John Jolley January 2019
It was January, 1970, and a young John Jolley had just returned from a 2-year tour on a research vessel, surveying clam populations down Florida’s west coast. “Nobody had stayed that long,” he recalled. “People would get seasick, tired. When I finished, Bob Ingle [director of Florida’s marine research laboratory] called me to Tallahassee and said, ‘John you did such a good job, we’ll give you the best job in Florida: We’re sending you to Palm Beach to study sailfish with the richest people in the world!’ He wasn’t kidding.”
With a bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida and a passion for ocean fishing, Jolley was set. For the next ten years, he worked
the docks and boats in the Palm Beach area, documenting sailfish population structures, catch statistics, diet and other vitals.
“We set up my lab initially at the West Palm Beach Fishing Club—and they gave us an unbelievable amount of assistance,” he said. “John Rybovich set up boats for us to sample eggs and larvae; we put sonic tags on fish to track them to see if they survived after being caught—which they did!”
Fast forward to today, and the findings yielded during Jolley’s early career remain a vital foundation to billfish science, sourced frequently. Also, as might be expected, the rigging threads of his life are deeply woven into the science and sportfishing communities.
With the January tournament season fast-approaching, Florida Sportsman rang up our resident sailfish expert for some inside tips.
FS: WHAT WOULD A SAILFISH NOT EAT?
JJ: If they’re hungry, they’ll darn near eat anything and everything. . . in our studies we found bottom shrimp and crabs in their stomachs. They eat primarily small mackerels and tunas, tons of squid, herrings, jacks… but if there’s nothing available in the midwater, they’ll feed on the bottom!
FS: GOGGLE-EYES, A HUNDRED BUCKS A DOZEN? SEEMS LIKE A LOT FOR BAIT. IS THAT A FAIR PRICE?
JJ:I think it’s a fair rate, and I’ll tip an extra $20 or $25. That’s been the price we’ve had for 20 or more years. Back in the day, I actually got into the commercial goggle-eye fishery myself, to learn more about the fishery. I remember all the way back in the 1970s, when goggle-eyes were temporarily few and
far between, some days they got $50 to $100 a dozen.
FS: LIVEBAIT FISHING OR TROLLING?
JJ: I like to do both—and I still love fishing, but just don’t work as hard at it. If you’re going for sailfish out of here, you can catch ‘em trolling or with live bait… but you’ll just catch more, when it gets hot, with live bait than with trolling.
FS: HOOKS: LEAVE ’EM OR TRY TO REMOVE ’EM?
JJ:Leave‘em in. Just cut off the leader real short. And use circle hooks. There needs to be a lot of credit, for the conservation aspects, given to circle hooks. I think they save a lot of those fish.
FS: WHAT’S LEFT TO LEARN ABOUT SAILFISH? ANY MYSTERIES YOU’D LIKE TO SOLVE?
JJ: I’d like to study migratory patterns over short periods related to frontal activity. Especially in the winter months off south Florida, I’d like to see more satellite tags on the fish. We could have more precise information to help anglers and to help with conservation movements in the future.
FS: FINAL THOUGHTS ON BILLFISH?
JJ: Our Western North Atlantic sailfish population seems to be in good shape. The age class structure has maintained over 50 years. We’re still getting big fish. It’s gone from an on-the-dock type fishery, in the 1940s to ’60s, to almost all-release. I still have big concerns for blue and white marlin. I think one thing remaining in the sportfishery is, instead of tournaments bringing in these great big blue marlin, we should be transitioning to releasing all the
big fish. The blues over 300-350 pounds are nearly all spawning females, and the bigger they get, the more eggs they shed. That sustains our fishery in the long run. Overall, I’m proud of the role that The Billfish Foundation, West Palm Beach Fishing Club and other angler groups continue to play in conservation. FS
D.H. Steinour December 2018
I shoved off and paddled toward the first pilings. It was pitch black under the bridge and I bobbed carefully between pilings until I came to a section with yellow light thrown on either side by the streetlight above. When I peered downstream, my heart leapt.
Copper ghosts flashed across the lighted arena. Blue crabs bobbing on the surface disappeared in sudden explosions as the herd of bull redfish marauded past. I sat transfixed, not sure what to throw at, with action and targets all around. I decided to pitch my Gulp! shrimp jig dead-center in the light and I followed it down to a shaking bite. It wasn’t a redfish but instead a white trout, apparently one of thousands stacked on those bridge pilings. The small fish fluttered against my heavy spinning tackle and I released it quickly.
