SaltyShores Close-Up: St. Augustine, Florida
Jan S. Maizler
My surface plug followed the mandates of a good backcast with some forward finessed line feathering and landed right beside a long stretch of marsh grass. I worked the plug back to me in classic “walk the dog” style: its’ side-to-side seductive dance was easy to begin and maintain since I was equipped with a stiff graphite spinning rod and eight-pound power transmitting braided line.
The metronomic beat of the plug was audible and hypnotic over the flat-calm waters of the oyster bar flats: swish-swish…swish- swish… swish-swish…swish…BAM ! My plug disappeared in a large surface “take”, yet I waited for a second to strike to the weight of the fish-not the explosion. After a quick turn of my handle, my rod heeled over and I struck my fish smartly in the “high stickin’” style to clear my line from the razor-sharp oyster shells mere inches below the surface. The hooked fish created a huge bulge as it ran, shaking the marsh grass stalks like a highway running eight-wheelers’ draft shakes some roadside trees. And all this to the accompaniment of my drag, which sang the Low Country Blues. Captain Tommy Derringer laughed from the stern of his skiff and said, “that’s a heck of a red!”
The battle was rough- not pretty; more like brawling in a phone booth instead of boxing. The red pushed its’ head towards the sharp shells jutting upward from the bottom and shook its’ head from side to side with the same violence that the four-legged bulls do to matadors that they’ve gored and pinned. But lots of upward rod pressure plus some strategic hat dancing on my part all around Tommy’s 18.9 Egret finally gave me victory.
Netting the conquered red was easy. As we hoisted up the fish for photos, we both quickly saw the telltale “ocean-bright” silvery coloring of an “outside” redfish. We got a quick weight of the fish-just under six pounds- and eased the fish back in the shallow waters for breathing and a confident, safe release.
As the watery wake of the departing redfish calmed, everything around us slipped back into silence with not another skiff for miles. Our only companions were grass, water, and shells- and I loved it!
Putting St. Augustine Waters in Perspective-
This was so very different than the more forgiving turtle grass and sand flats of my home waters of Miami. But the real story began almost a year before with the actual planning of the trip. It was clear to me that my first forays for shallow water game fish amongst St. Augustine’s Jurassic-like oyster bars would have to be done with a local fishing guide who was expert in navigating these flats. This follows my unwavering standard boating and angling travel maxim of using a local charter captain to help me learn not just safe passage on the flats, but also to master the proper skiff and fishing tackle setups that would guarantee optimal results.
My customary research- as well as inquiries of local anglers and writers- pointed to Captain Tommy Derringer. Tommy is a life-long St. Augustine resident and well-known redfish tournament angler who runs a brisk shallow water and inshore fishing charter business that has thrived for over a dozen years. I was lucky to find two days in late summer that Tommy had open for charter, but before committing to the dates, I had a few questions about the timing of the trip, his boat, as well as St. Augustine- all of which he was more than happy to answer.
Tommy mentioned to me in our talks that barring tropical weather, September was a wonderful time to fish St. Augustine waters. The weather was generally calm and most likely would be highlighted by the mullet migration, as well as large schools and aggregations of whitebait and shrimp. As to available game fish, there should be good numbers of redfish, flounder, mackerel, bluefish and even tarpon.
The vessel he fished from was an Egret 18.9, which many consider to be one of the finest flats boats on the market. The hull configuration allowed Tommy to fish the shallow ocean and inlet waters, as well as float in only inches of water when pursuing “tailing” redfish along some formidable oyster bars. His skiff was powered by a large Evinrude E-Tec outboard, which sped him from spot to spot in short order. The other items on his skiff were a Stiffy pushpole, MinnKota electric trolling motor, Garmin GPS/Sounder, and a Power Pole shallow water electric anchor.
Our discussions about St.Augustine confirmed some of my prior research about this fascinating city. St. Augustine is the oldest city in the United States with more than sixty historic sites and attractions, national monuments, architecturally rich churches and unspoiled natural settings. As to its geographic perspective and position in Florida, St. Augustine is located on Florida’s northeast Atlantic coast, a 45-minute drive north of Daytona Beach, a one-hour and 40-minute drive north of Orlando and a 35-minute drive south of Jacksonville, Florida. This magic region –also called The “Historic Coast” -has forty-two miles of unspoiled beaches for excellent do-it-yourself- surf fishing as well as sandy pleasures for the entire family. It also became clear that St. Augustine was noteworthy for being a unique coastal city that offers a completely unique blend of history, art, fine dining and extensive shopping that compliments one of the finest fisheries in Florida. This delightful array of facts and offerings convinced me on the spot that this was a “must-do” trip and I booked captain Tommy for those two days.
Fortunately, the year passed quickly. My wife and I chose to drive the wee hours from Miami to St. Augustine, which resulted in very little highway traffic. We arrived in less than five hours as this ancient-but-fun city slept. Our destination for lodgings was the excellent Bayfront Inn. It had all the in-room amenities, while being perfectly situated in the Historic District right across from the Bridge of Lions. We went to sleep quickly, knowing that the next two dawns would find Captain Tommy waiting to pick us up right outside our door in the Inn’s spacious parking lot. I was especially grateful to him for this kindness, as his normal procedure was to meet his clients at the boat ramp. We would quickly find out that his courtesy and humor provided a constant background for his excellent competence as a fishing guide- no wonder he was so busy!
On our first day, we were off to fish the creek mouths long before a bold lemon-colored sun would grace a spectacular eastern horizon. Tommy used spinning tackle rigged with sensitive and robust braided line to counteract the abrasion of both grasses and oyster shells. The business end was rigged with twenty-pound fluorocarbon leader and a jig head rigged with a scented plastic swimbait. After Tommy used his “electric” to get us into a deep pool in the middle of a creek, he dropped the Power Pole and told me to cast in any direction and bounce the jig along the bottom. Within moments, we were both hooked up to scrappy redfish. We caught fish for almost two hours- which was the last part of the ebbing tide.
Our next stop was to fish the last part of the outgoing tide and low slack tide phase of St. Augustine Inlet for bull redfish. The method was to fish cut pogies, cut dead crab as well as live finger mullet on the bottom. Though Captain Tommy did in fact set out this beautiful array, the big reds were not on the scene. However, the back of the inlet was full of frantic finger mullet that were being struck from time to time. On Tommy’s advice, I did some casting to the mullet, especially when they were bunched up against the jetty rocks. This resulted in my catching and releasing a big flounder as well as some Spanish mackerel.
On the second day, Tommy ran his skiff south to a vast field of marsh grass and oyster bar flats. Since the tide was high and starting to go out, we cast surface plugs right along the grass edges, which is the usual structured “path” that redfish like to prey along. The redfish complied with some vicious surface strikes. Tommy and I released approximately eight nice redfish that weighed as much as “eight-plus” pounds. Eventually, the ebb tide forced us to leave the shell bar area and we spent the balance of our time casting to rolling tarpon as well as “breaking” bluefish and ladyfish. The day came to an end much too fast- which is a sure sign that I’d be returning to fish with Tommy to enjoy the pleasure of his company in fabulous St. Augustine.
Captain Tommy Derringer
Web Site- www.inshoreadventures.net
Web Site- www.bayfrontinn.com
St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches
Visitors & Convention Bureau
Web Site- http://www.floridashistoriccoast.com