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March 2019: The Inaugural Travel Trip

There are likely hundreds of quotes and variations of that follow the same general philosophy; The journey makes the destination. This being my inaugural Student of Slay trip that required real travel away from local waters, I reflected on that theory as both the journey and destination turned out to be nothing shy of epic (literally epic – not “epic broooo” epic). The destination, the Florida Keys or more specifically, Key West to link up with Captain Rush Maltz of Odyssea Sportfishing. Which may be a familiar name to many fishing junkies (myself included), who are fans of the show Local Knowledge. Needless to say, I was very excited about the opportunity and the timing played out ideally.

To start and if nothing else, the journey itself would have made the trip great even if the fishing wasn’t (spoiler alert, it didn’t suck). Unfortunately, my schedule only allowed for a quick, turn and burn type trip so I jumped on a late flight into Fort Myers Thursday, caught a few hours of sleep and up early to catch the first Key West Express ferry to the island. I arrived around noon with plenty of daylight to spare so I dumped my stuff and decided to explore a bit.

The hotel had beach cruisers available to its guests, so I spent the afternoon pedaling around the island. Of course, I ended up getting sucked into a few tourist traps but also found some really badass shops (like fly shop, The Angling Company) and watering holes along the way. To wrap up the day, I made a quick pitstop at the grocery store for some boat provisions and then rode to a local favorite, the Hogfish Bar & Grill for dinner. Key West is definitely an awesome travel destination that has both a ton of energy and cool eclectic island vibe but also can still feel its strong roots to the waters surrounding it. Which includes a rich fishing culture born from its world-renowned local waters.

My 6 AM alarm never stood a chance to buzz as I woke up nearly an hour prior to in anticipation of the day. I brewed a quick coffee, packed my bags and eagerly headed to the marina. I arrived at the dock to find Captain Rush halfway inside and working in the bilge access while his new First Mate Colt, was making the final preparations for the day. We wasted no time, quickly untying and heading out to make bait.

“It doesn’t get much better than this!” Captain Rush stated as we left the channel and he was right; the weather was turning out to be insanely perfect. Clear skies, low 80s and zero wind which made for glassy turquoise seas to run in.

We quickly zeroed in on an area with beautiful uninhabited keys surrounding and slid into the shallow sand flats where birds were working heavily. Without hesitation, Rush readied his cast net and jumped up on the bow to find a bait school to throw on. Watching true pros throw a cast net make it look like such an easy task but no doubt it’s a true art form that can only be crafted with time and practice. We made maybe half a dozen or so throws and with everyone on the boat finding their role (mine primarily being to watch and marvel), every toss yielded healthy quantities of lively Pilchards for the day.

Master of the cast net. Makes me appreciative of how spoiled we are in San Diego with 365 bait readily available at the bait barges.

It became rapidly apparent that Rush is absolutely a master of his trade and logged more than his fair share of cast net tosses. Right off the bat, I noticed something I was unsure of before meeting, Rush is still a light-tackle charter guide and professional fisherman through and through who, just happens to also now be on a television show. There are zero egos on this boat and he busts his ass to make the fishing experience world-class for his clients. I would be remised to not take note of that and respect his continued dedication.

Now onto the piece de resistance, the fishing grounds. By no means will I ever claim to have any sort of sixth sense or special instincts to know if the fishing will be hot or not. But something about this day felt very right and very fishy. Maybe it was the overall excitement from the journey leading up to or maybe it was the perfect weather that made lake-like sea conditions, but either way it was time to find out what the day truly had in store. 

We made a quick run offshore to a zone that has had a good Blackfin Tuna bite of late. As we got close, I noticed a group of a dozen or so boats anchored tightly together. But we stopped outside of that to set up shop at our own piece of paradise.

“Let’s try drifting here for a little.” – Captain Rush instructed as he examined the current and tossed some live Pilchards to build life.

“Is this a wreck or reef we are on here?” I asked.

“Kind of, more so just a small high point not many people fish and definitely beats being over mixed in with the crowd.”

