Ken Perrotte’s arrow sliced the water as the stingray tried to make its escape. He said later he thought he had missed, however the fluorescent orange dacron line attached to the arrow surged from the reel.
“Oooh! You got him, you got him, you got him,” exclaimed Andrew Herzog. “Get ready, get ready….”
Only then did Perrotte realize he was attached to a stingray… a big one. He grabbed the dacron line and began wrapping it around his bare hand. As the stingray surged away using every ounce of power stored in its 3-foot wingspan, Perrotte realized that was a mistake.
“No, no, no… it’ll break your fingers,” explained Mallory Herzog. “Just let the line drop on the deck and bring him toward the boat so we can try to hit him with another arrow.”
That was easier said than done. The next four minutes turned into a nautical fire drill until Mallory finally got a second arrow into the big ray and Andrew, while avoiding its flailing tail equipped with a poisonous barb, was able to safely hoist it into the boat. I realized then that bowfishing for stingrays is not for the faint of heart.
Welcome to bowfishing with Big Bully Outdoors. (See video above, photo gallery below)
Last week Perrotte and I were enroute to the 2016 Southeastern Outdoor Press Association annual conference. But first, at the invitation of the Charlotte Harbor Visitor & Convention Bureau, we had the opportunity to sample some of the great fishing in the region. I quickly discovered that regardless of the fishing, a day in the boat with Andrew and Mallory Herzog was going to be fun. For this cute couple, guiding is a family affair.
“We started our charter business off the beach with me, my husband, and our little boy who’s ten,” said Mallory. “When he’s on school breaks, we even put him to work, I’ll take him with me and make him bait hooks and throw the net.”
They ply the waters of Charlotte Harbor from Englewood Beach to Punta Gorda, about 100 miles south of Tampa. Ten years ago they lived in Ohio but like many new Floridians, they came South for one big reason.
“The weather,” said Andrew definitively. “The weather and the housing market. Or lack there of. I lost a really good job in construction and I lost it when the housing market crashed, so I came home and said to Mallory, ‘If we are gonna be broke we might as well do it where there’s good scenery and the weather is nice.’ So I sold my motorcycle and came down here on a prayer and just got lucky and made things work.”
Like Andrew, I am a fishing guide. I know firsthand that a successful guide business takes much more than luck… especially on the Gulf Coast where fishing guides are a dime a dozen. When you are on the water, you cannot fake passion and excitement for what you do. Andrew and Mallory are both passionate about fishing, and it is contagious. They admit, however, that their guide business was born by accident.
“It started as a hobby,” said Andrew. “Then it just kind of evolved into a business.”
“Yea, we never planned on it to be a charter company,” added Mallory. “I write for some local magazines and I have a fishing blog to educate other anglers. And then it just evolved from people wanting advice from the blog to people wanting us to take them fishing.”
Like most Gulf Coast guides, their target species vary widely based on the season and on the client’s wishes. Andrew, however, is admittedly a tarpon addict. Running toward our bowfishing spot, he had to stop near a flock of seagulls dipping and diving over baitfish forced to the surface by feeding tarpon.
“I’m sorry guys,” he said apologetically. “I just can’t run by tarpon.”
We weren’t complaining, especially as we watched 100 to 150-pound tarpon surface. But the school quickly disappeared. I made a mental note that the Spring of 2017 — when the tarpon turn on with a vengeance — would find me back in Punta Gorda with the Herzogs.
Another 15-mile run across Charlotte Harbor found us alongside a clear, shallow sandbar, a favorite bowfishing area for the Herzogs. Andrew put the remote controlled trolling motor down and began to slowly ease along. All eyes were peeled for the tell-tale triangular shape of a stingray hugging the sandy bottom.
“We don’t do a lot of exclusive bowfishing trips,” said Andrew. “But lots of times we start out shooting stingrays to use for bait before we fish for goliath grouper. We sort of work our way up the food chain.”
One of Andrew’s claims to fame is a 13.5-foot hammerhead shark caught and released off the beach near Punta Gorda. You have no doubt seen videos of the massive, and aptly-named goliath groupers that can weigh hundreds of pounds. A stingray with a 2-foot wingspan is just a tiny morsel for these mega-fish.
“You put [a stingray] on a big 20/0 hook with a thousand-pound line, and send it down to a 400-pound dinosaur and reel him up, and then do it all over again, until you tap out,” said Andrew with a smile.
The rays look like big, easy targets. But anyone who has bowfished understands the variables of refracted light. Due to the bending of the light, underwater objects are NOT where they appear to be. Depending upon the distance and the depth, bowfishermen have to aim where the target isn’t. As unlikely as it seems, it is very easy to miss a 3-foot stingray 20 feet away. Trust me – I know.
But enough shots, and hits came, that Andrew stayed busy. Great care is required to boat even small rays to avoid their whipping tails equipped with a poisonous barb. In a lax moment, Andrew got hit by one on the foot not long before our trip.
“Yea, it hurt a little bit… for like a month,” he said sarcastically.
But with great expertise, the Herzogs have learned to boat the stingrays and remove the poisonous barb that shooters can take home for a souvenir.
(Story continues beneath the Photo Gallery).
Sometimes rays speared in a wing – a non-lethal shot – can be released. But whether they are released or used for “big fish” bait, the Herzogs make it clear that the stingrays their clients shoot never go to waste. They have a friend who owns an alligator farm.
“They’ll either go into the freezer for shark bait for this winter, or they’ll go to the gator farm to feed the gators,” said Mallory. “Nothing goes to waste. It goes right back into the food chain where it started. Just like using shrimp to catch trout, only on a much bigger scale.”
While most prized game fish are protected, bowfishermen can take a variety of species in addition to stingrays. Bowfishing trips are almost always action-packed, and can be coupled with fishing. After shooting, and missing, my fair share of rays under a warm October sun, I told the Herzogs, “I’m ready to call it a day anytime y’all want.”
The Herzog’s weren’t.
“I’ve got one redfish spot I really want to hit on our way back in,” Andrew said.
Again, Perrotte and I didn’t complain. Following a short run into a backwater bay, Andrew dropped the shallow water anchors, locking the boat into place. Reaching into the livewell, Mallory came out with a net full of healthy, squirming blue crabs (see Photo Gallery above). Andrew put out four rods baited with crab and we sat back to wait, not unlike Tennessee River catfishing. We didn’t wait long however.
Within five minutes I found myself attached to a 27-inch redfish. Those who have never had a redfish on the line have a hard time imagining their strength and long-lasting power. Like the Energizer bunny, they fight, and fight and then fight some more (see video above).
Anglers in Charlotte Harbor can only keep one redfish a day between 18 and 27 inches long. All of ours were released, although many restaurants, such as Farlow’s on the Water, will cook your catch fresh for you on request.
The Herzogs pride themselves on being honest with their clients.
“Absolutely, yea… if it’s gonna be a bad day, just let them know it’s gonna be a bad day,” said Andrew. “But some of our best days on the water have been slow days fishing … but you have a great time with the people you are with. It’s all about making memories.”
And if you are with the Herzogs, one way or the other, it is going to be a memorable day.