I love Florida and I was very lucky growing up to be able to visit my grandparents several times in Nokomis, a beautiful town on the Gulf side. Being in Florida around Christmas time was always incredible, even on the 60-degree days my grandmother referred to as “cold.” Simply walking through the neighborhoods provided an opportunity for wildlife watching, whether for alligators or, in later years, wild hogs. As a kid, I thought Everglades National Park was one of the coolest places in the world, and my feelings for it have not changed as an adult, even after traveling all over the country.
Florida is also synonymous with fishing, both freshwater and saltwater. I fished with Chuck Leach (www.lakecharter.com) on Lake Tohopekaliga, in Kissimmee. Like many Florida lakes, Toho is immense and very shallow, so having an expert guide like Chuck who knows the best spots is imperative for a trophy hunt. We fished on a beautiful and clear 76-degree February day. My first fish of the day was an impressive 27.5-inch trophy largemouth bass, which is still my personal best. Several largemouth bass later, I caught another trophy, a 24.5-inch largemouth.
Even though I caught the trophy largemouth bass well before I learned of Florida’s Big Catch Angler Recognition Program, Florida graciously allowed me to submit them belatedly, so my February 2009 trophies were officially recognized in March 2014.
Update May 2014: In keeping with my goal of returning to my favorite states upon nearing the completion of my quest, I returned to the Gulf Coast of Florida, but this time decided to try some saltwater fishing. Aside from my trip with Chuck, I usually only fished in the local freshwater ponds when I was in Florida, and in general I only do saltwater fishing if it is for striped bass. However, my research into shark fishing guides in North Carolina had gotten me interested in shark fishing, and searching for huge Florida sharks led me to Tom McLaughlin. Tom catches a wide variety of fish, and I booked a trip for bull sharks and goliath grouper. I had heard of goliath grouper and their fighting ability and the pictures on Tom’s site are simply unbelievable, so I was very happy that Tom was able to customize a trip to target both of these fish.
On an uncharacteristically cloudy and rough Florida morning, I caught a barracuda and a rudderfish before we settled into shark and goliath grouper fishing. My first shark was a six-foot bull shark, estimated to be over 100 pounds. I caught several more sharks between three and six feet, including some on light tackle spinning gear. One of these fish was putting up a good fight before a goliath grouper swallowed it whole and snapped the line. Fortunately, I was able to catch and land a goliath grouper on heavier tackle. At 60 pounds, it was a baby but still made for a good fight and photo opportunity. (Tom helps biologists with goliath grouper research and I was lucky enough to handle the goliath grouper, which ordinarily would have been prohibited.) Overall, the fishing was slow by Florida standards (according to Tom), possibly because of the incoming extreme weather that resulted in tornado and flood warnings later in the day, but catching my first bull shark and goliath grouper made for a very memorable day.
Update April 2023: While on spring break with my family, I snuck in a quick morning outing with Alex Harmon (saltcreekfishingcharters.com) out of Key West for tarpon and sharks. Alex has put clients on plenty of each over the years and a tarpon, along with a white shark and a blue marlin, is one of the sport fish I most wanted to add to my species list.
The tarpon bite started early and Alex put us in a huge school of several hundred. After hooking a few, only to have them spit the hook or break off in the school, I finally had one stay on. The fight was everything I hoped it would be. It leapt four or five times and took many runs. After a long fight, I had finally worn down the approximately 70 pound silver king and Alex put his glove on, grabbed the leader, and prepared to get it picture ready. However, apparently the fight was witnessed by more than just the other boats in the area, as a roughly seven-foot bull shark came out of nowhere right next to the boat! There was a huge commotion, complete with a sinister shark fin surfacing within arms reach of me, but the tarpon seemingly escaped, as there were no scales or blood in the water. Alex and I thanked God that neither of us had been holding that fish when the shark decided to go after it.
I hooked and fought a few more tarpon after that, but then we took the hint and started shark fishing. I don't go saltwater fishing often, but I have always enjoyed shark fishing. I targeted hammerheads for my bachelor party and I have caught trophy sharks in Maryland and South Carolina. Alex set us up on the flats, meaning I was able to fight the barracuda and nurse and lemon sharks that I caught in very shallow water, which was fantastic. The biggest shark I landed with Alex was a 5.5-foot lemon shark. This was especially memorable because it meant that lemon shark became my 100th species of sportfish caught! (47 freshwater sportfish species, 51 saltwater, and two anadromous.)
The Keys are every bit as beautiful as people say they are. Even more so, in fact. They are truly an amazing place, and with a world class fishery as a bonus. I cannot wait to go back, enjoy the tropical weather and gorgeous scenery, and of course tangle with some tarpon and sharks again with Alex.