A few weeks after returning home from guiding in the Amazon, I sat down with Hook+Gaff president and founder Michael Sims to discuss working on a project that would interest our social media followers and customers. We wanted to do a few things. First, we wanted to show everyone what the Hook+Gaff lifestyle is all about a passion for the outdoors. Second, we wanted to generate some incredible content and footage from our trips, so we made plans to pack camera equipment and a drone. And last, we wanted to do something fun — but in a way that would put some pressure on us to get the job done. And that was the catch. We decided to target 30 species of fish in 30 days between three states.
My first thought was, “This should be very easy.” We have 30 days in April to catch 30 different species. I intended to make this happen with no problem. Who wouldn’t be stoked to jump on a project like this? We limited ourselves to several different places and several different H+G-endorsed captains and guides, and with their expertise, we assumed the project should be no problem. But we did not anticipate some of the challenges Mother Nature threw at us, and it would certainly come down to the wire! I decided to commit to the project, and we would meet several more times to go over details.
The planning process was thorough and required some time. There were many factors to consider. The first thing we did was list species that we thought we could target in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia (if need be) and Florida. These ranged from what I considered to be easier species in local freshwater lakes and rivers, to some harder or more difficult to catch saltwater species. Doing this allowed me to come up with a complete list of targeted fish that I thought we could catch.
The next consideration was travel. Now that we had the list in hand, we needed to figure out where we were going to target these fish, and then map out destinations. We were able to chart a course from the interior of South Carolina, down to the coast in Charleston and Beaufort, and then ultimately along the Gulf Coast of Florida and down to the Keys.
Our next consideration was timing. With most of our charter guides becoming active and getting booked when the weather is more favorable, we decided to knock this out in early spring, between April 1st and 30th while we could still snag a weekend with our guides. We contacted guides and captains from South Carolina to Florida and down to the Keys, then we charted our course and booked the calendar.
Next, I needed a partner — someone who is just as handy with a camera as he is with a fly rod. I called up my buddy Nick, and he was on board immediately. Since getting good content was a goal for us, I knew I’d need his help. It’s impossible to get good content if there is chaos on the bow and no one to capture it. After all the logistical preparations were made, we were ready to launch!
April 1st arrived, and boy I couldn't wait to bust down the door and chase some tails! We were starting this thing off with a bang, and it was time for sunup to sundown, hard-core fishing every day. During the first two weeks, we wanted to knock out as many species as possible in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. I drove down to Beaufort to meet up with Nick a few days before. We needed to pick up my skiff from Charleston to haul it down. Both Nick and I had our flats skiffs ready. My 18-footer would be used for rougher days on the water. His more technical poling skiff gets super skinny and could get us in places no one else can get to.
On April 1st, Mother Nature didn’t want to cooperate. And for a solid couple of days, the cold front kept the redfish and other species very tight-lipped. The weather wasn't much in our favor. We needed those cloudless, sunny days and some warmer water. After a second cold front began rolling in, we made the decision to knock out the freshwater pond species. We caught some bass, bream, shellcracker and catfish within those first few days. That gave us the rest of the time to get on the water at daybreak to target those inshore species. We needed to figure out some patterns and just get a feel for who was hanging out in the marsh! We were seeing small signs of life and some fish, but nothing super active. We worked harder than normal to get a redfish and sea trout caught and pegged on the board. The fishing was so tough that it took us three or four days to get a hookup switching from fly to live bait. We ended up with one single redfish and handful of sea trout on fly in some of the toughest conditions I’ve ever fished. Shortly after we landed the redfish, Nick had a surprise hookup with a flounder. With both of us out of the boat shoved up into a tiny feeder creek, the flounder hit at our feet and shook himself loose. We were like two kids playing in the mud, watching this flounder escape back to the watery depth in slow motion. Nothing hurts more than watching a good fried flounder sandwich get away!
We spent a lot of time soaking bait for sheepshead and black drum. We fished pilings and fished bridges — with nothing to eat but fiddler crabs and some crushed blue crab delight! I was loving it. Sometimes I get just as excited soaking bait as I do fly fishing. We stuck two monster sheepshead, and they did what they do best and broke us off around some barnacles. I decided to call up my good friend Capt. Garrett Lacy, owner of Charleston Fishing Adventures, for help. In the month of March, we had targeted a few black drum together, and I knew he could help us with the project. With Garrett, we went back to the ole black drum spot and actually ended up coming off with more redfish than one would normally catch on an average day. We also gave the sheepshead another try, but the wind and rain stopped us short in our tracks that day. The next day, we went after that black drum again, which resulted in a few short takedowns and a break-off with a sea monster.