Immediately after setting up I thought to myself, how the hell would you ever find a spot like this? Just outside of a popular reef in no man’s land. The answer – damn near countless days on the water and a network of other local guides whose respect and cooperation are hard earned over time. His experience sets up bozos like me for incredible fishing and it didn’t take long for things to start heating up! Fish popped up on our “freebies” (Pilchards) almost immediately, so Colt and I tossed out our lines. Within no more than a minute or two, Colt was on the first fish of the day and I quickly followed suit. The first two on the boat were very healthy, fat Bonitos. Not what we were looking for but a great way to get the blood pumping and day started.

After pulling on a handful more Bonitos and seeing some of the right kind mixed in, jumping on our chum, I hooked into a fish that felt like the variety we were seeking. A drag ripping first run, the signature headshakes, and forcing me to fight it straight up and down all but confirmed. And as much as the salty West Coasters might dog spinning gear, I have to say the “coffee grinder” setup I was using allowed me to make very quick work of a decent grade little Blackfin.

With fresh sushi on the boat and a bit of a lull in the fishing, we start talking about making a move. Of course, right on queue – another tuna races off with my bait. Definitely feels like the right kind again and about the same grade as the first. Then pop, I pull the hook and tuna numero dos es nada mas. This proved fatal. By no means to the day of fishing but for the fact, that this opened the trash talking floodgates with Rush delivering the first blow. A quick comment about how the “California boys are great with the plunger” (a.k.a., flushing away/farming a fish) and it was time to relocate. 

Rush and few buddy boats knew about a Wahoo bite happening at a nearby ledge, so we opted to swing for an afternoon homerun. I’m 100% always in the camp of chasing quality over quantity and to the fishing masses, I think we can agree that Ono is one of the pinnacle target species. But first, we would need to make some different baits to slow troll. So we motored over to a nearby reef, dropped our chum bag off the stern cleat, and slowly did figure eights over the zone to build life.

“So what kind of bait are we looking for out here?” I quizzed.

“Speedos. They’re kind of like your Mackerels out west but with different coloring and not quite as a hearty.”

“Do we catch them the same way with using a Sabiki rig?”

“No, we will try to get them up on the surface and then pick them up using a really small hook striped with some Bonito. Once we find a school, they will come up to our chum line and let’s try to grab about 20 or so.”

We spotted a school or two 15-20 feet deep in the insanely clear water, but they were reluctant to come up to the surface and give us a true shot at them. The silver lining here and what makes Key West such a truly unique fishery versus my home left coast waters is that there always seem to be multiple species on tap to fish. It blows my mind that while making bait, we spotted Yellowtail Snapper mixed in our chum line. So, hell, why not drop a baited lead-head and pick up a few fresh Snappers to fry up. Which as far as table fare goes, is hard to top in my book.

Oh, and if that’s not enoughhhh (game show host voice) – since we were on top of a reef, might as well drop some Pilchards to the bottom to see what lurks. While I stood on the stern deck harvesting Snapper dinner, the bottom rig in the bow rod holder started to scream.

“Feels like maybe a shark to me. The way its running and made that first run…” Colt claimed as he tended to the rod and started the fight.

“You sure about that? Looks like maybe something different to me. Maybe something a little bigger than those Bluegill you Wisconsin boys are used to catching” Capt. Rush bantered

“Man, that’s a rad looking shark!” I chirped in as Colt boated a very healthy Black Grouper.

“Oh man, you know it’s getting bad when the client starts giving you crap! I guess it’s just come full circle especially when the California guy pipes in.” Rush said as we laughed. The three of us had quickly built a strong rapport fishing together and really started to turn up the friendly shit talk.

The first half of the day flew by and things started to feel a lot like the quintessential Key West mixed bag days that you see on the shows (like Local Knowledge) or read about in the numerous fishing publications. But it was time to focus on the task at hand, snagging a couple Speedos for bait. Rush took a call over the radio and a buddy boat has chummed up a big school for us to slide in on. Here’s yet another uniquely badass part of the Keys from a deep water, California angler’s perspective, our buddy boat floated their anchor line with a poly ball for us to pick up. So just like that, we were on the exact spot with our target bait at the surface ready to eat.

