PORT OF THE ISLANDS — Everything will bounce back. There were a few more downed branches and barren, wind-swept tree tops but, on the whole, the estuary was safe.
I was worried. From the time we passed the Peace River in South Florida on our trip down Interstate 75, the signs of Hurricane Irma’s destruction were every where. Literally, traffic signs and billboards were torn off their foundations and strewn along the roadside. I watched with a heavy heart as Irma made a direct hit on Southwest Florida, the place I had just called home for the past six years, with Category 3 force winds. I was riveted by the photos and footage before, during and after the storm. I was saddened as the posts rolled out from friends and former colleagues over social media documenting their uprooted trees and crumpled pool cages.
As the weeks went by, and it became clear that everyone weathered the storm and its aftermath alright, my thoughts drifted to my other concern; How did my favorite fishing holes fare? If it wasn’t good, how long would it take before that bounces back too?
I wanted to see for myself. So we set up a day with an old friend and fellow shark lover, Capt. John Brossard of Shark Chaser Charters of Naples, and made the trip back down to my old beats of Southwest Florida. I brought along my dad, John, who was on a boat fishing for the first time since major heart surgery, and my brother, Andrew, who was in need of a win himself. Resetting a personal best for a big shark could be that sort of win. I’ve been going through a resurgence of spirit as of late as well and I had a milestone in mind for my homecoming-of-sorts. Thoughts of renewal swam around it like schooling fish.
Of all the places affected by Irma, the greater Everglades watershed — including all the bays and estuaries of the 10,000 Islands – is perhaps the most vital when it comes to making a quick bounce back. Not just because of the small-town economies like Everglades City and Goodland— built largely on the fishing and tourism industry — were hit particularly hard but because the ecosystem surrounding these fishing communities is vital to sustaining a vibrant fishery on so many levels, including with the apex predators, sharks.
The backwater estuaries and mangrove coastlines serve as a spawning ground for large sharks where they can grow quickly after being born thanks to an abundance of food and a place to avoid predation from the even bigger sharks that like to hang out just off shore. Of course the big sharks like tigers, hammerheads and bulls are out there as well, having made their early fall return from their annual trek south around the bottom of the Florida peninsula as they chase the migrating schools of tarpon and rays. The annual return is coming a little late this year, at least anecdotally, because of the lively hurricane season in the Gulf of Mexico which forced the sharks to seek refuge further away from shore.
A stationary front had kicked up the wind enough to warrant a small craft advisory and make a our usual run a few miles offshore a spine-jarring preposition so Capt. Brossard made the call to stay within the confines of Fakahatchee Bay. As proven by the lack of total destruction at the marina, the thousands of mangrove islands provide an effective natural buffer from even the strongest winds.
We started the morning by settling in just outside of the main channel in a mangrove bottleneck. The water was moving swiftly which helped make the murky, brown water just a little bit clearer and carry our chum line out toward wider water. We baited up with some bloody jack crevasse and cast our lines out before daybreak.
A medium weight casting rod with a Penn Fierce 8000 class spinning reel, spooled with 40-pound braid with a three foot wire leader to avoid cutoffs by the sharp-toothed creatures was the gear of choice for the day. The light tackle makes the fight exhilarating yet still strong enough to land the fish without completely exhausting it, ensuring it can be safely tagged and released.
“The reel is a little big but sometimes you get into big fish that can spool you in the backwaters,” Brossard said. “Better to have backup line.”
It wasn’t long before the beautiful screaming of drag broke the otherwise silent morning. We let Pops take a shot at it.
Our first fish of the day wasn’t anything special in terms of its size or species but it marked a first in my fishing career. It was a juvenile female bull shark that measured in at 44 inches. I’ve caught plenty just like her before. But this one had jewelry. Attached to the base of its dorsal fin was a little yellow tag.
I’ve been helping tag sharks for over a decade through the National Marine Fisheries Service Cooperative Shark Tagging Program, many of which were done with Capt. Brossard. Despite being responsible for dozens and dozens of tags being implanted in a variety of sharks, I had never been on the boat when we recaptured one with a tag.
Since its inception, the CPSTP has tagged nearly 300,000 shark specimens. Less than 6 percent are recaptured. Those that are, however, provide crucial scientific data about migration patterns, growth rates and habitat information. I finally got to help some of that research come full circle.
We filled a cooler with enough keeper speckled trout for dinner but there was no more shark action so we pulled anchor and moved out further into the Gulf. We anchored up on a sandbar adjacent to a swift outgoing current. The giant schools of mullet suggested a change in bait selection, so the captain brought out the cast net. Armed with live mullet and a fresh block of chum, we cast out again.
The tide changed and the sandbar disappeared. The winds started coming in a little faster. We started toying with the thought of calling it a day. We weren’t expecting the aerial display when it came. A bull shark made a full breach while taking a bait deployed off the rear of the boat. It was another first on the water for me. I’ve seen blacktop and spinners breach completely here and mako and great whites do it on television but I never saw that behavior out of a bull shark, anywhere.
It was my brother’s turn to take the reel. There were no more aerial dances but it made two more spool spinning runs before he was able to get the shark turned around. He gets it to the side of the boat. The captain held it steady as I inserted the spaghetti tag at the base of its dorsal. A quick measure and a glimpse at its underbelly told us it was a 56-inch female.
“That’s a personal best,” Andrew said.
There is a decent chance that this particular shark grew up in these backwaters. It was of about the right size that this season may have been its first foray out into the Gulf and was making its return trip on what will become an annual migration while chasing food. Hopefully, some day someone will recapture our fish, which my brother dubbed “Andrea,” and we can get a better idea of where she goes after she leaves the backwaters. After a near hook-up with a monster tarpon, we decide to call it a day. I was just happy to see that the tarpon had returned. The sharks followed. The snow birds couldn’t be to far behind.
As we headed back to port, another guide was leaving with a charter for the evening. A forklift was carrying supplies to repair a dock across the canal. An older man looked up from his task of mending his porch screens to give a smile and a wave.
I didn’t get my monster shark I was hoping for in my return to Southwest Florida. It would have been my 25th eight-plus footer. I did get to see, with my own eyes, that the place I called home for large part of my life was going to be okay. The people, the places and the habitats would return, albeit with a few new scars and bruises.
It was all going to be okay. Everything bounces back eventually.J. Scott Butherus is a guest contributor. You can find more of his writings and adventures at Sharkophile.comLook for the video of Backwater Bullsharking coming soon.