With the conclusion of inshore fishing on the South Carolina coast, we were to go offshore that first weekend in April. The weather just did not cooperate. Seas were 8-10’ or more nearly every day, leaving us with no option other than to target our Florida species and hope that we could knock out most of them on the list, then try again offshore in Charleston at the end of the month. We rested a few days and then headed toward the Sunshine State. With the way I set the schedule, we were going to be driving a lot. Each of the guides we were fishing with lived in separate parts of Florida.
So our first stop was Miami, fishing the first two days with the Sea Shepherd Capt. Honson Lau! Let’s just say he's forgotten more about fishing than your granddad and mine combined! He is one of the best there is, and there's no question about it. Every time I fish with someone like Hon, I come back to the dock a better angler than before. From fishing the famous Key Biscayne Bay near downtown Miami to the Everglades, we landed over 10 species with Honson. We targeted mangrove snapper, mutton snapper, bar jack, yellow jack, peacock bass, jaguar guapote, hardhead catfish, oscar, florida gar, Mayan cichlid, Everglades snook and Biscayne bonefish. Hon really showed us his backyard and how diverse the waters in Florida can be. My favorite area we fished with Hon was Everglades City. It was a very fundamental but technical level of fishing using light tackle. We were looking for juvenile tarpon and snook, and the type of fishing we were doing required an angler to be excellent at presentation and fundamentals. After adding a lot of species to the list with Honson, we headed northwest.
Our next stop was Tampa for the day. With the way the schedules of our guides worked out, we had to come back up to Tampa to fish before heading back down to the Keys. We were paying a visit to Capt. Brian Jill, or “CBJ,” one of the founders of Motiv Fishing and owner of “Lost Coast Anglers.” I was really amped for this day. Brian and I had recently spent some time together in the Amazon fishing for golden dorado. This time, he was helping me out and taking us around his home turf to explore Tampa Bay.
Fishing Tampa was a first for me, and I had heard stories about people catching huge tarpon and sight casting to big snook, so I couldn't wait to see what was in store. The weather wasn't the best, as another big cold front had just moved in from the west, making the water a little cold. Even the beaches were getting blown out from the wind. I knew CBJ would have a plan for these conditions, and boy did it involve some hard-core fishing! I learned on this trip that fish usually don't stand a chance when Brian Jill is near! As we waited for the tide to shift to incoming, we caught some nice-size sea trout around the oyster bars. We poled some really juicy-looking flats, casting at some good-size redfish. There were some seriously nice schools around us, but they were being extremely spooky, giving us very little chance to hook up or rejecting us completely. We then decided to go look for some snook. Sight casting to snook with the fly is one of coolest things I’ve done. We went on a gorgeous ride around some mangroves and throughout the bay a good ways, putting us at CBJ’s honey hole. (I can't say much about it, but it's worth a million dollars in my book.) Jill positioned his Hell’s Bay Marquesa perfectly, setting me up to take a shot at two snook paired up. One of the snook instantly nailed the little shrimp fly, and it darted off, jumping in the air. Nothing feels better than when everything comes together and hard teamwork pays off. Checking this one off the list, we then heard CBJ scream, “Anyone want a Sweetwater 420 beer-battered grouper sandwich from the famous Bar Fly bar and grill?” I'm not sure who could resist that, and we sure were looking forward to it after the waves we took on the way in!
