Posted on Sun, Oct. 25, 2009
Fly-fishing's last frontier provides thrills
By SUSAN COCKING
Inside every nymph-casting, freshwater fly-fisherman lurks the desire to catch something bigger than a 12-inch brown trout. If he or she is honest, like captain Bill Baldus, the fly-fisherman will admit that catching big fish on fly in saltwater is an ultimate goal.
Baldus, an information technology executive from Bozeman, Mont., relocated to southwest Florida's Ten Thousand Islands region with his wife six years ago to fulfill a lifelong dream. Since January, he has been living his dream as a full-time skiff guide out of his waterfront condo at Port of the Islands near Naples.
``It's the last frontier of fly-fishing,'' Baldus, 55, said. ``Some of the most challenging fishing is saltwater fishing.''
While living in Montana, Baldus tied his own flies and guided part-time on the famed Big Horn, Big Hole and Madison rivers. He still designs his own patterns and puts them to good use in the huge maze of mangrove-lined creeks and lakes, and the open Gulf waters from Naples to Flamingo.
LOOKING FOR SNOOK
Recently, Baldus guided me to a trophy snook on fly rod out of Port of the Islands. It took us all day in oppressive heat mixed with thunderstorms, but it was worth the effort.
We began the morning on an outgoing tide in a small, open bay, where several tarpon rolled in the brown, tannin-stained waters. I made a couple of bad casts with a 12-weight and never got a bite before the fish disappeared.
Everywhere we poled after that, the water seemed to grow more brown and turbid. You couldn't see your fly until you had stripped it almost all the way up to the boat. We encountered a couple of small, cruising redfish along a mangrove shoreline. But they required me to make a backhand cast, which I've never mastered, and I missed both of them.
By late afternoon, the tide began to rise, but the water still was very murky along the shorelines we poled. To make matters worse, a thunderstorm dumped heavy rain on us for about 20 minutes, further muddying the waters.
Sight-casting was out of the question. But Baldus poled along the backside of a small key facing the Gulf, where he had encountered snook chasing bait along a shelf.
We couldn't see the bottom, but we both saw ripples and boils on the surface tight to the mangroves that indicated a feeding gamefish. I began casting a 9-weight with 16-pound tippet tied to a white baitfish imitation decorated with crystal flash and 3-D pelagic eyes. Miraculously, I managed to not foul the fly in the mangroves.
On perhaps my fourth cast to the shoreline, I felt a very sharp bump followed by a strong tug, and then a yellowish-silver head broke the surface. Having not felt a fish all day, I was momentarily stunned into inaction.
``Set the hook! You've got to bury the hook!'' Baldus said.
As the fish thrashed, I strip-struck it sharply. But then the fly line slipped from my hands. ``You've got to keep it tight!'' Baldus said.
I was afraid to let go of the fly line with my left hand at my side, so I seized the line between my teeth to tighten it until I could recover it by hand. Just as the fly line finally came tight, the fish realized it was hooked and dashed for the tangle of prop roots about 10 feet away.
``He's gone now,'' Baldus muttered.
CHANGE OF FORTUNE
The fish made a sharp left around one root, then took a right around a second prop root. I tried to keep tight on it, but figured Baldus was right: breaking the tippet was almost inevitable. But as I peered beneath the mangroves, I saw that the fish was belly-up and unable to move because the leader was pulled tight around the roots.
``I really think you might be able to get him,'' I said to Baldus.
The guide used the pole to push the stern up close to the mangroves as I stood back, keeping the fly line tight. He crawled across the gunwales, grabbed the fish by the lower jaw and pulled it into the boat. We both cheered. It measured 30 inches -- the largest Baldus has caught with a client. We photographed it and revived it in the water until it swam away.
``In Montana, it would be the fish of a lifetime,'' Baldus said.
Not too shabby for southwest Florida either.
To book a Ten Thousand Islands fly-fishing trip with captain Bill Baldus, visit flyfish10k.com or call 239-272-8027.
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