TIERRA VERDE - Six years in the National Football League left Steve Ingram with his share of aches, pains and an addiction he is not afraid to discuss.
"I am a redfish addict," the former Buccaneer explained. "I'll catch snook, trout, grouper ... but I have got to have my redfish."
Ingram, a 32-year-old fishing guide from Tampa, grew up on the shores of Maryland's Chesapeake Bay catching everything from striped bass to flounder.
"That is all we did," he said. "Fishing has always been my life."
Ingram joined the Bucs in 1995 as a seventh-round draft pick and played two games at offensive tackle his rookie season. The son of a commercial fisherman, the 6-foot-4, 325-pound offensive lineman started his charter business in the Tampa Bay area and maintained it during the offseason during a brief stint with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He now charters out of O'Neill's Marina in St. Petersburg.
"I have always found fishing a great way to relieve stress," said Ingram, who played college ball for Maryland.
But on this warm April morning, the school of red drum that Ingram had chased for more than an hour caused him nothing but consternation.
"These fish get hit so hard on the weekend, I almost feel sorry for them," he said. "They are real spooky. You have to take your time."
When Ingram arrived at his redfish hole he found another guide chasing the school.
"The only way to approach these fish is with a push pole," said Ingram, who poles from the bow of his 23-foot Avenger. "If you try to use a trolling motor the fish will run from you."
Ingram watched patiently as two other charter boats worked the big school of reds.
"I think if we wait right here, they will eventually push the fish back to us," he said.
The redfish, swimming along with a school of mullet, moved slowly through the shallow water beneath an overcast sky. The clouds helped keep the temperature down but frustrated Ingram's efforts to track the fish.
"Redfish are hard to see under a sky like this," he said. "That is why sometimes you have to just be willing to wait."
A pair of cormorants gorged themselves on the handful of sardines Ingram had tossed as chum. Diving sea gulls complicated matters by picking off the stragglers.
"All we need is one big fish," he said. "Once they start feeding we could sit here all day and keep catching them."
Getting that first fish to bite is the greatest challenge. Redfish, especially those on the shallow grass flats of south Pinellas County, are undoubtedly one of the state's most sought game fish.
Whether taken on a spoon, jig, topwater plug, live bait or fly, a fat red pulls as hard as any other sport fish. Everybody from novice anglers to veteran guides want to catch their share during the start of the spring fishing season.
On a good morning day a knowledgeable fisherman can set up on a school and catch and release dozens of redfish. But other days, when the tide, moon and wind are working against them, an angler can work hours for a single fish.
"Here they come again," Ingram said as the school approached his boat for the third time that morning. "This time we'll catch one for sure."
Ingram tossed a baitfish in front of the school and let it swim without a weight or float to impede its progress. "Free-lining" any live bait requires more skill, but it is the most effective way to catch a skittish fish.
"There we go," Ingram said as a red grabbed the bait. "Now we are on to something."
By the time Ingram got the small redfish to the boat, the school had moved on. The juvenile drum, sometimes called "rat reds" by guides, swam away upon release.
Ingram, his triceps aching after a long morning of poling the boat, climbed back on the bow and resumed his pursuit.
Poling a 23-foot boat through shallow water is hard work, but not as hard as pushing a 275 defensive lineman off the scrimmage line.
But Ingram didn't care. There were plenty of fish to be caught. And he had nothing but time.