Some days are perfect. I wasn’t expecting a chilly February morning to be one of those days. I was going fishing for the first time and the temperature was 55 degrees. As someone who gets cranky when the thermometer drops below 80, I willed myself to bundle up and embrace the adventure. I was headed out in the Gulf of Mexico with three-time Sarasota Tarpon Tournament champion Aledia Tush, who owns CB’s Saltwater Outfitters, a longtime bait, tackle and boat rental shop on Siesta Key. We met at the 10th Street boat ramps just north of downtown Sarasota, where Tush had arranged to have fishing guide Capt. RC Gilliland of G Force Fishing Charters take us out on his 22-foot Pathfinder.
Born in Virginia in a tiny coal mining town, Tush still has the distinctive Southern accent of the Appalachians. She didn’t know anything about saltwater fishing until her father purchased CB’s in 1976, not long after she and her husband, Lee, had graduated from college. Since then, she’s become an avid angler. Only one other person has won the almost century-old Sarasota Tarpon Tournament three times, and she’s been president of the American Sportfishing Association and works as an advocate in the state for recreational anglers.
When I called her to arrange the trip, she assured me that fishing was exciting. I wondered. I’ve lived in Florida most of my life, so seeing people fish is so common it’s invisible. I pass people with their white bait buckets fishing off the pier and the seawalls at Whitaker Gateway Park in the early morning when my husband and I walk our dogs. Casting a line seems like a solitary, peaceful pursuit—and, frankly, a little boring. One exception to my stereotype is a friend in the Bahamas who paddles out through the surf with a fishing pole in his teeth, casts a line and then puts what he catches in his wetsuit and surfs back to shore. I’m not that bold, but I like the outdoors and hike, bike, swim, snorkel and kayak. Yet I’d never felt drawn to pick up a rod and reel.
But on the crisp morning of our adventure, I looked out at the dazzling bay and up into a joyful blue sky and thought, “How bad could it be?”
And then—I had one of those rare, precious days that make you feel complete.
Fishing is a huge industry in Florida. The state likes to boast it’s the “fishing capital of the world,” with more than 8,436 miles of coastline, miles and miles of rivers and 7,700 lakes. We also have great game fish and weather that makes this a year-round sport. More than 2.4 million active recreational fishing licenses were on file in 2020, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates that saltwater fishing creates a $9.2 billion annual economic impact. Sarasota and Manatee counties have 57 miles of shoreline and abundant saltwater fishing experiences on land and by boat.
Sarasota Bay, the largest and deepest coastal bay between Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor, offers another saltwater fishing habitat, and the region’s freshwater fishing is just as diverse and rich.
Gilliland headed out into the slight chop of the bay to New Pass between Lido and Longboat keys. We were motoring to the Alan Fisher reef, about 1.3 miles from shore, where the depth was about 30 feet. The ride was cold, and I was glad I had worn layers and brought a windbreaker.
Sarasota has 33 artificial reefs in the Gulf and eight in Sarasota Bay. Constructed from boxcars, Army tanks, concrete, Florida Power & Light insulators and rocks, and funded by government grants, nonprofits, fishing licenses and private donations, these spots make for excellent fishing. Even at this early hour on a cold day, two boats were anchored off the reef. Gilliland anchored his boat and baited our hooks with shrimp and told me to drop my line. In a few minutes, Tush pulled up a sheepshead and then another and another.
“Her side of the boat is better,” I said as I looked down into the water.
“That’s what all fishermen say,” Tush said with a laugh.
But then I felt a tug and saw the tip of my rod dip.
“I have one! I have one!”
Gilliland dashed over and told me to jerk up my line and start to reel it in. Up came a little grunt—gold with blue stripes. It was beautiful. “I caught a fish! I caught a fish!” I squealed. Gilliland helped me hold it so the moment could be captured in a photo, and then released it.
And then I understood.
Fishing is exciting. Something about being on the water, the first tug of something live, the feeling of struggle, and then the not knowing what you’ve got until you reel it up. Tush, Gilliland and Everett Dennison, another avid angler who was snapping photos for the magazine, were just as excited for me. “I told you,” grinned Dennison, who had tried to explain the allure to me.
I caught more grunt and sheepshead. I also lost a few. I learned that fishing, far from being a sleepy activity, involves skill and nuance. Gilliland kept an eye on me, and without touching my pole, would tell me that I had something on the line. Soon I was sensing the difference between the pull of the line in the water when I had something nibbling on the hook and when a fish had latched on. Each catch was a thrill.
Gilliland, who grew up in Sarasota fishing with his father, handled everything from taking the fish off the hook to putting another shrimp on, or sometimes replacing a hook that had been lost. My only task was to drop the line and focus.
It felt a little like cheating, but having Gilliland quietly and expertly handle these chores was worth it. Tush, a trim woman who at 5 feet and 6 and a half inches once fought a 175-pound tarpon for three hours, has no shame about using a guide or confessing that she doesn’t like taking a fish off a hook. She releases everything she catches. “I like to go with someone who knows the water, knows what’s going on, and you can catch fish,” she says. “You want to be successful. It’s also about fun. If you go with a guide, it’s money well spent. They know what they’re doing, where to go.”
From the Alan Fisher reef, we motored south to Big Pass and anchored close to a seawall on Siesta Key. Pelicans lined the wall, as did a family of Mennonites fishing a little farther down. Then three dolphins appeared. “They know we’re catching fish,” Gilliland said. He added that he never releases fish in their direction, to keep them from associating humans with an easy meal.
Tush is quiet when she fishes (“I don’t talk a lot on the boat because I’m in a zone. I pay attention to what I’m doing.”) and she caught a snapper and more sheepshead. I did, too, and I started to understand how absorbing fishing can be. I looked up and took a deep breath, and sighed. I was on the water with friendly people and dolphins bobbing nearby on a sunny winter morning.
Gilliland pulled up anchor once more and we passed under Siesta Key North Bridge and headed down the Intracoastal. Huge million-dollar yachts and a parasailing tour boat, all with people in shorts and T-shirts, churned by and we shook our heads. Tourists or snowbirds, we all agreed, unashamed of our layered warmth.
We stopped near a mangrove island where Gilliland said we might catch some permit or pompano. This time, he said, I had to cast. Gilliland showed me how, and I flung the line. It dropped about six feet from the boat. He showed me again—and again—and I finally managed to throw out a line far enough to catch something. I caught several more fish—more sheepshead and grunt—and realized I’d been on the boat for three and a half hours.It was time to head back to the dock.
I caught 11 fish my first time out, and Gilliland filleted two sheepshead and a mangrove snapper for me at the dock. My husband sautéed them in olive oil and spices that night. They were delicious.