TOUR DE FORCE

CAPT. R.T. TROS­SET, THE DEAN OF KEY WEST GUIDES, HAS BEEN FOOL­ING FISH LIKE FEW OTH­ERS FOR 44 YEARS STORY BY WIL­LIAM SISSON PHOTOS BY PAT FORD

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS -

With 70 pounds of pilchards in the live wells and a rep­u­ta­tion for find­ing record fish, Capt. R.T. Tros­set is a master of fast-and-fu­ri­ous fish­ing. By WIL­LIAM SISSON

Three light-tackle an­glers and their sage cap­tain were look­ing for big king­fish about 60 miles north­west of Key West at a spot in the Gulf that some­times pro­duces magic, but they couldn’t con­jure a sin­gle king. That’s fish­ing. Still, we were hav­ing a good time catch­ing flag yel­low­tail snap­per when a nice am­ber­jack ap­peared in the chum slick.

Capt. Robert R.T. Tros­set ju­di­ciously tossed the fish a few live pilchards to keep it in­ter­ested while Ru­fus Wake­man got his fly rod ready. Wake­man pre­sented a large streamer to the fish, which showed no in­ter­est in the of­fer­ing. Wake­man re­moved the fly from the wa­ter, and Tros­set went to work. He squeezed a cou­ple of pilchards be­tween his thumb and fore­fin­ger to stun the baits be­fore feed­ing them to the am­ber­jack.

The fish ate the dazed snacks with­out hes­i­ta­tion. Then the cap­tain pinched the life out of a few more and, fi­nally, coaxed the fish into eat­ing dead baits. Only then did he have Wake­man try again. The fish took the fly with­out wa­ver­ing, and Wake­man was fast to his per­sonal-best am­ber­jack, which weighed about 30 pounds.

“It sounds easy, but it takes a real knack to keep a fish on the sur­face and to keep him real hot,” says Pat Ford, a well-trav­eled an­gler and long­time friend of Tros­set’s who was aboard the 34-foot Yel­lowfin Spin­drift that day. “R.T.’S got the teas­ing and feed­ing down to an art form.”

Tros­set has mas­tered the craft of fish­ing with live bait like few oth­ers. “He’s pretty much the guru of it,” says Wake­man, a world record holder and cap­tain who guides fly and light-tackle clients out of Jensen Beach, Florida. “R.T.’S whole fish­ing is based on live chum. It’s amaz­ing.”

There’s noth­ing willy-nilly about the cap­tain’s ap­proach. “I try and get the fish to show me what he wants,” says Tros­set, who is 66 and has been guid­ing out of Key West since 1975. “Then I give it back to him. I mimic it. It’s all about fool­ing them.”

Few can match Tros­set for sheer “fishi­ness.” In his 44 years as a char­ter skip­per, he’s guided an­glers to a re­mark­able 238 In­ter­na­tional Game Fish As­so­ci­a­tion world records. And he re­ceived an IGFA Life­time Achieve­ment Award. “He’s just re­ally, re­ally knowl­edge­able,” says Ford, who has known Tros­set since the 1970s and has set sev­eral world records with him, in­clud­ing a 67-pound, 4-ounce co­bia taken on a fly with an 8-pound tippet in 1985 — a record with legs. “He’s the dean of the guides in the Keys.”

Ford, Wake­man and I spent three days ear­lier this year fish­ing with Tros­set aboard Spin­drift, which is pow­ered by a pair of 300-hp Suzukis.

We caught a mess of black­fin tuna and bonito, and some kings. Ford took a 60-pound king­fish on light spin that was shaped like a preg­nant mis­sile. I hooked a wa­hoo on the fly that was sharked.

We fished in con­di­tions that ranged from sunny and flat to squally, with winds 20-plus out of the east, some show­ers and seas from 5 to 8 feet. We told a bunch of sto­ries, laughed a lot and lis­tened as Wake­man, a large man with a bari­tone voice, sang along to Brewer & Ship­ley’s “One Toke Over the Line.”

Com­padres

This story could easily be called “The Three Ami­gos.” Col­lec­tively, these three fish­ing friends — Tros­set,

Ford and Wake­man — have more than 160 years of salt in their sea boots. That’s a lot of fire, brim­stone and know-how, not to men­tion the un­wa­ver­ing pas­sion all three share for fly and light-tackle an­gling.

