Stefan wants to catch a bucketmouth. A big fat sowbelly bass. One of those slobs from the Florida strain that looks like it could swallow a cat. There’s only one problem. Mike’s got his heart set on false albacore. Me? I want, more than anything, to hook a snook. Three fishing buddies, three different wish lists, one trip. How are we going to work this one out?
We look at a map of Florida. It has tremendous offshore fishing on the East Coast. Right in the middle of the map sits a giant freshwater lake replete with trophy largemouth bass. And then there’s Southwest Florida, with all the backcountry opportunities an angler could want. We look a little closer. On the East Coast, the St. Lucie Canal connects the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Okeechobee. From the other shore, the Caloosahatchee River runs westward, dumping into the Gulf of Mexico in Ft. Myers, Florida-a stone’s throw from the Ten Thousand Islands and inshore angling paradise. Hmm…
If we could find the right boat, we could do it all, complete the “Fishing Trifecta” of freshwater, inshore, and offshore angling all in one trip. We’d need a boat with the ability to get skinny and go deep, a boat equally at home in the sargassum offshore and the lily pads in the freshwater shallows. We’d need a bay boat. Specifically, a Polar 2110 Bay Boat with a 150-hp Yamaha four-stroke. Done.
We load the Polar 2110 with offshore tackle, light spinning gear, fly rods, and everything under the sun to complete our mission. We point the bow out the Lake Worth Inlet in Palm Beach, Florida, and head offshore ready to prove that, with the right boat and the right plan, we can win the Triple Crown. And make three different wishes come true.
The Gulf Stream, that roiling oceanic current that sprints up the Atlantic coast, bends closest to land around Palm Beach, coming within five miles of shore. The pelagic species that use the Gulf Stream as an expressway also run close to Palm Beach, which is why bluewater angling here is called “Gentleman’s Fishing.” You don’t have to get up too early or run too far.
We’re skirting the edges of the Stream, looking for the small, missile-like speedster known as the false albacore. We’ve recruited for our mission Scott Hamilton, the local guide who pioneered offshore fly-fishing here. The fishfinder at the helm lights up, cluttered with fish symbols indicating a large school. Hamilton throws some live pilchard over the side and hands a fly rod to Mike.
“These aren’t frickin’ brook trout,” Hamilton says, reminding Mike-a trout bum from New Hampshire-not to high stick the fish. A froth erupts on the surface, and false albacore blitz all around the boat. Mike casts an “eat me” fly into the fray-one strip and he’s hooked up. The albie starts a blistering run and Mike counters by lifting the rod high-like fighting a trout. CRACK!!! The albie saws the stout saltwater flyrod in half like a buzz saw. Hamilton grabs the rod fragments and pulls the fish in by hand. “Congratulations, Buster,” Hamilton says, “your first albie.” Mike absorbs his new nickname, not knowing he’d soon have a shot at redemption. Big time.
The bay boat offers 360-degree fishability, a good thing when dealing with breaking fish, and a wide stable platform to help us maintain balance in the gentle offshore swells. When the wind and waves kick up, the boat could get uncomfortable, but here in decent conditions, it’s perfect. The only ones who dislike the boat are the mating sea turtles we keep interrupting.
We take turns casting into the fray, hooking up and hanging on, when Hamilton notices an interloper. Long, sinewy, and brown, it resembles a small shark circling the boat. But Hamilton knows better.
“Cobia,” he shouts. I step up to the bow with a 12-weight fly rod and put the fly right in front of its mouth. It sucks it in and spits it out before I react. Mike is next in line with a live pilchard on a baitcaster. The cobia likes it-fish on.
Cobia are more known for their tastiness than fighting ability, but this one, a 50-pounder, proves a champ. For a solid half-hour, it stubbornly refuses to give ground. Stefan and I watch Mike wilt in the intense heat.
“Hey Buster, check out this albie,” Stefan teases, releasing the sixth one we’ve caught since Mike started battling. Finally, his shirt clinging to his shoulders and his face red with effort, Mike brings the cobia alongside the boat. Hamilton reaches for the gaff, the broken fly rod long since forgotten. Almost-Hamilton pats him on the back and says, “Nice battle, Buster.”
The clock reads 4:45 a.m.; the thermometer 87 degrees. By noon it will break 100, which is why we’re meeting Bobby Sutton at the docks long before sunrise. Sutton is a fishing guide at the Roland Martin Marina in Clewiston, Florida, a hot spot for Lake Okeechobee bassin’. In 13 years of guiding, Sutton has yet to be skunked. He’s a good man to have along.
