GONE FISHIN’ TO THE MIDDLE GROUNDS
By Manny Luftglass

Where are the “Middle Grounds?” They lie 70 or so miles doggone near straight out to the east from the Anclote River in Tarpon Springs, Florida, and that’s where I boarded the most unique party boat fishing trip I’ve ever experienced. Unique, and for that matter, far and away the best trip I’ve ever had in Florida waters, bar none. My first headboat trip in Florida took place in 1978 and since then, I have sailed from at least ten ports in the Sunshine State. As a “Snowbird”, I stay for nearly six months in the Palm Beach area and fish two to three times weekly. My guess is that I’ve fished down here close to one thousand times.

There are two other headboats that sail to the Middle Grounds periodically, but according to some customers who I shared the ride with, they simply don’t even compare with the experience one gets by riding the Viking Gulfstar to the Middle Grounds.

My catch consisted of five keeper-sized grouper. Stop, okay? I’ve never caught five keeper grouper in a single trip. Last year, in sixty trips out on the Atlantic, I didn’t have one keeper all season long. I also threw back thirty or so short grouper, most only an inch or two under the size limit.

Add in 13 mangrove snapper to six pounds. Last season’s tally? Maybe five or six. I also had a 5+ pound red snapper. Now include over forty vermillion snapper to nearly three pounds. Plop two huge triggerfish into the cooler and four good-sized porgies and that made for a trip that produced one hundred or so bottom dwellers-AND-this was a below-average trip, they told me!

What to bring? Frankly, you can get away with just bringing yourself and all kinds of clothing and maybe a coffin-sized cooler or two. Sure, if you take medicine, bring it. On the way out we got the usual lecture about safety but for the first time on such a boat I ever experienced, the galley boss, Paul, cautioned us to put any medicine we might need in our right hand pants pocket, just in case. Dang, did you ever hear anything like that?

Take a toothbrush and toothpaste and maybe some deodorant and soap because the boat has a hot water shower and two heads. You get your own comfortable bunk too. If you can handle it, you can fish before and after the trip in and out and shut your eyes between stops. That means that you can fish for 26-30 hours if you can handle it.0

Yes, bring rods and reels if you want but they provide the top of the line in gear. You want 7-8 foot heavy rods and reels that are capable of holding hundreds of yards of sixty pound mono or heavier. A reel loaded with heavy braid might be even better. Leave the light stuff home though because chances are close to 100% that you will get nailed by a monster that you cannot handle on regular stuff. For example, I had two reels, one with 40-pound mono and the other with 50-pound braid and a top shot of mono. During the trip, I got slammed by four fish that quickly broke me off because I simply couldn’t handle their weight. I was simply fishing too light on this outing.

During the trip, dozens of amberjacks were biting, at times, with three or four hooked up at the same time. I was in that frenzy and twice in that fifteen minute attack, I got busted off! There were 15-20 “A-J’s” brought on board and three of them went between 55 and 60 pounds. In a very recent trip, one guy nailed a 120 pounder!

At one spot, four of us got hooked into Goliath grouper and I can still hear the fish giggling to themselves as they tore line and broke each of us off. I had one slam that took one hundred yards of line off in the blink of an eye. It was far too fast for a grouper and the guess was that a porpoise ate a vermillion snapper I was in process of reeling up.

There are two very basic ways to rig. Again though, the boat provides it all if you want. In either case, a heavy black barrel swivel has a 4-8 ounce egg sinker rest on top of it and at the other end of the swivel; a length of very heavy mono is tied on. A three or four foot length is attached to a 7/0 “J-hook” when fishing with the live bait they provide free of charge. This is intended to catch grouper, amberjack, and who knows what other beasts. The second method involves using two 5/0 hook hooks that are tied together, but spaced just a tiny bit apart from the other. This set-up permits the angler to stick the top hook through the clipped off tail stub of the sardine or threadfin provided, and then the bottom hook gets protruded through the body of the bait fish.

The baitfish are salted and that really improves their staying power on the hook. Without the salt, the bait is gone instantly but this allows you some time to get two or three hits before it’s time to reel up and re-bait. Also provided is a mess of squid and I took a “break” from the beasties, (I thought) and rigged up with a fluke-style set up and that was when the Goliath decided he wanted a little tiny snack! Screech and bang came next.

The boat leaves the dock at 8 p. m. on Friday and returns on Sunday at around 4 p. m. The best of the best action comes in the dark and in sunset and sunrise times. During the day, it’s only wonderful. Otherwise, it’s incomparable, and I am not kidding.

The seven + hour ride out goes on a 286 or so degree heading and we come back at 112 or so. Fishing is done in 115-135 feet of water on very hard and sticky bottom.

This is a “Viking boat”, right? If you’ve ever fished on any of the fleet of boats that proudly wear the name “Viking”, you must already know a little about what I mean. After all, the “Forsberg Empire” (my name) celebrated its 75th¬†anniversary this year and runs the largest headboat on the entire coast, the 140-foot Viking Starship out of Montauk, with several slightly smaller boats. They even run out of two ports in Massachusetts in season as well.

Captain Paul G. Forsberg is the top guy and he lives in Tarpon Springs where he docks the 60-foot steel sailboat he built for commercial fishing. We had dinner together before the Gulfstar headed out and the next day, Paul went out commercial fishing with his “Viking Freedom”, the most unusual and beautiful steel sailboat on the water.

Paul’s partner for this boat is Captain Rich Castellano who, for sure, has roots up in Montauk also. There are as many as four captains on the boat at the same time! Rich is one of them as well as Paul’s son, Captain Paul J. Jerry Rathey was at the wheel much of the time I was on board and he really is a fine seaman. Now throw in the galley boss, yet another Captain Paul, who produces five meals that range from excellent to holy cow!

The lunchtime meal heading back to the barn consists of spectacular tasting fresh grilled fish as well as cold fish salad that Paul makes. He also serves homemade potato salad and cole slaw. He also provides many varieties of cakes and a basket of snacks. Soda and ice water is available in unlimited quantity and the coffee pot is never empty. Two mates are generally running around the boat all the time, filling coolers with crushed ice, gaffing or netting fish, etc.

After sailing for 7 hours, fishing starts about 3 a. m. on Saturday and by the time it gets light, everyone has dragged a mess of fish on board. It gets wild again that evening and usually cranks back up to full speed ahead near sunlight on Sunday. However, we got whacked by a very unfriendly cold front that threw some urphers at us so the wise decision was to head back to the barn before we had the morning attack in full motion. That’s what I meant when I said this was less than an average trip, but doggone it, it was the single best trip I ever had in Florida, and I’ll be back, for sure.

Regulations change from time to time so rather then telling you what they were this November, I’ll let you find out what they are when you sail. Just remember, that there are a dozen varieties of fish you will see and most of them are legal. And you are also allowed a two-day bag limit since you will be fishing in two separate days.

The 44-hour deal is tops but the Viking Gulfstar also makes six and twelve hour trips during the year also.

See ya’ next time.