Florida Fishing – Distant Cousins

April 5, 2012 by  

Florida Fishing

By Nick Simonson

My wife’s extended family is very close.  Her grandfather and his cousins grew up together like brothers, and as a result her mother and second and third cousins grew up the same way.  No matter where we go for her family reunions or for vacations with the extended family, as the case was last week on the gulf coast of southwest Florida, there’s always great familiarity among people who, in many cases, wouldn’t normally be so close.  Everyone knows they’re part of the same tree, and share a common bond.
Florida FishingAs I sat alone, sipping coffee and watching the dawn break over the Intercoastal Waterway from my borrowed 15-foot kayak on the last day of my spring getaway, I thought of the folks still sleeping back at our rented house, and readied myself to cast at the fish undoubtedly lurking beneath the barnacled plastic of the Ocean Prowler loaned to me by a local.  Because these fish, like my extended family by marriage, were branches of the same tree.

There were sailcats and hardhead cats which bore striking resemblances to their distant cousins on the Red River of the North.  Gunmetal gray skin, barbed dorsal and pectoral fins, and a slimecoat that sticks on your hands until the next day, were just some of the traits they shared with their more familiar northern kin.  The sailcat, like its name implies, had a large dorsal fin, sporting a long and whipping sail of skin trailing behind it.  The four-pound specimen I landed used this attribute to the best of its abilities during the battle.  The hardheads were as prolific on the sea floor as bullheads, and not surprisingly their names bore similarities just like their appearances.
The one redfish we managed had a prominent resemblance to the drum that inhabit the waters of the upper Midwest.  With a downturned mouth for crushing shellfish on the bottom, the silver 17-incher that my wife’s fourth cousin, Billy Curnow of Duluth, Minn. landed had a profile similar to the rough fish which inhabit many flows of the Great Plains.  One might not have been able to tell the difference, save for the large black spot on the tail.  While fishing with our neighbor, a local guide, he remarked that it was the first such fish he’d found in the shallows, as temperatures were nearing the point for the initial redfish run.
Our quarry for the week was primarily spotted seatrout, and they were active and abundant around the small island we stayed on.  These saltwater trout with the two vampire-like incisors were ready takers of our hooks when baited with shrimp, both live and dead.  Once in hand, save for the long caudal fin running down its back, the black-spotted tan-to-gray skin coloration of these fish made me immediately think of a brown trout in the small river not far from my house.  Clearly, they were kin, with one choosing to venture further upstream several millennia ago and the other content to stay put in the brack and saltwater of the continental coast.
The one fish that shared no similarity to anything else I had ever encountered was the one I connected with on my last cast and my last piece of bait during the trip.  I don’t know what it was, but as it towed my tiny vessel fifty yards against the incoming tide and out into the Waterway, I think I experienced a twinge of fear.  While I’ve hooked into fish I couldn’t move off the bottom before, I’ve never had a fish tow me across the surface.
As I described the battle to our neighbor upon my return, he suggested that since it didn’t break the surface, it wasn’t an early-running tarpon, and because it stayed low and immobile, it was most likely a large ray.  Whatever it was, when it made its final fierce run into the center of the channel, the line angle changed and the hook popped loose, convincing me that it had no equivalent relative back home.
While all fish are related to that same first finned thing that changed the evolutionary framework, some are more closely related than others.  There were pinfish that looked like any number of panfish – bluegills, pumpkinseeds and redears.  There were sand perch which looked like yellow perch, albeit much flashier with neon blue and yellow squiggles running through their black bars. Florida fishing, when you think of it, isn’t much different then anywhere else. And all of the above-mentioned species – save for the underwater tow truck that got away – were obvious distant cousins of fish I was more familiar with…in our outdoors.


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