A re­tired Miami trial lawyer, Ford has known Tros­set since the now-iconic guide first ar­rived in the Keys more than 40 years ago. To make ends meet, Tros­set was work­ing as a parts man­ager for a ma­rina. The two met on the docks and started fish­ing to­gether. “He was just one of the guys,” says Ford, who took the pho­to­graphs for this story. “I’d show him some stuff, and he’d show me some stuff. We set a few world records to­gether.”

Wake­man, Ford and Tros­set first fished to­gether about a decade ago, and they still talk about the day they crushed two dozen big king mack­erel on the fly. “A day that will live in in­famy,” re­calls Wake­man, who has been fish­ing the Keys for more than 35 years and op­er­ates a fish camp and cot­tages on the In­dian River.

They caught a slew of kings in the mid-20-to-mid30-pound range, and Ford lost one that might have gone 50 pounds. Wake­man landed a 37-pounder, and Ford nabbed one that weighed 36. The top­per was a 35-pound king­fish that leapt into the boat in pur­suit of a teaser plug, nearly T-bon­ing Tros­set in the crotch. You don’t for­get that sort of day.

Our out­ing ear­lier this year was a re­union trip of sorts as the three­some and I made the long run out of Key West and into the Gulf, back to the same neigh­bor­hood where they clob­bered the kings years ago. The hope was to catch light­ning in a bot­tle a sec­ond time. En­thu­si­asm ran high, but alas, the fish were graz­ing greener pas­tures that day.

No mat­ter. Dur­ing the next three days we caught plenty of fish drift­ing live pilchards and on flies west of the Western Dry Rocks and at the End of the Bar about 20 miles south­west of Key West.

On our sec­ond day, the Gulf Stream, which was right in on the reef, was white-capped, with the seas run­ning 3 to 4 feet and winds gust­ing to 20 mph out of the east. It was a fine day to be rolling with the swells, knees braced on the padded coam­ing, all of us lean­ing into nice tuna. The stream was alive, and it was ex­cit­ing to watch tuna blow up on the pilchards. More than once we had dou­ble-head­ers on the fly. Four spin­ning rods bent an­other time. We passed them above, be­low and around one an­other and stepped quickly for­ward and aft as our tuna raced thither and yon.

“This is com­bat fish­ing,” Ford said mer­rily. The 74-year-old an­gler, who hadn’t been on a boat for months be­cause of ro­ta­tor cuff surgery, got to test his shoul­der on a 60-pound king be­fore the day was out. “That’s a se­ri­ous-ass king­fish,” Tros­set said.

“God, what a stud,” Wake­man re­marked.

“I’m back,” Ford said.

The Chum Life

The name of the game in the Keys is fresh, healthy bait and lots of it. Spin­drift has 100 gal­lons of live well ca­pac­ity be­tween two wells, which Tros­set likes to fill with 60 to 70 pounds of pilchards (roughly 1,500 to 2,000 in­di­vid­ual scaled sar­dines, as they are also known). “The se­cret to all the Key West fish­ing is live pilchards,” Ford says. “Ev­ery­thing eats pilchards.”

Some­times you find them quickly; other days, it can take hours. “Yes­ter­day we were out of here on four throws. Per­fect pilchards,” Tros­set said on our first morn­ing, a day when it took about three hours to get the bait we needed. “It’s worth it for me to spend four hours to find live bait if I’m go­ing to fish four more hours.”

We all un­der­stood the im­por­tance of what Wake­man la­beled the “bait re­lo­ca­tion pro­gram.”

“You have to have the bait, or you’re dead in the wa­ter,” Wake­man says. “It’s just es­sen­tial. But when you do, and you get to where you’re go­ing, it’s the fastest and most fu­ri­ous fish­ing you’ll have in your life.”

Mate Pa­trick Cline, a solidly built 26-year-old, tosses with aplomb a large cast net, one with a 12-foot ra­dius (24-foot di­am­e­ter) and 18 pounds of weights. Cline dubs the op­er­a­tion the “chum life.”

“One of my friends has that tat­tooed on his arm,” Cline says. “He’s a com­mer­cial yel­lowfin fish­er­man.”

You get the drift: It starts with the bait.

Dean of Guides

Tros­set looks the part of the quin­tes­sen­tial

Keys guide. He’s bearded and sun-beaten, with a hand­some, griz­zled face, an Xtratuf hat, shorts and a T-shirt fea­tur­ing a Tim Borski ren­der­ing of a Van Staal reel, the brand fished on the boat. He’s a fish hawk in the vi­sion depart­ment, see­ing and sens­ing what oth­ers can’t, in­clud­ing ev­ery fish you miss and even some you didn’t re­al­ize were pok­ing about. He’s at home on the flats, near shore and off­shore.

