Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, Montana

Anyone who has ever read about, thought about or fished for Musky has heard the phrase: “A Fish of 1000 Casts.” Well this post has nothing to do with Musky. It does however recount an incredible day on the water—Friday, March 2, 2018—at the mouth of Mullet Key Bayou near the mouth of Tampa Bay. I had escaped winter in Montana for five days of fishing in Florida in route to some work in Pittsburgh. Day one generated the usual mix of Speckled Trout and Ladyfish on a pleasant day with little wind and a decent tide. Day two however proved to be one of those problematic days where the wind and tide conspired to make fishing difficult. I probably caught less than a dozen fish in five hours and fought a stiff southeast wind all morning. I was optimistic about day three on Mullet Key Bayou as the wind would be moderate, but from the north. Wind direction is all important in these shallow estuarial waters.

Mullet Key Bayou is oriented north and south and is about 1.5 miles in length. It is shallow with lots of exposed flats except for one natural and two dredged channels. In the Spring, water temperature in Tampa Bay is always a few degrees colder than the open Gulf. A night, shallow flats deep in the bayou cool consistent with overnight lows. With a southeast wind and low tide, that cool water is pushed to mouth and keeps water temps depressed even as the tide changes. Because the wind is pushing shallow water off the flats it keeps the water somewhat turbid at the mouth of the bayou as well. That cooler, turbid water was reason for the poor fishing on day two. The southeast wind also makes for much rougher conditions as it travels over two miles of open water. I was hopeful the north wind would make for better fishing. I was not to be disappointed.

Throughout the winter I’d been filling up two large fly boxes with a variety of saltwater patterns—Clousers, deceivers, bottom bouncers, bend backs, flash minnows, epoxy minnows, gurglers and disco shrimp. I was armed to the teeth with all sorts of flies. On day one, I guess I went through at least a dozen flies as fish torn them up or bit them off. The Flash Minnow proved to be the most productive, but I didn’t have an infinite supply so other patterns were tried and lost as well. Top water wasn’t bringing any fish to the surface, so I abandoned that approach and stuck with the sink tip.

One of the pleasures of having a niece (my wife’s niece) in Florida is free lodging less than an hour’s drive from my favorite flat and a place to stash a kayak. One of the burdens however with such an arrangement is the inevitable requests to bring home fish for dinner. While I am not opposed to eating some of what I catch, there is the logistical aspect to contend with. First the fish must be of a legal size. They must be kept on ice as well as eventually cleaned. And, a kayak has only some much room for dead fish. Most of the time I don’t come home with any fish and do a bit of fibbing about not getting any keepers. Day three of this trip would be different. I promised to bring home some fish for dinner and prepared appropriately. With a bag of ice and a large plastic bag I organized some space in the kayak to hold the fish I’d promised for dinner.

I made it to the launch point about 6:30AM just about the time the tide ebbed, and the sun was getting close to the horizon. By 7AM I was fishing the edge of my favorite flat at the mouth of Mullet Key Bayou. The wind indeed was coming from the north. This meant I’d be casting crosswind on my upwind side. I would avoid big wind resistance or heavy flies like deceivers or Clousers trying to avoid that inevitable whack in the head. Because they had produced a few fish on day one, I tied on a large epoxy minnow—a pattern commonly known as “Surf Candy”. This one happened to be chartreuse and white with a dark green lateral line and red eyes. It was about three inches long. Surf Candy patterns are easy to cast in the wind because they are unweighted and have a very slim profile. My Surf Candy patterns follow no consistent formula but are inspired by: Pop Fleyes: Bob Popovics’s Approach to Saltwater Fly Design. I take no credit for their innovative design or effectiveness.

As I started day three the north wind was pushing much clearer and warmer gulf water into the mouth of the bayou. Schools of small baitfish moving in from the Gulf were evident along the edge of the flat and warmer water. Fish started coming to hand in short order. Fish number four or five was clearly a legal keeper of about 16 inches. There’s a slot limit on Speckled Trout—15” minimum length and 20” maximum. It is amazing how many 14 ¾” trout you catch. This one was headed for the ice and the promised fish dinner. Well not really as it flopped off the hook just I a brought it near the kayak. Was I to be jinxed with the burden to bring home enough fish for dinner? As the day worked out, fish for dinner wasn’t a big concern. After at least a dozen trout in the first 30 minutes of fishing, for no particular reason, I thought I’d count the number of trout I caught on the day. It looked like it would be a good one. By noon, after about five hours of fishing and two passes along my favorite quarter mile stretch of flat, the rising tide made safe wading too difficult and I headed back to the launch point. My fish dinner quest was successful with four fish (the limit) at 15”, 16”, 18” and 20” on ice. Many more keepers were released during the morning. It had indeed been a remarkable five hours of fishing, almost no lull in the catching as just about one in three casts produced a fish. The trout count, give or take a few, came in at 96. With at least a dozen ladyfish, two flounder and two catfish, the total fish count for the morning was well over 100. But the story doesn’t end there.

From 7AM to noon I had fished with the same fly—the chartreuse and white surf candy—I had tied on first thing in the morning. I did retie it to the leader several times when frays were discovered from ladyfish, but it showed only minor wear from the morning’s fishing. Even the obnoxious cormorants who always showed up when there were lots of fish coming to hand could not separate me from my fly. There was more than once where I had to aggressively snatch a fish (and the fly) from a cormorant’s grasp. I was amazed that it lasted so long, wasn’t broke off or disheveled beyond recognition from fish teeth and pliers. As it turned out those 100 or so flies in my boxes were unneeded backup for the morning. Any fly that can survive over 100 fish deserves some recognition, so I am christening it “The Fly for 100 fish”. It is now safely tucked away so I don’t misplace it on the way home. Here’s the fly and the pattern.

Surf Candy pattern (my variation)

With the hook in the vise lay down a thread base with the mono to the hook bend. Secure a few strands of pearl polar flash at the hook bend. Wind the mono thread forward and secure behind the hook eye and wind a smooth body forward with the polar flash to ~1/4” from the hook eye. Select a small clump of Flouro Fibre or Holo Fusion at least three inches long and secure on top of the hook shank behind the hook eye with a few thread wraps. Do the same with the Saltwater Krystal Flash. Select five or six long strands of Angel Hair and fold in half. Secure the Angel Hair behind the hook eye so that the strands lay along each side of the fly. Tie in a strip of red floss just behind the head and wind two or three turns and secure. Build up a thread base at the head of the fly approximately the same diameter as the eyes. Secure with half hitches. Using super glue, secure the eyes on each side of the head. Allow the superglue to cure for at least 30 minutes. Apply a liberal coat of thin UV cured fly finish to the head and body of the fly all the way to the hook bend. Ensure 360 coverage around the hook. Before curing, pull the body fibers tight to the rear and position the strands of Angel Hair along each side of the fly. Allow the thin cement to penetrate down to the hook shank. Cure with the UV light. This will hold all the fibers in position. Apply a liberal coat of thick UV cured fly finish to the head and body ensuring a smooth and level appearance. Cure with the UV light. Allow the UV cement to set for at least 30 minutes to release the maximum amount of residue. Coat the head and body with Hard as Hull cement.

It is rare to have such days on the water with the numbers of fish that came to hand. It is even rarer to be able to use the same fly all day—The Fly for 100 Fish. I think I’ll continue to bring along all those backups in the fly boxes.

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