There comes a time in every fisherman's life when they must decide how dedicated they want to be to their hobby. There also comes a time when the line between dedication and stupidity gets blurry. On a trip this past January, that dedication/stupidity line was nowhere to be seen anywhere in my rear-view mirror. Sometimes rolling with the punches pays off though and that was certainly the case with this particular trip.
In early December, my buddy Bret texted me about an upcoming trip he was taking to Florida, and he was looking for someone to go with him. That sounded like a great way to get a pile of new species, so we began working out details. The trip was in early January and as the dates drew closer we watched both the weather forecasts and the trends in flight departures. Covid was still heavily affecting airline staffing, so flight cancellations were still uncomfortably common. But what became a more immediate concern was the weather forecast.
Our flight was a direct one from Seattle to Florida, so all I had to do was get to Seattle on time. My plan was to leave after work on Wednesday, drive to Seattle that night, with plenty of time for some sleep before our 8:00 AM departure. That's a perfectly reasonable plan normally, as it's a 4 hour drive from my office to the Seattle airport, I figured it would maybe take 5 since it was winter after all. This time however, Mother Nature decided to throw what I can only describe as an absolute unmitigated temper tantrum. The forecasts got worse and worse as the time to leave came closer, and I began considering my options for getting to Seattle. Usually large well-maintained roads like I-90 are the most reliable way to get there, but no matter which way I went, I would have to cross the Cascade Mountains. That was going to be a problem. Snoqualmie Pass was my Plan A, with Steven's pass being Plan B, but both of those were expecting up to 36 inches of snow that evening.
Dark red on these kinds of maps is a bad thing when you have to travel through it.
Knowing that my two best options for getting to Seattle were definitely out the window, I considered what my Plan C would be. There was a third way to get there but it was a depressingly farther drive. I could head straight south to Oregon, then west to Portland, then north again to Seattle. The up-side to this plan was that this route didn't involve any high mountain passes, so the roads were more likely to stay open. The bad news (and this was a real kick to the shorts) was that it changed my 4 hour drive to a 9.5 hour drive, under good driving conditions, which were nowhere to be seen that day. There was probably still enough time to make my flight, but it was going to be tight.
How to turn a 4 hr drive into a 9.5 hr drive.
Out of other options, as both of the mountain passes involved in plans A
and B did in fact close as expected just as I was leaving, I put Plan C into action. I headed out into the storm and tried
to channel my inner Lieutenant Dan. My poor mother, a worrier as most mothers are, was also watching the forecast and knowing I was going to be on the road, texted me that evening.
There was more to this conversation, but this sums up my evening pretty accurately.
But wait there's more! About 4 hours into my drive I got a message that our flight was canceled. But I was already too far down the crazy train to back out now. Bret found another flight leaving a little later in the afternoon, that would still get us to Florida on time for our plans, just later in the evening. I panicked a little, but we both bought new tickets for the later flight, and I kept squinting down the road through the blizzard. There were cars and trucks in the ditches and off the road all night. All together I would pass 11 accidents before I got to Seattle. At one point somewhere in northern Oregon, some overconfident sedan passed me, then proceeded to spin off the road about 100 yards in front of me. I'm a pretty confident winter driver, but the dedication/stupidity line was long crossed by this point.
At about 1:00 AM, I made it to The Dalles, just east of Portland. I decided to get a hotel for what was left of the night. But with the Snow still coming down in buckets, I was back on the road at 5:00. And I'm glad I was, because later that morning that road would also be closed. Even the "safe route" was closed!
An update from our friends at Washington Department of Transportation. At this point I couldn't even call it off and get back home if I wanted to. All the routes were closed!
Finally, long story (not so) short, I made it through security at the airport by 10:00 AM, in plenty of time for our new flight. But actually glad that the original flight had been canceled, as I likely would have missed it.
We landed in Florida, checked out the rental car, and finally headed to the hotel. The final tally was 30 white-knuckled hours from the time I left my office to when we got to the hotel in Florida. In true Florida fashion, we were immediately met with a high speed car chase on the freeway before we even got to the hotel.
Welcome to Florida!
Friday morning dawned clear and sunny, and we had work to do. Bret had rented a boat for the day, and we headed out to do some reef fishing to kick off the first day of three straight days of fishing. At this point I had caught a total of 11 species in Florida during a work trip to Tampa (see this post for details), so most of the species we were likely to encounter would be new ones for me. This had definite potential to be a drinking from a fire hose kind of situation.
We got some general advice from a guy at the bait store, but didn't really have specific spots to hit once we got out of the harbor. We (and by "we" I mean Bret, as he was driving and navigating) just used the boat electronics to find interesting bottom topography, and watched for promising marks on the fish finder. Well it worked. We drifted over many spots that day, and I can't remember any of them that didn't produce at least some fish.
