I strained. I stared. I squinted. My eyes pinched against the piercing sun high above. We had been fishing off-color water most of the day. Now it was clear but my eyes hadn’t adjusted—I didn’t know what I was looking for on the grassy green flat.
“You see ‘em?” asked my guide, John Turcott.
“No,” I answered.
“Point your rod, just right of twelve o’clock,” he said.
I pointed and squinted. “See 'em now?”
“Yes.” I picked up the two fish—dark shapes just above Mosquito Lagoon’s grass and sand bottom.
Mosquito Lagoon is separated from the Atlantic Ocean by a 24-mile barrier island, and it is the only section of natural dune along the entire eastern coast of Florida that remains undeveloped and accessible to the public. The area is home to 14 threatened and endangered species. On any given day you can see blue herons, egrets, ibis, ruddy turnstones, pelicans, cormorants, and ospreys in and above the water.
The water teems with life—mullet, sea trout, rays, manatees and the Lagoon’s apex predator, dolphin. It also houses world-class redfish habitat.
The Drake recently profiled Mosquito Lagoon guide John Turcott and I decided to spend a day with him on the water. When we left the dock in the windless morning, the rich smell of the sea was overwhelming. The sun was not yet up and the moon hung bright and ominous. Just as the pink sky began to bleed out, I stood barefoot on the bow as John climbed the poling platform. We were soon pushing toward a large distortion on the skinny flat.
First we saw the triangles—fins. Then tails. Then bronze backs. I punched out a cast attempting to land just short and to the right of a large school of reds pushing water methodically. Before my fly hit, the fish blew up and raced off the flat. That first cast set the tone for the day.
We had a lot of opportunities and John was picking up a ton of cruising fish as we slowly poled along a murky flat. I had the misperception—based on a previous trip—that if you could put a shrimp pattern near a red it would charge. This day, the redfish behaved more like permit, and as the hours winded down so did my chances.
I had barely even got a good solid look and refusal. And then, like a shot at the final buzzer, John called out two redfish from the poling platform.
I cast and overshot them. My second cast was shit too, but it dropped the fly between the fish... where it needed to be.
A fish pivoted and picked it up in its mouth.
“Dude… I think he ate!” John said, sounding amazed.
What little excess fly line that was at my feet cleared and the fish was on the reel. His first run was short and hot. He changed direction and made three powerful bursts. Then it turned again and made a second run, longer and more sustained. At the end of that run he made three more burst—BAM, BAM, BAM. I pumped the rod and felt confidant that I had him stuck; the monkey was coming off my back, or so I thought.
The fish broke the water’s surface and did some type of roll and I watched his tail stand straight up in the air. Then all of a sudden I was getting my ass kicked again. I wanted to put the stick to the fish and hold him in place but I worried I'd break it off. The fish was either bigger or more pissed than any other reds I had caught. He bore his head down again and made a powerful charge to the right. I tried to slow him down by palming the reel and that’s where it ends. My fly line buckled and my leader, tippet, and fly bounced back toward the boat.
A bead of sweat dropped from my forehead under the frame of my sunglasses and into my eye. I pushed the palm of my right hand across my eyebrow and stood shaking my head. My eyes closed as I watched the instant replay in my head.
“Daaaamn,” said John. “Well, you pretty much caught that fish.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Pretty much.”
But not quite.