By Rick Itami
Like many other sport anglers in the Inland Northwest, I am deeply saddened about the drastically diminished runs of salmon and steelhead in our favorite rivers and streams.
For me, 2018 was the worst year in terms of fish landed since I retired in 2003. Fishing was so bad that I cut the number of days on the water by over 50 percent.
Looking forward, the future is not bright. With a new “blob” of warm water developing in the Pacific and the current El Nino, we might be looking at several more years of low run counts.
There are just too many negative factors facing our beloved salmonids these days, including pinniped predation, terns and mergansers feasting on outmigrating smolts, continued loss of habitat to human development and other causes.
Then you have our politicians trying to do the right thing, but only succeeding in getting a few days of good press with little real benefit to salmon and steelhead.
And lately, to hear that the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission has voted to allow nontribal gillnetting back into the Lower Columbia in the face of low run predictions for 2019, I am getting a sick feeling in my stomach.
I turned 73 years old in April 5 and my window of opportunity for my favorite pastime is narrowing faster with each passing year. And then it hit me: will I die before salmon and steelhead numbers recover to what they were just five to 10 years ago?
The truth is the answer to that question could easily be “yes.”
I STARTED FISHING WITH MY OLDER BROTHER WHEN I was 5 years old. We had a creek fed by natural artesian wells that ran through the middle of our little farm just west of Nampa, Idaho, and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game planted rainbow trout in it every year. We spent many happy hours catching 6-8 inch trout in our creek and cooling off in our swimming hole in the heat of summer.
Since then, I have graduated to fishing all over the Northwest, mostly for salmon and steelhead. And in retirement, I was blessed to be able to figure things out to the point that I would catch 50 to 150 steelhead a year and a few dozen Chinook salmon. But that’s all in the past now.
Rather than sitting in my easy chair feeling sorry for myself and other salmon and steelhead fishermen in the Inland Northwest, I have decided to give fishing a rest in my favorite local salmon and steelhead venues and pursue different fish species elsewhere.
Over the years, I have developed a bucket list of fish species that I would like to catch that would require me to travel well outside of the Northwest.
I read some books and watched fishing shows about fishing the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. This got me excited about trying to catch some of the many species available on the Gulf Coast, including redfish, speckled sea trout, tarpon, bonefish, permit, pompano and other species.
During the past two years I have fished almost the whole semi-circle of the Gulf Coast, including the Lower Laguna Madre and Port Aransas in Texas, Barrataria and Venice in Louisiana, Tampa Bay and the Florida Keys. I’ve booked my wife and I a guide out of Grand Isles, Louisiana for another trip to the bayou this fall.
So far I have landed several species of fish I had never caught before such as redfish, speckled sea trout, snook, black drum, sheepshead, mangrove snapper, jack crevalle, ladyfish, Spanish mackerel and sail catfish.
I caught all of these species inshore fishing various flats with local guides. I have come to love flats fishing. My wife feels safe fishing water that rarely gets over 3 feet deep.
While most of our trips were successful, our one excursion to fish for tarpon on the northern pass of Anna Maria Island near Tampa Bay was a bust. On the mid-May 2018 day we landed in Tampa, a tropical depression had formed over the entire state of Florida. We had to sit out torrential rains most of the week.
The one day we got out to fish, the storm had moved the 10,000 tarpon that were in the pass the previous week somewhere out into the vast Gulf of Mexico. We got skunked.
My wife and I went after bonefish on some flats on the east side of the Florida Keys this past February. Strong winds and passing clouds made it difficult to spot the fish in the 1- 3-foot-deep water.
The guide did his job by poling his skiff within range of seven or eight groups of bonefish. Unfortunately, his clients were too slow and inaccurate with the casts in the windy conditions to get the baits within biting range.
But it was a thrill to see bonefish for the first time — some approaching 9 pounds! I didn’t even know they got that big and I will definitely give fishing for them another try.
So far my favorite Gulf fish to catch is the big bull redfish because they get as big and fight as hard as our beloved Chinook salmon of the Northwest.
IF YOU GET THE URGE TO FISH THE GULF COAST like me, I should let you know some of the things I learned.
First of all, no matter where I went to fish it off Texas, Louisiana or Florida I found that the vastness of the flats makes it almost impossible for DIY trips. In most areas, you can find places to rent boats or kayaks, but I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re unfamiliar with the area.
The exception to that would be Port Aransas, where some friends from Colorado and I caught some nice speckled sea trout while DIY kayaking.
