early stages of research, kayaks weren't on my radar. Afters coming across some articles on kayak fishing the Lower Keys and realizing all of the access that could be afforded by paddling, I felt like I had a whole new knowledge gap to overcome. When I saw 5-knot currents mentioned in some areas, it was off to Amazon to find some books on the area. Now armed with "The Florida Paddling Guide" and "The Florida Keys Paddling Atlas", I have a list of dozens of launch sites as well as descriptions of places to paddle and the currents that can be expected. The books include the bottom structure composition and the fish that can be expected to be encountered in the different areas. This seems like a well-spent $40.
All of this is only one aspect of the trip. I'll be fishing for tarpon from shore near the bridges at night. John Paduano, a superb angler who has made many trips to The Keys has advised me on how to approach this fishing, so I feel pretty good in that area. Tarpon will also be a primary target in the daylight hours as well, and it's one of my goals to deal with a couple of these from the kayak. If I absolutely have to, I'll consider using live bait for this. I have a killie cart in my suitcase along with a few Sabiki rigs to catch pinfish for bait. I would much rather tempt them with artificials, which brings me to the next online learning tool – YouTube. Here's one for you – Google "Hogy Tarpon Video". Wow! They sold me. I don't expect to encounter as many hungry tarpon as they did in the video, but you can bet I'm packing some Hogys.
Part of my reason for writing this now is that I haven't made the trip yet, and you'll be able to compare my pre- and post-trip impressions. I feel pretty confident going in that I have a decent knowledge foundation. I'm an OK fisherman to start, I do a fair amount of kayak fishing, and I think I have the access and tides worked out. Because of the many channels, flats, and islands, you can have a 4-hour tide difference just by moving a couple miles in The Keys. I'm not naive – I understand that I'm going to have to deal with a significant amount of wind while I'm there, and that it will usually be blowing from an easterly quarter. This was determined by looking at past online weather data for the month of April. Taking this into consideration, I have several flats in mind that should be accessible and fishable on a moderate easterly.
That's it for now. I'm going to finish packing. I'll let you know how it goes when I get back and we can compare expectations vs. experience. I'm leaving on Sunday April 15th. Between now and then feel free to send any appropriate advice my way!
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