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Surf anglers go high-tech, thanks to the Web

By Joe Julavits
Times-Union outdoors editor

VILANO BEACH -- Here on the north side of St. Augustine inlet, and at other spots along Northeast Florida's beaches, surf fishing ain't what it used to be.

Oh, the fishing itself is still good -- in fact, the bull-redfish bite at Vilano Beach and Porpoise Point has been red-hot the last few weeks. But what's changing is the gear and the sharing of information via the Internet. Some dedicated local anglers are going high-tech, taking surf fishing to another level.

Last Saturday at Vilano, the beach brigade was out before dawn, their pickups lining the sand. There was the usual potpourri of tackle, from 7-foot trout rods to 11-foot Ugly Sticks armed with heavy-duty spinning reels.

And then there was a group of fellows -- all of whom seemed to know each other -- with a distinct flair to their rods and reels.

The rods, some costing more than $300 and made of lightweight composites, were from makers named Conoflex and Zipplex and Breakaway USA. The baitcasting reels were made by more familiar companies, Abu Garcia and Penn, but the reel models -- Blue Yonder, Sports Rocket -- were not what you normally find in the tackle catalogs.

Besides their sophisticated equipment, what these anglers share is a website -- floridasurffishing.com -- whose message board has become the next best thing to actually being on the beach. The board was a collaboration four years ago between St. Augustine's George Pope and Mike "Frosty" Foster, two surf specialists.

"A lot of us met on their website," said Jacksonville's John Sabol, who caught four redfish to 42 inches and assorted bluefish and jacks at Vilano last Saturday. "It's all the techno freaks, talking about ceramic [reel] bearings, line diameters ...

"You can get a huge amount of information there."

Another board regular, Tony Cottrell, has landed four tarpon from the beach this year and jumped dozens of others -- all on artificial lures. He jumped another last Saturday.

"My surfcasting has increased a thousand percent since I started going to the message board," Cottrell said. "We tweak our rigs to get the most performance out of them."

For these guys, performance means throwing a "bait and weight" or lure at least 100 yards -- that's longer than a football field. While some surf species can be caught right next to the beach, there are times when only long-distance casts will reach the fish.

"It gives us an area that 95 percent of the people on the beach never fish," Sabol said.

"Five years ago, you couldn't find a casting-type surf rod around here," Pope said. "Now guys are fiddling around with their reels and casting 200 yards with these rods. It's amazing."

Gearheads drool over the advances in surf tackle. For throwing plugs to tarpon from the beach, Cottrell uses a 12-foot, 9-inch Zipplex rod imported from England. It's paired with an Abu Garcia 6500 Blue Yonder, a non-level wind reel spooled with 50-pound Power Pro braided line and finished off with 6 feet of 100-pound-test monofilament shock leader.

Cottrell souped up his already-potent reel by taking it to another board regular, Earl Brinn, who specializes in adding internal magnets to reels for spool control. The result is an outfit that can cast a 2-ounce MirroLure 85M out of sight and into a school of rolling tarpon.

Brinn also modified UNF student Kylan Fitzpatrick's surf reels, an Abu Sports Rocket and a 7000 model.

"Both of my reels have been magged -- the best $30 I ever spent," Fitzpatrick said. "It enables us to cast farther, and you don't have backlashes."

Jacksonville's Phil Cressman, another of those reaching out for fish at Vilano last Saturday, throws a 12-foot-plus Conoflex rod, also an English import. He uses a 6-ounce breakaway sputnick sinker and a one-piece, tapered leader that goes from 17- to 70-pound test to handle the heavy load.

"We use the cast-off-the-ground method, and if you use all 20-pound test [on the reel] you'll snap it," Cressman said. "I used to fish the stuff you could buy at the bait store, but when the Internet came along, I really started learning about the high-tech stuff."

The techies will be the first to say you don't need expensive gear to catch fish in the surf, but long casts definitely are an advantage. Aware of the growing market, the major U.S. rod and reel manufacturers are beginning to target surf fishermen, offering relatively low-cost, high performance rods such as the Daiwa Sealine surf series.

"A number of well-known rod makers are now coming out with special surf rods in casting and spinning models capable of casting heavy weights," Pope said. "The new tackle makes casting so much easier."

Pope's message board has helped, too.

"We have people from all over the world who post," Pope said. "I'm ecstatic about it -- not for my benefit, but for all these people who are learning about surf fishing."
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