There was a break in the lights and I paddled past quiet pilings until I arrived at the next bright kill zone. I cast and felt my jig fall into the now-familiar grasp of a white trout. I brought the fish up until my rod jolted and the reel buzzed. A bull red had clobbered the trout and was on the run. It surged at the nearest piling and continued under the bridge.
Growing up stream fishing for smallmouth did not prepare me for a fish that strong. In long bursts the fish dragged me against the current into the blackness below the bridge. I blindly fended the kayak off pilings with my foot as I fumbled for my headlamp and paddle. A hundred meters or so below the bridge the fish was high in the water and turning. I got my clamps into its jaw and swung it onto the kayak. The trout, which was a little worse for wear, joined us.
I’m sure there’s a scientific explanation for an angler’s unshakable obsession with newfound quarry. It probably has something to do with endorphins and maybe an overabundance of long cut wintergreen in the system. Whatever it is, that 30-something-inch redfish murdering a hooked trout in the bay activated it. I caught only one redfish that night, but when my head hit the pillow in the wee hours I was buzzing and when I awoke the adrenaline was still there.
Over the three years we lived in the Panhandle, my most common petition to my wife concerned taking a few evening hours here and there to go “combat fishing,” as she called it.
Some nights were outrageous, with bulls patrolling every beacon. Other times, most often scorching summer nights with no breeze and the moon up, the bridge lights were desolate and eerie.
Late in the summer a few tarpon would show up to the midnight madness and no matter what I threw at them, they weren’t interested. A few guys claimed to land a silver king or two from a kayak each year. I was content with chasing reds.
Once I lost a rod and reel combo to a bull’s violence of action; after making a long cast to the other side of a semi-circle of light I set down my rod to paddle a few strokes. The second I picked up the paddle, my rod sprang from my lap like a jet catapulted from an aircraft carrier. It was ripped under the surface; gone. I trolled around with a jig tied to a spool of leader, hoping to hook the line or the rod or something, to no avail.
Another time I pitched a jig to a bull roaming just 10 yards away and the beast straightened out the 4/0 heavy duty hook like it was a paperclip. I invited a buddy down who’s an F-16 pilot and took him to the bridge at night. He hooked a bull that stripped drag worse than I had ever seen and then when all went cruelly slack his hands shook and he wouldn’t speak. That’s what redfish raids do to you.
Meaghan Faletti October 2017
Inspired by the ocean, empowered by Florida universities, Meaghan Faletti is among the new generation to study marine life great and small.
Behind the scenes of Florida’s diverse and abundant marine life are ranks of scientists committed to documenting the life histories and inter-relationships of fishes. Much of the vital field work is performed by graduate students who, in many cases, literally plunge into their research.
Meaghan Faletti, a 2013 graduate of Florida State University, came to the attention of Florida Sportsman recently. A recreational diver and spearfisher, Faletti ran the FWC Lionfish Outreach program from 2014-2016. For her Master’s thesis at the University of South Florida College of Marine Science in St. Petersburg, she is currently studying hogfish (“The best-tasting fish in the world,” she opines). Also, Faletti is working on an intriguing new population study of pinfish, funded by the Florida Forage Fish Coalition, a recent partnership of private conservation groups.
When did you decide you’d be a marine scientist?
I’m originally from New Jersey, but I grew up in Orlando, and we visited the beach often. I used to vacation with my family at Cape Cod, Massachusetts—and that’s probably where my first interest in marine science arose—walking out to tidal pools, finding horseshoe crabs, hermit crabs. Then in high school, I went to a marine science camp at the University of Delaware. I lived and worked in the lab, and that hands-on experience—exploring salt marshes, working trawl samples—is what really drove me to decide I wanted to do this as a career.
You’re an avid diver. Where are some of your favorite places?
I love the entire Gulf of Mexico. I’ve spent a lot of time diving off the Panhandle—probably my favorite place in the world. The reefs there have a lot of lionfish—and one of my favorite things to do is hunt lionfish. Also snappers, groupers and triggerfish—in season. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of diving and spearfishing on the natural ledges here off St. Petersburg and Sarasota.