After leaving Scott Hamilton the day before, we’d fished our way north to the St. Lucie Inlet, pointed the Polar 2110 west and headed inland through the St. Lucie Canal. As we negotiated the two locks along the 39 miles to Okeechobee, the water changed from salt to brackish to fresh. The sea breeze disappeared so we hammered the throttle to cool down, and not to outrun the 9-foot alligator we saw at one of the locks.
Sutton fills the baitwell with live shiners. “They’re slipperier ‘n snot,” he drawls, “but bass don’t grow big eating plastic.” We head out bleary-eyed to one of Sutton’s secret spots, wearing sunglasses in the dark to keep the bugs out of our eyes.
The bay boat has one disadvantage to a bass boat-about 30 fewer mph on top end. But it can get into tight quarters, fishes from back to front, and has space to mount a foot-controlled trolling motor on the bow.
Sutton eases us into position along a shoreline cut dotted with lily pads. “Toss your shiner there, Cuz,” he says to Stefan. “I call you that ‘cuz I can’t remember your name.” We set our baits and wait. And wait.
The Central Florida sun rises and the boat suddenly feels like a convection oven. Sutton runs us through his repertories of honey holes, dodging insect bombers along the way. “The dragon flies will knock your damn head off,” he says.
We set up again in a slew along the south end of the lake, so far inside that the vast shimmering mirror that is Okeechobee is not visible. We wait some more. Sutton’s telling us about a new crossbow he bought to hunt gators when Stefan leaps to his feet. He clicks the bail on his baitcaster and yanks back. The seven-foot rod bends sharply at the tip. The water along the lily pads explodes. A dark-green apparition leaps from the surface, its flared gill plates exposing vibrant red gills, and crashes back like a cinder block.
“He’s a hawg,” Stefan shouts as he cranks the big bass to the boat. Sutton reaches down with the net and hauls in a seven-pound Florida strain bucketmouth, keeping his 13-year streak intact. “Thank you Cuz,” he says to Stefan, “for saving my ass.”
I deserve this fish. Stefan and Mike, after all, had gotten what they came for. They even had new nicknames. Our guide for the 10,000 Islands, a wunderkind named Ryan Allen, hadn’t seen fit to give me one. But Allen, who’s fished these waters since birth, did put me on a snook. As soon as I get it to the boat, the Trifecta will be complete. Naturally, the snook pops off.
I deserve that snook, too, because yesterday I had successfully stayed one step ahead of the rolling thunderstorms that followed us west from Clewiston. On the Caloosahatchee, I hammered the throttle on the Polar 2110, pushing the 150-hp Yamaha four-stroke to its limits trying to put some blue sky between us and the ominous clouds. We traversed the remaining three locks, sharing a ride with a couple of manatees in the W.P. Franklin Lock.
The Caloosahatchee connects Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico, dumping its westward flow at Ft. Myers. After the locks it is interrupted only by a series of tedious no-wake zones, giving the thunderclouds a chance to catch up. At the Intracoastal, after 156 total miles traversing the state, they did. When we passed under the bridge to Sanibel Island and hooked a left, the sky turned black.
Here’s where a bay boat has a distinct advantage over a flats boat. The wind chop kicked up and lightning crashed along the beach. At the throttle, I showed no mercy. We made it to the boat ramp in Naples just before the sky opened up.
The snook I hooked obviously didn’t think any of that warranted me catching him. “Don’t worry,” Allen says to me. “We’ve got all day to hook another one.” Turns out I’d need it.
Allen guides us further into the mangroves, where we spy some redfish skittishly feeding on a flat on a falling tide. Mike, Stefan, and I take turns casting crab and shrimp patterns with fly rods. I get a follow but at the last second the red thinks better of it and bolts from the flat. The other reds see this and freak out, too, leaving us empty-handed.
“Let’s go to the money spot,” Allen says. He takes us to a spit of beach with a channel running along it where snook sit and ambush tide-swept baitfish. We beach the Polar 2110 and walk the shore casting live greenies. “Hey, look at this,” Mike shouts. He smiles goofily, reeling in the first snook of the day. Thanks Mike, you’re ruining my narrative.
Today’s dark clouds start rolling in from the west, blackening the sky behind us. Each thunderclap increases the odds I’ll go snookless. Suddenly, my light spinning rod doubles over. A little snook draws up and leaps into the air, like Stefan’s bucketmouth. I quickly subdue him, grab his lip and hoist him before he can reconsider. Check off the final box on the wishlist, the Trifecta is complete. Hey Cuz and Buster, I’ve got something you can call me. Money.