To be a truly happy Meat Fisherman, of course, one must find a place where there are plenty of fish. I was lucky enough to establish a record of sorts in this respect some seven years ago when my wife and I, looking for an isolated spot where I could finish a novel, took a house at Punta Rassa, Fla. Although we didn't know it at the time, this tiny little community on the west coast of Florida, at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River, is surrounded by some of the finest fishing waters in the U.S.
Punta Rassa was for centuries the site of an Indian village; the Spanish established a fishery there in the 16th century, but contemporary history has since bypassed the place. It had its first short fling back in the 1850s when millionaire anglers flocked there from all parts of the country to stay at a sportsmen's hotel, the Tarpon House. Punta Rassa had, and still has, probably more tarpon per cubic foot of water than any place on earth.
Punta Rassa remained a sportsmen's paradise until well into this century. When the old Tarpon House burned in 1906 it was replaced by a new and grander one, but in 1913 that one, too, was destroyed by fire. After that, for some unaccountable reason, Punta Rassa's famed fishing waters seem to have been forgotten.
Punta Rassa is the finest place to fish I have ever known. I recently decided to keep a tally on the fish I encountered between 3 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. I had the joy of hooking into and fighting—but not landing—two large tarpon, of catching a 12-pound snook, two trout weighing slightly more than three pounds each, nine amberjacks and one flounder, hooking into one shark (size unknown, but obviously too large to hold on a six-pound test line, so I promptly sacrificed a leader) and laboriously landing a 40-pound ray. In addition, I had to duck on two occasions when schools of skittish pompano, frightened by my boat, showered around me. One little half-pounder struck me in the back and fell into the boat.
Except for the tarpon I hooked while trolling and using medium-weight tarpon tackle, all these fish were caught on a light spinning rod, six-pound test line and a No. 3 spoon. As the mixed bag indicates, I was moving about a great deal, trying to see what a variety of fish I could raise. I caught the snook cruising off an oyster bar, the rest while drifting over grass flats. Punta Rassa is pure heaven for a Meat Fisherman.
Not so long ago I was standing near the ferry slip at Punta Rassa, counting the snook lined up in the shade of the pilings like submarine formations, when a family that looked as if it had been dreamed up by Norman Rockwell arrived in a car with New Hampshire license plates. The mother and the father and a small boy of about 12 piled out with spinning rods and began casting at the foot of the slip while they waited for a ferry. After a while the boy wandered over near where I was standing. Like too many spinners, he had learned the technique of casting without really understanding what a lure was supposed to do. He obviously had the notion that getting it out and back was all there is to fishing.
Finally I said, "What are you trying to catch, son?"
"Anything," he said.
"I know where some fish are," I said, "but they'll break that gut leader for sure. You need a wire leader when you fish around pilings."
"This is more sporting," he said, obviously parroting someone who didn't know how to fish either.