When the wind is blowing 15 knots and the redfish are unwilling to eat, the conversation moves to the finer points of the angling experience. "There are days when the fishing is just awesome," Paul Hawkins said as he poled his skiff across the sea grass bed. "And then there are days when God couldn't catch a fish on a dare. Everything else is somewhere in between."
Hawkins, who started guiding the shallows of Tampa Bay a decade before it was called "flats fishing," has seen his share of good days and bad days on the water.
He's a man of vast experience earned the old fashioned way — hour by hour, day after day, standing on the back of a boat, fishing rod in hand.
"Everybody always wants to know if I have any secret spots," Hawkins said. "I tell them that I've got spots so secret that even the fish haven't found them yet. That usually shuts them up."
Usually, folks pay about $500 to fish with the 60-year-old sage and share his wit and wisdom. Occasionally, the cantankerous charter captain who has been on the water since the 1960s will get off the boat and take the stage for seminars, such as this weekend at the Tampa Bay Boat Show at Tropicana Field.
Hawkins won't tell you where to fish.
"There are enough tower boats and trolling motors out here for my taste already," he quipped.
But he will tell you how to fish.
"That way, it doesn't matter where you live, you will know what to do when you come across a school of redfish," he said. "Or better yet, you will learn what not to do."
For starters, you have to understand your quarry. Red drum, a.k.a. redfish, inhabit the inshore and offshore waters of the Atlantic Ocean, from Massachusetts to Key West, and the Gulf of Mexico.
A long-living species — some specimens have reached 40 years old — redfish spend most of their early lives in inland bays and estuaries before moving offshore to spawn.
The fish that anglers typically encounter around the grass flats, sand bars, mangrove shorelines, oyster-lined creeks and docks are juveniles.
While Hawkins pursues his prey wherever they may swim, he prefers fishing in the shallow, open areas.
"If you are going to hunt deer you are not going to drive around in a Jeep and expect the animals to sit still while you shoot at them," he said. "The same holds true for fishing. You have to approach a redfish the same way you would a wild animal."
Hawkins doesn't use a trolling motor. In fact, there are times when he won't even pole his boat for fear of spooking the fish.
"Sometimes you have to get out of the boat and walk," he said. "You have to be quiet. You have to be patient. Sometimes you have to just let the fish come to you."
The word "stealth" comes up repeatedly when Hawkins talks about redfish.
On a low tide, redfish tend to spread out, and anglers may find themselves casting to individual fish.
"But when the tide comes in and puts another foot of water on the flat, they will bunch together," he said. "This is usually when anglers start making mistakes."
To find schooling redfish, look for large concentrations of black mullet or diving birds. Feeding reds sometimes show their tails or display a "deep V" head wake as they move across the flat.
Redfish are creatures of habit. If you find an area they use more than once, chances are you will find them there again in similar tidal and atmospheric conditions.
If you spot a school, don't chase it with a trolling motor. It is better to just get upwind of the school and use a push pole, or drift down to the school.
"Too many people make the mistake of throwing their bait right into the school," he said. "But a baitfish rocketing in from outer space hitting a redfish right in the nose is not always the best approach."
Hawkins said he will sit for an hour just to watch a school move along, waiting for them to swim in his direction.
"If you spook one fish, you will spook them all," he said. "It is hard to get somebody to stop in the kitchen to eat if they are running from a house fire."
Hawkins said the best advice he can give an angler, be it on his boat or in a fishing seminar, is to "be quiet, be patient and the fish will come to you."