Seeing red — Christmas fishing in Florida

asnapper1Florida isn’t supposed to be this cold I told myself as I drove down Interstate 95 in the pre-dawn darkness in an open-air Land Rover in 29-degree weather.

I was at my dad’s Jacksonville home for Christmas and needed a break from the wrapping, lights and chaos leading up to the big day.

I left the house at 4 a.m. and planned to meet a friend at a predetermined exit at 4:30 on our way south. I was dressed in about ten layers of clothing and still cold, but I was determined.

After waiting at the exit for 20 minutes, he finally answered his phone. I could tell immediately he had better sense than I did. I would be flying solo for the hourlong drive to New Smyrna Beach, where I was to meet my longtime friend and college roommate, Andrew Hicks, for a day of offshore fishing on his 26-foot Sailfish.

Andrew spends up to 60 days offshore annually, and knows these waters better than most commercial captains.

Grouper was the target, but we would also be trolling later in the afternoon, hoping for sailfish or an early-season wahoo.

I met Andrew at the dock, along with Dean Sasek, a doctor from Portland who is married to another high school friend of ours.

We left the dock at 6:30 and caught a beautiful Florida sunrise on the way out of Ponce Inlet.

The waves were a little choppy, but nothing that was going to make us sick (we hoped).

The first stop was a rock pile in 50 feet of water to procure bait. Twenty minutes later, we had caught a load of piggy perch and assorted grunts that would make great grouper bites.

asnapper2Next, we hit several likely ledges and rock piles throughout the morning searching for grouper. No grouper bit, but on every drift we caught red snapper. The Florida red snapper season has only opened once, for three days, in the past four years. From what I saw, the fishery is in great shape. It was a shame not to be able to keep at least one of the big, healthy fish.

We caught red snapper until our arms were sore. I even fought it out with a monster something — we think it was a big Jewfish — for 30 minutes before he spit out the 20-pound snapper I had been hauling up from the bottom. The snapper had most of its scales missing, and the giant headshakes and lack of bite marks pointed towards a Jewfish rather than a big shark. It was an intense battle that left my arms feeling like spaghetti. However, a cold beer and bottle of water later, and I was ready to go again.

We vented all of the snapper before releasing them back down to the bottom.

Unfortunately, the grouper did not cooperate, but we did have a great time catching lots of fish, including several small sharks that followed our boat most of the day.

With two hours to go until we had to head back to the dock, we put the trolling rods out and hoped for a sailfish.

Andrew said the wahoo bite doesn’t really turn on until mid-January, but we hoped to get lucky and catch an early arrival to put something in the cooler.

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We did have some excitement when a free-jumping sailfish danced across the surface several hundred yards behind the boat. We turned around and trolled through the area, but he would not be enticed by our baits.

With reservations, we turned toward home.

It was a great day on the water with an old friend and a new one. I’ll be heading back in May for the mahi mahi run. Hopefully it will be a little warmer for that trip.

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