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Reeling in on Hope's lure

It was early enough in the morning that the full moon was still faint in the sky when fishing guide Bill Hope started to steer his 24-foot, flat-bottomed skiff down the Chassahowitzka River.

The river was narrow at first and crowded with houses and oak and banana trees. It then grew wider, and sawgrass replaced the trees, allowing for longer views.

Hope's client for the day, Tom Keator, sat in the breeze created when Hope opened up the throttle of his 90-horsepower outboard motor. He pointed at a crumbling old house, the only one in sight, lit by the rising sun.

"You see something like that, that's beautiful. That's an old, old house," Keator said. "I don't think there's a nicer place in Florida to fish."

Keator is an experienced judge of fishing waters and fishing guides. A Florida native, he has fished with Hope for about 15 years. And he is committed enough to his sport that he makes sacrifices for it.

He has a tattoo of a sailfish on his ankle, which he has to slather with sunscreen to keep from getting burned. He takes the time to build his own rods. And, most impressively, he has flown from his temporary home of Budapest, Hungary, to fish with Hope for two days.

When Keator is not talking about fish, he talks about construction contracts in Hungary, Thailand and Australia, which all seem especially distant when Hope has reached the fishing waters, the coastal flats north of the mouth of the river near the Hernando-Citrus line.

"The thing I don't like about it is all the boat traffic," Hope said, joking. In 10 hours on the water, his passengers would see about a dozen osprey, a bald eagle, egrets and several dolphins, but only one other boat.

But this is a trick that Hope pulls off regularly, and, in fact, is the essence of his job: transporting people who make their living in hectic arenas into these almost perfectly peaceful surroundings.

Among his clients are retired athletes such as Major League Baseball pitchers Gaylord Perry and Tom Seaver, active ones such as pro football players Art Monk and Rick Tuten, and, probably the most active, baseball and football star Deion Sanders.

A picture in Hope's truck shows him with one arm draped around Sanders and another around Sanders' fishing partner, rap singer Hammer.

"Deion's a good fisherman," Hope said. "He don't even want to go in when it gets dark. He does like to fish."

Guiding successfully, making the sense of calm complete, requires a relaxed person, which Hope seems to be. That is partly because he is at home in these waters.

His family has lived in Hernando County since the 1840s; Hope grew up in Brooksville and fished in the gulf. He moved away for a time and worked as an executive for a hospital and nursing home company. He returned to Brooksville and went into the insurance business, but found himself guiding more and more. He has done it full-time for the past six years.

He wears Polaroid sunglasses (essential to see beneath the glare on the water) and a ball cap printed with the name of his business, Captain Bill Hope Guide Service. He smokes his cigars _ usually relatively cheap ones _ down to their soggy butts, though for a good half hour he savors a Dominican beauty that Keator picked up for him in a duty-free shop.

Keator said that what makes Hope his favorite guide, besides the fact that the two of them have become good friends, is his patience. Some guides will show their clients one hole. If it produces nothing, the guide gets discouraged and communicates that to his clients.

With the appropriately named Hope, Keator said, "At the end of the day, if you're into the fish, he's into the fish."

Two things are clear early in this outing: one, that the day will take some patience; and, two, that Keator is very much into fishing, crazy about it.

Hope works his boat through a maze of grassy spits and shallow lagoons to a hole he knows. The scenery remains so constant during the day that it can be disorienting: marsh grass, distant bunches of cabbage palms, and the stands of dead tree trunks that seem to rise out of the gulf. The cooling towers of the Crystal River Energy Complex can be seen far to the north.

Mostly, the water is so shallow that Hope's outboard dredges up mud. In an area where 3 feet of water can qualify as a hole, the first stop is the real thing, one maybe 30 feet deep.

Catching redfish is banned in March, April and May. On opening day of one season, his boat pulled 70 redfish out of this hole, Hope said.

As much as Keator talks about the scenery, what he has really come out here for is an experience like that one. He tied a gold-tinted spoon on his line. "Usually, we go catching, not fishing," he said.

