I stepped outside into the bitter cold and walked to my pickup truck to put my camera case and carry-on luggage in the back next to my daughter’s booster seat. A cold shiver ran down my back, and I scurried back to the house, the snow crackling under my feet, my breath trailing behind me in pale puffs of smoke. Just inside, my wife and 6-year-old daughter were bundling up with hats and mittens, preparing to drive me to the airport.

“Is it really cold, Dad?” my daughter asked.

“Very cold,” I muttered.

“But you’ll be nice and warm in Florida, right?”

“I hope so,” I replied.

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My wife drove carefully through the growing snowdrifts and we arrived safely at Hector International Airport in Fargo. As I unbuckled my seatbelt, I said a prayer my flight wouldn’t be canceled due to the bad weather. Just then my phone buzzed. I took it out of my coat pocket to see the alert from my weather app: “Blizzard Warning.”

I kissed my wife and daughter goodbye and stepped out into the falling snow. As I hurried into the terminal, the wind was hard and relentless, blowing against me as if it were trying to stop a fleeing criminal.

While most anglers in our region are gearing up to brave the cold of the hardwater fishing season, I opted to head south and fish in the beautiful warm weather of Tampa Bay in the Sunshine State. There you can target and hook just about anything – Snook, Trout, Redfish, Black Drum, Sheepshead, Flounder, Grouper, Snapper, Amberjacks, and Pompano. These are all great eating. And with short, direct flights available from Fargo to Florida right now, you can freeze your catch and bring home some freshly-caught fish in your luggage to make your own Grouper sandwiches, Stuffed Flounder, or pan-fried Pompano.

Stringer of White Grunts & Littlehead Porgy.JPG

And a trip like this can be affordable. It costs about the same as a three-night/two-day guided fishing trip on Devils Lake. I escaped the blizzard in Fargo on an Allegiant Airlines roundtrip flight directly into St. Pete – Clearwater Airport for only $140. If you go before the busy tourist season starts in mid-February, you can stay at a less expensive hotel in Clearwater Beach, just a few minutes walk from the fishing charter boats, great restaurants, and the popular Pier 60 for about $120 per night. These budget hotels are most likely not what you are looking for if you are traveling with a spouse on a romantic getaway or with kids on family vacation. But if you aren’t picky, they are perfect for a solo trip or an adventure with your fishing buddies.

There is also no need to rent a car while you are there. A $20 Uber ride will get you from the airport to your choice of lodging near the beach, and save you in car rental and parking fees.

There are lots of great fishing charters to choose from for both inshore and offshore excursions in the Tampa Bay area. If you are traveling alone like I was, inshore might not be an option for a tight budget. Most half day trips will run you $500 for one to four people. That’s not bad if you are going with a few buddies to split the cost. But that was not an option for my budget when there were Christmas gifts to buy for my wife and daughter.

As an avid angler who loves being on the water for hours on end, I chose a full day trip on the Gulf Queen fishing boat out of Clearwater Beach for a price of $85. If you are active-duty military or veteran, the price is only $65 with military ID. I didn’t want to haul my own fishing rod, reel, and tackle on the plane, so I also chose to rent a rod for the day for the reasonable price of just $10. If you are traveling with children or teens with short attention spans, I would recommend the half day trip at a cost of $65/person, which includes your fishing and rod rental.

Boat Captain Bob Kirn greeted me with a warm smile as I boarded the Gulf Queen for our excursion that would take us about 20 miles out into the Gulf of Mexico. It was a beautiful sunny day with winds less than 5 miles per hour. I appreciated how still the water was. Higher wind speeds mean bigger waves and a greater chance for anglers to get seasick — a common occurrence on these outings for those who choose not to take the free Dramamine offered to passengers at the beginning of the trip. But a pro tip I learned from the boat’s crew is that it’s much more effective if you take the motion sickness pill the night before you go out on the water.

The next crew member I met was Craig the cook. He was busy making burgers and ham, egg, and cheese sandwiches and selling them for just $3. Snacks, pastries, and bottled water were also available throughout the day for only $1/each. Craig has my dream job. He gets paid to go out on a charter boat, cook for hungry anglers when they need something, but still have time to join us and cast a line in the water himself while we are busy fishing and not thinking about food.

