Ted Peck: Wisconsin-made lures grab attention on Gulf of Mexico
Old fishermen have the patience of a haggard red-tailed hawk.
If an old red-tail doesn't see an easy meal in short order, it will quickly move on to another location that holds more promise.
We're almost out of the toughest fishing period of the entire year: mid-winter.
Active feeding windows are small and creature comforts are few in the first six weeks of a new year. The past couple of winters have been particularly brutal.
But folks who are wired to fish have to fish. Last January, I did a couple of shows with Tom Gruenwald that aired on the Sportsman Channel.
The first of these aired last October. Gruenwald is an outstanding angler, but we had to work hard to catch enough fish for a show. The ambient temperature hovered around minus-15. The wind-chill brought this number down to almost 50-below at times.
Both shows turned out well. But the look on my face was more pain than happiness. Shortly after the first show aired, I got on the VRBO website and booked a cottage on the Gulf of Mexico for an entire month.
The Florida panhandle is sometimes called the “Redneck Riviera” due to the influx of folks from the Upper Midwest who flock there when winter's brutality arrives on a strong north wind.
Check any stretch of panhandle beach where fish cruise just beyond the surf and 19 out of 20 cars in an adjacent parking area will have out-of-state license tags.
An entirely different biomass cruises just offshore around wrecks and artificial reefs. A boat is needed to access these fish. Lining one up will cost a few bucks, but to a haggard old fisherman, the experience is worth every dime.
The Gulf of Mexico is a lot like a super-sized Lake Koshkonong—acres and acres of faceless bottom with any kind of structure acting as a fish magnet. Sportsmen living near the quiet little town of Mexico Beach realized the importance of structure almost 20 years ago. Since 1997, they have placed more than 200 artificial reefs an easy boat ride offshore.
Some reefs are eco-friendly old shipwrecks. Most are towering igloos of limestone, concrete and steel with multiple holes to attract grouper and other structure-seeking species.
The Mexico Beach Artificial Reef Association (mbara.org) has raised more than $2 million for habitat since its inception, with GPS coordinates of every reef available.
Medium spinning or light muskie gear is all you need to catch snapper, triggerfish and smaller grouper on these reefs. Live shrimp on a Carolina or Wolf River rig fished vertically is the most popular way to fish.
Blade baits are my hands-down favorite weapons in any kind of vertical presentation, with the Echotail created by Vibrations Tackle right here in Wisconsin my blade bait of choice.
Capt. Chip Blackburn and his first mate, Capt. Curt Cain, were skeptical when I pulled a big Echotail out of my tackle bag and dropped it over the side of Blackburn's charter boat Miss Mary.
The lure didn't even get close to the shipwreck some 40 feet below us before a foot-long triggerfish grabbed it. Triggerfish are like huge bluegills on steroids with sharp teeth.
A few minutes later, a red snapper grabbed the bait. Shortly after that, a small grouper.
When the Echotail finally got to the bottom, I felt a tug on the line akin to a wet mop. Five minutes later, an octopus was writhing on the surface at boatside.
It tickled me to no end when Curt asked sheepishly, “Do ya have any more of those Wisconsin lures?”
For those haggard fishers without feathers, the Florida gulf coast is a 17-hour drive away—with plenty of lakes in Alabama and Mississippi to scratch your fishing itch between here and winter paradise.
Fishing will start to improve in southern Wisconsin in a couple of weeks. The kicker is the action will get better even faster in waters off the Redneck Riviera.
What a dilemma—sit on a bucket and wait for an allegorical mouse to pop out of the snow, or screech-whistle south and pounce on a rabbit with no place to hide.