Rose Barus of East Aurora caught this 60-pound amberjack this week while fishing off Fort Myers, Fla., using a blue runner for bait. She was fishing with Capt. Ryan Kane of Southern Instinct charters. Her husband Dave is holding the fish.

The Eagles tune “Life in the Fast Lane” blared out of the speakers of the 36-foot Open Contender that cruised 45 miles per hour over a flat Gulf of Mexico. Capt. Ryan Kane of Southern Instinct Fishing Charters – based out of Port Sanibel Marina in Fort Myers – was at the wheel of his relatively new water craft (www.southerninstinct.com; 239-896-2341). With the boat not quite a year old, Kane was excited to be able to offer off-shore trips in addition to in-shore adventures on his 24-foot Pro Line Flatback. Pushing this girl along were three 250-horse Yamahas – plenty of power.

On board for this adventure were Dave and Rose Barus of East Aurora, Capt. Casey Szegeski of Bee Cause Charters (who was helping Kane out for the first time), my wife Sandy and me. The plan was to try something different, taking us 60 miles off-shore to an Army Corps of Engineers radio tower (one of many) that serves as a fish attractor. Kane didn’t know how long these towers were going to be in place so he thought it would make for a good story. He was right.

“There isn’t a lot of structure out here in the Gulf,” said Kane, a charter guy for 10 years but a resident outdoorsman all of his life in Southwest Florida. “This tower is the structure that the fish adapt to. Sixty miles out and we’ll be fishing in 70 feet of water. We’ll probably see Yellowtail and Mangrove snapper, Cobia, Amberjacks or AJ’s, Wahoo and Barracuda. Fishing has been very good for us this February, the start of our fishing season around here. It’s been my best February ever.”

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In an hour and a half, we were starting our methodical approach to see what the fish wanted on this day. We started trolling large Bombers and X-Raps past the tower. Using these large-billed diving baits and a trolling speed of 6 mph, we were able to get our lures into the fish zone. However, the fish didn’t want these today. Plan No. 2 was immediately put into place.

Dave Barus of East Aurora shows off a yellow tail snapper he caught just in time - notice a piece of the tail missing when a barracuda lunged for it as he was bringing it in the boat. Notice the tower in the background.

Kane swung the boat into position adjacent to the tower. Close, but not too close. We would find out his reasoning in short order. We anchored the boat in 70-foot depths and then started to chum the water. Fish were everywhere in the emerald blue waters almost immediately. Our focus to start was to catch some tasty yellowtail snappers.

“If you get hooked up, get them to the boat as quickly as you can,” said Kane. “There are some bigger fish around looking for a free meal.”

Using relatively light spinning outfits with 20-pound test braid for the main line and 20-pound fluorocarbon for the leader, we tipped our Hooked Up 1/16-ounce jig head with a live shrimp. Almost immediately, we “hooked up” with smaller 5-6 pound blue runners.

“Start reeling and get them in the boat now,” reiterated the captains almost simultaneously. As Dave Barus and I battled on a doubleheader at either corner of the stern, all of a sudden my fish took off in the opposite direction … like it just hopped a ride on a freight train. In reviewing the situation, I guess you could say it did – an amberjack “train” showed up to take it for a ride! The smaller blue runners are like amberjack candy bars. When we finally boated a blue runner it didn’t get thrown into the cooler; it was thrown into a live well. My train continued down the track and to the radio tower where the line was cut on the structure. Maybe we weren’t far enough away.

When the yellowtails started to arrive with more regularity, you had to be quick to the boat as well. One disappeared when a barracuda chowed down on one for an early lunch. Another was hit by an amberjack. What the heck were we going to do? Another frustration surfaced when a yellowtail that I was battling was hit by a larger fish that we never did see. We guessed it was either a cobia or an amberjack. After 25 minutes of playing the fish out, it appeared this time we were going to win – until a much bigger fish hit the 50-pound fish we were battling! Line stripped out so fast that we half-expected to see smoke off the reel. Snap, the fish – actually three of them – were all gone. It reminded me of the cartoon that had a smaller fish eat a bigger fish and on up the line.

A blue runner as shown by Capt. Casey Szegeski of Bee Cause Charters - bait for Rose's big AJ.

“It was probably a bull shark,” said Kane.

It was time to try and go for the medium-sized big boys. Using a shorter rod and a large level wind reel with 200-pound test braid on it, the two captains rigged up the rod with one of the 5-pound blue runners for bait. It didn’t take very long for an AJ to hit. The first one to the rod was Rose Barus and it turned out to be a thrill of a lifetime. One stipulation was that her husband Dave could not handle the net… if there was one. She wanted to bring this one in successfully. After a 20-minute fight (and a little help from her husband Dave), the 60-pound amberjack hit the floor. Whew! Rose couldn’t believe her eyes. It was the biggest fish she’s ever caught and the memory of a lifetime.

Outdoor experiences like these seem to be around every corner in Southwest Florida. From active fishing experiences in-shore and off-shore with qualified captains to taking a canoe or kayak and traversing the area’s 190-mile Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail (https://www.fortmyers-sanibel.com/calusablueway) throughout Lee County on your own – there’s a little bit of everything.

One favorite outdoor haunt is Sanibel Island and the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Early morning bird and wildlife viewing is a must. If you like collecting shells, this area is fantastic. Some areas are better than others so keep that in mind as you seek out your own favorite beaches.

For more information on Southwest Florida check out www.fortmyers-sanibel.com. It’s a great place to escape to any time during the year, but especially during the winter when we have a tendency to develop a serious case of cabin fever.

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