I’ve known Mike McRae for almost a decade, and we talk fishing every time we’re together. The irony is that we’ve never actually fished together. He was the PE Coach at Summers Elementary, and I was the Tech Lab teacher during the fall of 2006. I knew the first time we met that he either spent more time sunbathing than the cast of The Jersey Shore, or he was a die-hard fisherman. There was no in between.
Here’s the difference between Mike, and other fishermen – he doesn’t just talk a big game about fishing, he lives it. He thinks like a fish, he stalks fish like a fish, he eats like a fish (seriously he once ate fish six times in a week), and I think he might even have gills likes a fish. This isn’t me telling a fish story, he’s a living, breathing fishing machine. “Coach” McRae is currently the PE Coach at Pinemount Elementary, and the second he’s off the clock he fishes like there’s no tomorrow. It’s why I call him the Kingfish Whisperer.
When he’s at home, he’s fishing off his family’s dock, catching bass and big specks. When he’s not at home, he’s probably towing his 20-foot Cape Horn towards Suwannee. His parents, Dr. Barney and Mary McRae, raised Mike and all of his brothers (Skip, Norman, and Chris) on the water. They’ve owned a house in Lake City (currently on Lake Jeffrey), and on the Suwannee River since 1972. That’s what they knew growing up: eat, sleep, fish, eat, sleep, fish, and repeat.
The unique thing about Mike is that he is completely unselfish. He catches enough fish between fresh water, salt water, and other waters to feed a village. So, what does he do? He basically feeds a village. He’s like the Santa Claus of fresh fish fillets. When Mike’s done fishing, he fills his sleigh (truck) with a sack (cooler) of presents (perfectly filleted fish), and then distributes them from Suwannee to Lake City. He probably leaves a trail like the gingerbread man of fish carcasses on the back roads he frequents.
He’s like the Santa Claus of fresh fish fillets.
I love eating fish, but there are some fish that I’m not crazy about. Bluefish and their pelagic friends, kingfish, Spanish mackerel, aren’t my favorite. I’ll make a smoked dip out of them, but that’s generally it. Mike brought me a bag of Spanish mackerel to Summers Elementary one day – already fried, and leftover from the night before. This was a recipe for disaster (literally), or, so I thought. That fish tasted like it was the freshest grouper I had ever eaten. From that day on I never turned down a bag of fish from Mike. It could have been mudfish, and I’d have ordered seconds and thirds.
Mike posted a report several weeks ago that featured a banner day of redfish and big trout, and I had to experience it for myself. Was he really catching fish in the middle of the dog days of summer, while everyone else was struggling like the Big 12 trying to find a defense. He must have been using old photos on Facebook I joked, but I knew if anyone was catching fish out of the unusually warm water on our local flats it had to be him.
So Mike and I met at their Suwannee River house Friday about 5 p.m., with a plan to hit the exact same spot that had produced the weekend previous. We didn’t waste any time, and the boat was already in the water (Mike had fished earlier in the day with his dad). We drove through the canal, and he knew every one by their first name, their kid’s names, and even their dog’s names. After just a few hundred yards we cleared the canal and hit full throttle.
As Mike and I headed towards the location we’d be fishing for a few hours, he was describing different parts of the Suwannee River in better detail than a nautical Rand McNally. He knew where every hole, channel, oyster bar, tree stump, and fiddler crab could be found. I learned more in that quick boat ride about the Suwannee than I had in my previous dozen trips combined.
We pulled into our spot and Mike knew we’d have 15-20 minutes before the bite turned on. With only a three-hour window to fish, there wasn’t much time, but sometimes that’s all you need. So, we rigged our rods, caught live bait, while studying the shoreline and water flow (it’s not just tidal flow at the Suwannee). In order to truly take your fishing to the next level, you have to not just catch fish, but you have to know why you caught fish. Always be aware of your surrounding and take detailed notes.
There was just 2 of us fishing, but at one point we were working 6 rods : 2 bait catching rigs, 2 shrimp, 1 live bait, and 1 big topwater. This can turn into a Chinese fire drill, but if you know what you’re doing, and more importantly are respectful, then you can work in tandem. The first bite went to Mike on a jumbo shrimp, and he gave it a few seconds with a sinking bobber, and set the hook. A plump 19” trout fell victim, I grabbed the net, and it was added to the cooler.
Within a few minutes we were starting to see the activity pick up, and I had several big blowups on my bone Super Spook. They missed it each time, but the “life” on the flat was starting to pick up. I’m a huge proponent of action while fishing. I like to work my topwaters fast and furious, and I’m very aggressive with the Cajun thunder, so we amped up the action to draw the fish to our bait and lures.
At this point Mike hooked me up with a frisky fresh pinfish on my 3/0 blood red circle hook. Boom! Within seconds I hooked another fat trout pushing 20”. Somehow, during all of this, we remained untangled, and we both continued to work multiple rods.
While the trout action picked up, Mike was consistently catching puppy drum (smaller redfish) along the shoreline. I would venture to say he caught over 50 in 2 hours, most in the 16”-18” range – which bodes well for the future stock. At one point we had multiple bobbers sunk, and I had to ditch the topwater. We put over half a dozen heavy trout in the cooler, and mixed in some lower slot redfish. At the peak of this action I hooked something real big.
A few seconds after the bobber disappeared I reeled down on the circle hook, and a 5-foot blacktip shark took to the air. It exploded to the surface clearing the water by several feet, and then started ripping off line. There are times where this can be fun, and they’re actually quite tasty, but we were more concerned with maintaining our location, so I locked down the drag, and broke him off. The biggest issue with sharks in shallow water – and porpoises as well, is that they can absolutely shut off the bite. They will clear out an entire flat, and this gray missile did just that. Everything spooked, and we waited about 30 more minutes with some small reds and a couple of hits, and eventually I hooked a big alligator gar.
Combined with an earlier jack crevalle, I officially took the lead of the trash can slam, and I held on for the title.
The highlight of the rest of the night came with the last few pinfish in the livewell. The sun was setting, the tide was ripping out, and I had one fish pick up my big pinfish that absolutely dump the reel. It blistered off line in a matter of seconds, and somehow missed the hook. Our best guess was that it was a BORF (Big Ole RedFish), potentially a tarpon, or maybe even a loner cobia.
We’ll never know. For a quick trip Mike and I had a nice cooler full of fish, and throttled home under the orange sky. I had witnessed first hand an unexpected big trout bite in some toasty water, and chalked it up to the skills of the Kingfish Whisperer – or in this case, the Trout Whisperer.