One of the things that sets Tros­set apart is his ver­sa­til­ity and abil­ity to change as dic­tated by Mother Nature and her finny sub­jects. He al­ways has a backup plan or two in his pocket. “He’ll look at the weather and wind in the morn­ing and say, ‘Nope, not do­ing that. We’ll do this in­stead,’ ” Ford says. “And you’ll crush it.”

The di­ver­sity of the species found in the Keys rewards those cap­tains who can smoothly pivot. “The av­er­age guide learns to do a few things pretty well, and they do that for 30 years,” says John Brown­lee, the host of An­glers Jour­nal TV and a friend of Tros­set’s. “And if you take them out of their com­fort zone, they won’t catch fish. R.T. is a nat­u­ral fish­er­man. There’s noth­ing he can’t catch. He can do ev­ery­thing well.”

And Tros­set has fish­ing spots up the wa­zoo. “Wait till you see his GPS, with all the lit­tle wrecks and spots on there,” Ford told me as we drove down U.S. 1, headed for Key West.

Two days later, I’m stand­ing be­side Tros­set on Spin­drift, look­ing at just a small num­ber of

wrecks, rock piles and pieces of pro­duc­tive hard bot­tom marked on his plot­ter. “In 44 years, you pick up a lot,” Tros­set says. “I’d say I’ve got nearly a thou­sand spots marked that I’d come back to. Some of the best spots are the small ones. A rock that’s never been fished be­fore.” Some of them — es­pe­cially in the ear­lier years — came from shrimpers. “I’ve been talk­ing to shrimpers for years,” he says.

He has the pre­cise way about him of a man who doesn’t like slop­pi­ness in equip­ment, tac­tics, knots and so on. Maybe it comes from guid­ing so many top an­glers for world records, when prepa­ra­tion and plan­ning are paramount to suc­cess. “He’s a plea­sure to fish with,” Ford says. “The eas­i­est guy to get along with. He’s a teacher, not a critic.”

And as long as your head is not lodged up your back­side, you’ll be a bet­ter fish­er­man for spend­ing a day or two with him.

Tros­set grad­u­ated in 1974 from the Univer­sity of Florida with a de­gree in jour­nal­ism. He worked for a year sell­ing life in­sur­ance, hated it, and de­cided on a new course. “I said,

‘I’m go­ing to move to Key West and be­come a fish­ing guide,’ ” he re­calls. He worked in a ma­rina, and noted guide Bob Mont­gomery took him un­der his wing and steered his over­flow clients Tros­set’s way. “That was a su­per break,” he says.

With Mont­gomery and leg­endary guide Ralph Delph gone, Tros­set is one of the last of the old-school bunch that started guid­ing in the ’70s. And he con­tin­ues to fish hard, although not at the pace he kept as a younger guide, when he’d be booked for as many as 285 days a sea­son. Now Tros­set char­ters about 130 days; Cline runs the boat when Tros­set is away. And he’s happy to have his sons close by. One, Chris, char­ters out of an ad­ja­cent slip at the Oceans Edge Re­sort & Ma­rina in Key West, and son Robert op­er­ates the Finz Dive Cen­ter.

With so many species and tech­niques at his beck and call, Tros­set has a few fa­vorites. “I love fish­ing tar­pon on flies in shal­low wa­ter,” he says. “I love to live-bait wa­hoo. And I like catch­ing big kings on the fly. I love it all.”

He says he has no in­ten­tion of re­tir­ing. He’s ex­cited about get­ting a new Suzuki-pow­ered 36-foot Yel­lowfin Off­shore later this sum­mer. And he’s still at the top of his game.

“I take peo­ple fish­ing the way I’d like to go fish­ing my­self, even if it costs more,” Tros­set says. “You have to love what you do. It’s what I would do if I was on my own time.”

For more in­for­ma­tion, con­tact Tros­set at (305) 797-5693 or rt­spin­[email protected] aol.com. Thanks also to Oceans Edge Re­sort & Ma­rina for the ac­com­mo­da­tions. Spin­drift is berthed at the re­sort’s ma­rina. (877) 935-0862

A 60-pound king is cra­dled (from left) by Tros­set, Pat Ford and mate Pa­trick Cline.

It all starts with catch­ing pilchards. Pa­trick Cline throws a large net, and the bait is poured into a well.

Tros­set and Wake­man, a world record holder, ad­mire a nice black­fin tuna.

The au­thor is fast to a fish. In three days of fish­ing, the trio took a bunch of tuna, king­fish, cero mack­erel and more.

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