I have known Butch Cox a little bit for a longish time. He has one of the world’s best reputations as a marlin catcher, and this day he executed a near perfect display of boat-handling skills. Marlin University student and angler Jesse Cox spent all day in the cockpit, on alert. That afternoon, it all paid off.
It started with an incredible bite. A large blue marlin pounced on a ballyhoo on the long ’rigger. The distance from dorsal fin to tail erased any possibility it might not be a blue marlin! And a good one at that!
We already had a blue marlin, two white marlin (or maybe a white and a roundscale spearfish — it’s hard to tell unless you can see both the anal fin and the anus) and a bunch of big dolphin, up to 45 pounds or so, and some nice blackfin tuna. A good day already, one fish turned it into a great day. The fish was a solid 500-pounder.
In fact, it was a great week. The worst day either boat had (Ken Ross, another old friend and top-notch fisherman, was our other captain) was one white and one blue marlin, and the two boats teamed up for more than 30 marlin, with a few more white marlin than blue marlin — a ratio of maybe 3 to 2 when the spray cleared.
One evening shortly after I got home, I relearned a lesson from long ago that I had been ignoring for about a month: It pays to “match the hatch.”
There have been good-size schools of small bait in the little “Manatee Creek” in my backyard for a few weeks, but I had not been catching many snook on the mullet-size plugs I was sometimes throwing just before sunset and a rum drink. There were both large mullet and smaller bait in the creek.
John B. Sweeney was a local tackle-shop operator who hired high school boys to work part time and would drop a bigger project to put a new tip on some kid’s (or my) rod. We were not best friends, but I knew him as one of the good guys.
I am not superstitious, but when he passed away a couple of years ago, I bought all the homemade pompano jigs he had tied that were left in his shop. I figured that if I used them, they would all eventually be lost, but every time I used one, it would remind me of John B.
I am pretty selective about when I use them, as there are only a few left. Ladyfish took the biggest toll; their rough jaws were tough on light mono leaders, and if I got into a swarm of them, I switched to less memorable lures. They all worked on ladyfish, and I was trying to make the John B. lures last as long as possible.
I threw out a small pink John B. jig late one afternoon, just for the heck of it, and was surprised when I hooked a nice snook, legal size, in the slot (28 to 32 inches).
I got the fish subdued after another episode of passing the rod around pilings and between small boats and debated with myself too long over taking or releasing him. I wasn’t even upset when he gathered enough strength and jumped free.
I took Lucky, our tiny rescue dog, out in the kayak and got two ladyfish (I retied the leader after the second one!), three more snook and a jack before something toothy bit it off and I went home.
The next three days I did not use John B’s jigs but used small rubber/ plastic paddle tail shad (2 inches long) on 1/32-ounce jig heads. I didn’t mind when I lost one of them and it still made me think of John B. I got anywhere from 10 to 15 bites every evening — snook, ladyfish, jacks, mangrove snapper — and lost more fish than I caught and broke off three big snook trying to keep them out of the mangroves.
I preach and preach in Marlin University that the best way to catch more tuna is too use smaller lures. Thanks to John B’s jig, I rediscovered that truism in my backyard.
Thanks again, John B.!