The guides know the areas well and have their local contacts to let them know where the fish are. On most trips, the guides will travel anywhere from 5 to 30 miles from the launch area to get to where the bite is.
Most of the flats around the Gulf coast have hundreds of small cane or mangrove islands — all of which look alike. Even after going out with guides, I know I could never go out on my own and find the spots they took us to. Worse yet, I would undoubtedly have gotten lost in the vastness of the flats.
So finding a good guide is essential. I search the internet for guides with 5-star ratings from trip advisor. I also take note of guides that are highlighted on fishing shows on TV.
However, the latter didn’t work out quite as well as I would have liked in one case. Having seen a guide out of Venice on a popular fishing show, I booked a trip with him for me and my Air Force buddy from Tampa and his son.
The guide told me over the phone that we could stay at his “lodge” for free. That should have raised red flags, but I didn’t delve any further into the state of the accommodations. We drove from the New Orleans airport to Venice and arrived just before dark. We used our GPS to locate the so-called lodge, which was down a dirt road just off the main highway.
At first we didn’t believe the GPS because it landed us at a ramshackle two-story unpainted building that looked like it had been abandoned for years. We contacted the guide and he assured us we were at the right place and that he needed to do a little “cleaning up” before we settled in.
He arrived a few minutes later and let us in. He showed us to a small room with two bunk beds that were unmade and with bedding and other things scattered everywhere. My buddy’s son found mouse droppings on his bed. The guide showed us how to use a vise grips to turn the shower on and off. Unfortunately, it was too late to try to find other accommodations. We were stuck.
The good thing was that fishing was good and we caught a lot of nice bull redfish. But beware of anything that sounds too good to be true.
One of the differences in Gulf Coast guides as opposed to Northwest fishing guides is that they all call themselves “Captain.” Most of them prefer to be addressed as Captain, followed by their first name, e.g., “Captain John”. But they don’t seem to mind us Yankees not observing that custom.
Weather is an important factor in the success of fishing the Gulf coast. Hurricanes, tropical depressions and cold fronts are common in this area of the U. S. So it’s often a crap shoot when you book a guide far in advance of your trip.
Most guides require a deposit when you book a trip, but will return it if weather conditions don’t permit a trip … or allow you to reschedule a trip at a later date. Nowadays, you can look at the weather predictions up to 10 days in advance so you can cancel airline, lodging and charter reservations if things look bad.
If you want to target a specific species, you should let your guide know ahead of time. Oftentimes, the guides will go to different areas of the flats depending on which species you want to pursue. For example, in the Louisiana Bayou country, oftentimes redfish are found in different areas than speckled sea trout.
When my wife and I fished the Florida Keys, the guide took us over 20 miles into Florida Bay where we caught a variety of fish including snook, speckled trout, mangrove snapper, jack crevalle, and other species. The next day, we asked him to target bonefish only, so he took us on the Atlantic side of the Keys where he poled us into several groups of bones, as mentioned above.
It’s also important to let your guide know ahead of time if you want to catch bull redfish (over 26 inches) as opposed to slot reds (20 to 26 inches). They are usually found in different areas of the estuaries.
I’m not much into to catching sharks or stingrays, but they are often plentiful in the flats and put up a great fight if you want to give that a try.
Speaking of stingrays, I once went out with a guide in the Lower Laguna Madre on the south Texas coast who wade-fished exclusively. I love this type of fishing, but you have to shuffle your feet along the bottom so as not to step on a stingray, which can launch its tail spike into your leg in an instant. This can be extremely painful and lead to horrible infections. A lot of wade fishermen wear special leggings to protect them from stingray strikes.
Finally, while my preference is inshore flats fishing, in most areas of the Gulf Coast you can also choose to fish offshore in the deeper waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Here you have the opportunity to catch other species like yellowfin and blackfin tuna, cobia, king mackerel, red snapper, barracuda and other species.
But most charters take out several people at a time much farther from the launch site than inshore fishing and they are usually a lot more expensive. I never keep any of my catch and get seasick at times, so I will probably continue inshore fishing only with smaller groups of relatives and friends.
WHILE GIVING MOST OF MY INLAND NORTHWEST FISHING a breather until hopefully the runs of fish return in more respectable numbers, I will not totally abandon it.
Having fished for over 60 years, I have developed a lot of friendships with guides, lodging owners, and cooks and wait staff at great small eateries. So I will fish some of my favorite haunts if for no other reason than to give these wonderful people some business.
And as all avid fishermen know, it’s great just to get out into the stream and take in the beauty of Mother Nature.