Below the Surface

“Nobody’s ever going to believe this now!”

It’s not generally a thought you want to cross your mind, especially while fishing. Personally, I have used this to describe more than just fishing, like the time I ran a mile in 5 minutes and 28 seconds with no witness to verify the stopwatch. Or the time I found myself face-to-face with a manatee in Pensacola Bay without a camera. Though the phrase is limitless and common, in this moment it describes one of the greatest moments in my angling career and the reason I’ve eased over the threshold between avid and fanatical.

Unfortunately, this thought crossed my mind as I watched the biggest trout I had ever caught simply flop off my measuring board and disappear into the calm dark water below. Even more fitting was that it took place just as I reached for…you guessed it, my camera. My range of emotions went from pumped and excited, to being slightly bummed about watching a rewarding photo-op literally just flip away. My inexperience fed my curiosity, because two nights before, in the same spot, I caught a personal best speckled trout at just over 24” along with several others around 20”. In short, I stumbled across a productive pattern and wanted to know why. Questions like, “Why was my approach working?” and “why was I suddenly catching bigger fish?” fueled my approach. So with a headful of questions and even more anticipation, I managed a way to calm myself down, and carry on with what would become the single most epic night of trout fishing in my angling career.

It was April 23, 2013 and I was fishing one of my favorite springtime areas for targeting trout on dock lights. There is typically very good tidal movement to keep the predators and prey active, and an abundance of dock lights relatively near one another. Those factors combined with an abundance of bait and clean water leads to plenty of opportunities for bites. Additionally, I do most of my fishing out of a kayak. That night I was using my Hobie Revolution 13, a very fast and stealthy watercraft. Stealth is a factor often neglected by anglers but I have repeatedly found it to be absolutely crucial. Anyway, back to the story.

While fishing around dock lights, I have a habit of always trolling a Z-man paddlerZ on a 1/8 oz jighead. About 30 minutes into my night, after catching 3 or 4 small trout, I notice my trolling rod doubled over as I moved from one light to the next. Not expecting such a big bite, an epic tug-of-war ensued. I could hear the fish thrashing on the surface, frantically trying to shake free of its unknown fate. I could only hope my knots and equipment would allow for me to see my adversary. The deep head shakes and line-peeling runs was no match for my Shimano Stradic and St. Croix rod. After an intense fight, I carefully pull the biggest trout I’d ever caught onto my measuring board. Excited and nervous, I’m elated to see the fish’s tail land just beyond the 25” mark, easily my biggest to date. So to capture the moment, I turn around to grab my phone from my dry box directly behind me. In that brief moment, and those that fish out of a yak know, the fish goes wild. In the blink of an eye all I see is a spotted tail splash back into the water. A bittersweet moment; to see a great fish swim away strongly but without getting the proof I longed for to earmark such an accomplishment. Thus leading to my opening statement.

Regardless, the excitement worked me up - another personal best speck! I could barely contain myself! Besides being completely distracted, I kept reflecting on if I was ever going to top that catch, and honestly didn’t know what to do next. “What do I do now?” I thought. In that split second, literally the water spoke to me and it came in the form of dozens of jumping mullets. It was an unusual amount of mullet, easily enough to distract me from my previous heartbreak. I realized I was in a school of something feeding so I grabbed my rod with a white Z-man PaddlerZ and went back to work.

20 minutes go by with zero to show for my efforts. “How is there nothing underneath these mullet?” I ask myself. So with careful approach, I astutely eased back towards the dock lights with hopes of a tight line. I place a perfect cast right under a bright light hanging high above the water. One pop off the bottom and I feel the THUMP.

My reel sings and as the fish nears, I see a flash. Immediately, I think redfish, but a few more cranks and the proper operation of a headlamp reveal something that looks like a trout. Could it be? There’s no way that’s a trout. It’s huge! I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Yes, another monster speck! And honestly, this one put to shame the one caught just 30 minutes before. In an effort to not make the same mistake twice, I carefully got her in the net and onto my measuring board….28.25”! An absolute giant and like nothing I’d imagine catching that night. Mesmerized and nervous, I ease her over the side for a healthy release, and promptly send out about 10 text messages to excited friends. “No way I can top this!” I think to myself, so with a content heart, I decide to call it a night.

To get back to the ramp I have to go right through the same spot that I caught my first big yellow-mouth of the night. So with mullet jumping all over, as if to say “Cast Here!!” I decide to follow their advice and make a few more casts. Quietly, I glide my kayak into the area and begin methodically casting in every direction. About 5 casts later I am absolutely dumbfounded when my jig gets slammed again; THUMP! Immediate drag burst…It’s on!!! More surface action and huge head shakes let me know I hooked yet another gator trout! In disbelief, I question the purpose of such good fortune. “This can’t be possible!” I think to myself, but sure enough I hoist another 27.25” into the net and onto the measuring board. So with a quick snap of a picture I make my final release of the night.

To be honest, I’ve always been the curious type. I’ve even been compared to an engineer with my approach to mechanics and this is no different…I wanted to know the why and how of things: Why were those fish there? What were they feeding on? Will they be there long? Obsessed by my success, I wanted to know everything. So, the following days were spent with my nose in a notebook, filtering through my pictures recording every 20”+ trout I caught 6 months prior to that night. Fortunately for me, I participated in an online tournament where anglers accumulate points for every trout over 20”. So with plenty of pics and valid evidence, I begin my log, which ranged from dates, tides, moon phase and weather conditions. 3 days later I’ve created the most valuable tool I possess for trout fishing and it already contained 6 months of information, but that’s not the striking point.

You see, for me, somewhere between the start of my fishing journey, I realized that my “hobby” has now become my “obsession”. What started out as an ordinary night of fishing dock lights, quickly turned in to a trip that fueled a fire in me that will burn for the foreseeable future. I’ve heard and read that speckled trout fishing is all encompassing, a passion that extends way beyond rods, reels, knots and lures, and after that night I understand. So through the lens of introspection, I encourage each of you whether you’re a novice or a troutmaster, to examine the pursuit and never give up till you find out what’s below the surface.

Tight Lines Everyone,

Keith Morrisson