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Bait and Grounds

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

To the sea-angler the bait and often the bait-catcher is an important factor to be considered, especially in Southern seas, on the great reef which reaches out from Cape Florida and trends to the west as though determined in ages to come to enclose the Gulf of Mexico and make it an inland sea. The bait-taker is an interesting personage, and the collection of bait, at least on the reef, a fascinating pastime. Paublo, his naked black shoulders half covered by the cast-net slung over them, the heavy sinkers or weights — leaden beads — clanging as he strode along the shore, his keen eyes on the watch for mullets, was a most picturesque figure. The newcomer would wonder who or what he was, as in one hand he bore a huge cimeter-like object with a cloth bound about the end as a handle. ' With the cast-net he took mullets, — bait for barracuda, jack, and amber-jack. With the "sword" he crept upon schools of small sardines or "hard heads," which hugged the shore, and which were intended to lure the gray snapper to its death. Sighting a school, he would drop the cast-net on the sands and wade out into the water knee-deep, then coming slowly in, apparently not moving, creeping upon a brown spot six feet across, directly at the surface. When within reach the cimeter was raised, coming down with terrific force, cutting through the school, and maiming thirty or more fishes, all that were needed. At the upper end of the lagoon, really the interior of a growing atoll, where the water was shallow, the ripple on the surface told of schools of mullets, and the net was taken from his shoulders and manoeuvred for several moments as he slowly waded out in their direction. The cast-net when spread out represented a circle from six to ten feet in diameter. The circumference of the circle was lined with lead beads or sinkers, each an inch in length, and from the circumference to the centre extended six or eight stout cords which passed through an orifice lined with leather; these met and joined ; to this was fastened another cord eight or ten feet in length.

Such a contrivance was utterly impossible to a novice, and in my novitiate I afforded the habitues of this portion of the reef no little amusement. I succeeded in catching myself, throwing myself over, and nearly losing my teeth by forgetting to let go at the proper moment. But in the hands of Paublo the casting of the net became a scene worthy the, brush of an artist. The object was to toss the folded net so that it would radiate over the school ; and to accomplish this he spread it out in some way over his left arm, holding a portion of the edge between his teeth and the coil of. cord in one hand. In this position, crouching, moving step by step, stealthily, toward the school, he reached a casting distance, perhaps eight or ten feet, then would stop, give a slight swing to the left, a long turn to the right, and with all his force launch the net into the air ahead of him. At once it assumed a circular shape, dropping upon the school, the lead weights sinking it to the bottom, holding the mullets in its toils. He now approached and began a series of twitches upon the cord, which imparted a like movement to the radiating cords, which presently hauled the sinkers together, completely enclosing the fish in a purse or bag, in which the entire catch was easily lifted and hauled ashore.

The mullet, Mugil cephalus, is the most important bait fish in the Gulf region and is found with another species, the silver-mullet, Mugil curema, in vast numbers from the lower Florida keys northward, — Biscayne Bay and Key, Indian River, and the Gulf states all having their quota, caught in seines and cast-nets at the various points alongshore. The average mullet weighs about half a pound to a pound, adults reaching seven, eight, or even twelve pounds, according to fishermen.

Fishes of various kinds constitute the common bait of the Florida region, but on the outer reef crayfish and conch were equally important. Be-fore the singular destruction of the coral at Tortugas, some years ago, nearly every branch and head was the home of one or more crayfish,—pronounced " craw," on the reef, really the spiny lobster, Palinurus. They dug out the sand so that their tails could be inserted, and backed in, leaving their whips or antenna to wave to and fro. It was an easy matter to grain them. The grains was a two-pronged barbed spear not unlike a fish's tail in shape, with a long, yellow pine handle. By going out upon the lagoon or inner reef by sunrise the crayfish could be caught, as at this time they came in and spread over the reef, feeding upon the various kinds of algae. So plentiful were they at times, that a boat could almost have been filled if necessary. This was the most killing bait on the reef except for bonito, barracuda, and jack of various kinds. Another bait used for red snapper and grouper was conch, Strombus gigas, the rich pink-lipped shell so common in collections. These could be found crawling over the lagoon in vast numbers, "hitching " themselves along by their sword-shaped operculum. The Conch-town of Key West in early days took its name from the Bahamians and others, who, it was supposed, lived more or less upon conchs, a diet as tough as unpounded abalone. The method of taking conchs was to pole the boat along, a negro accompanying it, who jumped overboard and threw the conchs in as fast as they were sighted. They were opened with a hatchet by cutting around the small end of the shell, upon which the animal could be unscrewed. Owing to its toughness this bait was in high esteem among the professional fishermen.