What about pinfish? What can we learn and why?
Pinfish are one of those bridges from primary production—algae, seagrasses—to higher level predators. They provide food for anything from snook and tarpon inshore, to gag grouper offshore. They are known to move from seagrass beds to offshore as adults, and they are important to both of these habitats and the different fisheries they support. We’re analyzing pinfish population data from four different estuaries to see if populations are in sync—find out when they are migrating or recruiting. A second component of the project will use a process called stable isotope analysis to estimate spawning locations.
What’s next for you personally? Any specific career goals?
I may be interested in staying in research, as I love learning things—finding things out on my own instead of looking them up on Google. But, I also love education and outreach. I think it’s extremely important to get the general public, especially kids, excited about and involved in the sciences.
To learn more about the Forage Fish Coalition, visit www.floridaforagefish.org
-Interview by Jeff Weakley
Eric Estrada September 2017
Eric Estrada’s first real stab at painting aquatic life was a tailing redfish. His friends all raised the question of, “Why are you going to paint a fish?”
“This drove me to want to paint on canvas,” said Estrada, 32, of Miami. He did this not because it was easy, but because it was a challenge to overcome, much like the painstaking effort it takes to become a great fisherman.
Estrada’s mother had taught him to fish in the Florida Keys. His father, an artist, had taught him to capture those moments.
Another prominent figure in Estrada’s development was the Miami graffiti artist known as “Meer.” Eric became Meer’s apprentice at the age of 16, getting paid to spray high-end boats in the yard.
At Miami’s Art Basel festival in 2012, Estrada came face-to-face with other artists who had been schooled and well-traveled. The gods smiled at him in the form of encouragement from Ruben Ubiera—a Miami-based artist of international renown. Estrada, who said he felt slightly out of place among such seasoned artists, collaborated with Ubiera at Art Basel that year.
Florida Sportsman played a role in Estrada’s first fly-fishing experience. Late one night, he responded to a Forum member’s offer for 300 free flies. To his surprise, those flies arrived at his doorstep days later. A friend gave him an old fly rod that was oxidizing in a shed.
“Tarpon Daze,” exemplifying the Miami artist’s fusion of marine life and SoFla street art.
“The more I fish, the more inspired I am to paint,” said Estrada. “Look at this weather,” he said during our interview. “I can’t fish in this wind, so I paint.
“My paintings are kind of out there and wild, but these colors are actually on the fish. If you see a painting of mine it was either a fish in my hands or my friend’s hands.” An appreciation for marine life and a background of fishing are intertwined into the fabric of Estrada’s life.
“I saw the bonefish decline first hand,” said Estrada, reflecting on the impacts of a 2010 freeze on Florida Bay and Biscayne Bay, as well as commercial fishing in Cuba thought to have contributed to declines in bonefish in the Keys and Florida Bay. Estrada supports Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, a global organization based out of Miami. He also partners with Coastal Conservation Association: “Anything they ask from me, I’ll pretty much do for them. They do a lot for fishermen’s rights,” said Estrada. “We can catch pretty much anything we want in Florida. I don’t know anywhere else on Earth where you can target bonefish, tarpon, black drum, redfish, snook and permit as in Florida Bay.”
—J. D. Kries
Ed & Clay Adams June 2017
June has always been a great month for fishing. Maybe that’s why they put Fathers Day in June. Memories of fishing with dad are priceless.
My own dad, Clayton Adams, was a natural fisherman. Born in 1932, he grew up on a Pennsylvania dairy farm. This gave him a great understanding of the cycles of life, the foundation of his fishing instincts. Dad never tried to force things.
When I was little, Dad took me on trips delivering boats up and down the east coast. The journeys were always fun. Every delivery was an opportunity to learn new things. We walked the docks talking to fishermen. Checked out tackle shops. Once in a while, we even did a little fishing. One time at Marco Island, Florida, we could see bait swimming across a point, but nothing was chasing it. Dad said, “When the tide gets a little lower we’re going to catch them.” But I wasn’t good at waiting.
An hour and a half went by with no bites, when I see Dad getting out of the truck, rod in hand. Within minutes, we started catching snook one after the other. As the tide ebbed they quit biting. I was amazed at how he knew when to start fishing. He explained, “As the tide fell, it concentrated the bait, so it was easier for the fish to feed.” Timing, I learned, is everything.
