Apalachicola: Day 1b (fishing)

On Sunday we went fishing for several hours out near the long, skinny barrier islands around Apalachicola. There were four of us, all in a skiff skippered by my old friend and colleague, Doug Schemske (a retired evolutionary biologist who worked on plants). We were told to call him “Cap’n Doug” and to unquestioningly and immediately obey every order he gave us.

Here he is in front of the skiff:

Putting it in the water: a tricky but amazing operation. Properly aligned, the just jumps out of the trailer into the water when the towing car abruptly brakes.  Putting the boat back on its trailer is a much tricker and more complicated operation.

On the water. Cap’n Doug fishing with Carolyn Johnston, his partner and a surgeon who works in Michigan (they are retiring down here early next year). I didn’t fish as I didn’t have a license and I’m not keen on fishing anyway, though I like to watch.

We caught two kinds of fish. This is a spotted seatrout (or “speckled trout” or “drum”), Cynoscion nebulosus. It’s a beautiful fish, and a predator with a huge mouth and sharp teeth. Here’s a drawing of one:

Every fish we caught was immediately released (I had to photograph it quickly); Cap’n Doug was quite experienced with hook removal and fish were usually out of the water for only a few seconds.

Removing the hook and lure. Look at the size of that mouth!

A closeup of its eyes and teeth. It’s clearly a predator. Be sure you see the sharp canine teeth in its upper jaw.

The other species we caught, finding them very close inshore (the water we fished in was shallow: between 1.5 and 4 feet. This is the red drum, (Sciaenops ocellatus). This was the fish nearly driven to extinction after chef Paul Prudhomme popularized the dish “blackened redfish”. They vary in their number of body spots. There is some speculation that the spots are false eyespots, so that a predator like a shark or diving bird would go for the wrong part of the body.

John Willis (a professor of evolutionary plant biology at Duke and avid fisherman), holding one of the several red drums he caught. This is a “three spotter.”

And Caroline with her “three spot”:

The formidable Cap’n Doug, aka the Kim Jong-un of the Sea:

Cap’n Doug poling the boat, the way you move it slowly when trolling in very shallow water. I was supposed to pole but wasn’t keen on it as you have to balance on a high platform at the rear of the boat (you can see it in the photograph of the skiff at the top). You also have to know what you’re doing, which I didn’t. I served as the expedition photographer instead.

Always concerned for his charges, Cap’n Doug was amidships when a heavy wave hit the boat, knocking the skipper into the drink! Fortunately the water was only about two feet deep, and our Dear Leader recovered quickly, hoisting himself back into the boat from the briny. He was, however, dripping wet.

The day was enormously fun for all of us. The fisherpeople caught quite a few fish, and released all of them, while I got to watch the process, and also saw my first wild dolphins, which were herding mullet to eat. I also saw a school of red drum herding finger mullets; pelicans, osprey, terns, and cormorants diving for fish; and a big manta ray swimming underneath the boat.  One thing I learned is that life for a fish is dangerous: danger comes not only from birds above but also from other predatory fish. No wonder they are wary and hard to catch!


  1. Posted April 16, 2018 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    A memorable outing. The seatrout clearly uses a powerful vacuum technique to suck in prey. And with those teeth I would be reluctant to reach into its maw to extract a lure.

  2. Walt Jones
    Posted April 16, 2018 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    As I think of the foot plus of new snow outside in Minneapolis, I shiver to see Cap’n Doug soaking wet! Enjoy the sun!

  3. Jim batterson
    Posted April 16, 2018 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    What a glorious day on the gulf coast. It is snowing and 27F (-3C) in chicago.

  4. BJ
    Posted April 16, 2018 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    Are you sure that isn’t Cap’n Larry David?

    I’m glad you’re on a trip that’s all about fun. You usually work your butt off when you travel somewhere. This one’s all for Jerry!

  5. Randall Schenck
    Posted April 16, 2018 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    Nice day fishing and a proper boat for it. Notice the construction allows for several compartments and a flat platform to stand on. I thought maybe a trolling motor on the bow but could be mistaken. Never seen the use of a pole but primarily a fresh water fisherman.

  6. Larry Smith
    Posted April 16, 2018 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    Does anyone ever comment on the link between “The Shining” and the “red drum” fish?

    FYI, Apalachicola appears in the writings of Jack Kerouac, which Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan turned into the song “Home I’ll Never Be”. Here are some sample lyrics:

    “Across to Mississippi, across to Tennessee
    Across the Niagara, home I’ll never be
    Home in ol’ Medora, home in Ol’ Truckee
    Apalachicola, home I’ll never be”

  7. Hempenstein
    Posted April 16, 2018 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Here’s a possibly obscure fishing tip for the Captain and anyone else who gets a charge from fishing (myself, crabbing is my saltwater pursuit of choice). In Forestry Service Chier and PA Governor Gifford Pinchot’s account of his expedition to the Galapagos “To the South Seas” (1929), he devotes a fair amount of the book to fishing along the way and talks of using lamp wicks in place of conventional lures, with which he felt he had consistently better success.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted April 16, 2018 at 9:58 am | Permalink

      Was there some method for attaching a fish hook to the wick?