Mullet is the popular bait for tarpon and a killing lure for almost any fish which preys upon its kind. At Fernandina, Florida, fiddler-crab is a valued bait, and I often drew on the preserves on the way to the fort, where there was always an endless supply, the struggling crab being a dainty that drum, sheepshead, channel-bass, or sea-trout rarely refuse. At Aransas Pass, shrimp, taken with a fine-mesh cast-net, is a favorite bait for channel-bass, Spanish mackerel, and others.

In New England clam bait, both hard and soft, is popular, and the title " high-tide clam-digger " was a term of derision applied by an old beach-comber of my fishing acquaintance to indicate the stupidity of a tenderfoot." Menhaden is excellent bait for various fishes in this region. In the Chesapeake crabs are so plentiful that they are often used, the common edible crab preferred, and various shellfish.

In California waters baits of several kinds are used. Many fishermen use the meat of the beautiful shell abalone, Haliotis, which is tough and eaten only after being vigorously pounded. The California crayfish, Palinurus, ranks next, and is a killing lure, but already it is so rare on account of over-fishing, that it is an expensive bait. At the islands, for trolling, the principal baits for yellowtail are the California herring, Clupea pallasii, and the California smelt, Atherinopsis californiensis, — the latter preferred on account of its firmness. The California flying-fish, Exoccetus californiensis, is the only bait in vogue for the tuna. It is caught in gill-nets, and numbers are frequently found in early morning in the fleet of fishing-boats and upon the beaches where they have "sailed " to escape the midnight raids of tuna and white sea-bass. The flying-fish is migratory, arriving at Santa Catalina in April, — sometimes earlier, sometimes later, —spawning in Avalon Bay in May and June. In July I have found the young half an inch long. They resemble grasshoppers in their attempts to "fly," hopping from the water six or eight inches with fins extended, and remaining on the surface like the gar. All reports to the contrary, the flying-fish does not fly. When alarmed it whirls its tail about like a screw, which drives it from the water with great force. The convulsive motion of the tail extends up the body toward the head, imparting to it a wriggling motion, which in turn imparts to the " wings," fins, a tremulous or flapping motion, at the same time they are " flapped " in an attempt to aid the fish in getting out of the water ; but the moment the fish clears the water the fins are fixed and do not move they are mere supporters, the fish being an animated parachute, or aeroplane. The only motion the winglike fins have is a fluttering of the edges when the wind is strong and ahead. The pectorals may be said to be locked ; so are the ventrals, which also present a wide surface and aid in bearing up the fish. The latter moves until its inertia is exhausted, then the tail drops until it touches the surface, whereupon it is whirled furiously about again, forcing the fish into the air; and in this way it can travel for a fourth of a mile, then falling heavily with a crash, not entering the water head first. The fish has a very limited power of changing its direction. I have repeatedly had them pass over my boat, have been struck, and have seen them strike others ; have watched the fish in passing a few inches from my face, and have waved my hat at it, all of which had no effect upon its movements or the direction in which it was soaring. From a large steamer I marked the course of flying-fishes as they rose, and several struck it.

The flying-fish is an excellent bait for yellow-tail or white sea-bass, as well as tuna. Along the California mainland, wharf fishermen fish for small fry, using clams and the various crustaceans found along the beaches, the natural food for " surf fishes." Squid, if it could be obtained, would be excellent bait for tuna, as in July I have found the stomachs of tunas filled with squid ; and as they stop biting very suddenly, it is due possibly to the fact that they change their diet.

