This time of year, every year, I’m torn between two worlds: the water and the woods. Because although I live to fish, I’m a hunter as well…a diehard one.
So, I spend fall in limbo between the two, never quite where I want to be. If I’m in a boat, I’m wondering what might be walking past my tree stand. If I’m in a duck blind, I’m thinking about how good the crankbait bite might be at that same moment.
But I just got back from a place that changed my perspective on this annual dilemma: Key West, Florida. I was there last week, helping the folks at Columbia Sportswear test out some of their amazing new hot-weather fishing apparel (the stuff actually gets colder as you wear it), and what I experienced there might forever change the way I think of fall.
On the first morning of flats fishing, I shared Capt. Mike Cyr’s boat with Columbia’s Public Relations Manager Andy Nordhoff, a nice guy with a Sahara-dry sense of humor.
It’s hard to imagine an expanse of water stretching from horizon to horizon without a ripple on it, but that’s exactly what we were faced with as Capt. Cyr killed the outboard and climbed up onto his poling platform. The dead-calm conditions afforded us a stunning view of blacktip sharks, permit and frantic baitfish breaking the surface across the gigantic flat.
But those same conditions made the fish just as aware of our presence, something we learned after Cyr—a 32-year guiding veteran—spotted a tailing permit about 75 yards off the bow at sunrise. Using the push pole, he slowly inched us toward the fish. Andy was on the bow platform, ready to cast a crab at Cyr’s command. I was behind him trying not to breathe as I recorded the stalk on my Flip cam. For several minutes, none of us spoke or made a sound, as the world distilled down to only the ever-shrinking expanse of water between us and the permit.
But seconds before Andy would have been in casting range, the permit’s tail slipped under the surface. A boil erupted from the spot and a V-shaped wake split the water as the fish rocketed 100 yards to our left.
It was gone. And it was as close as we’d get to a permit the rest of the day.
In that moment, I felt something I’ve only ever experienced with a gun or bow in my hand...that heart-beating-through-your-ribs adrenaline rush, then sudden letdown, that keeps you coming back for more. And more.
That’s probably why, despite the fact I didn’t land a fish the entire day, my choice for the next day was simple. I could have fished a deep offshore reef, where catching dozens of grouper and snapper would have been a near-certainty. But I didn’t even consider it. I wanted another hunt with Capt. Cyr.
And again, the next day was marked by failed stalk after failed stalk. We even tried ambushing pods of permit that were roaming a particular flat off Marquesas Key. Nothing seemed to work. It was heaven and hell at the same time.
Finally, things clicked when Cyr spotted a school of big bonefish rooting across the bottom. After more than a few misplaced casts (you try making long, accurate casts to a moving target with a feather-light shrimp), I finally landed a bait in front of one of the bones. The wake the fish had been pushing in the foot-deep water disappeared as it reached my shrimp, which I initially took as a sign the fish had spooked. Then my line tightened and began screaming off my reel as the fish made a 100-yard run in seconds.
Several minutes later, I was holding a 6-pound bone, its countless mirror-like scales glinting in the tropical sun. It was the end of both a successful hunt and fishing trip.
Obviously, being able to spend one’s autumns on guided trips in the Florida Keys is a fantasy for all but the mega-rich or ultra-lucky (me). But my brief visit reminded me that similar opportunities exist virtually everywhere fish swim if you know where to look—carp on the Great Lakes, for example. And now that I have a taste for hunting-style fishing, my fall plans might never be the same.
How about you? What do you do that blurs the line between fishing and hunting?
I’d love to give it a try!