      • Hempenstein
        Posted April 16, 2018 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

        Ask and you receive. I remembered there was a pic, and see that that’s on p131. It looks like the wick is jammed into the hollow of a conical sinker and somehow held tight with the lower end just above the hook.

        There’s a detailed description that may make more sense to you than me. And this is all motivated by keeping the line from twisting up, which it apparently accomplishes. Also note, it’s a flat wick not a tubular one as I had supposed. From p129, after explaining the problems with twisting lines no matter what spoon or jig you use:

        “…If a white rag will catch fish, why not a white lamp wick? So I took the conical lead end of an ordinary bluefish jig, passed my wire leader through the hole in it from the pointed end, then threaded it in the upper link of a chain brazed to a hook, fastened the wire in a loop and thru the loop ran a common flat cotton lamp wick about 7/8” wide.
        The lamp wick and the chain were adjusted so that the wick did not hang over the point of the hook but cleared it far enough never to foul it. As a finishing touch the lead was scraped so as to show like silver to the water – and the trick was done.
        This bait, properly made, never twists the line but adjusts itself to the pressure of the water without turning over. The other essential fact is that the lamp-wick bait does catch fish. With it I have consistently had better luck with Tuna, Little Tunny, and Bonito than with any form of spoon or squid I ever checked against it. [Then he goes on to cite other places where it has outperformed the usual lures.]
        ……. Instead of lead I have more recently used block tin for the sinkers. They stay bright longer after scraping and they please me better … but I am not at all sure they catch more fish.

        You might like the book – I think there are plenty of cheap copies on Alibris. And if you try this and it works, relay pix back to PCC[E].

        • Hempenstein
          Posted April 16, 2018 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

          PS, here’s Pinchot on the cover of TIME in 1925. The country could use more Governors that look like that.

        • Randall Schenck
          Posted April 16, 2018 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

          Yes, I did not doubt it works but assumed it had a hook added in there somewhere. I recall fishing as a kid and using small pieces of fabric, just about anything that would attract fish if you had no bait or lures.

  8. Ken Kukec
    Posted April 16, 2018 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Poling the shallows in that flats boat, Cap’n Doug’s lookin’ very Jimmy Buffett.

    Don’t let the ghost of Paul Prudhomme anywhere near that red fish; his blackening technique drove ’em to the brink of extinction.

  9. Posted April 16, 2018 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Glad you had a great day at the ocean.

  10. darrelle
    Posted April 16, 2018 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    Looks like a fun time. Many years ago I and a couple of friends knew of a spot in the Indian River (the intercoastal) near Patrick AFB, Florida, that was fantastic for catching Red Drum. Unfortunately we could never keep them because they were usually well over 40″ in length, way out of the bracket.

    • garman
      Posted April 16, 2018 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

      As a C&R fisherman, I think that’s a terrific problem to have.

  11. Posted April 16, 2018 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Apalachicola has become my wife’s and my favored weekend getaway. It’s an easy 3-hour drive from our home in south Georgia. The beaches are terrific (my wife loves them) and the fishing is great (my preferred form of recreation). We’re planning a week-long trip this summer in nearby St. Joe. We always use Air BnB for a beach house rental. Never disappointed. Visiting this part of Florida is like stepping back in time. Low levels of development, few souvenir shops, cold beer and great sea food.

    • Bob
      Posted April 17, 2018 at 6:58 am | Permalink

      Please stop telling people how lovely it is. Now it will turn into another Panama City.

    • Bob
      Posted April 17, 2018 at 6:59 am | Permalink

      Please stop telling people how lovely it is. Now our secret will turn into another Panama City.

  12. Mark R.
    Posted April 16, 2018 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    I can’t think of many other recreational activities as relaxing as being on a fine boat in sunny, calm weather.

  13. Dale Franzwa
    Posted April 17, 2018 at 1:17 am | Permalink

    Great fishing pics. Makes me wish I were there with you. However, my own fishing season begins in May after I return from a trip in my motorhome. I keep a modest fishing boat at a marina in San Diego harbor and target calico bass, barracuda, bonito, yellowtail or anything else that comes my way. I too am strictly catch and release. Tight lines, everyone.

  14. Lurker111
    Posted April 17, 2018 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    Great pics.

    As an aside, I’ve often wondered why no one has invented a brown fizzy drink named Apalachi-Cola. 🙂

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