This last month has been full of adult responsibilities: I’ve been working on finishing up my last semester of college, getting in as much time at work as possible, and finding time to fill out job applications. All of this hard work has made the reality of my final semester quite clear to me, but this also meant that this was my last chance to get to enjoy a spring break. My dad and I have talked about making a trip down to Florida to do some fishing for years, but we knew this was our last chance to make it happen. So, we both researched where to fish and started making plans. I had a pretty simple goal for this trip: I wanted to add 10 new species to my list. My dad wanted to do a little bit of bass fishing. Besides those two things, our plans were pretty wide open.
Indiana had just started changing to spring when a sudden cold snap brought back some light snow. I don’t think any other weather would have made me more excited to go to a coast.
On the first Friday of spring break we drove all day and spent the night in a hotel. On Saturday, we got up early and drove the last bit down to Gainesville, Florida. We visited with my uncle, who lives there, and hiked around Paynes Prairie to spot some wildlife.
This sign didn’t lie; we saw more alligators than I could count. It was easily one of the coolest places I’ve hiked yet.
We got up bright and early Sunday morning with plans of going down to Cedar Key to do some fishing with my uncle. It was only a short hour drive there, but I hadn’t gotten to do any fishing yet and I was starting to get excited about catching some new species. We started off by bank fishing some of my uncle’s secret spots in hopes of catching a Red Drum. We all got a few bites, but no one was able to connect with a fish. We drove around, hoping to find another good spot to fish, but the tide wasn’t where we wanted it (so we were mostly out of options). Luckily for us, there were a few public piers and bait shops nearby, so we had a fall back. I ducked into one of these shops and bought us some frozen shrimp. I didn’t really know what we would catch from this pier, but I figured that one rod with a slip rig and one rod with a tight line would give us a decent chance at catching something. The fishing started out slow, but after moving around a little bit we managed to find a deep channel running parallel to the pier that was full of Silver Perch.
We caught a ridiculous number of these little guys, but it was an absolute blast since the morning had started off so slow. After weeding my way through a lot of these little Silver Perch, I managed to hook into an Atlantic Croaker.
We fished until a little after lunch. We then made the drive back to Gainesville to drop off my uncle and then drive down to Lake Mary, Florida. We spent the rest of the day at my grandmother’s house and enjoyed catching up with her and her husband. We rested well that night and had big dreams about getting to fish a private lake that was rumored to have huge bass. Getting going on Monday was slow- all of the driving had started to catch up with us. But after breakfast, we drove to the lake to try our luck at some lunkers. There, the lake looked like it had potential, and on the second cast of the day I hooked into a fish. This ended up being a sixteen inch bass and I knew we would be in for a good day. Little did I know that on the third cast I would hook into the biggest fish of the day.
We worked our way around the lake and landed close to thirty fish. Dad even managed to catch his new personal best!
This lake seemed to be the perfect bass fishing paradise, so much so that I couldn’t resist breaking out my five weight fly rod for a little bit to test my luck. It didn’t take long before a fish fell victim to my Clouser Minnow.
We ended our fishing adventures for the day around 4pm to run some errands for the saltwater fishing we had planned for the rest of the week. Plus, we wanted to get everything done early so that we could be well-rested and make our fishing charter in the morning.
On Tuesday, we got up before the sun rose and started down to Ponce Inlet. I was delighted to see all of the green on the drive there, but I was much more excited when we arrived at the charter and saw how beautiful the water was. We heard the usual safety speech and then we were off to find some fish. Our guide motored the flat bottom boat to an old dock that was destroyed in a hurricane. He had us using rods with 1 oz slip sinker rigs with kahle hooks baited with frozen shrimp. I hadn’t actually ever fished with kahle hooks before, so you can understand my frustration as I was getting numerous bites and not being able to connect with any of them. It took a while, but we finally figured out how to hook the fish. At the first dock, we both managed to land Lane Snapper, Mangrove Snapper, and Hardhead Catfish.
