Tom McCafferty
Despite it technically being spring, New York City was still cold two weeks ago when I flew to Jacksonville, Florida, in search of sun and fish. I’d never caught a spotted seatrout, and my old friend Dale Hiscock (above) had never caught anything bigger than fry. This was about to change, but Dale was dazed and hadn’t realized it at 6 in the morning. The man lives on the beach, picks on his guitar, and seldom wakes before noon. Fishing doesn’t usually fit into his busy schedule. Nate Matthews
Jacksonville is downright lovely once you’re viewing it from offshore, but inland it’s a different story in some areas. Down the street behind the boat that would take us into the trout zone are blips of light from patrol cars. The block was taped off because, according to the weathered fishermen standing outside the tackle shop, a man had just been shot and killed. That was the first news I heard on Memorial Day morning. Nate Matthews
Our friend Danny Patrick was acting as our guide that day. We first anchored off a pier on the St. John’s River, which flows through the heart of Jacksonville. The tide was running out, and the spawning seatrout – according to Patrick – would be hungry. Nate Matthews
He was right. This trout hit a shrimp on my first cast of the day. Thoughts of the plight of the city were fading fast. Nate Matthews
While live shrimp are a staple of this fishery, don’t just grab one and stick a hook through it like a nightcrawler at a farm pond. Here, Patrick holds a properly baited shrimp – with the hook through hollow shell in back of its head and above the brain so that the crustacean will stay alive and wriggle enticingly. Nate Matthews
We drifted our shrimp just off the bottom, about 8 feet under floats, letting the current ride them toward the pilings. Structure like this is seatrout city, giving the fish plenty of shadow lines and unassuming haunts where they can hunt and ambush prey. Nate Matthews
So maybe Patrick actually set the hook and handed the rod to Dale on this one, but I let it slide…once. Luckily Dale was picking up the technique quickly, and by day’s end, he’d be a trout pro. Nate Matthews
Around 10 a.m., the tide had slowed and the seatrout quit biting. The mangrove snappers, however, kept up and seemed to enjoy arching their backs and flashing their spines, which I found quickly have a habit of ripping up your hands. Nate Matthews
Upriver where the tide was still moving fast, the trout bite picked up again under the highway and interstate bridges. Nate Matthews
This trout was one of the lucky ones. After hearing that these fish are a culinary delight, I had saved three bigger ones for supper. But this one, and many others, were released. Nate Matthews
After losing a couple rigs in the rocks and pilings like a typical beginner, Dale hooked, fought, landed, and released this trout on his own. It was about time. Nate Matthews
Downtown Jacksonville boasts a Hooters on the water alongside a landing dock. The prospect of burgers and babes was tempting, but we were in a rush to get back to the piers because the tide was turning and the fishing, we hoped, would be picking up even more. It’s all about priorities. I marked the Hooters on the GPS for later. Nate Matthews
With the shrimp looking pretty lifeless in the well, we switched to mud minnows later in the day and stuck this flounder. Nate Matthews
According to McClane’s Fishing Encyclopedia, seatrout aren’t really trout (although their spots resemble a brown trout). Maybe they don’t fight as vigorously for as long as the freshwater and sea-run trout that I grew up catching in the West, but they’re fun all the same. Or maybe they were just lethargic that morning. Nate Matthews
Patrick holds his big 5-pounder, the heaviest fish of the day. Nate Matthews
Dale caught the last trout, and I caught a couple of mangrove snappers to finish the afternoon. The redfish bite is supposed to be very good as well on the St. John’s, though, and someday I’d love to get back and go after them. Nate Matthews
I filleted two of the fish, cooked half of the fillets in butter with salt and pepper sprinkled on the flesh, then breaded and fried the other half. This last fish I seared then roasted whole in the oven with potatoes, carrots, and onions, covered in foil. Nate Matthews
The trout were all excellent. Of the three preparations, I liked the whole fish best, touched with lemon butter sauce. Dale’s girlfriend Becky was eating with us, and she said to him, “If you eat one of the eyeballs, I will.” She had heard that fish eyes are crunchy and tasty. But Dale is a sane man. So Becky turned to me, and I said, “Why not?” We popped out the eyes and cleaned them off, revealing perfectly white hard balls, then put them in our mouths. Mine was the consistency of rubber with a plasticky pulp at the center. It tasted truly bad. I don’t recommend trying, but if you have time to wet a line on the St. John’s do yourself a favor and get out there. Nate Matthews