Fish Tales

Ask anglers why they fish and be prepared for myriad answers. For many, it’s the challenge. For others, it’s relaxation, escape from everyday life, peace and quiet, their version of “church on the water.”

We went in search of good fishing tales from Citrus County and were not disappointed. Their stories just may inspire you to grab a rod and hit the water.

You Had Me At Pompano

Fishing has always been a passion for Danniella (“Yella”) Gutierrez, but she never expected it would introduce her to the love of her life.

A native of Manhattan, Yella, 28, grew up fishing for river trout in the mountains of upstate New York, but nothing prepared her for the thrill of saltwater fishing she discovered after moving to Citrus County nine years ago.

Lacking a boat, but eager to fish offshore, she decided a kayak would get her out on the water. Her first kayak was a blow-up model, but she’s definitely advanced from that. She joined the Nature Coast Lady Anglers and, through that group, met fishing guide Brian Stauffer, who became a mentor. (After fishing with Brian, she entered her first kayak fishing tournament and won first place in redfish out of more than 60 other anglers.)

“After fishing with Brian for a while, I spent a lot of time perfecting the use of artificial lures; I got pretty good at using a Rip ‘n Slash by Unfair Lures,” says Yella. “I was posting pictures on Facebook and Instagram, and Chris Vecsey saw them. Chris is a pro staffer for Unfair Lures, chosen to promote the company. He liked the idea that I was a girl using the same lures he was using.”

Chris, who lived in Gulf Shores, Alabama, suggested to Brian that the three of them go out fishing together.

“Last April, we went to Ozello; it was still dark when we paddled out,” Yella remembers. “I was nervous out of my mind; here was this professional who was also really attractive. I couldn’t even look him in the eye, and I wasn’t doing well when we started fishing.”

As the morning wore on, Yella’s nerves settled down. She and Chris talked while they fished, but she was mortified that she’d caught only a baby trout.

Heading back in, the trio stopped at some exposed oyster bars and started fishing there.

“I got a pretty good tug on my line, and as I was reeling it in, Chris saw it was a good-sized pompano and said he’d never caught one here,” says Yella.

She and Chris exchanged numbers that day and started dating. The couple will be married on March 10, 2018. (Fittingly, the company owner of the Unfair Lures will attend their wedding.)

As for Yella, she credits their first outing—and catching that big silver fish—with launching their romance.

“Chris likes to say, ‘I had him at pompano,’” she laughs.

Goin’ For The Big One

“I’ve been fishing ever since I could walk and hold a rod when my dad put one in my hand. He’s a fisherman and so is my grandfather,” says Ryan Schulz, 18, of Inverness.

An avid freshwater angler, Ryan would prefer to fish seven days a week, but his full-time job and attending Marion County Technical College at night have cut fishing down to about three days a week for now.

“A lot of people say, ‘A bad day fishing is better than a good day at work,’ and that’s true!” laughs Ryan.

Ever since his dad, Jeff, caught an 11-pound bass, Ryan’s goal has been to best that.

“Bass don’t get that big by being dumb. A lot of the big ones have been caught and released before, so they’re even more wary and harder to catch,” says Ryan, who releases his fish almost every time.

Ryan enjoys kayak fishing on the Withlacoochee River, as well as Lake Henderson and Lake Hernando, but also fishes from the shoreline. His biggest largemouth bass to date was the 9.4 pounder he caught in Cooter Pond in Inverness last April.

“My friend Chris and I were fishing the culvert pipe where the water runs out of the retention pond; we do ‘rock-paper-scissors’ to see who gets to pitch first,” says Ryan, who won that day. “When you’re by the shore, there are often a lot of weed mats, and if there’s a log out there, that’s even better, because the fish have more cover.”

The guys were “flipping and pitching,” with Ryan using a “Sweet Beaver” artificial lure on a weighted 65-pound braid line. Ryan was glad to have won the chance to go first, as fish reaction time was incredibly fast that day.

“It was in no more than 2 feet of water, and as soon as the lure went through the weed mat, the fish hit,” says Ryan. “It’s about getting lucky, but it also takes skill to fish these weed mats because you can’t see the fish under there.

“This bass had probably been spawning; they’re hungry afterward because they don’t eat while spawning,” says Ryan, explaining that the bigger bass are usually always females.

Weighed and photographed, the big fish was then released.

“I still haven’t caught one over 10 pounds, and that motivates me every day,” says Ryan. “Freshwater fish might not be as hard-fighting as saltwater fish, but it’s a lot harder to catch a 10-pound bass than a 20-pound snook.”

Stormy Success

As any good angler knows, weather plays a key role in fishing success. As Tropical Storm Cindy churned her way through the Gulf of Mexico this June, Brian Stauffer hit the water.

As owner and guide of Fishhead Kayak Charters, Brian regularly takes clients out kayak fishing along the Nature Coast, from Homosassa all the way up to Steinhatchee. Fishing since he was a boy, Brian has called Citrus County home since 1982.

“Watching the track of Cindy, I knew the fishing would be good because of the change in barometer and wind direction,” says Brian. “Fish don’t like being out in rough, dirty water; they hightail it for the backwaters. I had a four- to five-hour window before the winds picked up to 25 mph and higher and the rain started, so I decided to go out.”

At about 5:15am on the morning of June 7, Brian launched from Mason Creek in Homosassa, headed for the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, known by locals as “The Chazz.”

