It was the last day I had to fish in Florida, and to admit, I was already feeling pretty good about what I accomplished on this short venture.
But a new day dawned, and with it came an opportunity to fish a river I was dying to fish: The Wekiva River. I was interested in this river because it contained all of my targets; but since I had caught two already, it was time for a warmouth or spotted sunfish. Knowing that the Wekiva had a very large population of spotted sunfish, it seemed like odds were in my favor this time.
Unfortunately, it was the Sunday of the July 4th weekend, and the popular Wekiva Springs State Park was even more crowded. We had to line up at opening time for quite some time before entering the park. As we entered, we immediately saw why it was so popular - the springs were beautiful. I couldn't wait to hop into the water. It was cool and refreshing, and I even saw a couple wild plecostomuses in the gin-clear water. There was a deep cave where the spring emerged, and it was fun trying to dive down and reach bottom. I never reached bottom, but it was cool nonetheless. As the place got more and more packed, the whole family decided to float down the river.
We rented a couple canoes and a kayak for me, since I wanted to fish. It was full-fledged spotted sunfish mode from here on now.
As we came across an opening in the river, monster tilapia and gizzard shad could be seen, but they wanted absolutely nothing to do with me. I moved on downstream, since we only had about an hour and a half, and I wanted to cover a lot of water. I cast every now and then with a redworm, but only caught some coppernose bluegills, and the odd redbreast sunfish. I decided to turn up Rock Spring Run.
Unfortunately, along the whole way, it was hard to fish due to the sheer amount of traffic in the relatively small river. There were people overturning their canoes, bumping into each other, and playing music. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful river, and I wish I had more time to explore. But it was full mission spotted sunfish. In Rock Spring Run, I had an especially annoying encounter with a kayaker. I was casting along, when a young woman basically rammed my kayak, lodging us both onto a log. I tried to push us off, so I set my rod down. The then tried to push me off using my rod as a handle. Ha. Then went down like a fart in a dead silent theater. Eventually, I was able to free us, but it whittled precious fishing time off my schedule, since I was bound to be returning upriver soon.
As I floated down Rock Spring Run, I stopped to give a couple casts, since I saw a small, brownish sunfish. I drifted a worm and it took, but alas, it was just a dull redbreast. With a look of disgust, I threw it back. I decided to take a couple more casts in the area, and sent one over to slack water that"looked good." As I was reeling the small worm chunk in, I felt a tap and reeled in something small. I lifted it out of the water, took one look, and was overjoyed. Spotted sunfish, species #70!
On this small specimen, you can make out some of the light blue eyeshadow that they carry
It was time to head back. I paddled upstream, and made one more stop right behind a large log, since I saw a ridiculously sized redear sunfish swimming around. I never did catch that guy, but with a drop right under my kayak, I was able to sight-fish my second ever spotted!
Rockin' the eyeshadow!
One more drop, and I was pulling up a stunning specimen of a spotted sunfish. Not too large, but gorgeous. He was dressed in bronze with a red underside, and he was covered in red and black spots. Almost looked like a lost redspotted sunfish!
Not to mention that electric blue!
And another small spotted
I kayaked back happy, having caught my lifer and a beautiful specimen. We left the park wishing someday we could return.
In the afternoon, I set out back to the little canal with one goal in mind. I told myself I wouldn't leave Florida without catching not just any bowfin, but the one that had made it personal. The beast had waged war, and I was responding.
I bought a cheap Walmart net, a net whose only destiny is to be used once on a monster bowfin. I was armed to the teeth with wire leaders and chemically sharpened Mustad 4/0 circles. My larger rod had 15 lb braid with a 45 lb wire leader. I tossed out half a bluegill and the wait began. In the meantime, I put a float on with a tiny chunk of bluegill on my light rod with 8 lb mono, in hopes of catching some florida gar to pass the time.
And catch some I did. Two nice, healthy specimens back-to-back.
In the meantime, I also landed what probably is the coolest-looking bluegill of all time: A coppernose, with a blue and purple tinge, red fins, and a crazy-looking ripped up anal fin.
An hour or so later, I still hadn't received any bites. The gar weren't cooperating any more, and neither were the sunfish. Fire ants carpeted the ground, biting all over my feet and ankles, leaving painful sores. Frustration, desperation, and anger were all kicking in. Then, while the day was still young, the wind died down, and I saw a huge back following my float I was reeling in for gar.
*drops the rod*
"Oh my god there he is there he is" The massive fish I could see perfectly in the tannin stained water, it's monstrous dorsal snaking along as it swam right in front of my feet. His sleek muscles flexed as he casually passed, swimming like he ruled the place. He probably did. It was as if my senses were honed, my body knowing it was about to do battle and every part of me sharpened, waiting for the right moment to act.