Dad caught a few fish here that I didn’t, including a Pinfish and this lovely Pigfish.
Motoring around the intercoastal waters, we fished many of the places the guide suggested. We had lots of bites, but we were still having trouble keeping the fish hooked with these new hooks. However, after a lot of frustration, I finally managed to land my first Pinfish (the fish I thought would have been the easiest to catch)!
At this point, it just became embarrassing how many fish I missed, but dad had much better luck. He landed a Black Drum, Red Drum, and some Weakfish (some of which ended up coming home with us to be cooked for dinner).
With that, our half-day on the boat was up and it was time to go to our next spot. We decided that we would go to Canaveral National Seashore with the big dream of catching my first fish while surf fishing. As soon as we arrived, it was abundantly clear that today was not the day to go surf fishing, so we decided to focus our attention on Mosquito Lagoon. We tried a few spots with little luck, and eventually ended up at the fishing docks they had built. As you’d expect, there were fish by the docks. I quickly caught my fair share of Pinfish and even got lucky enough to hook my first Southern Whiting.
The next fishing dock we tried was closed for construction, but had the added benefit that it was built right beside an oyster bed. This spot didn’t yield any new species, but I caught more Pinfish than I could count, some Silver Perch, and some small Mangrove Snappers.
On Wednesday, we made the drive over to Cocoa Beach to rent a kayak and fish the Banana River. My dad grew up close to the spot we fished, so he was excited to show me how the fishing was done here (and promptly out-fished me). He managed to land another Red Drum, a Spotted Seatrout, Southern Whiting and Hardhead Catfish. I only managed to land Southern Whiting and Hardhead Catfish. But it was priceless to see how excited he was when he hooked that Red Drum.
The wind started to pick up and I was trouble keeping the kayak in the cover provided by the island, so we decided to paddle back. Our next stop was at Cocoa Beach Pier. We didn’t last long here, the bite was slow and this pier was particularly crowded.
We decided we would try to fish at Rodney S. Ketcham Boat Ramp, which is the closest public fishing spot we could find to Canaveral Lock. Small schools of bait fish were swimming around where we could see them, so I was hopeful that we would find some predators hanging around. Dad managed to hook and land a Ladyfish on a small spoon. It was deeply hooked, so we unhooked it and released it before getting a chance to take a picture. I set up a small rig to target some of the smaller fish with shrimp. It didn’t take long before I found something willing to bite. Over the next hour, I landed a good number of Irish Mojarra and even got dad to catch his first one, too.
After about an hour, we called it quits for the day, but we couldn’t resist going down to the lock to see what kind of fish were hanging out there. I was stunned to see the sheer number of large fish here. Everywhere you looked there were schools of fish that dwarfed everything we had caught so far this trip. I even saw my first Tarpon, and after laying eyes on it, I started to understand why there were “No Fishing” signs hanging everywhere at the lock.
Thursday was our last day of salt water fishing, so we planned to make it a special day and drive all the way down to Sebastian Inlet to try our luck at the big fish. We had heard reports of people catching large fish there recently, so we figured if they could do it, maybe we could too. We came prepared with heavy weights, new hooks, live bait, and frozen bait. We tried fishing live baits in the inlet and the ocean side with no luck, but we had driven this far and there wasn’t a chance we were leaving without catching something. I decided to shift my expectations and try to catch a smaller fish. I tied a simple tight line rig with a dropper loop and baited it with shrimp. This time, instead of casting it out, I simply lowered it down right beside the pilings of the jetty. As soon as I lowered my bait, it got a hard tap so I instinctively set the hook, expecting a little fish. The drag screamed and the fish darted- trying to break me off on the pilings. I got lucky and worked the fish out before it broke the line, but the next challenge was how to land this fish. I ended up hand lining the fish up the wall of the jetty and was amazed that the fish didn’t shake the hook or break the line. I was ecstatic to have landed my first Sheepshead, especially with how slow the fishing had been up to this point.
