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Natural bait was the key in the Florida Keys

Dawn Pappas caught this unique looking Triggerfish off a reef east of Key Largo last week. Comparing the species or other saltwater fish to freshwater fish is typically quite a contrast. (Jason Durham / For the Enterprise)

This past week I had the opportunity to travel to the Florida Keys to spend some time on the water targeting fish that look and act different than Midwest species.

One similarity between the two destinations, 2,022 miles from Park Rapids, is that varying aquatic habitat attracts different species. An example might be weeds versus sand in Minnesota, flats versus reefs in Florida.

Is the fishing better north or south? Well, that's all relative to what you want to catch.

During our first days on the water we caught smaller fish, up to about 23-inches. A 4-ounce weight and 2/0 hook tipped with either squid or cut bait (fish that are sliced into chunks) was our tactic. Chum (a mixture of oatmeal, corn and some top secret fish parts) was spread out at each area we stopped to fish. In Minnesota, chumming is not only out-of-the-ordinary, it's illegal.

Many of the saltwater fish we caught were similar in size to freshwater species; ranging from a respectable sunfish to a mid-sized walleye. Most were spectacular in shape and coloration with unique names. Boxfish, Grunts, Triggerfish, Snapper, Skip Jacks, Jack Crevalle, Hogfish; our list included about 20 different species. But with around 600 different fish species available in the Florida Keys, my fish identification skills fell to novice level.

On Wednesday, my stepson A.J. and I explored the massive Florida Bay area toward the Everglades. Our guide had 25 years of experience and we traveled nearly 30 miles to our fishing area in a 16-foot flats boat powered by a 90-horsepower outboard. Our guide didn't use a sonar to monitor depth or a GPS for direction. His only tools included years of experience and a compass.

Our bait was live shrimp and the technique took some practice. Instead of setting the hook once a fish bit, we had to crank quickly, establish a strong bend in the rod, then set the hook, not too hard, not too light. Finding a balance took time.

After catching a few dozen speckled trout we went searching for other species. The ultimate goal was tarpon.

It didn't take long and I landed a snook. Our guide was particularly pleased since the local snook population plummeted following a massive cold-front three years ago. "Now if you catch a redfish, you'll have a Backcountry Slam and you've already landed the toughest species to catch," the guide declared.

A Backcountry Slam is when an angler lands a speckled trout, redfish and snook in one day.

A half-hour later, I caught the redfish I wanted, becoming the first person this year to earn a Backcountry Slam in our guide's boat.

"Now if you catch a tarpon, you'll have a Backcountry Grand Slam," the guide exclaimed.

Tarpon was our goal anyway, so we tried our best for the remainder of the day. A.J. hooked one, but it threw the hook on a massive leap. As for me, the elusive tarpon will bring me back to the Florida Keys another time!