As I quickly learned, that although similar, making Macks at home on a Sabiki is a much easier (for me) program then picking these Speedos off the surface. These little bastards were seemingly pretty good at discerning free-floating chum than the hooked baits on our lines. I was either completely juked out and swung the rod missing the bite altogether. Or was overly jumpy, trying to set the hook like a hyperactive maniac. I managed to pick up one, immediately followed by dropping on the deck and corralling into the bottom live well. However, team Odyssea picked up my slack and made a few more baits so we tossed the anchor ball back and headed to the Wahoo grounds.

In about the time it took me to drink one Colorado Kool-Aid (a.k.a. Coors Light), we reached our next fishing zone. We pinned two of our freshly caught Speedos on the wire leaders, bumped the motors in gear and started slow trolling the zone. Almost as soon as we dropped our lines back, one of the baits started getting very nervous. I eagerly watched the line and noticed one Speedo pushed up, swimming on the surface. The clicker started to scream simultaneously as I watched a Kingfish crush the bait and launch itself 6-8 feet in the air. I grabbed the rod as the fish pulled line at strike. It made an impressive first run but I was able to get him to the boat in short order. Definitely a very respectable Kingfish and awesome to tally another species to the day but not what we were there for.

During the excitement of the first fish and quickly after releasing it, I looked over to see Rush finessing the other line as something kept pestering it without fully taking the bait. Then that clicker started to sing, and we were definitely bit on fish number two. I held on for the initial blistering run.

“It’s like the fish was just choking on it for a while. He didn’t really hit it hard but kept coming back for it.” -Rush noted as I worked on stopping the fish.

“This definitely feels like a nicer fish.” I responded.

“Could be, just stay tight on it and be ready to reel fast or work around the boat if it decides to come back towards us.”

Almost like calling the play-by-play before live action, the fish fired straight back to the boat. I reeled like hell and shuffled up to the bow to follow it around. As soon as I got back to tight, it decided to make another drag ripping run. At this point, the three of us had high hopes we were on the right kind. After some back and forth, I got the fish to deep color and thanks to the crystal-clear water visibility, we got our first glance. The dark back and unmistakable vertical stripes confirmed what we hoped for, a nice grade Hoo.

I slowly worked the fish to the surface and back corner of the boat making sure to not start overfishing or doing anything (too) stupid before getting into gaff range. Rush hopped over the transom and reached out to stick the fish. Just then we noticed another Wahoo following so we quickly drug the gaffed fish up the side and pulled it into the boat. Rush hurried back to reset on the follower as Colt and I tended to the fish.

“Watch your toes!”

It felt like everything happened so fast as a rush of pure elation set in and I picked up my first Wahoo for a few quick pictures while it was still lit up. All the hype I heard about this species and their notoriously hard running fights now had a tangible reality to it. Not only was this my first but it was a stud, very respectful fish to cut my teeth on. But the action wasn’t over and the Odyssea captain was already reset as I tossed the fresh Ono in the ice slurry.

Again, probably starting to sound like a broken record here but in very short order, we were bit again. Kingfish number 2 brought to the boat and released. We picked through another Kingfish and then the second line got smoked. I picked up the rod and felt the newly-familiar signature blazing first run. I made some good ground on it early as I worked from the bow. The fish turned and raced back our direction. No more than 10-15 seconds later the line went completely slack and just like that Wahoo number two was gone.

After a few choice expletives, I asked: “Man, what could I have done differently there?”

“You couldn’t have reeled any faster. It looked like another follower came across your line and probably broke you off. Not much you can do about that one buddy and we still have some time for a few more shots at them.” Rush assured me.

