Christmas Eve 2018. It was the first time I’d cried over a fish (in a long time, anyway). Not a pitiful sobbing, but just a few glistening tears. The same way you’d cry quietly when you got picked last as a kid.
Mike and I were fishing the bridges on Charlotte Harbor, a popular place to target big black drum lurking on the bottom. They’d been on my wish list ever since that episode of Flats Class where Capt. C.A. Richardson and Capt. Al Keller get worked in the Louisiana bayou by monster black drum, more akin to livestock than fish.
We anchored upcurrent and soaked a few lines with cut crab. The extent of my bridge fishing experience includes very little patience before we reel in and head to the next spot. I’m more of an active pursuit type of angler who gets antsy with static fishing like soaking and trolling. So, naturally, I grabbed the only unoccupied rod on the boat and went to work.
It was a medium Falcon Coastal XG rod with a 3000 Florida Fishing Products reel, pre-rigged with one of those fancy 4.5-inch Live Target sardine swimbaits. I’d never tried Live Targets, but I didn’t expect much. I’m more of a “stick to what you know” kinda guy.
I cast the lure square on the left corner of the piling, dropping it flush against the concrete, then feathered out a few yards of line so the current would carry it beneath the structure. After a few steady-paced retrieves, I switched to a slower twitch-and-stop, still slinging every cast in the same methodic process.
My mind had wandered from fishing by the third attempt when I was suddenly snapped back to reality by a slight movement at the end of the line. I did that thing where I went to set the hook, but a solid halt indicates you’ve actually hooked bottom. Mike looked back, and I tried to play it off casually, “Just hooked bottom… I swear, it felt like something moved, though.”
I jerked the rod back a few more times. Then, there was movement again: a slow wiggle. For sure this time. I jerked back harder. “Holy s***, it is a fish!” I shouted to Mike.
I could hardly budge the thing so I knew it must be big. The drag screamed as line ripped out. I let him run at first, then started pumping firmly to ease him away from the pilings and into open water. Slow, heavy runs, not a lot of shakes... when it felt like he was almost to the surface, he dug down and hauled ass again.
My heart was racing. I’d been here before; adrenaline pumping, hands sweating, trying to sidestep my own eagerness to land the fish and allow instinct to run the show.
Minutes passed. Fifteen? Thirty? Finally, I had worked him within inches of the surface. A massive silvery blob refused to fully reveal itself, still weighing down the line like a stack of bricks. “It’s huge!” I yelled in disbelief, considering… I hadn’t expected a single bite. '
Before I had the satisfaction of seeing his face, he lurched down once more, this time taking a straight shot toward the piling.
Slow-braking, easy pressure, inset panic. There it is. The panic. That’s when it all starts to crumble. All the progress begins to melt away, as you scramble to do anything you can to take control again. But sometimes… you just brought a knife to a gun fight.
And just like that, the line went slack.
My insides twisted. I threw my hands in the air like a child throwing a tantrum, shouting explicits that are only fitting during heated exchanges and sporting events. I’m not sure at what point in your angling career one should be able to handle moments like this gracefully, but apparently, I’m still far from it.
I felt as if I’d just lost the war of my life.
I stormed to the bow, grabbed a beer from the cooler, and stared out toward the pilings. When your wound is open is when those salty feelings seep in. “Was it fate? Was it something I did wrong? Was it a jewfish? Or was it really a black drum? It had to be a drum. Did I put too much pressure? I’m a terrible angler. Someone better would have landed that. I’m done.”
That’s when those little crocodile tears rolled down. Mike was silent. “What could I have done differently?” I asked him, “I need a lesson from this or it was all for nothing.”
We talked through tactics and pressure and ultimately using the right tool for the job. To be honest, I never dreamed I’d hook up to a monster when I cast that plastic chunk into the depths.
As anglers, how is it that something like a fish can stir so much emotion within?
I will never know for sure what happened that day or what that fish looked like. He took a piece of my soul with him when made a break for it. He instilled a new faith in me, a reminder not to get complacent. To be prepared always. To approach every cast as if a monster awaits. And never to take a good fight for granted.
Here’s to the Big Ugly ones: may every encounter make us better anglers for it.