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Slippin' Off Sebastian

Slippin' Off Sebastian
Slippin' Off Sebastian

Gamefish, fishermen and surfers air it out off this Central Florida inlet.

Somehow kingfish ripping line off our reels and a sailfish gone berserk reminded me of our crew-a boatload of watermen, with ages spanning multiple decades. Why? Because looking around the cockpit, I realized that surfers grow up to become fishermen.

And, why shouldn't they? Both sports--fishing and surfing--bear many similar, yet contrasting qualities. Fish go airborne--kingfish skyrocket, sails tailwalk, tarpon jump, marlin greyhound---and surfers go aerial, busting frontside off the tops, backside 360s, inverts and lip launches through wave crests in mighty vaults. Both sports provide plenty of thrills. What's more, enthusiasts of both disciplines stay attached to their passions by a string-fishing line for anglers and leg ropes for wave riders. It's no wonder so many Florida surfers gravitate toward fishing in their continued quests to sate that thirst for oceanic challenge.

Being a longtime fisherman and surfer, I found it hard to conceal my excitement the morning I joined Melbourne resident Capt. Dick Catri (credited as the father of East Coast surfing and topnotch charter skipper to boot) for a day of offshore fishing with a double dose of Central Florida surf star brothers-C.J. and Damien Hobgood plus Cory and Shea Lopez-ranked No. 1, No. 10, No. 3 and No. 15, respectively, on the professional surfing World Championship Tour.

Our targets? Speedy kingfish and acrobatic sails, two all-time Sebastian offshore favorites-perfect adversaries for angling surfers seeking fishy thrills.

Our plan was two-fold. After loading up on bait by gold-hooking a cast of scaled sardines, threadfin herring (greenies) and cigar minnows, Catri set course for kingfish grounds approximately seven miles northeast of Sebastian Inlet. Locating the exact locale of the hot kingfish bite wasn't too difficult. A fleet of commercial kingfish buggers marked it fairly well, spinning their rigs around in tight circles to keep on top of the fish, which covered our bottom machine screen on the first pass.

From top to bottom in the 55-foot depths, kingfish appeared on the machine as a solid blob. I thought we were marking bait until the skipper swung the wheel of the 31-foot sportfisher so that our baits would intercept one of the seething masses below. Moments later, four rods sounded a kingfish alarm in unison and the fifth just bucked under the weight of a hefty, speedy mack before popping upright and going slack (the result, we presumed, of another kingfish chomping the swivel in front of the lure). After clearing the deck and putting out gear for a second pass, another pod appeared on the screen of Catri's Escape II, and once again all rods sang that familiar kingfish song, line melting from the reels at an alarming clip. We pulled 'em in and prepared for a third go-round, trolling spoons rigged behind downplaners and a lure/bait combo consisting of a flyingfish rigged on a patriotic red-white-and-blue Ilander.

We considered switching to live baits for the third pass but didn't dare, deciding it best to stick with the speedy approach because these fish were so fired up. Live baits were unnecessary. As soon as Catri's or any other boat in the fleet crossed a pod of fish, every lure in its spread got hammered.

For about two hours straight, we popped 'em and stopped 'em, caught up in an incredible kingfish bite. Our strategy was simple: Mark the fish, grab the rods. Kings were that thick!

After wrestling and releasing maybe three dozen kings, it became routine and we ran offshore in search of "bigger waves," hopefully of the billfish or tuna persuasion. Twelve miles out, we spotted something worth checking-an anchored shrimpboat. Mate Tommy Smith prepared a combination lure/ballyhoo and lure/flyingfish spread as Catri nosed the boat in closer to the shrimper's transom.

"Watch for cobia up top and silver flashes below," our skipper advised as we edged into casting range. "There could be some blackfin tuna still hanging near the boat. It's common for blackfins and bonito to home in on rock shrimpers in early morning while deckhands cull the night's catch. Even after the goodies are gone, schools often remain in the area waiting for more free meals thrown their way."

Although we didn't spot any tuna or cobes, a V-shape ripple wrinkling the glassy surface perhaps a hundred yards off the shrimpboat's bow caught our eyes. When Catri eased over toward the wake, we saw it was a sailfish finning along in no apparent hurry. I grabbed a live greenie, pinned it on a spinner and tossed it directly in front of the snooter. No interest, or at least not enough to draw a strike. Five or six or times the billfish refused the greenie, but followed it back to the boat.

