Fort Pierce, Fla – The annual International Convention of Allied Sportfishing Trades (ICAST) show in Orlando last week offered another opportunity to visit sunny Florida and scope out the hottest new fishing gear that’ll be making its way to the consumer market over the next year.
I can’t visit Florida without trying to work in some kind of fishing expedition and usually shoot for saltwater. This year’s show worked out very well as I was able to contact Nick Mitcheltree, a young man I’ve known since he was about 14 who also hails from my home county in Virginia. Today, he’s in the U.S. Coast Guard, stationed at Fort Pierce, Florida, serving as a boatswain’s mate. Nick accompanied me to the show one day, helping shoot video and offering a younger angler’s perspective on some of the gear we saw. Then came the fishing.
Nick owns a boat, an 18-foot Sea Pro. The Coast Guard has helped mold him into a skilled seaman and we fished two days 14 miles offshore in the deep blue waters of the Gulf Stream. We wanted to try deep dropping for big grouper, snapper and anything else patrolling the rocky bottom some 300-400 feet down but the current was just ripping too fast. Even with 22 ounces of lead sinker, it took several hundred feet of line to periodically ping bottom. Nick had shared that there had been a red hot blackfin tuna bite going on and as we tried to wrangle bottom fish, several tuna busted the surface, annihilating baitfish just 50 yards from our boat. We stowed the deep drop rods and broke out two trolling rigs. One bait featured a $3 flying fish teaser, which created a noisy commotion just forward of the hook. The marauding tuna found it irresistible and two fish quickly chilled in the ice chest.
Blackfin are small tuna but are considered “sushi grade” and every bit as tasty as their bigger cousins. They can reach 30 pounds or more. Our fish were smaller, about 4-6 pounds. Some anglers call these “football-sized” blackfins. Big tuna are more common in the spring; footballs are present year-round. They’re beautiful fish, black on top with an iridescent gold-green stripe. Their sleek, long pectoral fins deliver great agility as they slash through the water.
It was clear the fish preferred baits with lots of flash and dash. Nick tweaked the other rod’s offering, adding a chain of squid teasers and a pink- feathered terminal hook. On the next pass through the edge of the rip, both rods began doing the “Fish On!” dance.
As the afternoon edged into evening, we headed inshore, hoping to hit another couple spots for a deep drop try or maybe find something lurking near the ample beds of floating Sargasso grass, which travels thousands of miles from the Sargasso Sea. Finding it often results in hookups with dolphin (mahi) and other fish hunting the baitfish seeking shelter beneath its golden sheen. We spotted one grassy carpet about 50 yards wide and a couple hundred yards long. It sure looked fishy. It wasn’t. And, after pitching live baits all around it’s edges, we moved on to bottom fishing. The waves were gentler closer inshore, but we still had a Gulf Stream current. On one of the few attempts where we were able to keep the bait near bottom, I hooked into a nice 22-inch gag grouper; nice, but still needing another two inches to make it to the ice chest.
The next morning had us heading back to tuna territory. The waves were a little more prominent and the water choppier. Trolling north made things a little bouncy in that 18-footer. Plus, small clumps of Sargasso grass were everywhere. We were continually cleaning baits. Natalie Giddens, who joined us on the morning expedition, cranked in our single blackfin. We decided to head in an again try some bottom dropping.
Nick and I had talked a couple manufacturers into letting us try their lures. One new lure, a 12-ounce octopus-styled jig (the Octopi) by 13 Fishing, was voted ICAST’s best new saltwater “hard” lure. When we finally found conditions that would let a 12-ounce lure reach bottom, we rigged it up and dropped it fast.
After a couple rapid drifts, I felt a solid thump and hookup. It felt a lot like the grouper bite the day before. My anticipation turned to dismay, though, as I finally yanked the biggest, ugliest oyster toad I’d ever witnessed attached to the hook. I joked about maybe having a record toad before we took a photo and released the fish. Upon returning home, I looked up the International Game Fish Association’s records and found that the all-tackle world record toad was caught in 1994 and went 4 pounds, 15 ounces. The fish I let go may have been near that weight. Oyster toads are tough to judge with the massive heads and tapering bodies. It felt like about a 5-pound fish, but we’ll never know. Oh well!
It was nice fishing with Mitcheltree. Military service is a superb way for a young person to learn valuable skills and make lifelong friends. Sometimes, like Mitcheltree, you also luck out and get stationed in a locale offering excellent outdoors opportunities. Fresh tuna steaks made for fine dining. We whipped up a tuna tataki with both a tataki sauce and a ponzu sauce. A person could get used to those perfectly medium rare delicacies. Look for the recipe soon here at outdoorsrambler.com.