So began my most species rich day ever! The first fish over the rail became my species #151 and it just kept going from there. Sabikis tipped with shrimp were generally the most pruductive method of the day for me, but a few fish were also caught on jigs, and even just free-lined hooks with shrimp when the fish were schooling close to the boat. I won't describe all the fish that day, as this post is already too long (ten bonus points if you're still reading this!), but I'll let the pictures speak largely for themselves.
The Yellowhead Wrasse pictured at the top was the first fish of the day, my first wrasse species ever, and species #151 for me. Throughout the day, I also caught several others with slightly different color variations.
My favorite Yellowhead Wrasse of the day had these red highlights on its dorsal fin that looked just like fire!
Littlehead Porgy. #152!
A plain grey fish from a distance, but up close they have striking blue highlights.
#153! Doctorfish Tang. These were difficult to photograph as their skin discolored as soon as I touched it. I didn't touch this one at all.
#154! Bermuda Chub. A school of these came right up to the boat in about 70 feet of water. I was able to sight fish this one on a jig with shrimp on it.
#155! Tobacco Basslet, or just Tobaccofish. I love it when a fish pops up that I have no idea what it is. This little weirdo was definitely one of those.
#156! Graysby. My first grouper species ever.
A Graysby close-up. Ferocious, but in miniature.
#157! Blue Parrotfish. I'll give you two guesses why they're called that.
This was my first parrotfish species, and a strong contender for my favorite fish of the trip! The pictures don't do the blue justice.
Of course they couldn't all be new species, we caught some old favorites also (dominant pests) including White Grunts by the dozen, and plenty of Tomtate Grunts:
White Grunts like this one, while pretty, and with interesting orange mouths (see inset), became our dominant pest for the day. It seemed like nearly every drop produced at least one of these.
Tomtate Grunt. Not a new one, but a photo upgrade from the tiny ones I got in Tampa.
But weeding through the many grunts, plenty of other new ones were still coming over the rail:
#158! This Queen Triggerfish is another strong contender for my favorite fish of the day. I like the weird ones, and the ones that are weird AND pretty are even better!
That smirk looks like he just told a joke and is waiting for the punch line to hit.
#159! Bandtail Puffer. This one remained uninflated.
#160! Squirrelfish. I have handled many thousands of fish in my life, and this fish ranks up there among the most sharp fish I've caught, despite its lack of teeth. There were spikes, blades, and spines everywhere on this thing.
#161! Yellowtail Snapper. It's called that because of the yellow tail.
#162! Yellowcheek Wrasse. I was lucky enough to get two different color morphs of this one. Though the name doesn't really fit what should be called the "Greencheek Wrasse" on the right here.
#163! Redband Parrotfish. Many species of parrotfish change colors as they grow older and mature, Shown here are the initial (top) and terminal (bottom) color phases.
This one is just happy to be here!
#164! Butter Hamlet. These are actually pretty common in the aquarium trade.
#165! Scrawled Filefish. This weirdo is the other top contender for my favorite fish of the trip. This was one of my top wish-list species, and one of the species that got me so interested in Florida to begin with. It was very nerve wracking to see a school of them come up to our boat and watch them promptly bite off several of my hooks before I finally brought a few of them aboard for a picture.
Another school of fish that came right up to our boat looking for snacks.
This school was all Grey Triggerfish. #166! This is another one whose skin would discolor when touched, note the white blotch on its cheek from my thumb.
I like the texture in this picture.
After drinking from the species fire hose all day, we finally decided it was time to head back in to the dock, sunburned, dehydrated, but riding the high of so many species in one day. Bret had also added many new species to his list, and also got a few others that I didn't, including a Bluehead Wrasse, Atlantic Bigeye (which I'm still VERY jealous of), a Tatler, a Sand Tilefish, and even a Shoal flounder.
Bret has a YouTube channel called Peeling Line, which I highly recommend going and checking out if you haven't already. He put together an awesome video of our day:
After getting some dinner and re-hydrating a bit, we tried night fishing for a bit to see if we could get some of the marine catfish species, or any other random ones. We struck out on the catfish, but Bret had a pretty exciting encounter with a Barracuda, though it got away in the end, and I added one final species for the day, the French Grunt.
#167! It's little but it definitely counts!
And with that, we called it a day. We headed back to the hotel to rest up for our remaining two days of species hunting. My previous record for most species in a day was 7, which happened last year in Ohio. The final tally for this day smashed that record with 17 new species! And the trip was only 1/3 over! Sometimes pulling a Liutenant Dan pays off in the end, and this was definitely one of those times!
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