Dad took me with him on the first day of the 1967 Atlantic City Marlin Tournament. An hour or so into the 90-mile run to the Wilmington Canyon, most of the other boats were way ahead of us. All of a sudden Dad cut the throttle and quickly put baits in the water. Within 15 minutes we had a white marlin in the baits and missed. Half an hour later we got one in the boat. After the excitement was over, we talked about how he knew to stop there. The first clue was when he could smell fish. He started looking for an oil slick. When he found the slick, he stopped and started trolling up current, until he found the bait and the marlin.
My father had served in the U.S. Army in France as a commanding officer’s driver in the 1950s. He had returned with some new ideas about fishing. In his travels he had come across a new type of reel, the spinning reel. He also learned in Europe about releasing fish to protect the stocks. After returning to the U.S., Clay got a job making bucktail jigs for Bill and Maury Upperman. During World War II, Upperman had become the biggest jig maker in the world. They made survival kits for the sailors and flyers. Each kit had a bucktail and spool of line as well as other necessities.
Dad always made sure I had a good rod and reel, a tackle box with plenty of bucktails, some spoons for when the blues were running and a few Rebel Minnow lures for early spring. Most importantly, his lessons of observation, timing and presentation continue to serve me well every day I get on the water.
Ed Adams, West Palm Beach
Retired Lake Okeechobee fishing guide
FS Reader since 1969
Stacey Johnson May 2017
Stacey Johnson makes her home in Port St. Lucie, FL, but readily admits she is more “at home” anytime she slips below the waves with a speargun in hand.
Stacey popped up on the Florida spearfishing community radar in July 2014. As a newcomer to the sport, she shot a 13.5-pound gag grouper out of Spring Hill, FL.
The International Underwater Spearfishing Association recognizes Stacey’s gag as the world record for the Women’s Speargun category. Most fishermen, whether line or spear, spend a considerable amount of time at their passion before they ever get close to a world record. Stacey had been spearfishing for only five months when she achieved this feat.
Stacey was born in California, but her family moved to Florida when she was a baby. She developed a love for the sea early in life, but this didn’t translate into spearfishing until 2014.
“My first attempt was less than epic, I could barely get to 10 feet and after many attempts I managed to finally shoot a rather average mangrove snapper,” she said, “but I didn’t give up and was back in the water the next day.”
Her determination paid off and in two months she was getting in 50-second dives to the 40- to 50-foot range. Her deepest dive is to 71 feet for a touch and go, but she has no problem finding quality fish at depths where she is most comfortable.
Early on, Stacey developed pinpoint accuracy underwater. Her fiancé, Justin Baker, an accomplished spearfisher himself, related how when they first started spearing together, she dove to get a shot on a snapper which had put at least 15 feet of distance between itself and Stacey.
“I’m watching this and thinking to myself, there’s no way she’ll ever get a shaft in that size fish from that distance,” Justin recalled. “No sooner had I finished my thought than she lined up her gun and stoned that fish from about 18 feet.”
Stacey shoots a 48-inch mid-handle Sub Sea speargun. She says she can’t explain her skill with the gun; she claims to have never shot any type of gun before getting into the sport and had no experience with aiming. As she explains it, “Without sounding too philosophical, I try to think like the fish, observe what it is doing and anticipate its moves and then just go completely calm as I line up the shot. I don’t even feel my trigger squeeze until I feel the weight of the shaft leaving the gun.”
Stacey spears a lot around her home waters in St. Lucie County and on the west coast of Florida, but she’s quick to offer up that the Florida Keys are her spearing destination of choice. She and Justin try and get down several times a year, often heading to the patch reefs south of Long Key, where she got started in the sport.
Bonnie Powell April 2017
When there’s a hot sailfish bite, Bonnie Powell is often the first to bring the news.
Powell is the voice behind the committee VHF for a number of prestigious billfish tournaments—including the Palm Beach Gold Cup, which saw an epic bite in January 2017. She’s a leader in the International Women’s Fishing Association; runs a unique global event, the International Light Tackle Tournament Association; and there’s more on her agenda.