The feeling of disappointment rapidly faded as I was still on a huge high from the first fish and we dropped back two more baits for redemption. At this point, this day was just starting to feel ridiculous. We had both quantities, with mostly non-stop action, and quality, with several of the right kind on ice. The day could have ended then and I would have easily put it in my top 3 trips off all time. But here’s where the story started to feel more like folklore and one of those “once in lifetime experience” days that you know the Keys are famous for but hard to believe are real.

“There’s a Sail finning right over off our side!”

Rush spotted and without hesitation, Colt readied a setup and fired a razorback Pilchard within striking distance. Although the new first mate has probably taken a majority of the trash talk from both captain and client, I have to give credit where credit is due. Which Colt deserves most of the credit on this one. Between his quick reaction to Rush’s keen eye, the well-placed toss of the frisky bait, and feeling the bite of the billfish – we were tight on the Sailfish! I definitely wasn’t going to be too proud to take this rod pass off and quickly jumped on the opportunity to fight this legendary billfish.

And what a fight it was! Between the multiple showings of out of water acrobatics and the feel of fighting such a powerful fish on light tackle, this turned out to be the ultimate exclamation point to end an all-time fishing trip. I worked the fish primarily from the bow as we followed it and allowed it to tire itself out. Once we got it to the leader, I was able to truly take in its beauty and gain the proper respect to what a special fish it was. Captain Rush made sure we handled it properly and was left in the water for a quick alongside the boat picture. We revived the Sail and away it swam to fight another day. Our day, however, had neared the end and to be 100% honest, I’m not sure how much more excitement I could have handled.

I certainly couldn’t have dreamt up a better trip between the ideal weather conditions, epic mixed bag fishing and just having the opportunity to fish with a legend (although he humbly won’t admit to that title). This one officially moves to the top of the “best trips” list. Back at the dock, we enjoyed some celebratory Modelos while filleting our catch and talking shop with the other guides. I said my goodbyes and thanked both the Captain and Mate of Odyssea Sportfishing for a truly incredible day.  And although I barely caught my ferry ride back, I was treated to the ultimate nightcap via a stunning sunset with shrimp boats silhouetting the fiery horizon.

As I write this and, in an effort, to keep aligned with the mission of these Student of Slay articles, I struggle to try to narrow down the many lessons learned into just a few key takeaways. Not because it was such a stellar fishing day with many lifetime memories but primarily because of the people involved. I have an immense amount of respect for Rush not only as a professional charter captain but even more so as a newly acquainted friend and overall good human. I think you would be extremely hard-pressed to find a better role model in our sport (or outside of it for that matter) that carries his level of humility, work ethic, and genuine sportsmanship.

But the main takeaway I carry forward with me on my continued journey deeper into fishing is this;

There is NO substitute for putting in your time on the water. It is extremely clear that Rush’s reputation and successes as a fishing guide are a direct result of putting in his dues, busting his ass and spending years fully immersed (on and in) learning his local waters. Because fishing is not my full-time profession, I understand my learning curve will move slower than the true pros but, trips like this only fuel my determination to get on the water as much as possible. It’s not by coincidence that if you put in the time, hard work and pay your respect to this passion we love – success will come. And if even on the days where there is more fishing than catching, I will always use those as valued learning experiences all while enjoying the time well spent on this beautiful blue planet.

Thank you again, Rush and Colt for a truly epic Key West Odyssea!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:Jordan Jennings grew up boating and fishing the lakes of his home state of Michigan. Cutting his teeth on the bass, salmon, perch, and pike of local inland lakes. His passion grew into saltwater fishing on the Gulf of Mexico when visiting family in Florida. He was lucky enough to come from a family of outdoorsman who taught him fishing, hunting and the beauty of nature. Now, Jordan is a fishing fanatic that spends as many days on the water as possible chasing new species, learning new techniques and enjoying the journey along the way. 

Jordan is an experienced entrepreneur and sales and marketing professional within the boating industry. He currently works for Freedom Boat Club as their Global Director of Franchise Sales, which is just a fancy title that means he’s focused on starting and growing their network of boat clubs both domestically and internationally. He is a big ambassador and believer of promoting new boaters and fishermen into our sport. 

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