Casting is more like it. They linger there for about an hour, hooking only a pinfish about the size of a silver dollar. It is no good even as bait. Keator usually doesn't crack a beer until he catches his first fish. A bit frustrated, he decides the pinfish qualifies, and, at about 8:45 a.m., reaches into a well-stocked cooler for a Coors Light.

Hope suggests moving on and does what he will do a lot in the next few hours _ pulls up the anchor.

"Johnny told me this would be an anchor-hauling day," he said, referring to another guide that works out of the Chassahowitzka Lodge. At 57, Hope has a bit of a paunch. But his back is so tough from pulling up anchors that when he recently had minor surgery, the doctor struggled to get the anesthetic needle into it.

At the next likely spot, they see dolphins. Most boaters are delighted to see dolphins; Hope and Keator consider them pests because they scare fish. They herd them away.

Once they begin using shrimp as bait, they both pull in good-sized spotted sea trout.

Desirable as they are, trout cannot compare to redfish for several reasons. A big redfish along this part of the coast is more than 30 inches. Their taste is first-rate. They are sleek, silver-scaled with a bronze cast that gave them their name. And they fight so hard that some people call them channel bass.

"C'mon fish, get on there. We got to break this up," Hope said, casting.

It is suddenly apparent that there are redfish all around the boat. They dart past the stern, kicking up tufts of mud.

Their abundance is one of the greatest successes of fishery management. Redfish were severely depleted in the mid-1980s because of consumer demand. A U.S. government ban on netting them began in 1986. Florida also closed the harvest for hook-and-line anglers for 1986, '87 and most of '88. Fishers are now only allowed to keep one fish between 18 and 27 inches.

Though there are plenty of them in this water, they refuse to bite.

Hope said that often happens when the tide is low. Also, they can feed all night during a full moon, so they are less hungry in the day. Sometimes, even a fisherman as experienced as Hope has no explanation.

Keator, who, besides coming all this way, has paid Hope $175 for the boat and bought the shrimp as well, is reduced to praying.

"C'mon, oh great red one," he said.

Finally, as the tide started to come in at about 1:15 p.m., Hope hooks a big redfish. Once in the boat, the fish goes on a cooler with inches marked on it for measuring. The fish is 33 inches long. Too long to keep, it is given a federal tag next to its dorsal fin. Hope will send a card to the federal Department of Commerce telling where and when he caught it and the size of the fish.

If it is caught again, the angler is supposed to report that, allowing the movement and growth of the fish to be tracked.

Keator watches Hope dip the fish back in the water and let it swim away. "Bill, you know you're catching my damn fish," he said with good-natured disgust.

With the tide up, and one redfish in the boat, Hope is more encouraged. He anchors the boat about 40 feet from a small grassy point.

"That looks too fishy for me. I'm going to have to cast," he said.

Keator finally hooks what he thinks at first is a stingray, but when it comes closer to the boat is clearly a redfish. His rod is bent almost double with the strain, then, suddenly, it is not.

"God doggit," he said, stamping his big foot, in a big bright-blue boating moccasin, on the deck.

"That's okay," he added. "Just having it on the line was good."

For the next 45 minutes or so, Keator is hooking a redfish with almost every cast. He lands a 31-inch fish. Three or four get close enough to the boat that Hope is ready to scoop them up with the net, but they break free.

He finally lands one of keeping size. Just before 5 p.m., when they head back toward Chassahowitzka Lodge, where Hope is based, there are seven trout and one redfish on ice in the cooler.

As he rides back by the same fallen-down house, Keator resorts to the philosophical cliche, which seems especially appropriate, that a bad day fishing is better than a good day doing anything else.

Many days in these waters, Hope said, the period when he is hooking fish constantly has lasted nearly all day.

"Today, we didn't go catching. We went fishing," Hope said, and added that he was looking forward to tomorrow, which, it turned out, was just the opposite kind of day. Keator and a friend, Hope said, caught 46 redfish, 21 of them over 28 inches.

"It was just a real super day," he said.