By Graham Uffelman for FLM
[dropcap]H[/dropcap]is Hells Bay skiff flies just inches over the turtle grass flats as we wind our way through the mangrove islands of Charlotte Harbor in Southwest Florida. American bald eagles, osprey, cormorants, rare white pelicans and a whispy cloud or two fill the blue sky above as mullet occasionally spring from the water. My guide, Captain Austin Lowder, is at the helm and taking me to a “secret” winter snook spot. He is obsessed with snook and quite involved in legislative efforts to do everything he can to save them. When we frequently fish together, he invariably scolds me to keep the location of our adventures secret and as I am a fisherman that enjoys telling
tales, I invariably end up telling someone where we went to get ’em. So to counter this predilection to yap my jaw, we have agreed that from here on out it will always be the mythical Trout Creek of the West Wall. So there we were cruising over the flats towards Trout Creek, West Wall.
As we glide further into the backcountry wilds, the water becomes shallower and the passage narrower as the mangroves push into us and funnel us toward our destination. Hauling ass around a blind corner at full speed in 8 inches of water, Austin cuts the engine and we glide to a stop in a dead end of red and black mangroves. Hip packs and wading shoes on, we step into the primordial, tannin stained waters with our fly rods. Wading towards a sheer wall of mangroves, Austin leads me straight into snook heaven. Approaching the wall, he bends down and seems to disappear into the thickest part of the tree with a hardy “Follow me”.
Closing my eyes I push forward, bending over, trailing my 9-weight Sage Xi2 behind me and eventually find myself in a small saltwater stream. The light pierces through the thick canopy in glorious blades as mullet, redfish and small rays dart from one side of the stream to the other. What a magical little world we have found our way into. No more than a few feet across, the entire ecosystem of this tiny stream is alive with all the creatures of the backcountry. As we push on deeper into the heart of darkness, I have a sensation of being a million miles from anywhere yet we are only a twenty minute run from my dock. Slowly and methodically, we walk deeper into this stunningly beautiful world and begin to set a rhythm as we move our legs through the water in a way that allow us to balance for the next step, but makes no noise of splashing water. Several minutes pass like this as we duck and scoot through thick overhang in complete silence. Somewhere off to my left, the menacing voice of a feral hog calls out as if to say “get the fuck out of my stream,” scaring the daylights out of me at the same time. Suddenly and without warning, Austin stops, turns and put his finger to his lips.
Creeping forward we step out into blinding daylight and behold a magnificent mangrove “room”. With no visible outlet or inlet, this shallow room stretches several hundred feet across. Turtle grass and sandy patches become clear as my eyes adjust to the light as it drapes the modeled bottom. Then there was no noise, no movement and from what I could tell, no fish. The wading begins again in silence as the ripples from our movement spread around the room. Echoing through my head are the first few lines of Jerry Garcia’s, Ripple, “If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine… ” – 30-feet in front and to my left, Austin points out a “log” sitting across a sand patch. He says: “Cast 2-feet in front of him and let it sink.” Fly goes in the air, fly lands 5-feet in front of him and I leave it. “Slow strips, sloooow”. Strip, strip, and stop. Suddenly the log moves towards my fly. It morphs from a log to ruthless aggressor and inhales the small beige and white baitfish pattern as if it hadn’t eaten in days. I strip and without succumbing to the occasional trout set/rookie rod lift, my line comes tight. This is a big snook, maybe close to 40 inches, definitely over 35-inches.
At first he doesn’t know he is hooked and turns his body away from me and starts swimming slowly towards the far side of the room. Now he knows he is hooked as I strip set one more time and drive the hook home. The first thought that goes through my little brain is that this could be my bucket list snook. A 40-inch snook in 24 inches of water, a pinnacle of salt water flats angling. I picture the photograph in my mind, hoping I don’t have any fried chicken from lunch in my teeth. As I get the line on the reel, the snook does something I am not ready for. Turning and running full speed at me, the fish lifts his massive head from the water, shakes it from side to side and spits the fly at me. Gone. My shouted profanities echo across the room as I turn to watch my bucket list snook glide away through some unseen outlet even Austin doesn’t know about. I shall never forget the startled frozen gaze on his face. As I attempt to gather myself, still shaking with adrenaline, we proceed with our fishing, catching several decent snook as the late afternoon light signals us to head back to the skiff.
I have always said that we fishermen tend to remember those that got away better than those we catch and so my dreams were destined to be haunted by that monster snook that got away. I kept replaying that head shake in my mind all evening. So that night, as I closed my eyes and put my head down on my pillow, all I could hear, echoing in my mind, was that menacing call of the feral hog that lives in the mangrove forest. I could hear him, clear as a bell, but this time he was just laughing at me.
Friend, mentor and guide, Captain Austin Lowder, started this petition on behalf of the Charlotte Harbor Restoration Society. He would love to see as many signatures to save the snook as possible. Please take the 30 seconds to click on the link below to ensure the future of one of sportfishing’s most cherished gamefish. Charlotte Harbor Restoration Society will personally deliver the petition to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commision meeting on June 19th in Lakeland, Florida. Visit this link to sign the petition to save the snook
Captain Lowder can be reached for fishing charters by emailing him at: firstname.lastname@example.org