Powell’s service was brought to the attention of Florida Sportsman by The Billfish Foundation, which awarded her—along with two other angling luminaries—a 2016 John Rybovich Lifetime Achievement Award. We caught up with Powell en route to the Reef Cup in Key Largo, for insights into a fishing life.
As Bonnie tells it, when she married Tampa Bay-area angler Billy Powell, the minister told her, “You better learn to fish and like it!” A few months later, Bonnie caught a 116-pound tarpon out of a 13-foot Whaler, taking third in the 1962 Tampa Tarpon Tournament. “I got hooked,” she said.
Soon, she and Billy were making forays with a 23-foot SeaCraft in tow. “Billy’s vocation was plumbing, but his avocation was fishing,” she said. “We started going to Stuart and we got interested in the sailfish.”
One year, Bonnie was invited to help with the Stuart Sailfish Club Light Tackle Tournament. That forged a bond that has remained intact.
Bonnie expresses sporting sentiments which harken back to a time when events could be judged on the honor system.
“I’m not an advocate of tournaments where money is involved,” she said. “When they pay big bucks, that takes the sportfishing out of it—it becomes a business. Concentrating on video proof takes away from the experience, and this bit of having lie detector tests—that’s big money tournaments that brought that about.”
Bonnie favors all-release events which specify proper handling of billfish.
“Either cut the leader as close to the hook as you can, or remove the hook if you can—don’t jerk the leader,” she said. “Tournaments with rules like this are doing a good job of taking care of the resource.”
As Executive Secretary of the International Light Tackle Tournament Association (ILTTA), she coordinates an annual event which moves from nation to nation. Representation is global—Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Mexico, South Africa and others—and reflects traditions rooted in 1946.
“The friendships formed here can’t be beat—people look forward to ILTTA, they like the international flavor,” Bonnie said.
Bonnie expressed openness to livebait fishing, now standard fare in many Florida events, but her own orientation leans toward traditional dead-bait trolling.
“I had an experience in Cancun. I got to pull a white marlin off a teaser, bait and hook it. I’ll never forget that moment, looking up, saying to the crew, ‘Is that what this is?’ ‘Oh yes!’ was the answer. White marlin are so hard to catch. You’re trying to mimic what’s natural, and if you can entice and hook the fish, that’s the thrill.”
Jeff Weakley, Editor
David Garrett February 2017
Ordinarily, laws designed to protect fish populations entail limits on catches. But in the case of the marauding Indo-Pacific lionfish, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) encourages and incentivizes the species’ complete removal from our waters. One initiative is the 4 ½-month Lionfish Challenge, which takes place in spring and early summer. The Challenge awards gear and prizes to divers who document the take of 50 or more lionfish. The diver tallying the most kills is honored by the FWC with the title of Lionfish King.
Last year’s Lionfish King was David Garrett of Volusia County. Garrett notched an impressive 3,324 lionfish during the 2016 Lionfish Challenge. Florida Sportsman spoke with Garrett after he received the award. Here are condensed notes from the interview:
“Every one of those fish I took with a pole spear. All were in the Volusia/Flagler county area. Most were on artificial reefs, but a large number on natural reefs, too, anywhere from 60 to 120 feet. I’m not out there every day, but I do get out more than some people. I do some commercial fishing and scuba instruction in the Daytona area.
“When we began to see lionfish here several years ago, at first they were more of a nuisance. We’d push them away to catch lobster under the reefs. Then when I started commercial fishing, I’d be hunting flounder, searching on the bottom, and I’d come across a patch of reef with 20 to 30 lionfish, just floating a foot above the bottom. When I harvested a few, I’d see how stuffed their bellies were with little fry fish. I knew they had to be putting a dent in the snapper and grouper populations. I figured, hopefully I’ll kill as many as I can to reduce their number.
“Over the last couple of years, we saw market demand increase for the lionfish. From about $3 to $4 a pound, on up to $5 or $6—they’ll outsell grouper. I think part of that was due to the FWC awareness campaigns, trying to get people to ask for lionfish in restaurants. The taste is excellent—comparable to hogfish or seabass, nice white, flaky meat. They’ve got venomous spines, but once you kill the fish, that neutralizes the venom. Remember they can still poke you though!
“With the pressure, we’re now starting to see diminishing numbers of the bigger lionfish. Little half-pounders, we’re able to get maybe $3 a pound—but we might as well shoot as many as we can, to get them off our reefs. One day maybe all we’ll see are 3-inchers.
