Fishermen love to debate live vs. artificial bait.
Purists, such as Richard Seward, will cast all day with their plugs and jigs, even when the fish aren't biting and the livewell is brimming with succulent scaled sardines.
"The fish are here … the trick is getting them to bite," Seward said as he tossed a jig off the stern.
"That's what you said last time …" Mike Mahoney quipped. But before Mahoney could finish his sentence, a trout that was not much bigger than the minnows in the bait well grabbed the soft-plastic jig and started pulling line.
"Now it's your turn," Mahoney said as he reeled in the fish. His friends, Seward, a fishing guide, and Richard Moore, president of the Tampa Chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association, were getting ready for the organization's annual catch-and-release tournament this weekend. Now in its 27th year, the CCA Tampa Chapter's Digital Photo All-Release Challenge usually draws Tampa Bay's top guides and recreational anglers.
The rules are simple. Each angler is given a tackle bag filled with an assortment of artificial lures. Once the fishing starts Saturday, the angler can only use what's in that bag. If they lose the shiny new MirrOlure or D.O.A. shrimp on the first cast, tough luck. They must fish on with another lure.
"People wonder, why enter a tournament to fish against a bunch of guides? They think they can't possibly win," Seward said. "But I will let you in on a little secret. Most guides don't know how to use artificial lures. They all fish with live bait."
And to prove his point, Seward made everybody on his boat fish with the lures that would be available to the tournament anglers. He swore we would catch fish. I believed him. He didn't earn the nickname "Mr. Trout" by snagging sail cats.
In the 1980s, when sportfish were killed by the thousands in gill nets, Seward and fellow members of the Florida Conservation Association (the name was later changed to the Coastal Conservation Association) worked tirelessly to protect and rebuild the dwindling trout, redfish and snook populations. The CCA eventually helped pass a constitutional amendment that banned the nets from inshore waters, which took the pressure off the state's mullet stocks and, in turn, helped all of the major inshore fisheries, including seatrout.
Today, 71 years old and still fishing, Seward isn't much for sharing his battle stories, but he is still as stubborn as ever, even when all he's catching is puny 12-inch trout.
"Now how many is that now, Richard?" Mahoney asked. "I think I've caught five and you've caught one?"
Though Mahoney likes to joke around with this elder statesman of inshore fishing, the Tampa native has nothing but respect for Seward and his contemporaries who launched the modern fisheries conservation movement. "I'm not much for politics," Mahoney said. "But you've got to give those guys a lot of credit."
Mahoney grew up fishing the waters of Tampa Bay. His family has owned and operated Tampa's T.A. Mahoney Co. Inc. Marine Hardware since 1946, the area's longest running marine and tackle supply store.
So it is only fitting that a store that survived five wars and nearly a dozen recessions would get behind a tournament that benefits an organization whose sole purpose is to see that fish stocks survive long after our current economic crisis is just a distant memory.
"We try to help where we can," Mahoney said as he reeled in another fish. "Now, is that my nine to your two?"
Seward didn't answer. I could tell the veteran guide wanted to tell the whippersnapper that he was catching yellow-mouth gator trout when Mahoney, 45, was still crawling around in diapers. But Seward stuck to the game plan, even when it was clear that the artificial lures hadn't caught anything bigger than a baby trout. The tournament rules call for plugs and jigs, and by golly, that is what he would use.
But outdoors writers are a notoriously impatient bunch. A day on the water isn't "good" — strike that, "productive" — unless there is a photo of a big fish to prove it. A good outdoors writer usually resists the urge to pick up a rod until that "photo fish" has been caught, documented and released.
However, after three hours of tiny trout, it was time to call an audible. "I'll take a rod and one of those scaled sardines," I told Seward. That first free-lined baitfish was gobbled up in an instant. "How about a float?" I asked, hooking on another whitebait. One twitch of the bobber to attract the trout's attention and wham! Photo fish right on cue.
"Now we could have done that right away," Seward said. "But I wanted to show you how competitive this tournament is going to be. Only the very best fishermen will have a chance to win."
To register for the CCA Tampa Chapter All-Release Challenge, call (813) 238-2220 or go to CCAFlorida.org. To book a trip with Richard Seward, call (813) 361-8161.