Did you ever wonder, “Why can’t fishing just be easy?”
That’s what I was asking myself just recently. “Why was that C.J.?” you might ask. Here’s what happened. We fished for a couple of hours in shallow water in front of the reef, and came up with a nice bunch of yellowtail and mangrove snappers. Most of them were pretty-good size, but no real biggies. There were ballyhoos behind the boat in big numbers, so we threw a cast net, caught a bunch of them, put a hook in one and drifted him back in the chum slick, and went back to snapper fishing. After a little while the line with the live bait started screaming off the reel. We fought the “mystery” fish for 20 minutes on very light line and were surprised to see a big yellow jack come to the side of the boat. This was a wonderful thing for me, because I had never hooked a yellow jack, and more importantly never eaten yellow jack. Well, I’m pleased to say, those two things are no longer true. The yellow jack was cut into finger size pieces, drizzled with olive oil, and blackened in a metal skillet. It was delicious. I now have another fish on the “eat” side of my “eat … don’t eat” list.
After a while, we decided to go deeper and look for some big, or as the locals call them, flag yellowtails. Out to 85 feet we went; anchored the boat and set out a block of chum. In minutes, the water was filled with yellowtails, a phenomenon known to some as the “Yellow Brick Road.” They were skittish enough that we dropped down to 10-pound fluorocarbon leaders and hooks as small as number 4 (small enough to fit on your baby fingernail) before they started biting. As soon as we hooked the first fish, sharks came into the chum slick. Big sharks — and lots of them. No more than a split-second after hooking a yellowtail one of those sharks would devour our catch. We could see the yellowtails and could tell from the short-lived tugs that we were on some quality fish. But try as we might, we could not get one to the boat. My buddy Capt. TJ Yzenas of islandlurecharters.com told me had been out with a client just the other day and the sharks actually kept them from netting even one yellowtail.
So, what should we do now? We had supplies onboard to make chum balls, or sand balls, depending on who you talk to. This is a stinky, sticky, disgusting mixture of chum, oats, menhaden oil, saltwater and sand. Capt. TJ said, “I call them chum balls because they have chum in them. A different captain said, “I call them sand balls because they have sand in them.” Go figure. We hid our bait inside meatball-size chum balls and lobbed them into the chum slick. We had bites immediately, but the sharks cleaned us again. After several rounds of nonproductive complaining and cursing, we took the time to think, and realized that the yellowtails were coming closer to the boat than the sharks. We dropped bait hidden in chum/sand balls right at the side of the boat. The snappers raced to the falling chum balls and greedily took the baits. As soon as the snappers started struggling, sharks appeared as if by magic. They raced at the captured yellowtails like NASCAR drivers on the last lap at Talladega.
But, the joke was on them. By the time the sharks got to the boat we had already reeled the yellowtails in — and had them onboard. This was “man against shark” in its purest form and man won. I love when that happens. I got so excited I reeled a fish so fast he popped right out of the water, flew completely over the boat and back into the water on the other side. Of course, this started another race against sharks and I wound up actually having to keep the yellowtail out of the jaws of death ... twice. We had a ball yelling, “Reel faster, reel faster.” We eventually boated our limit and called it a day. This was an excellent fishing day and an opportunity to learn something new. You have to love that.
I’ve always shied away from chum-balling because it makes such a mess. The gooey, smelly, stick-to-everything concoction adheres to the cockpit deck, tee shirts, fingers and hands, the inner-workings of even the finest saltwater fishing reels, wrist watches, boat gauges, switches and anything else that you might not want sandy and smelly. Obviously, this makes it a less than attractive method of fishing. This day, however, I learned the chum-ball secret. You have to assign a designated chum-baller. That’s right, just like a designated driver. I was very pleased when Capt. T.J. volunteered to fill that position on this particular trip. I was amazed at how well this worked. Capt. T.J. took our baits in one hand and a meatball size chum-ball in the other. He buried the bait in the ball, lobbed it into the water and waited until we needed re-baiting. He was incredibly good at this job. No more mess in the cockpit, no more reaching over each other to fill our bare hands with the despicable mixture and most of all, no more sand coated, rancid smelling hands fouling the fishing reels and other equipment. This was a wonderful thing.
Fishing should always be fun, after all, that’s why we’re out there. Right? Some days might be more difficult than others, that’s true, but there’s always an answer. Stay patient and keep trying different procedures until you find the one that works. You can outsmart the sharks, but only if you prepare yourself with light fluorocarbon leaders, little hooks and small pieces of bait. If the predators come, try chum balling. It takes a while to get the hang of it. It’s sometimes messy, stinky, sticky and disgusting — but still well worth it. And through it all, life is good in the Florida Keys; life is very good in the Florida Keys.