“The more of these we shoot, the better our reefs will be. With gag grouper spawning here in January, for instance, the fry should have a better chance to grow without lionfish.”
For information on everything lionfish—including upcoming derbies, tips for handling and Lionfish Challenge news—visit myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/lionfish.
Van Henry Novemeber 2016
With Florida hunting seasons in full swing come November, it’s likely there’s at least one of Van Henry’s students out in the woods or the marsh as you read this.
Henry is one of the volunteer hunter safety instructors working through the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). At a Boy Scout Camp facility in Charlotte County, Henry supervises weekend clinics as well as one-day field sessions following online safety courses. He’s been doing that for 13 years. He’s also been a National Rifle Association firearms coach for over 25 years, serves as shooting sports director for the Boy Scouts of Southwest Florida, and recently began working with a local 4H club to develop an advanced youth hunting education program.
All this, of course, is in Van Henry’s spare time, when he’s not working his day job in telecommunications.
Such commitment hasn’t gone unnoticed by the state of Florida. At a September, 2016, FWC meeting, Henry was named Hunter Safety Instructor of the Year for 2015.
Florida Sportsman spoke with Van Henry by telephone to get some insights into what it takes to develop safe, smart hunters.
“We teach laws, ethics, wildlife identification, and safe gun handling,” said Henry. “And we give students a lot of situations—should you take the shot or not? One thing we do is take students on a field walk, where we have 20 or 30 animals posed in wilderness settings. We’ll ask them, ‘Would this be a good time to take a shot or not?’ and we’ll discuss their answers as a group.”
Henry is optimistic about trends in youth participation.
“I’m seeing more and more kids getting interested in hunting,” he said. “In my classes we see some kids who are first-time hunters. And then we have some third, fourth generation hunters coming through, along with moms and dads. We’re also teaching some kids to be assistant instructors—say, two of them went on a youth hunt, and got their first gator or first hog. They come back and tell about the hunt.
“As kids get older, they want to grasp more of what’s out there—they become more and more interested in studying and tracking an animal, for instance.”
On a personal level, Van Henry said he’s looking forward to hunting one day with his new grandson, born this year.
“I started hunting when I was 12 years old, with my grandfather in Indiana. He taught me to hunt rabbit, squirrels, and as I got older we got into pheasant hunting. He taught me a lot about patience, how to study animals, their habits, the foods they eat, how to track them. And he really taught me that, unless you can make a good, clean shot, don’t take it. That’s carried on with me my whole life.”
Henry is also eager to bring some Florida hunters this year into the Youth Hunter Education Challenge. The YHEC is an internationally recognized program that honors teams of youths ages 12 to 18 for performance in simulated hunting situations, live fire exercises, and educational and responsibility events.
“And,” Henry added, “we are always looking for new volunteers.”
Note: See myfwc.com/hunting to learn about Hunter Safety courses near you, as well as special Youth Hunt Opportunities.
—Jeff Weakley, Editor
John Cox October 2016
John Cox, of DeBary, started his fishing career with an aluminum row boat. He was 13 at the time. Seventeen years later, he’s still fishing out of a “tin boat” —and this past August, he ran one to the very top of competitive fishing: The Forrest L. Wood (FLW) Cup.
Cox became a full-time pro in 2011. He traces his competitive roots to john boat tournaments he fished as a teen. He had caught plenty of childhood bluegill with his dad, but it was his mom’s prompting that seeded a career opportunity.
“One time, we were in a tackle store and my mom told me, ‘You should fish this john boat tournament. ’ It was advertised in the store,” Cox recalls. “I didn’t even have a boat at the time, so she bought me a 12-foot aluminum boat. That’s where the bass tournament stuff started.”
For much of his youth, Cox fished a tournament just about every weekend. As a young adult, he paid the bills through a mix of freshwater guiding, residential painting and road construction work. He always had a vision for where he wanted to be.
“A friend used to take me fishing and I remember telling him when I was like 15, ‘I just want to be a professional fisherman,’” Cox said. “He told me: ‘Well, good luck!’ I have to say it’s just crazy what’s happening now.”