After 30 minutes of paddling in darkness lit only by his headlamp, Brian reached one of his favorite spots, ready to fish at sunrise. The creek off Mason was flooded and cloudy from silt, but the backwaters were tranquil, thanks to the nearby islands blocking the winds.

“Because of the coastal flood watch, the water was higher and moving faster than normal, so the fish were more aggressive. The conditions were perfect for throwing topwater,” explains Brian, who fishes strictly with artificial lures. That morning he was using a Zara Spook Jr., a topwater lure by Heddon.

“The fishing action was instantly on fire. I caught a fine slot snook about 30 inches long on my third cast,” he notes. “I released it and continued fishing, catching another big snook, a redfish and some smaller snook over the next five hours.”

Heading home when the rain and lightning chased him in, Brian paddled back, with the redfish on ice for dinner.

“I wouldn’t take a client out in those conditions, but that was a ‘Bri day’ for me,” he says.

Brian loves teaching others and giving them the skills to pursue the sport. He especially likes helping people find their own peace out on the water.

Riding Out The Storm

Paul Piscopo of Homosassa recently turned 51, and he’s been fishing as long as he can remember. As a kid growing up in New York, it wasn’t unusual for him to play hooky from school, but he’d always get caught when his mother went into the garage and saw his fishing poles were missing.

Since moving to Florida in late 1999, Paul has been fishing Citrus County and Gulf waters. He particularly enjoys inshore saltwater fishing, often using a Gheenoe, which is a long, flat- bottomed motorized canoe, a little over 15 feet long and about 36 inches wide.

“I have a boat, too, but for the last four years, I’ve found myself in the Gheenoe more than anything,” says Paul. “I can go where kayakers go but get there quicker because I’m under power.”

Although he’ll occasionally keep a fish to eat, Paul says the vast majority of the time he does “CPR,” which stands for “catch, photograph, release.”

When asked to relate a fishing story, Paul laughs. “Every time we go out fishing, there’s always a story,” he smiles.

Sometimes those stories involve a storm.

One Sunday in August, Paul, along with two friends, Pamela Wirth and Ruben Salazar, who’d come up from Tampa, left North Pirate’s Point in Ozello at daybreak. The friends were both in kayaks, while Paul was in his Gheenoe. He scouted out a good spot where he’d seen some tarpon rolling.

“One of my friends caught a Jack Crevalle, which is a pretty underrated sport fish because they fight really well,” recalls Paul, who had anchored on an oyster bar and was having good luck catching snook. Overall the fishing was decent—not stellar but still a good day on the water.

When heading out that morning, the three friends knew there was only a 30 percent chance of rain, so they were a bit surprised when the storm blew in the way it did.

“We had radar to stay abreast of what was coming, and when you’re on the water, you have a good line of sight,” says Paul.

They were too far out to beat the storm back to their launching point, so they decided to take cover on the north side of a mangrove island and hunker down. Fishing rods act as lightning conductors, so the trio laid their rods down in their crafts and held onto the closest tall branches at the water’s edge.

“It got pretty gnarly; you always know weather on the water can change in a minute, but that qualifies as the worst storm I’ve been caught in to date in my Gheenoe,” says Paul. “The wind reversed and started coming in from the northeast, so we definitely picked the wrong side of the island. There were gusts of 35mph and higher; the winds actually stood up the mangroves and bent them over. There was nothing we could do but hold on and ride it out.”

It took about 30 minutes for the howling winds and driving rains to move through the area, but Paul admits it felt a lot longer than half an hour.

That particular outing might have ended with three very soggy, weather-battered anglers, but it did nothing to dampen their passion for fishing.

“It’s hard to explain if you’re not into fishing, but it’s a form of solace, somewhere both my mind and body can go,” says Paul. “I take it seriously and like the challenge; I also like learning about the species I’m trying to catch.”

She Picks The Spot

A mutual love of fishing was one of the interests Teri Hines shared with TJ Adams when the couple met in the spring of 2016, and it continues to be a favorite way to spend time together.

They’d already been dating for awhile when TJ bought a new boat, a 16-foot Sea Ark flats boat, in August 2016. Teri, who prefers saltwater fishing, and TJ, who likes both salt and fresh, appreciate that the boat allows them to go into very shallow water. On this particular day, they were launching from Crystal River and heading into Gulf waters.

“TJ knows I like to pick the spot to fish, and he likes to give me the bragging rights,” says Teri, who happened to be red hot on picking the spot that day.

“We were in the Gulf, not far out from Sandy Hook in the mangroves, and from the first cast, we were catching redfish one right after the other,” recalls Teri, adding that they were using Cajun Thunder popping corks and live shrimp. “We just happened to come on a school of them.”

As members of the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) they were also fishing for the CCA Star Tournament. The CCA releases tagged redfish all across Atlantic and Gulf waters, so participating anglers must photograph a tagged fish if they catch one in order to enter the tournament contest to win prizes.

“It’s really rare to get one that’s tagged, and we didn’t, but that’s always the hope when we go fishing during Star Tournament time,” says Teri. “But we were still taking pictures of each fish, and that can be quite the task when you are catching fish back to back. TJ was reeling in another one, and I was stuck taking another picture. Now our joke is that I pick where they are in order for us to catch any,” she laughs.

As their fishing bonanza continued, the couple realized black storm clouds were rolling their way.

“We weren’t far from the ramp, and we were having such a great time, we didn’t want to give up our day,” says Teri. “Luckily, the storm moved away from us, and we continued to catch fish.”

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