It was late July and only a random breeze stirred the warm afternoon air. We'd been on the water since 8:00 that morning and covered all the hot spots from Stuart to North Palm Beach. We were tired and it was close to quitting time. I'd caught more than a dozen snook up to 18 pounds, one huge jack crevalle, a handful of Spanish mackerel, blue runners and rainbow runners, and enough bonito to give me cramps. My fishing partner, Steve Newsome, had taken his rods down and was relaxing with a cold soda.
I was idly casting toward a school of snook when Capt. Dickinson grabbed me by the shoulders and pointed toward a dark slick of water where a tarpon had just rolled. In a few moments, several more fish rolled-much closer this time. "What've you got on for a fly?" asked Newsome, who was now on his feet. I showed him my puny little 1/0 olive and white Clouser Minnow and held out my 8-weight rod. He just laughed and shook his head. "Throw it out there anyway and see what happens." I started false casting while Capt. Dickinson quickly rigged a 12-weight rod. The tide was nearly slack, and my fly was swimming well below the surface. I never saw the tarpon eat it, but when I felt it's sudden weight, I set the hook and stuck him as hard as I could. The alarmed fish ran straight away from the boat, jumped once about 75 feet out, and threw the hook. It sounded like someone had dropped a refrigerator in the water. "Well, I suppose if you're gonna lose a tarpon, you might as well get it over with and save yourself a lot of hard work," Newsome taunted.
I pretended not to hear him and cursed myself for not being prepared. I knew I could never have landed a fish that big on an 8-weight rod rigged for snook, but as I reeled up my slack line, I was sorry there wasn't a tarpon on the other end. We tried to locate the school again, but never did and headed back to the dock around 5:00 P.M.
Since the mid-1980s, Hunter Banks (29 Montford Ave, Asheville, North Carolina, 28801) has been bringing groups of anglers to Jupiter, Florida, several times each year. "I think our Jupiter trip has pointed a lot of aspiring saltwater anglers in the right direction," says Steve Newsome, head of the saltwater department at Hunter Banks. "Spending a week with experienced fly-fishing guides, and casting to and catching loads of fish, is the easiest way to develop some essential skills in a hurry. When you're into big fish all day, it doesn't take along to get accustomed to saltwater gear and learn how to handle yourself around strong ocean fish." Large snook-up to 27 pounds so far-are the primary target. During the spring and summer, when they're spawning and protected by catch-and-release regulations, snook can be so abundant along the beaches outside Jupiter Inlet, you rarely have to travel far to find them. It does, however, get crowded on weekends, and sometimes the weather can make it uncomfortably rough outside-but you've still got some options. You can stay inside and fish the Intracoastal Waterway or head up the Loxahatchee River.
Raymond Baird, our senior guide, grew up in Jupiter and knows the Loxahatchee as well as anyone. This federally-designated Wild and Scenic River contains snook, baby tarpon, and schools of jacks and ladyfish at certain times of the year. When the wind is up, or it's crowded in the inlet or on the beach, a trip up the Loxahatchee is worth the ride itself. There's also night fishing for snook. Huge schools of baitfish are attracted to the lighted docks and private piers that line the inlet, and the snook feed all night long. These fish are generally smaller and easily handled with a strong 6- or 7-weight rod and a floating line. An 8- or 9-weight rod matched with a saltwater intermediate line is better suited to fishing outside or along the beaches.
Snook are tough on leaders and a 30- to 40-pound, hard mono bite tippet is recommended. If, however, you suspect a school of fish is getting spooky, drop to a 20-pound fluorocarbon bite tippet, retie after every fish and expect to lose a few flies. I've also had success picking up some larger, reluctant-to-rise snook using a fast-sinking line and six feet of leader. Regardless of what type line or leader you're using, it's a good idea to pay attention to where your line enters the water. A snook will often inhale a fly and continue to swim straight at the boat, with the fly in its mouth. If you don't see the fish eat your fly, the only way you'll know to strike is by seeing an irregular movement of your line where it enters the water.
Bonito (a/k/a false albacore or little tunny) like to congregate over wrecks and reefs in deeper water. These fish are strong and unbelievably fast. When one grabs your fly, you'd better be ready-just clearing your line from the deck and getting the fish on the reel is a challenge. Most bonito weigh around eight to ten pounds, although occasionally you'll hook fish around fifteen. I wouldn't suggest using anything less than a 10-weight rod, with a floating or intermediate line, or you'll spend all day trying to land them.
Schools of bonito also attract large sharks-up to 300 pounds or more. Several times I've had sharks eat the bonito I was hooked up with and either swallow it or refuse to let go. Also, wherever you find sharks, you'll find cobia: one of the toughest-fighting and best-tasting fish in the sea. (Schooners's Restaurant, in Jupiter, will prepare your fish if it's not too busy and you call ahead). It's also advisable to keep a rod rigged with a wire leader. Large barracuda live over wrecks and are often drawn to the surface by the fish-catching activity and the prospect of an easy meal. Regarding the bonito, fly selection doesn't seem to matter-when bonito get excited, they'll eat almost anything that moves. White surface sliders and poppers draw a lot of strikes, but it's hard to get solid hookups. Bonito chomp down on a popper with such force it's difficult to move the hook enough to set it.
Although not as concentrated or predictable as the snook and bonito, you'll likely skirmish with a school of Spanish, king or cero mackerel, a variety of jacks both large small, the odd sailfish . . . and if you get lucky, a school of dolphin or permit. There are always a few tarpon around until the end of the month. If you can pull yourself away from the snook and bonito, Capt. Dickinson are always ready to "run the beach" and look for stray tarpon.
For details on how you can enjoy some great salt fly fishing, call Steve Newsome, Hunter Banks, Co. (800-227-6732) or Capt. Dick Dickinson at (561-575-4336) to charter your trip.
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