Quick-thinking Shea came up with another plan-try different bait. As soon as he whipped a sardine in front of the sail, it lit up in blue-and-purple neon hues and charged like it hadn't eaten in a week. After giving it a three-count dropback, Lopez bumped the reel into gear and the fun began. The lethargic-looking sail broke the surface, tailwalked to and fro across our transom and sounded, heading deep. Moments later it came up top again, lashing into a series of hook-throwing acrobatics, one of which did the trick with the leader mere inches from the rodtip. Not a legal Palm Beach release, but loads of fun anyway.

During our trek home that afternoon, Catri offered a few more Sebastian pointers. "Kingfish usually begin schooling off the inlet in late winter or early spring and stay around throughout the summer. Big schools usually break apart by June, with fish holding tight in areas with bait, close to nearshore reefs and along the beach. That's where the smokers hang, right on the beach once water temps warm into the mid 80s.

"Typically, top sailfish grounds are waters about 120 to 140 feet deep. The edge of the Gulf Stream seems to be a favorite area for sails in the southern shadow of Cape Canaveral and that's also where we generally find anchored rock shrimpers, swinging on the hook at daybreak," Escape II's skipper advised.

His observations were right on. The area abounding with kings, approximately seven miles northeast of the inlet, sits immediately inside a series of ledges and reefs stringing the 60-foot depths. Check Florida Sportsman Fishing Chart C05SEB for Sebastian Inlet and you'll see the area we fished, stretching roughly from The Pines (wpt. 39) to the north end of Thomas Shoal (wpt. 42). We found our sail in 140 feet, nosing into the current and working a slight, 1/2-degree temperature break within spitting distance of an anchored shrimpboat. Catri and Smith thought this fish may have enjoyed free handouts courtesy of the shrimper and remained in the area.

Being prepared for whatever opportunities that might pop up play immensely into any successful Sebastian game plan. The school kings chomped anything we put out, with Drone spoons and rigged flyingfish getting the most hits. Rigged behind a No. 3 planer on 25 feet of mono ending with a short wire trace, both baits proved irresistible to the fish pass after pass.

Live bait spelled the difference between just sighting and hooking the sail. If possible, stock your livewell with several species of bait, just in case you encounter a finicky eater. I never would have believed that switching to a scaled sardine, after watching that fish snub a greenie repeatedly, would catapult the sail's appetite into hyperdrive and draw an immediate strike unless I'd witnessed it with my own eyes.

That evening we came to a conclusion: Surfers growing up to be fishermen is a natural progression for Florida's coastal kids, especially around Sebastian Inlet where many youngsters get their first taste of salty thrills at the end of a fishing pole before picking up a surfboard. Here, folks consider the fishing/surfing connection a Florida birthright, one that's generations old.

Approaching the Inlet

Navigating Sebastian Inlet is tricky. It definitely qualifies as one where familiarity breeds confidence. Within its narrow confines, untold volumes of water flow, enough to feed and empty a major portion of Indian River Lagoon on incoming and outgoing tides. It's the main drain, so to speak, for miles of inland waters. Currents that stand in washboard waves resembling mountain rapids often form at the mouth, especially when outgoing tides abut an easterly swell in the channel's 12- to 15-foot depths.

A trick I've found for reacquainting myself with Sebastian Inlet following a prolonged absence is getting an overview from the bridge and up close from the south jetty-before charging the inlet. From atop the A1A span, you'll get a bird's-eye view of how swell and tide are affecting the inlet and ocean conditions beyond the narrow pass. Walking out on the south jetty affords a closeup view of the particulars on any given day such as the location of currents, standing-men waves and eddies-appropriate knowledge to have at your disposal before running this inlet.

A tip, from old Sebastian salt Clarence Teagreene years ago, that I've found invaluable for navigating Sebastian's treacherous waters still holds true. "Once you commit to running in or out of this inlet-stay with it. Don't try to turn around midstream, that only leads to trouble." He also suggested following a local charterboat out the first time, something I still do given the chance.



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