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Bountiful fishing on Florida’s First Coast

by Greg Swindell

Jacksonville, Florida

I have a cousin from New Jersey who travels to visit me on Florida’s “First Coast” twice each year to enjoy the bounty of fishing opportunities that we enjoy (and sometimes take for granted) in our area.

This year, when making our agenda, we added an outing specifically targeting the arrival of big, spawning, bull redfish. I made the reservations nearly nine months in advance to be sure we secured one of the best dates available with a couple of local seasoned captains.

I had tasted a small sample of this action in 2008 during a trip that was “blown out” just an hour into it, but the few fish we did catch and release was enough to give me a good sense of the potential this kind of trip had.

I’ve lived on the First Coast for some 20 years and have fished in local and distant waters for a variety of species for many of those years.

What I failed to recognize was the fun and excitement that a day on the water can offer in my own backyard when the redfish show up to spawn in big numbers in and around the St. Johns River mouth.

Two recent trips with friends and family while guided by Capt. Don Dingman and Capt. Matt Smith aboard the Miss My Boy in the last two weeks have made me wonder what rock I’ve been living under to not have taken part of this grand adventure before!

Most local fishing enthusiasts reading this will recognize Dingman from his TV show “Hook the Future,” which engages young people in fishing adventures around the globe. Helping kids develop and grow personally through hands-on experiences while teaching them to appreciate and respect the riches our oceans and waterways offer keeps the show interesting! (Visit www.hookthefuture.com).

The good news is that Don and Matt still have time to take old folks like me fishing too!

While I’ll get up at 3:30 a.m. any day of the week to fish, there is something really appealing when Don says, “Meet me at the dock at 2 p.m. ‘cause that’s when they will start eating.”

On Sept. 24 we met Don at Morningstar Marina in Mayport, Fla. for a five-minute boat ride to one of his favorite holes south of the big jetties.

One hour later, despite the schools showing up on the sonar, we were still without a bite.

Worst of all, building seas had left two of the Swindell crew gulping for air like carp in a barrel. We moved inside, just 10 minutes upriver, and dropped anchor where the calm waters were a welcome sight to our two carp onboard!

Again we were marking fish, but there was no action to speak of. About 30 minutes later Don said, “Give ‘em a few minutes, boys. When this tide changes and the boat gets lined up right, they should start to bite.”

Sure enough, he was right! The pictures and smiles speak for themselves. The next day, our sore arms and “rod butt tattoos” bore witness to the 70 or more 20- to 40-pound redfish that were blasting our baits two and three at a time for the better part of three hours.

In addition to the fish we released, we bagged five “rare” slot fish that made their way to the cooler. A week later we headed out again with a banker, school teacher and contractor on board. (You can’t find a more depressed crew than this these days!)

The good news is, this great group of guys enjoyed the same success and the black clouds hanging around their heads evaporated with the first bull red that almost made it to the boat.

A large black drum soon made its way to the cooler to cap the day off with some very tasty chow. Once might have been luck, but I’m convinced that Don and Matt have this mastered.

Everything, including the location, time of day, tide, boat position, bait and tackle, was a well-orchestrated event that insured great results.

Don’t take my word for it, plan one of these trips for yourself with guys who know their business. You’ll have the time of your life! Contact Capt. Don Dingman and Capt. Matt Smith at Ocean Waves Charters (904-276-1164) or [email protected]

“Slimy fives” go out to Capt. Don and Capt. Matt as well as the “fished out” crew of Hal Swindell (Moorestown, NJ), Clinton Carter (Pitman, NJ), Brian Hobbs (Macclenny, FL), Bruce Swindell, Wade Swindell, Thomas Freeman and Gheorghe State (all of Jacksonville, FL).

The redfish print was provided courtesy of Robert Dorman Studios. Check out Bob’s complete collection of spectacular outdoors artwork at http://www.rdormanstudios.com