by Berry C. Williams
One January, a friend from my hometown in Tennessee asked me if I’d take his wife’s father and uncle, who were visiting from Tennessee, out fishing with me. Despite the cold northwest wind and threatening rain, I rented old #10 boat from Clyde Williams, then operating the Punta Rassa fish camp, put my 15 horsepower Buccaneer on the rear transom, and got everything in apple-pie order for a trip in quest of big sheepshead, the surest fish I figured two novices would be able to catch.
The boat was a 14-footer, but it had a flat plywood bottom which sometimes heaved with the rise and fall of the current. Because it was so windy and rough, I headed up the Caloosahatchee to Shell Creek, both Joe and Ec nervously gripping the sides of the lurching boat, watching the bottom heave with grave suspicion. I reassured them and we arrived at our destination safe and sound. We fished every pothole and mangrove bank in Shell Creek and even went up and fished both sides of Big Shell Island, all without success, except for some unwanted sea cats and gaff-topsail catfish. By that time, the wind had subsided a bit, so I set out for the Sanibel ferry slip, about 3 miles across from Punta Rassa. The weather was so threatening no one else had ventured out, so we were able to tie up to the left lane of pilings—my favorite spot.
Not being used to fishing around pilings with sharp barnacles on their sides, Joe and Ec promptly lost several lines and I was kept busy rigging new ones for them. We were using medium-size boat rods with wide-carriage Shakespeare Service reels, 26-pound test lines, swivels on the ends of the lines, with a foot and a half of 27-pound-test steel leader. Rather than go to the trouble of rigging a double set of swivels with wire between for the barrel lead, I simply poked the wire through the egg sinker twice, about midway of the leader, and attached a 3/0 hook to the end of the wire. We were using live bait for shrimp.
The water at the pilings was 10 to 12 feet deep. When sheepshead are in, they can be caught at either high or low tide, incoming or outgoing and one doesn’t have to cast for them. They are right over the side of the boat, or around one of the pilings. The incoming tide that morning was ideal and the big sheepshead were there in superabundance.
Neither Joe nor Ec could understand how I caught so many more fish than they. I tried to make them understand that best way to catch sheepshead is to watch the line and raise up right before you feel the bite. Sheepshead don’t bite upward toward the bait; they bite downward, and can be off with it before the fisherman grasps what’s happened. They’re great bait stealers.
Within two hours’ time we were going full steam. The three of us were yelling “Timber” each time we got a fish on and our shouts were entertaining the passengers on the ferry boats as they plied back and forth.
The ferry boat skippers had gotten so used to seeing me fish there that if I had a fish on and it was swimming in the slip, they wouldn’t bring the boat in on me. Instead, they’d slam it into reverse and wait until I’d a chance to play the fish out of the way. On this occasion, I was fishing from the bow, Joe and Ec from the stern. I’d no sooner get my line over and feel sinker hit bottom than I’d raise the line two or three inches and get set for a sheepshead. I could tell when one was getting ready to bite by watching the movement of the line in the water. I’d move it slightly to the right or left or toward me and barely tighten it. I didn’t wait to feel a bite, but raised the rod tip and started reeling in.
Each time I got a sheepshead on, I got him into the fish box in record time. After catching thousands of them, one learns how to get them off the hook fast. I swing the fish to me, gently press it against my left side, grasping it firmly with my left hand, and then with my right hand, I take the hook and jiggle it out of the fish’s mouth. Sometimes this is hard to do, because the sheepshead’s mouth is tough and he has a set of upper and lower teeth. It’s seldom I have to cut a hook out. It it’s embedded too deeply, I simple cut the wire and put on a new hook.
The fish we were catching were running about two pounds each. When in a school of sheepshead, they will, as a rule, all be about the same size. But if you’ll move ten or fifteen feet, you might luck up on a school of larger ones.
Casting about at different spots soon paid off, for I’d no sooner let my line sink to the bottom than something took off with it. It was all I could do to keep the fish from going into the pilings and snapping the line on the sharp barnacles. I yelled to Ec and Joe to reel their lines in quickly, get the long-handled net, and stand ready. I had to let the fish run several times, because I knew he was so big he’d break the line unless I let him go. Each time, he swam to a piling. I had to check him, because that’s a sure way to lose one. I figured I had a big black grouper because if there’re any pilings or rocks handy, they’ll head for them. I played this one carefully and just as I’d thought, when I finally brought him to the side of the boat and Joe netted him, I had a nine-pound black grouper.
By this time, the wind had subsided, so I decided to risk going on past Woodring’s Point into McIntyre Creek. We were soon roaring toward our new destination, my two Tennessee farmers, lashed by salt spray, worriedly clutching the sides of the boat.
When we passed #10 marker, I cut left into the creek and anchored about 50 yards from the entrance. The water was cold and swift, and we soon hit the jackpot. It wasn’t necessary to cast. We simply let our lines over the sides and a sheepshead would take it before the sinker hit bottom. My buddies were getting bites, but time after time, they brought up empty hooks. Both were exasperated, swearing I could throw my line on dry land and pull in a fish. I knew the trouble. They were waiting until they felt the tug to pull up. Fearing we’d soon run out of the hundred shrimp we’d bought, I started pinching each shrimp into three pieces. When we gave out, I’d caught 73 sheepshead and they 13 between them.
Coming out from the creek, we passed over a big grass flat. The water looked good, and was fairly deep. I decided to try for a few sea trout. I rigged all three rods with top water plugs, using a candy-stripe lure, white, with pink stripes. With my first cast, I found what we were looking for—a two-pound, orange-mouthed beauty, a trout.
I rolled in seven more, the biggest being three pounds. It then started raining, a cold, windy drizzle, so we decided to head for the barn. It’s just as well we did, for our ice was gone and trout won’t keep well without it.
When we pulled into Punta Rassa, my companions wanted to pitch the fish onto the dock so people would see what we’d caught. We had 103 sheepshead, 2 black grouper, 12 mangrove snapper, and 7 black drum. According to their standards, it was a tremendous catch, but of course, it wasn’t.