Although Cox has fished from a fiberglass boat, he’s largely stayed with aluminum for its durability and shallow water access. The plan has served him well with two tour-level victories (Louisiana’s Red River in 2011 and South Carolina’s Lake Hartwell, March 2016) and four Cup qualifications—including his rookie tour season.
Cox credits a self-guided approach to tournaments as the cornerstone of his success. He builds his own rods, customizing models for specific tournament needs. He’s also become increasingly intent on ignoring conventional lake patterns and fishing the way he wants to fish.
“I’ve always done good enough to get by and win decent money every year, but I was never consistent,” Cox said of his early pro seasons. “Now, I approach every lake like I’m going to fish it the way I want to fish it, no matter what anyone else thinks.”
Reflecting on his career, Cox is pleased with most of it, but given a do-over, he’d make one significant change:
“I’d tell young people to get your education done,” said Cox. “I didn’t go to college, but a lot of the companies I’ve approached about sponsorship actually wanted someone with a college degree. I always caught fish well enough to do okay, but I think I could have gotten things going a lot quicker if I had gone to college.”
All’s well that ends well and for John Cox and his aluminum boat, things are very well.
-David Brown, Editor
Misty Wells August 2016
It started when I was filming a fishing show with Capt. Tommy LaRonge and a boy, Andrew, from the Florida Sheriff’s Youth Ranch in Clearwater. Andrew was one of those kids in group foster care. These kids are usually under protective custody; they may have been taken from their parents because of bad things going on.
One thing led to another, and Tommy shared his own story with Andrew. Tommy was dropped off at age 6, and never saw his family again. He grew up similar to how these kids grow up. At age 10, someone took him fishing, and that changed the direction of his life. He got so into fishing, he now fishes around the world, and runs big boats—right now a 61 Viking for a private owner.
After we fished with Andrew, I said, “You know, Tommy, we have to start taking more of these kids fishing.”
We’re now in our fourth year doing this. My brother is the captain on the Double Eagle headboat out of Clearwater and we do a lot of trips with them. It’s an 80-foot boat with a bathroom and sundeck. This summer, we’re running one to three trips a week, taking groups of anywhere from 10 to 20 kids at a time, all ages from 6 to 18. I’m also looking to partner with headboats on the east coast.
Finding kids is easy. I’m connected with the Florida Sheriff’s Youth Ranches, which has five different facilities. I also get calls and referrals from other agencies and children’s homes. All they have to do is get the kids to the location. For every four or five kids, one counselor comes. I bring snacks and drinks, but I usually ask them to pack a lunch.
When I’m on the boat with these kids, they usually have me running around, taking off fish, baiting hooks. But when the time is appropriate, I ease them into baiting their own hooks. They get used to it, and then they’re on their own—totally doing it themselves. They learn conservation: Look, this grouper is short, let’s take a quick picture and put it back. They are learning responsible behavior in fishing, and everything that goes along with it.
Recently we had our first high school graduate: Daniel the “grouper slayer.” When I first met Daniel, I wasn’t sure if he’d graduate. Now, he graduated with a 4.0 GPA, and through the Florida Sheriff’s Youth Ranches program, he has a full ride scholarship to college.
But it can also be heartbreaking at times, knowing we might not see these kids again. Some will end up going back with their parents. But we also had one boy who later ran away. That’s the hard part, losing a kid.
My son and daughter go on many of these trips, and they’ve gotten to know a lot of the kids. My son is 17, and he’s mating on the Double Eagle and looking into joining the Marines. My daughter just turned 15; she’s a gifted musician.
We have applied for 501C3 status for A Reel Future. Last year, Tommy and I did a fundraiser with Bill Dance, Jimmy Houston and Roland Martin. We have lots of volunteers in the community, and friends and family. We’ve also partnered with Mike Alstott, from the Bucs.
The biggest challenge for me, really, is that I wish I had even more time to do it. There are hundreds of thousands of kids growing up in a parentless generation—no father or uncle to take them fishing. I feel it makes such a difference to spend time with these kids, letting them do something they’ve never done before.
Co-founder of A Reel Future, with Capt. Tommy LaRonge
Clearwater, “born and raised”
Jim Amaral July 2016
Jim Amaral (with snook) shares perspective on restoring the St. Lucie River. See riverscoalition.org to learn more.
