Glory days return
By DAVID A. BROWN
The reel didn't look worthy to challenge anything we'd face. At some 40 years old, the Orvis 100 spinning reel most likely had seen its glory days come and go. But Steve Grossnickle insisted on giving it a chance to silence its critics and satisfy his optimism.
After all, Grossnickle's grandfather had once owned this reel, whose dark metal body bears the image of a leaping fish. When he bequeathed it to his grandson a few years ago, he must have passed along countless tales of fishing conquests. Grossnickle seemed as proud of that old reel as most feel about a new model.
Six and a half hours after our 7 a.m. launch from the Belleair Causeway, Grossnickle would secure the ultimate accomplishment for granddad's old reel -- an accomplishment of which any angler with any reel would boast.
Grossnickle chartered Capt. Ernie Griffin for the day, and the skipper invited me along to take pictures, as I tried not to embarrass myself with a rod and reel. After an hour of catching live sardines and another hour playing cat and mouse with beach tarpon, Griffin headed for one of his favorite mangrove shorelines in northern Clearwater Harbor. Specializing in artificial lures, he armed us with scented soft plastic jerkbaits rigged on quarter-ounce jig heads. Our quarry was the redfish that follow incoming tides to the overhanging branches to corral baitfish and reach a bounty of crabs and invertebrates hiding among the roots and adjacent oyster bars.
Griffin's plan was to spend a couple of hours working this area during flood tide and then spend the outgoing cycle at the tidal troughs inside Hurricane Pass, which separates Caladesi Island to the south and Honeymoon Island to the north. Daily flushing renews the inshore waters and creates predictable feeding opportunities for predators such as snook, which dine on baitfish disoriented by strong currents.
In such scenarios, Griffin forgoes his impostors in favor of a sure-shot little gem called whitebait. Colloquial names include scaled sardine, pilchard, horse minnow and greenie. Snook call it food.
In the last half of the falling tide, departing water builds speed and feeding snook make no attempt to hide. The briny march starts when slack tide ends, but for the first half of the outgoing cycle, the massive water volume displays only subtle hints, such as a plume of fallen leaves emerging from a draining mangrove creek.
Once the falling tide reaches its midpoint and the surface approaches sand, the movement becomes more dramatic. Strands of grass zip toward the pass, shells tumble across the white bottom, sandbars rise higher by the minute and tide-drawn baitfish encounter ferocious war parties of line-siders.
On this day we had a front-row seat for the fireworks, and when nature lit the snook's fuse, it was nothing short of explosive predation. In our trough and a half-dozen surrounding furrows, silver shadows were tailing whitebaits to the surface and blasting them mercilessly.
A slight miscalculation put us on the spot about 30 minutes before the show started, but this gave us time to analyze water flow and watch for telltale clues. Sometimes one trough outperforms the rest tenfold.
After a half-hour of soaking baits in our first spot yielded no strikes, Griffin moved to a longer, more narrow trough closer to the island. Several aggressive displays told him this was the hot ticket.
Grossnickle's bait was the first to fall. Suddenly the reel made a subtle twitch, the line tightened and then a freight train run doubled his rod, causing his old reel to evoke a tortuous wail. Elation dueled with doubts of a positive end, as the snook's every lunge seemed to rattle the reel into certain destruction.
But the old Orvis faltered not, nor did Grossnickle's resolve. He'd enjoyed 50-snook days with Griffin, so experience was not in question. He seemed to be guided more by instinct, however, than intent.
When the lunker linesider first passed the boat, Griffin exclaimed, "That looks like a world record snook!"
Actually, he had seen two smaller snook, probably courting males, running alongside a large, struggling female. Cloud shadows and water refraction gave the initial appearance of one massive fish. Nevertheless, Grossnickle's 20-pound, 38-inch female snook deserved much laud.
Visibly moved by the magnitude of his feat, Grossnickle said, "This is the most amazing catch of my life."
He had hoped to subdue a large fish on the old reel before passing it along to his son. Mission complete -- he could now pass on the challenge's tradition to the next generation.
Considering his arsenal of high-end professional equipment, Griffin said clients rarely opt for bringing their own gear, much less antiques. "My thought was, "He probably won't catch anything on that reel, but if he wants to try, let him try.' Ten minutes later he has this big fish on and actually caught it. I was just as happy to see him catch that fish as he was to catch it."
Of the family history, Griffin noted, "The neat thing about it was passing along the heritage of the reel."
Griffin took great care to give the mighty fish frequent breathers in between photos. When we finished, he supported the snook carefully for a minute or so until this rare beauty had recharged her batteries and swam away unassisted.
As her shadow vanished into the trough from which she came, three anglers nodded in agreement: For the rest of her summers, a snook that size will likely produce hefty broods of little snooklets, each blessed with the DNA of a mother who had reached 20 pounds. Maybe someday, one of her offspring will help another angler test their grandfather's old reel.
-- For fishing charters, contact Capt. Ernie Griffin at (727) 409-3007.
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