The various fishing-grounds for the great oceanic fishes of this country are so well known that it is hardly necessary to refer to them, but for the convenience of the angler they may in a very broad sense be divided into three classes : the region from Maine to Georgia, including the striped bass, bluefish, blackfish, sheepshead, drum, etc. ; the Gulf region, including the snappers, barracuda, jewfish, groupers, kingfish, channel-bass, hogfish, black grouper, etc. ; and the California region, including the yellowtail, white sea-bass, black sea-bass, albacore, tuna, California sheepshead, and California barracuda. Fishing-grounds for the first mentioned are found on various parts of the New England coast. The islands south of the Cape -- Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and others — are all famous, especially Cuttyhunk and others, many being preserves for striped-bass fishing. At Fisher's Island, off New London, I have found excellent fishing for blackfish and bluefish. Block Island and vicinity is a famous fishing-ground. In the vicinity of New York the various grounds are well known, and professional fishermen can be found all alongshore from Hell Gate to Fort Hamilton, and on the Jersey coast; while in the summer daily steamers take ardent anglers to the fishing-banks. Old Point Comfort and vicinity is a prolific ground, and at all the seaports — Beau-fort, Charleston, Savannah, and Fernandina — the angler will find more or less excellent fishing for sheepshead, drum, and " sea-trout." At Fernandina, in the mouth of the river, channel-bass and sea-trout are found, and I have had good sport at the mouth of the St. Johns with channel-bass and sea-trout, not to speak of exhilarating shark-fishing. Pilottown is on the north side ; Mayport on the south, reached by boat from Fernandina or from Jacksonville ; or a pleasant trip is by small boat from Fernandina on the " inside." From here south the fishing increases, and the angler can now reach extreme Southern Florida by rail and find palatial hotels alongshore affording creature comforts, a marked contrast to the conditions which existed twenty-five years ago, when Southern Florida was comparatively unknown and the angler reached St. Augustine from the St. Johns River by an uncertain mule route, making his way to the Indian River as best he could. The latter is one of the most interesting and fertile regions in America for certain fishes, channel-bass, crevally, snapper, blue-fish, sheepshead, sea-trout (Cynoscion), mangrove or gray snapper, Spanish mackerel, and sawfish. It is now readily reached by rail from New York via Jacksonville and St. Augustine. It is not a river, but a stretch of salt water one hundred and thirty-five miles in extent, separated from the ocean by a low sandy beach, and ranges in width from a few feet, at Jupiter Narrows, to six miles at Titusville. It is a shallow lagoon, with a depth of from three to seventeen feet. It has several inlets connecting it with the ocean, as Haulover Channel, Indian River Inlet, Fort Pierce Channel, Baker Cut, and Garfield Cut. There are several rivers running into it, as Gallic Creek, Sebastian, St. Lucia, and Jupiter.

The bottom of this " river " is in the main hard and sandy, with some sandstone and coquina, well covered with algae, — an ideal place for fish and fishing. The temperature of the water in January ranges from 59° to 65°. Along the Indian River are a number of places, headquarters for the professional fishermen, where the angler may obtain information as to boats, boatmen, etc. Some of these are Eden, Titusville, Eau Gallie, Cocoa, Melbourne, Sebastian, Fort Pierce, Jensen, and Stuart, all in Brevard County and on the line of the Jacksonville and Indian River Railroad. Titusville, with a population of about one thousand, is the principal town. Following down the coast we come to Biscayne Bay and its many keys, and from here the angler may make his way down the reef and find a most interesting country at Key West and the keys and channels to the north and west. Key West has a large fishing fleet. The Tortugas group can be reached by chartering a smack, or by the government vessel. The winters here are delightful, but in the long summer the angler may expect intense heat and mosquitoes, — this pest not comparing, however, with that of the Florida mainland shores and rivers in the hot months.

