It seems that every year when we hit that dead of summer period I catch some odd species that isn't supposed to be around these parts.
A perfect example of this occurred when I ventured offshore this past week to do some bottom-fishing with Bob Murray aboard his rocket ship, a 36-foot Grady White powered by three 350hp outboards. It's hard to turn down trips on boats like his because you just know you are going to get there fast and, even more importantly, comfortably.
We didn't leave the dock until just before 7 a.m. because I wanted to load up on live menhaden that usually pop to the surface at first light. Just about the time we rounded the south end of Hilton Head Island, pelicans were diving everywhere. If you didn't already know this, pelicans show you exactly where the menhaden are. All it took was two throws of the cast net, and we were loaded for bear and off we went. My plan was to hit some spots about 70 miles offshore in about 220 feet of water, where I had done well on grouper. I figured they had to be there because the water temperature was so high -- so off we went.
Along the way, there are two Navy towers, R7 and R8. Closely resembling oil rigs, these towers are magnets for all sorts of fish. R7, the first tower you come to, is about 30 miles out, and I knew that the chances were good that huge schools of cigar minnows would be teeming just under the surface around the base of the tower.
Using a Sabiki rig, a 3-foot-long piece of leader with tiny feathered hooks every 8 inches or so, and a small weight at the bottom, I wanted to add to our collection of live bait with cigar minnows, each about 6 inches long. Pulling right up to the tower, I saw the water looked like someone has sprayed a hose on the top as thousands of cigar minnows teemed just under the surface. While one person jigged the sabiki for cigar minnows, Bob decided to drop a bait to the bottom and maybe get a grouper. Within seconds of reaching the bottom, Bob's rod bent double and I was sure it was a grouper. It wasn't until he got it near the surface that I recognized that beautiful golden color -- it was a darn redfish.
I have caught reds out as far as the Betsy Ross Reef but never this far out. With cigar minnows in the live well, we continued on to my grouper hot spot only to find the bottom void of all life. I was so sure that the fish would be deep so I had no option but to switch to Plan B, which really wasn't a plan at all. My Plan B is to simply go looking for fish and pray to God that I'll find them.
Stopping at a spot I had never fished before, we started picking up vermilion snapper and other bottom dwellers when a fair-sized mahi swam up to the boat. Pulling out my "pitch rod," I hooked a live menhaden and threw it in. It was like handing candy to a baby -- that mahi was on that bait in an instant and after a short fight and some aerobatics, it was in the boat. Feeling a bit better that the day wasn't going to be a bust I decided to head to R8, the second Navy Tower about 50 or so miles out.
Pulling up to the tower, almost immediately a 40-pound cobia swam out to greet us, and Bob greeted it with a live menhaden. Gaffed and in the fish box, the cobia meant the day was getting better and at least we had groceries to take home. Looking at the bottom machine, I could see there were all sorts of fish down there and told the crew to put some baits down and see what they could bring up. It didn't take long before all rods were hooked up and to my amazement up came some of the biggest mangrove snapper I have ever seen. Once again the ocean was full of surprises because mangrove snapper just aren't supposed to be this far north. In the Florida Keys they are a dime a dozen but around here they are pretty darn rare. Had we wanted to, we could have filled the boat with them.
I have thought a lot about the strange catches we made that day and came to one simple conclusion: Why not? It's not like there is a wall that keeps fish in there normal habitat and with the Gulf Stream flowing north, I guess all sorts of fish get caught up in this powerful current and end up on our door step. Other oddities that I have caught here include African pompano, snook, barracuda (in our creeks) and, especially during the fall, lots of juvenile grouper. So the next time something tugs on your line, be prepared -- it might just be some exotic fish from far, far away.
God does not subtract from the allotted span of a man's life the hours spent in fishing. Columnist Collins Doughtie, a graphic designer by trade and fishing guide by choice, sure hopes that's true.