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Reel and Deal

reel.jpgThe Gulf is a sea of silver. The mackerel are on the move and slapping against our boat. I throw out a shiny lure, whiz it back in. My line jolts. I pull harder, wrestling with the incoming catch. As I pull in my big silver, plunk ... my favorite copper ring slips off my finger and vanishes into the belly of the Gulf. My heart sinks with the ring, but I keep pulling. But then, a surprise ... it’s not a silver fish at the end of my line. Instead, I’ve landed a heavy, slimy catfish—the garbage disposal of the sea.

“Sometimes you gotta give back,” says Joel Benham, my fishing guide for the day, as he effortlessly reels in mackerel like a cartoon fishing figure. I’ve made my sacrifice to the sea. This Wisconsin girl is learning her first lessons in fishing: 1) Respect the sea and 2) It’s full of weird fish, so you gotta know when to throw ’em back. Benham is giving me the how-to list of Naples fishing, something more like Zen and the Art of Saltwater Fishing.

Fishing culture blends superstition, Zen musings, hard-learned lessons of respect with science and skill. Even with the right tools and the right guide, love and lore are part of the recipe. What is more mysterious than that giant well thousands of leagues deep? A fisherman memorizes water depths and temperatures just as an astronomer knows sky charts, but something else makes them tick. Fishing is like a recipe that’s handed down, its scribbled steps fading on a crumpled, browned piece of paper. But maybe the most important message is between the lines—the Zen-like understanding of the sport.

As Buddhism teaches an eightfold path to enlightenment, sport fishing follows a list of “rights” to finding the catch of the day. The right spots, the right boat, the right tools, the right mindset, the right concentration, the right respect and the right knowledge.

We’ve found our spot for the day, 11 miles off of Naples Bay, hovering over a shipwreck. Benham lights a cigar, adjusts his Costas and smiles at the morning sun. “This should be a great day of fishing,” he says, referring to my ring sacrifice.

Benham follows the legacy of most tight-lipped fishermen hiding their secrets. I’m lucky, as he’s engaged to my sister and therefore willing to talk. He grew up fishing on Wisconsin lakes, and it was his grandfather, Jack Williams, who taught him respect for the water and how to tie a wire knot. After years of fishing lakes up North, he took those same musky-catching knots to fish that would eat musky as a snack.

“I drilled one too many holes in the ice,” says Benham. Looking at the quarter-pound crappies at the end of his line, seeing himself turning into that grumpy old man at an alarming speed, he decided to head to the tropics for some real fishing. In Naples, he becomes part of a storied fishing tradition.

Since the Calusas flourished here, the fish have sustained the people. Over the years, Naples grew because of its mild climate and abundant fish. Today, the city has grown into an affluent winter destination, but its roots are as a fishing community. Whether these waters are loved for sport or survival, stories of big fish go hand-in-hand with Naples.

“Right here, that’s it,” he says. The depth finder reads 40 feet. We’re floating above a sunken ship in what my sister calls “an unsinkable boat.” I immediately envision two famous boats: the vessel that Jaws took a bite out of and Titanic, that other unsinkable boat. Depth finder reads 40 feet deep. Internal reader says Nervous. Think we’ve got a big enough boat?

But just as we pinpoint the spot that promises great fish, Benham says, “It’s not just about the fishing spot ...” in the same spirit as “It’s not about the bike.”


Right Spot. Benham, along with Ken Strasen, owner of Master Bait and Tackle in Bonita Springs, share their secrets. As with most ventures, we start with a map—aiming for the hot spots. 

The rocks along Doctors Pass. Any place where fish can find hiding spots is a sure bet as to where they’ll live.

>>The Santa Lucia Reef, Gordon Pass. A 46-foot, sunken, concrete Cuban boat, part of an artificial reef, harbors schools of fish and creates a feeding ground for bigger fish. 

Air Force “R” tower, 28 miles out from Gordon Pass. 

Mangroves in the backwater. This creates a nursery for young fish, thus a good food source for snook, tarpon, sharks and apex fish. 

Beach, or the Naples Pier. A lot of moving water, so it’s home to fish of various sizes.

For pinpointed maps, it’s best to purchase NOAA Chart 11430 for the backwaters and ISS Chart 09F and 15F for offshore hotspots.

To find maps of shipwrecks, visit the website http://uwex.us/floridashipwrecks.htm.

Right Water. Pay attention to the water temperature. This winter was unusually cold, changing the fish routes and habitats.

“Places change day to day. It’s never the same conditions,” says Strasen. In summer, fish are active and everywhere; they’re cold-blooded creatures. In winter, they’re looking for warm water. “It’s a bonanza when you find a warm spot.”

>>Find structures. “It’s a desert out there, no place to hide in the Gulf,” says Strasen. Yet another suggestion: Find covered areas or structures. Fish look for places to hide—whether in a hole, among pilings, at a drop-off, swimming around a wreck. “If you are not on structure, you are not on fish,” says Benham. 

>>Stay with moving water. Fishing changes with the seasons as with the tide. Strasen advises to always follow the tides and stay with the moving water, where the big fish wait for schools of bait fish.

Right Tools. A step beyond the romance of The Old Man and the Sea, but tools are essential. The basics: a rod, a heavy line, a lure and a fish finder with a GPS unit.

Right Mindset. Touching more closely on the Zen of it: Believe.

We park, drop the lines in, dump chum behind the boat. And then, sit. And then, sit. A cigar lights up. The silence of the still morning Gulf is penetrable. The sun beats down on us; our feet become leathered after an hour. Right mindset.

Just forget about it, Benham says. Different from popular New Age belief, the law of attraction doesn’t seem to do it. We’re supposed to ignore the Captain Hook-esque lure and bait the size of my arm. Right concentration.

“Turtles!” my sister Heidi yells. Out of the thick air and silence, a turtle pops its head up as if to say hellllooooo. A hush sweeps the boat. “That’s a good sign; there’s life out here,” says Heidi. Right boat.

We’re certainly in the right spot, as schools of bonita and mackerel hop toward us in a choreographed march. We throw a few lines out, reeling in more silver fish, then onto bigger catches.

The line whizzes. That’s the big line. Something grabbed the bait and ran with it. Benham jumps up, throws on his “diaper” fishing pole harness to get a better hold on the incoming fish. He battles it, yanks it in, then rests, letting it run. The idea is to wear out the fish. Finally, after a 20-minute tag game, the fish surfaces: a three-foot nurse shark.

Benham, dripping with sweat and draining cans of ginger ale, shows that saltwater fishing is a sport—physical as well as mental. In the end, we leave with black grouper for dinner and tales of big fish caught. The sea has been good to us today. We saw two spinner sharks perform triple-axel spins. Black fin and nurse sharks visited us.

The sun sinks behind us, our minds as calm as the water. Maybe fishing does resemble Buddhist goals. Sometimes you just have to give back and believe in where you’re going, and you’ll land the right catch. Right respect. And sometimes you can’t trade copper for silver, but the sea leaves unimaginable possibilities with each day. It may not give you the fish you want, but you’ll get what you need. The wise old sea just knows. Ohmmmmm.

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