I figured Sheepshead wouldn’t be the only thing near the pilings, so I lowered my rig again and quickly got another bite. This time, I was greeted by the first of many Hairy Blennies. It was amazing to see how different the coloration was between the male and female Hairy Blenny.
I was lucky enough to catch a second type of Blenny, the Molly Miller.
Dad even joined in on the fun and quickly mastered the art of catching these little guys.
Before leaving, we tried fishing the section of the jetty that ran under the highway. In retrospect, we should have started fishing here because there was a fantastic current break that looked like it would hold some large fish. We ended up catching more Hairy Blennies than we could keep track of, but after weeding my way through them, I managed to hook my first Wrasse. I think that fresh water fish have some strange names, but this fish seems to have them all beat: This type of Wrasse is called a Slippery Dick.
With this fish, we decided to move on to our final salt water location: Jetty Park in Port Canaveral. The people at this pier were some of the nicest I think we’ve met. The pier wasn’t crowded at all, so we had plenty of room to fish without having to worry about tangling up with other people’s lines. I kept fishing my tight line setup with small pieces of shrimp. I learned my lesson from Sebastian Inlet and simply lowered my rig straight down from where we were instead of casting it. It didn’t take long before a small Blue Runner found my bait.
I seemed to get a bite each time my weight touched bottom; it was just a matter of getting a hook to hold in these little bait stealers. After a few missed hook sets, I managed to hook into my first Spottail Pinfish.
Every time I reeled up a fish, it seemed to be a new species for me. My luck with this tactic ended with this small Atlantic Bumper.
After this, the Harry Blennies started finding my bait before anything else could.
It was time to try something new, so instead of fishing the side facing Port Canaveral I decided to fish the side facing the jetty. The meant making daring casts into the rocks of the jetty and hoping I’d be able to pull out whatever fish lay inside. I was once again greeted by a large number of Harry Blennies.
But dad and I knew that there had to be more than just these hiding in the rocks. After catching my fair share of Hairy Blennies, I set the hook into something slightly larger. Luckily, this fish decided to charge out of the rocks instead of going back into the snag. I was ecstatic seeing another new species for me: a beautiful little Black Margate.
Dad managed to catch a few Sergeant Majors off of the jetty rocks, but I couldn’t seem to get as lucky. But after moving to a few different spots, we found a nice section of rocks that was full of them and I managed to catch my first one.
At this point, it was late in the day and we still had to make the drive back to Lake Mary. So, we decided we would catch our last salt water fish and then head out. We ended the day with a double: dad caught a Sergeant Major and I caught a Spottail Pinfish.
Friday morning before packing, we went back to the lake we started at to get in a couple of hours of bass fishing before starting the trip home. Dad and I both managed to catch a couple of solid fish to end the trip on, but nothing that compared to the fish we landed on that first day.
With this last bit of fishing under our belts, we packed everything up and made the drive back up to Gainsville. We visited with my uncle again and shared some fish stories. After spending some time with him, we went and checked into our hotel. That evening, we went and watched a Gator’s baseball game at the University of Florida. This was the big thing dad wanted to do this trip, and while I don’t usually enjoy sports much, I ended up having an absolute blast at the game.
Saturday morning, we got up early to go to Paynes Prairie one last time, and this time we were armed with our nice cameras to get some better pictures. Thankfully, the alligators were still out even though it was a cooler day.
There were also a good number of gorgeous birds and cranes flying around. I even got to watch one catch a small Bowfin, a fish that I didn’t realize was really on the food chain for these birds.
With this last adventure, we all hopped back in the car and made the long drive back to Indiana. By the end of the week, I had added 17 new species to my list and learned a lot of new things about how to fish saltwater. All in all, the fishing was great, but the real highlight of the trip was getting to spend time with my dad doing something we both enjoy.