Stillwater is pleased to introduce Dave from Florida, USA. Dave is a long-time customer and a saltwater specialist who has a knack for telling a great story in the written word. We will be featuring some of Dave’s tales of fly fishing and instruction from time to time.
I am fortunate enough to live in the northern stretch of South Florida (some would consider this to be Ground Zero for the ferocious predators—the Jack Crevelles). Quite a few records come from the surrounding waters, and the epicenter seems to be the Palm Beach Inlet. I have spent 20 of my 46 years on this planet fly fishing salt, and these critters are quickly moving up my list of favorite fish to tangle with on fly. However, you must enjoy one thing if you want to consistently battle with these characters: PAIN!
One of the things I enjoy about catching them is the soreness the next day. It’s like a physical memory. You know you’ve caught something special; they linger, as we like to say. I have only encountered three species that pull harder: marlin, tarpon and tuna. Jacks pull as hard pound-for-pound as any of these three. Only their lack of size stops them from being on the top of the list. They are not a glamour species like the others; they do not jump or taste good, but they readily eat fly and show up in schools, occasionally numbering in the hundreds. They will test your skills when hooked up!
We have a saying when we get a new rod or reel. “If you really want to see how well it is made, catch a big jack on it.” And now the kicker in all of this—we wade for them! I have tried to explain to people what it is like when you are in waist-deep water and 40 of these savages decide to go on the feed: boils four feet across, closer than three feet from your legs, with gouts of white water from very large predators numbering in the dozens, all within casting range! My best fishing partner John put it perfectly one day, “Dave, it’s equal parts fear and excitement all at the same time!”
Time for a little story..
Fishing had been slow for a week. Hard NW winds had kept us from our favorite fishing spots. But a front had rolled through and anticipation was high as Johnnie and I suited up with the waders and rigged up the rods. My choice today was my TFO Axiom 9wt and my Tibor Riptide with a floating line.
“Hoping for the Jacks today, Dave?”
“Conditions couldn’t be better, Johnnie. Northwest winds, cooler temps, and high water. It seems to be what they like.”
This is my go-to outfit. After getting many refusals from these fish, we’ve figured out when they were in full frenzy mode that they want a meal. Big flies are the rule. Smaller flies will be ignored and because the fish come and go quickly (most of the time anyway) there is no time to re-tie. Short leader are the norm. Better to turn over 7-8″ poppers or the spun deer hair mullets I will be throwing today. Foam bodies, long feathers in bright colors for my poppers are the norm. My leader is 40lb butt, 20-30 tippet section (both mono) and a 40lb section of flouro for my shock.
As we head to our access point we talk of what we might expect and how lucky we are to be able do this on a regular basis. The small snook, bluefish and speckled trout have been hitting pretty well for us as of late. We have seen the jacks but, they have been few and far between.
I get in and start stripping out line, making a few false casts to clear the line. Johnnie gets in and stops short to fish parallel to the mangroves. I am not even half way to where I want to set up on the sandbar when I hear something—my heart rate starts to elevate. I know that sound. I swing around to the north and see eruptions of whitewater 200 yards away—JACKS!!—and big ones, it appears. The explosions are sending water 3-4 feet in the air.
“JOHN.. JOHN!! They’re here!!!”
All he can say is, “OH MY GOD!”
I whisper to myself , Come this way, guys.
And they do.
Slowly the chaos calms as the bait is consumed and now I start to shake. Will they come our way or will they head to deeper water? They come straight at us as they head south. The school seems to be 50-75 strong. They slow and create a phenomena I never tire of seeing. Up until this point the water has been oily calm but now wavelets start slapping my upper thighs. The size of the school and the individual fish in it is so dense that they create their own waves out in front. If they turn on this, it’s going to be epic!
Slowly they come. It’s maddening having to stand there and do nothing. But, we wait, and they come close. Finally, I have waited long enough. I cast, and wait as the lead fish start to cut the distance, so I strip the fly. Pop, Pop, Pop! I watch as the lead fish pick up their pace as they sense prey is around.
John and I start to tremble as we realize they are about to hit critical mass and the massacre is about to begin! They are fifteen feet away from the popper and I start stripping harder. I see humps appear in the water, and start to accelerate toward the fly.
They are on it!
I watch as half a head breaks the surface and my popper (which seems incredibly small at the moment, like a #20 dry) vanishes in an angry gout of water! This explosion seems to trigger the rest of the school, and the mêlée has begun. The water that explodes in front of us is at least the size of a baseball diamond. The majority of the school runs at the groves, straight toward Johnnie, and the boils and explosions are all around us.
I hear John yelling, Holy S#$%!! OH MY GOD!
And when I look, I see that he is literally getting soaked by the commotion around him as he backs out of the water on to the sandbar. He wants no part of these ferocious predators today, and becomes content as both spectator and Coach.
The Axiom bends deep and the Riptide screams and the line peels off the reel. 100ft.. 200ft.. 300ft.. My fish stays with the school as they exit the flat annihilating everything in their path. How is my shoulder already starting to hurt?
Finally, after some careful palming, the beast turns north and separates himself from the school. John is at my side as the slug fest begins. Down and dirty from the get-go till the end. I look at the reel quickly, and see he has dumped roughly half my backing. Max pressure for the first 10 minutes as we are in a stalemate. Then I start to gain line slowly, looking for a small window to take advantage.
John, my best fishing compadre, does as any great one will, and busts my chops to cut the tension.
“Awww, Dave come on! What the hell is taking so long? You getting soft? Heck, I’m 25 years your senior and I would have been done by now!”
“Johnnie you want to take over the fight ?!?”
“Ahhh.. No, not today.”
We laugh and talk about how grateful we are to do and experience these things right in our own backyard. Then it’s time to get serious. He goes right, I go left. Low as possible to the water. John coaches and I listen, as we ever so slightly gain the upper hand. Thirty five minutes in, I get the window and he comes at us. I get the fly line back on the reel. Another 5 minutes of serious tug o’ war and the fish suddenly gets stubborn and peels out another 75ft of line. My entire side is starting to ache now.
Another five minutes to get him close, and this perfect predator lays on his side.. I get a very careful tail grab, and I am..
I look for my popper and it is no where to be seen. John takes a few quick pictures, and now retrieval. After having to put my entire fist past the wrist into his mouth with forceps (and him chewing on me.. OUCH!), we get what’s left of the popper back. A couple of pushes through the water and he blows out of my hand as fresh as a daisy—amazing!
“Great fish, Dave!” Johnnie say as he slaps my back and shakes my sore hand.
“He was wasn’t he?” is my reply.
To this day, this is still one of the best experiences I have ever had with a fly rod in my hand, anywhere.
Tight Lines everybody,