The third crew member on board was deckhand Angela Zamarripa. She grew up hiking and hunting deer and upland birds in Wyoming and Colorado. She moved to the Tampa Bay area a few years ago and fell in love with it. “When I arrived in Florida, I got to do a little fishing. The more fish I caught, the more obsessed I got, and the more I wanted to constantly be on the water.”

Angela currently works as a full-time deckhand five days a week. When spring break season comes, she’ll be working six or seven days a week. But all these long days of hard work didn’t seem to faze her. If you’re like me and have experienced an increase in poor customer service during the pandemic, encountering someone like Angela is a breath of fresh, salty air. She was never out of sight of any of the 15 passengers on board for more than 2 minutes. Constantly racing about the boat with a smile, a helping hand, and a pair of pliers to take your fish off the hook for you, it was no surprise when she told me her dad was a NASCAR driver back in the late 1960s.

A stringer full of white grunts and littlehead porgy during a December 2021 chartered fishing trip in Florida. Jeff Benda / Special to Northland Outdoors
A stringer full of white grunts and littlehead porgy during a December 2021 chartered fishing trip in Florida. Jeff Benda / Special to Northland Outdoors

After a two-hour ride out into the Gulf of Mexico, the boat’s engine stopped, signaling we could drop our lines off the side. My bait smacked the water and plummeted down toward the bottom about 50 feet below. Next to me sat a small bait bucket of cut squid and whole sardines the crew had provided for each angler. Angela had advised me to start with a sardine hooked through the eye with the tail pinched off if I wanted to target the prized Gag Grouper. When I hit the bottom and felt the slack in the line, I flipped the lever and started to reel it in ever so slightly, so my bait would hover just above the bottom. I immediately felt a tug on the other end and started reeling it in. As my fish got closer and closer to me, I dreamt of a 24-incher appearing so I could make my own Blackened Gulf Grouper Platter like I had enjoyed at Crabby’s Dockside restaurant during my last visit to Clearwater Beach.

Angela quickly appeared and ran over to me, and looked over the side to see what I had on the line. As the fish emerged out of the dark water and into the sunlight she yelled out, “Sand Perch!”

“Seriously?!” I yelled. I had just traveled 2,000 miles away from the Jumbo Perch capitol of Devils Lake, N.D., to catch a Perch? I swung the line and fish into the boat so Angela could grab the 10-inch fish with its distinctive vertical dark stripes. “These make great bait,” she said.

“No way! I gotta cook this thing and see how it compares to ours back home,” I replied.

Angela held the Perch for me so I could take a photo, then she disappeared around the corner to the back of the boat to place my prized catch on a numbered stringer. I was #77.

The action-packed day continued with my fellow anglers and I catching Red Grouper, Gag Grouper, Gray Triggerfish, Littlehead Porgy, Flounder, tons of White Grunts, and a few Hogfish.

With every fish that came on board, Angela would race over to take the fish off and then attach it to each individual’s numbered stringer in a giant container full of ice. Once we got back to the dock, Craig the cook and Angela the deckhand would clean our fish out of the kindness of their hearts, but also in hopes for a generous cash tip. Angela confided in me that a $20/person tip was pretty good.

A sand perch caught during a fishing trip to Florida. Jeff Benda / Special to Northland Outdoors
A sand perch caught during a fishing trip to Florida. Jeff Benda / Special to Northland Outdoors

Toward the end of the afternoon, a few of us had even caught Southern Puffers. Most folks call them blowfish. There are more than 100 puffer fish species worldwide, and most of us have heard how poisonous they are. But the crew and a few other veteran anglers assured me that the Southern Puffer was good eating when cleaned properly. Whatever the case, the real novelty of the fish is its defense mechanism which I find great solidarity with, especially around the holidays. When under stress, it can swell up two to three times its normal size.

The main draw of Clearwater Beach for most people in the Upper Midwest is during our kids’ school spring break to enjoy the warm weather and beautiful beaches covered in crystalline sand. Some baseball enthusiasts love heading to the area to catch the Spring Training season that starts at the end of February. But if you are an avid angler like myself, these next couple of months might be the perfect time to take a break from drilling holes through the ice, and head to the dazzling shores found in St. Pete – Clearwater.

With all that said, the only way I know how to catch fish is to keep your line in the water. And like I’ve just discovered -- no matter where you choose to do that -- you might just catch a Perch.