The fishing localities of the west coast of Florida, more or less famous for tarpon, are well known, and include Tampa, Cedar Keys, St. James City, Charlotte Harbor, White Water Bay, Captiva Pass, Homosassa, Punta Rassa, and others — all reached via the railroad from Jacksonville. Other resorts on the north Gulf coast may be found at Pensacola and Mississippi Sound. The tarpon country of the coast of Texas is reached via New Orleans from the east and San Antonio from the west, and from Galveston to Aransas Pass fine fishing is to be had. The country calls to mind the Indian River region, being protected from the sea by a long sandy ridge. The town of Tarpon is situated on Aransas Pass, reached by the Aransas Pass Railroad to Rockport, where the mail boat may be taken to Tarpon, or to Sport, the head-quarters of the Tarpon Club of Texas. The climate at the Pass is excellent in summer, insect pests are absent, and continuous breezes from the Gulf make the angling particularly enjoyable.

The fishing at Galveston is worthy of special mention. Here we find the Galveston Tarpon Club, whose members have fine sport with tarpon, jack, Spanish mackerel, and redfish. G. E. Mann, Esq., president of the club, writes to the Forest and Stream as follows, which, as I have never visited the grounds, I take the liberty to copy:

" There is many a man who, if he knew of it, would be glad to come a thousand miles to wrestle with a jackfish or shark or tarpon, standing on a granite rock six miles out in the Gulf of Mexico.

" It is strange that so few fishermen know of the fishing we have at Galveston. There is no other place in America that deep-sea fishing can be had for the rod and reel from a comfortable footing on a flat rock, many of the rocks from six to eight feet square, and so adjacent that you can follow along for a hundred yards if you wish. The jetties are some nine miles from the wharves, just far enough to keep out the pot-fishers, yet within an hour's run for a good launch. The Tarpon Club is small and has only one boat, but it is a fine seaworthy launch, carrying a dozen fishermen. It leaves for the jetties every day at one o'clock when the weather is suitable for fishing, and nearly every day some of the members go at four o'clock in the morning and get back in time to do a day's work. We have an enthusiastic set of fishermen who are always glad to welcome the stranger within our gates, who is of the rod and reel craft, and to give the best advantages we can for fishing."

The coast of Louisiana abounds in localities where the tarpon and other fishes can be taken ; New Orleans having many ardent anglers who are devoted to the rod and reel.

Los Angeles is the central point for anglers going to the fishing resorts of Southern California. The tuna grounds are at Santa Catalina Island, twenty-five miles offshore, reached from San Pedro, twenty miles by rail from Los Angeles, by the Southern Pacific, Salt Lake railroads, and an electric road, there being from one to three steamers daily in summer and one in winter. Avalon, the port of Santa Catalina, is three and one-half hours from Los Angeles and has a summer population of five or six thousand and about fifteen hundred in winter. Hotels, cottages, boarding-houses, and numerous professional boatmen make this the best-equipped angling resort in the country, comfort being considered, there being no hot weather, mosquitoes, or pests of any kind, winter or summer, and that essential for tuna-fishing, — smooth water.

San Clemente Island, twenty-two miles distant to the southwest, can be reached by chartered boat. It is government property and rented to sheep herders, and permission must be obtained to camp. The fishing is identical with all the. island resorts, only better, if we except the tuna. Yachts can be chartered at Santa Catalina or San Pedro for the trip to the islands of Anacapa, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, San Miguel, and San Nicolas, or one can go from Santa Barbara. All are private property, and there are no towns and no regular connecting boats. Larco, a Santa Barbara professional fisherman, takes parties to the islands, which are large, picturesque, and beautiful. The only comfortable way to make this trip is to charter a commodious vessel, using her as a base of supplies, and cruise about the islands. Permission must be obtained to go ashore. Professional fishermen will be found at San Pedro, Long Beach, Redondo, Santa Monica, Newport, Laguna, Coronado, and San Diego, who take anglers out into the channel for large fish. San Diego is reached from Los Angeles by the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, and by a line of steamers from San Francisco, stop-ping at Santa Barbara, San Pedro, and Redondo. The coast line of the Southern Pacific will take the angler to San Luis Obispo, where bass and other fishes are to be had, while at Monterey and Santa Cruz in the summer great schools of salmon are found. Along the coast of Oregon and Washington are many charming fishing regions and gamy fish, which if the great halibut is excepted, which is always caught off-shore, do not come within the scope of this volume.

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