We left Tampa, hitting the interstate with full stomachs and headed for Key West. We were gonna be fishing with Capt. Dave Moloney and Capt. Brandon Cyr over the next two days. I was pretty stoked, as the tarpon migration was getting better as the days went by. Most fishing reports were pretty good. So the following morning after Tampa, we would fish out of Summerland Key with Capt. Dave, owner of “Grateful Dave Charters.” Dave is the man, and he put me on my first big tarpon several years back, so I owe a lot to him. Dave is another one of those all-around great guides, and undoubtedly one of the best. If you ever fish with him, you're going to want to be on your A-game, because it can get intense. He puts in a lot of time on the water day in and day out! With Dave, you can really learn a lot that will make you a better flats fisherman. He studies the fish and their movements and patterns like other people study books. And he doesn't just put you on fish, he puts you smack in the middle of where it’s all going to go down! It looked like Nat Geo Live around the boat. We had the fly rod out with three other rods in the deck, ready to go for multiple species that were swimming all around us. It was awesome, appearing slightly chaotic but really completely under control. From large schools of permit, bonefish, bonetheads and a break-off with a tarpon, there was tons of action going on! We ended the day hunting big tarpon but did not get any hookups.
This brought us to one last day of fishing in the Florida Keys! We were now fishing with Brandon Cyr. We were put in touch with Brandon by a good friend, and he said the captain would help us out in Key West. Brandon is a Keys native and a fishy dude. He's been flats fishing since he was a kid. The guy has spots for days — I’m not kidding, he will never run out! There were spots for every species, and it was crazy. We started our morning early with Brandon, since we had a 20-mile boat ride west to the Marquesa Atoll. We got to experience a true Key West sunrise as we pulled into the atoll. Nothing beats watching rolling tarpon in the morning, even if they were giving us a hard time. We left to see if we could seal the deal on a permit, which is not easy — just going ahead and putting that out there! I probably drifted a crab in front of at least 40 permit, getting rejected every time. Then it finally happened — the fancy jack convinced itself to eat a live crab. And then the permit story went how it sometimes does. The permit proceeded to break the leader on the edge of a channel. Once again, I was defeated by the permit. I was later rewarded with a bonefish on fly, and Nick finally got his first tarpon on the fly before wrapping up the day. With a bonus jack crevalle at the end as well, it was a fun, adventure-filled day on the water with tons of laughs!
We were on the road headed back to South Carolina the following morning. I was trying to figure out our game plan as far as going offshore. We still needed at least seven species, and the weather was just not going to allow us to make a run offshore. I needed to improvise. My friends at Costa helped put me in touch with Capt. Chris Trosset. This was my first time meeting and fishing with Capt. Chris. I had heard of him before, and I knew he was a Keys native and one heck of an offshore guide! When we talked on the phone, he said we could make it happen. He wasn't kidding! In only two hours of fishing, we landed eight species (yellowtail snapper, lane snapper, French grunt, blue striped grunt, greater amberjack, barracuda, blue runner and a king mackerel). We made a short run offshore to do some vertical jigging, tossing pilchards, dropping for grouper — there were so many techniques going on at once. It really put into perspective how diverse these Florida Keys wrecks and reefs are. Capt. Chris would use this method where he would build life up over the bottom. He would use his chum to get smaller fish to come, then bigger fish would come feed on them. At that point, you just had to toss whatever your bait was in the water. All the fish would be around the boat. I was so stoked that day, when in the heat of the moment of landing that barracuda, we realized we hit 30 species and even caught a bonus king. Thanks to Capt. Chris, we were going home with a mission complete!
When we arrived home, I thought I’d be ending it on 31 species. Looking at the calendar, I was reminded we had a local dolphin slam on the 28th out of Bohicket Marina. If the weather allowed everyone to fish the tournament, I knew we could end it with a mahi, putting us at 32 species. The weather was finally nice, so we geared up, and Team Fulla Bulla sport fishing was on the water. We had a killer day offshore with a box full of early season dolphin. We hooked a dolphin big enough to get us sixth place out of 105 boats.
This trip concluded our mission for 30 species in 30 days. A total of 32 species were landed in 28 days. I couldn't have done it without the help of our guides and friends, whose knowledge of their local waters and fisheries was so extensive it helped us accomplish this goal in what was mostly very tough conditions all month. I want to thank Hook+Gaff as well for supporting this idea! We learned so much during this project that I know will personally help me become a more complete angler. Also of note, every species in this project was released to be caught another day (although that flounder would’ve made an excellent fillet). A total of 17 species were caught on the fly, and the rest on conventional tackle. I hope our project inspires and excites others about fishing. The trip reminds me that there is always more to learn, new fisheries to visit, new waters, new destinations, and more importantly, new friendships to forge. Thanks again for the opportunity! It was something I’ll never forget!
- Chandler Williams