Going fishing is like doing your taxes. If it’s something you dive into just once a year you end up relearning the whole thing every time. Jake Whitfield eyed me, no judgment, and decided to cast for me the first time, my little wriggling greenback zinging way out into the flats not that far from the Courtney Campbell Causeway. He handed me the rod and I started slowly reeling, visions of ginormous redfish and snook in my head.
Not long into the trip we reeled in a beauty, a silvery snook with pale yellow fins and a dark lateral line arched like a painted-on eyebrow. Alas, only 22 inches (keepers are 28 to 33 inches). The next one was just shy, 27 inches, and then we hooked a huge one, one that set my jaws and cramped my thumb a bit from reeling. Before I could get him in the boat, that sandpaper mouth frayed the line and he slipped away.
By this point I was doing my own casting, nothing too pretty, as I listened to Whitfield and fellow guide Jay Plastic talk about this new venture. The Godfrey Hotel & Cabanas Tampa has partnered with Top 5 Fishing Charters for what they are calling a hook-to-table experience. Guests go out, fish for four hours and bring their catch back to the hotel’s restaurant. Maybe bartender Danny Franco will shake up a sly spin on a classic cocktail like a Scofflaw or a Mai Tai, and then executive chef Joe Garcia, executive sous chef Sean Champe and their team will consult with you about your fish: How do you feel about sea trout tacos? What’s your thought on pan-searing with a mango pear salsa? And then it’s chow time.
Honeymoon, bachelor party or just an oh-so-Florida vacation experience, it’s a beaut (but not cheap: it starts at $600 for up to four boaters, plus a dining room charge of $14.95 per person). Capt. Frankie Diaz of Inshore Rush Fishing Charters was staying at the Godfrey and thought, "Hmm, this looks like something we could do."
Banding together with Whitfield (who runs Florida Outdoor Adventures), Plastic (Stealth Fishing Charters), Tim Whitfield (Swift Fish Charters), Justin Lofaro (All American Charters) and Wes Burns (Gulfside Fishing Charters), Diaz met with the Godfrey’s chef Garcia and worked out the details. It can be for lunch or dinner, can be combined with an eco or sunset tour, and guests can embark from the 3,200-square-foot pier at the Godfrey, or, if the weather’s a little choppy, from the boat ramp at the Courtney Campbell. Guides clean the fish and stick it on ice for guests to bring back to the hotel restaurant.
But back to me and my snook. My casts got better. I got in the groove. Nonetheless, redfish eluded me (Plastic, who has been a guide for 12 years, says it has been a pretty paltry year for redfish) and snook taunted, fighting me, dipping under the 22-foot Pathfinder only to wriggle off the hook with my baitfish in tow. Was I mad? Nah, there’s still nothing better than spending time on the water on a glorious Tampa Bay spring day.
Of course, for Whitfield and Plastic, the day started at dawn with a 10- to 12-foot cast net collecting 300 to 400 baitfish. One charter trip in the morning (they were either luckier or more skilled and brought in loads of keepers), then a wobbly journalist in the afternoon. Trips run through 6 or more gallons of gas, they need new rods and reels every year or so, there’s marketing, motor servicing, insurance, truck payments and all that chum. Whew, a lot of work, but for Whitfield, Plastic and the rest of the Top 5 Fishing Charters team, it still means they’ve escaped the grind and "gone fishing."
Fishless but happy, I depended upon the beneficence of that day’s earlier charter: luscious trout tacos, then a snapper dish with citrus vinaigrette and crisp-tender broccolini. And I knew better than to bore anyone with my "one-that-got away" stories.
To book, call (813) 609-8675 or visit fishingcharters.guide/tampa.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.