It's an early, still, spring morning and the charter captains are buzzing. The annual tarpon migration is in full swing and Key West, for the moment hosts the best tarpon fishing in the world. But, spring is a time of wind, so a calm day - rare as they are - send expectations to the moon.
For fly-guys, used to short casting mountain streams and lakes, the absence of wind is an unexpected boon. For the light spinner crowd, like my client, it's welcomed as well. And, for the guides setting off in mass, we know the fish show well on windless days, rolling, finning, augmenting their gill filtered oxygen supplies with regular gulps from the surface. Tarpon like calm conditions and, so do we.
Guide Mike Barlett looks up from tying on a fly. "Hey, man, you drink all that wine?" he laughs. The mood this morning is festive, a predawn carnival atmosphere. "Yeah," my angler replies. " I feel like I drank it all last night." My guy is a regular, owns a home here and comes down two or three times a year. He's a familiar face and takes the friendly ribbing in stride.
"I've been saving all my corks for you." he says, tossing the bag to me. I finger the bag and toss it back. "I don't think these will work. They're from red wine. This is Tuesday, a white wine day."
Although hazy on how it started, I've been using wine corks as floats for almost a decade. My best recollection is after running out of floats and balloons one trip, I resorted to a wine cork left in the skiff from a sunset cruise the night before. The float system became a favorite for several reasons. The corks come off the line shortly after a take. And, in the clear waters of the Keys, a wine cork looks natural, like floating debris. Another plus - they're completely bio-degradable.
The practice is reminiscent of a tactic my grandfather used to fool big largemouth bass in the clear waters of a spring fed Florida creek. After watching a rather large fish swim by a shiner tethered beneath a red and white bobber, he surmised the fish was put off by the unnatural look of the float. Granddad reached over the side of the boat, plucked a water hyacinth and removed its' buoyant bulb. Using his old barlow pocket knife he slit the bulb, threaded the line through the slit and repositioned the shiner in front of a cruising bass. The fish ate. From that day forward when shiner fishing in clear water we used hyacinth bulbs for floats.
Using a wine cork in lieu of commercial bobber does have its' drawbacks. Large live baits overwhelm its' buoyancy, as does a large dead bait. And, unless the cork is secured over a knot of some type, it will fly off during a strong cast. With a couple of tricks these disadvantages can be dealt with.
The problem with lack of flotation for large live baits can be turned around. For instance, when using an overlarge pinfish, force the bait to swim against the float for a minute or two, by keeping it off the bottom. Fighting the float wears it out and soon the struggling bait fights to stay mid column or just below the surface sending out distress signals for all to hear- the perfect attractor.
My typical light tackle leader system is the same for a multitude of Key's flats species and uses no metal fasteners or swivels. A bimini twist - or spider hitch if I'm in a hurry creates a double line anywhere from a foot to six feet long, depending on the species. Short for bonefish, medium for permit and long for tarpon.
With the advent of braided line the knot connecting the leader changed from a blood knot to a double uni-knot. Whether using artificial or live bait, the hook is tied with a single uni-knot leaving a sliding loop. Many guides prefer this or a palimar loop to give the bait more action. With the uni-knot, the sliding loop provides a little shock strength during the strike. This rig is simple, strong, and effective.
For sharks and barracuda, substitute soft coated wire and an albright for the mono-to-wire connection.
The key to attaching the cork is to cut one side down to the center. Then slide the line into the cork until one of the knots, either the double uni-knot or the bimini is inside the float. The depth, or position of the bait in the water column will determine which knot you choose. The knot secured in the float will keep it on while casting and prevent it from sliding up the line.
This system always brought a reaction and over the years and I received many emails touting the method. And, as with the customer this morning, many bring bags of corks to augment my supply. They seemed to get a kick out of the contributing. Add these to a stash from a friendly bar tender or two, pulse, what you consume with your soul-mates, and you'll never run short of floats – or friends.
Capt. Phil Thompson is an outdoor writer and author of the just released "97 Miles South" .... a novel set in Cuba.
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