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A Mutiny on Lake Tarpon

For Tampa Bay midfielder Steve Ralston, fishing is always good - even when he doesn't catch anything.

By RODNEY PAGE

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 16, 2001


PALM HARBOR -- Steve Ralston doesn't usually sound like a bumper sticker, but two hours into our Lake Tarpon fishing trip it seemed an appropriate thing to say.

"A bad day fishing is better than a good day at work," Ralston said.

Ralston's work is playing midfield for the Tampa Bay Mutiny of Major League Soccer. His passion is fishing. And he is almost as good at it as he is scoring goals.

But this blustery Monday afternoon, he was being shut out. The 6- to 8-pound bass Capt. Chris Dance caught earlier were gone. So were the crappie. Even the mosquitoes weren't biting.

It's a fine line between fishing and just standing in a boat, and on this day there was a lot of standing.

"That's why they call it fishing, not catching," Ralston said. Okay, maybe he does sound like a bumper sticker.

The plan was to head out of Tarpon Tom's off U.S. 19 in the afternoon and catch some of the bass that have been running since the water heated up. Spring is the perfect time for bass. They form their beds and lay eggs, which means they're particularly active.

Dance has been fishing the lake for three years after moving here from Virginia. He was encouraged by the past few weeks, and barring a change in the weather was sure Ralston and Co. could hook a few largemouth.

Then the weather changed. A cold front moved through on Sunday. By Monday the winds were nearly 30 mph. The sun was out, but the temperature was falling fast.

Dance had been out most of the morning and early afternoon and managed to land three good-size bass.

"We had a run and caught a 9-pounder, 7-pounder and 61/2-pounder," Dance said. "Hopefully they're still biting."

Since the wind was howling, Dance suggested live shiners. Ralston is mainly an artificial lure fisherman. He brought his own rod rigged with a plastic worm, but he also used the shiners.

The first stop was a protected area on the south side of the lake. The gusts blew the boat too close to the marsh, so we reeled in and raced to a larger inlet protected by homes and trees.

Using his trolling motor, Dance slowly circled the 300-yard area several times. Nothing.

The conversation, unlike the fishing, was lively. Ralston has been with the Mutiny since 1996, the only player who has been with the club since its inception. It would take a lot for the St. Louis native to leave Tampa Bay.

He's been fishing just about all his life. He went to college at Florida International in Miami, mainly for the soccer, but also because of the fishing.

"I'd go all the time," Ralston said. "There was this lake on campus that had some big fish in it, too. There's some of the best bass fishing anywhere down there."

Soccer players, unlike most other professional athletes, don't make the big bucks. The rookie minimum salary is $24,000, although Ralston is making about triple that. But one of his first purchases when he turned pro was a bass boat.

Since then he's fished all around Central Florida, most frequently Lake Tarpon. His quest, besides catching a few bass, was to find some hot spots with Dance.

"Some days you can go right out in the middle and slam 'em," Dance said. "Other days they're hiding in the weeds. One thing about this lake, if you catch 'em in one place one day, you might as well not even try it the next day. The fish here move so much."

As we made our way south to the end of the 6-mile lake, we were waved to a dock by a fisherman Dance knew. He showed us a 6-pound, 6-ounce bass he caught an hour earlier. It's also the only fish we saw all day.

With the sun almost completely down, we sped back to the boat dock. Nearly three hours of fishing, and we had nothing to show for it.

But that's not going to deter avid fishermen like Dance and Ralston.

"You can't catch anything if you don't have your line in the water," Ralston said.

That would sound good on a bumper sticker.

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