I waited no time to frantically reel in my big setup and toss it right in the bowfin's path. The bowfin wasted no time as well, smashing the bait barely a second after it hit the water. I let him run for a bit then tightened up and set the hook more perfectly than I have ever before.
Pulled it right out of his mouth.
I wanted to snap my rod any cower in a bush. That fish looked me in the eye again and just absolutely flipped me off. Well, at least I knew he was in the area.
I tossed my bait out once again. An hour passed, and nothing happened. I decided to switch my tactics from a bottom feeding presentation to one under a float. The bluegill half got cast around again, and when I saw some bubbles, I cast in that area. The float shot down almost immediately. Was this the fish I was waiting for? I set.
I reeled my bait in, and realized there was something attached to the end of the line. Bullhead? No...bowfin. Probably the saddest-looking bowfin anyone has ever seen, aside from those lining the bank. He was insanely skinny, a third of his body mass was head.
I sent the feller on his way, wishing him luck in growing to the size of some of the other fins I had seen.
My hope was diminishing. Maybe this was all the Fish Gods were willing to give me. I kept telling myself, "You got one. That's what you set out to do, right?" But in my mind, I knew that to be false. I had set out to beat the abomination that had dared to toy with me. I had set out to conquer, not to catch it's baby sibling.
Just a couple minutes after releasing the sad little guy, My parents came to pick me up. Oddly enough, they brought my sister and little cousin as well. My mom suggested I try the area the farm hand told me was very good. I walked over there, but after a couple casts and no fish, I asked myself why I was leaving fish to find fish.
I thought about it, and walked back to my original location. I left my big rod out, and soon it twitched and the float began to move. I could tell immediately it wasn't a bowfin. The floats dive down like thy're a bag of bricks when bowfin take the bait. I looked under my float and my suspicions were confirmed: It was a greedy gar who attacked my half-bluegill. I ripped the bait out of its mouth and put on a small chunk of bluegill on a size 4 octopus, no more than an inch long, under a float on my light rod to see if I could catch it, since my dad and sister had never seen a gar. A dozen casts later, still no sign of any luck. Luck was not in my favor up to that point. All the action had been very slow compared to the other day. I had only caught a couple bluegill the entire day.
My mom was on the phone with her mother, my dad was practicing his golf swing, my little cousin was watching me fish, and my sister was complaining about the heat.
I wasn't paying attention when my float shot down.
I couldn't see the bright orange float, although I frantically searched for it. I reared back and set the hook. Ooooof. I felt the weight of a good fish. This, THIS was what I had fought for.
Pzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzt!!!!!!! Pzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzt!!!!!! The drag was super scratchy, and sang as the fish peeled off. Uh oh. I felt like crying. After all this madness, this was how the Fish Gods treated me? I was sure the tiny hook would pop out, or the 8 lb test would surely get cut through or snapped. Nevermind that. This was a challenge. A challenge I had to overcome.
I lightened up the drag and slowly but surely babied it in. I screamed for the NNNEEEEEEEEEEEEEETTTTTTTTTTTTTTT!!!!!!!!!!!!!! My knees felt like they were going to give out. It has been quite some time since that has happened to me while fighting a fish. This was a trophy fish for sure. My mom was still on the phone with my grandma, and the video call was still going on when she ran over and grabbed the net, which lay a couple yards way. I had a moment of utter panic when she couldn't figure out how to extend the net, but she figured it out and raced over. I brought the fish over near the shore.
"Is it big?" asked my mom.
For her first time netting a fish, she did a remarkable job and slipped the net under it perfectly. As soon as the net closed around it, I saw the hook come out effortlessly. It was in the net.
But as it always is with bowfin, the fight is never over. I still had the rod, and the hook was caught in the net while my mom tried to lift the fish. But the bowfin's thrashes were just to powerful, and it was too heavy. She fell square on her butt trying to lift it up and we both called my dad, who was busying himself with golf. He ran over and lifted the net. Yet the fight was still far from over. The line had caught in the nearby tree. Damn it. I just set the rod on freespool and took the net as far away from the water as possible, remembering what happened with Greenwood's pike. It was mine.
I took it out of the net and stared at the beast in my hands. 30.5 inches of pure muscle, hatred, and awesomeness. An unbelievable girth. This was a fish I had dreamt about. Look at the way that belly sags! I looked inside its cavernous mouth, and was not at all surprised to see my other hook in it. The war was over.
Said canal in background
As a comparison, my feet are ever so slightly over 10 inches.
Check out her shoulders!
Check out her gut!
Bloopers: What happens when bowfin don't cooperate (which is always).
A failed attempt at a release shot. With one kick, she flew out of my hands and back into the drink.
The war was over, and both parties went home. That was a good fish to end the trip on. I took a gift from the gods and decided not to press my luck, packing up right after. Sometimes you need to know when you've gotten more than you deserve.