I just received the April issue of Florida Sportsman and read the story “10 Things You Didn’t Know About Snook.” I also read the “I’m a Florida Sportsman” column and thought I’d write a few lines about the North Fork of the St. Lucie River.
I started fishing the North Fork after moving from Lake Worth to Port St. Lucie in 1979. I’m from New England originally, where we fished for stripers and flat fish. A friend of mine who was from West Palm Beach got me hooked on snook. When I began fishing the North Fork, I couldn’t believe the big snook that were coming from the bridge on Port St. Lucie Boulevard in the early morning hours, and thought my God there were some big snook near the boat ramp at Rivergate. I started by trolling Rat L Traps and Bomber lures. My buddy from West Palm came up and got me live baiting with mullet and then I was really hooked! Then I met Capt. Greg Gentile, who had a skiff named River Roamer. I remember him trying all kind of lures from Mark Nichols of DOA before they hit the shelves. In those days I would head out every chance I could get.
Back then the river was unreal, not like today with all the runoff from Lake Okeechobee. The biggest snook that came from the North Fork was 53 inches; we didn’t have a scale, but we did the calculations and it might have been a record, 51 pounds approximately. I didn’t want to hurt her by keeping her out of the water long. I had New Wave Taxidermy do me a mount that still hangs my wall. I went from a high to a low when my dad passed the day after I caught that monster. Every time I look at that fish it brings backs the memory of Dad being proud of that fish. I was 36 at the time; now I’m in my late 50s. I still go out every weekend or nights when I’m not working long hours.
We are still catching snook over 38 inches in the river, and I still have the same boat, a 23 Seacraft that my buddy calls a “canal yacht.”
In the last few years, the St. Lucie River has turned ugly. And now that I have two grandsons who fish with me, I’m hoping something will change. We really need to do something about the water quality or no one’s grandkids will be catching anything but diseased fish. Let’s wake up before it’s too late.
I really enjoy reading the magazine going on 36 years. Keep up the good work and the neat articles, especially stories about the St. Lucie River.
Installation Supervisor, Glasgow Equipment
Port St. Lucie
FS Reader since 1980
Willy Putnam May 2016
Meet Willy the indefatigable Spaniel, owned (for the time being, anyway) by writer David Putnam.
I’m a Boykin Spaniel. I am a Florida Sportsdog, bred to hunt ducks out of small, tippy boats. I do not have any testicles, but my eyes are golden and my hair’s curly and a joy to touch. I got sick as soon as Dad got me home, which my vet said was due to bad breeding. Now he feeds me special food and gives me eye drops twice a day because I have diabetes. One of my nuts was what they call “undescended,” so they had to cut me open to find it. I cost a lot of money, but I won’t fetch. Ducks? No, thanks. I like to chase a squirrel up a tree, and Dad says maybe that’s my calling. I do like to eat doves with their feathers on if my dad finds one. Dove hunting makes my dad cuss a lot. It makes sand spurs get stuck in my curly coat and between my toes, and then I whine. Dad sprays my coat with Pam and uses a comb to get ‘em out. I prefer the dog park in St. Pete, except for the poop on all the tennis balls. (Some owners don’t “pick up.”)
I love my dad and I look like a million dollars on the bow of our skiff, my ears flapping in the wind. We just got back from tent camping near Lake Woodruff. While I was resting in the truck I ate a thing called a “zipper” off a Simms raincoat. Dad whacked me with it and cussed. I ran off and wouldn’t come back when we got to the fish camp. I discovered a dead possum in the palmettos and rolled around in it some, then found Dad in our tent, where he was laying out his sleeping bag. I ran off again and went for a swim at the marina.
It was raining when I came back and we got in our open skiff. Dad used the belt from his pants to hold his jacket closed. I like the rain. Dad caught a few “specs.” I ate almost all of one, and some things out of a jar called “Gulps,” then I jumped overboard, onto land, but it was hyacinths in the water, a thick matt of ‘em, and I could barely swim.
Finally I got pulled back in the boat. A train went right by our tent at night, so I barked a lot. Finally the sun came up and Dad straightened out the cooler I’d tipped over. I sneaked and ate four pickled eggs and some boiled peanuts in their shells. On the way home Dad rolled the windows down and cussed and shook his head. It may have been my last Florida Sportsdog camping trip.
Florida Sportsman reader since 2015