by Mike Thomas
The wind was howling already as we stepped from the truck into the chilly morning air. The coffee had gone cold, our noses were running and we hadn't even left the protection of the boat ramp. We were determined to throw comfort to the wind (literally), brave the arctic air and catch some redfish.
We began the slow idle out the Salt River on the south side of the widely recognized Crystal River area. Once past the idle zone, we quickly jumped on a plane a picked our way through numerous oyster bars and mud shoals. At times, it felt like a carnival ride in a wind tunnel. The boat would slide left and catch, slide right and catch, then hunker down and skate gracefully over the bottom scarcely a foot below. One thing was for sure; the guy at the helm had better know where he was going...he did.
Capt. Greg Martin has nearly 15 years experience fishing the badlands of the Nature Coast. So much experience in fact he thought it against his better judgment to even bother sight fishing on a cold blustery morning. However, my persistence is legendary.
Once out in the bay, we cut south across the chop and shot into a one of thousands of creeks that wind their way through the salt marsh. Our only chance was to get back out of the wind on the leeward side of anything! As he came off of a plane and cut the engine we started spotting redfish. They were schooled up in less than a foot of water making them quite sensitive of our approach. The northwest wind was easily 20-25 knots and we drifted on them too quickly for a cast. Greg spun the boat around and poled back upwind several hundred feet and staked out. "We'll wait a few minutes for them to calm back down," he said with confidence.
Fifteen minutes later, we eased the pole out of the bottom and positioned ourselves for a drift just off the shallow area where the reds were sunning. Fifty feet passed, a hundred feet passed...no reds? They had moved off, our tactic had failed. "This won't be easy," Greg commented dryly as our first opportunity was lost. We started the motor and ran deeper into the heart of the sawgrass.
We ran through a small cut between the sawgrass islands towards a junction of creeks. Greg killed the engine and hopped to the platform. "From here on in we pole," he said. "You could get lost out here." I said, mostly to myself. Greg answered quickly, "yes."
Putting thoughts of impending doom from my mind, I focused on the shoreline as we slid in a creek closest to our right. Instantly I began to see lines of redfish sliding down the shoreline towards the creek mouth we just entered. With my spinning gear, I had difficulty placing a cast sideways into the 20-knot wind. After several failed attempts, Greg said "I'll pole us up and we'll fish back out, you'll be casting a little more with the wind." As if I had a choice, I obliged.
After a few minutes of poling, we reached the head of the creek. It narrowed into a thin finger that wound deeper into the sawgrass. Crystal clear water was pushing out, and schools of pinfish darted in and out of the mouth. Suddenly, Greg spun the boat and stopped. "Break out that fly rod, quick!" he ordered. I removed the fly rod from its holder and stripped out a few yards. Knowing that I couldn't possibly pull of a cast in the wind, I salvaged my pride by handing the rod to Greg.
As I held the boat in place with the pole, he hopped up front and began making false casts toward the shore (nearly upwind). I struggled to see what he was targeting but could not. Then, as the fly landed softly, inches from the bank, I saw it! A nice redfish was moving slowly towards the mouth nearly hidden in the grass. The fly landed just in front of his nose. The fish never changed pace; it simply slid over and engulfed the fly. Ten minutes later, we photographed and release a 26" redfish.
The drift down the creek proved equally eventful. We landed two more in the 26" range before relocating to another creek. At the head of the second creek, we were treated to a slalom of sorts. The creek wound its way in a series of 'S' shapes and narrowed to slightly wider than our skiff. At one point, the creek made a 180-degree turn and then opened into a pool. Greg let me climb on the platform to take a look. On the other side of the strip of land was a school of 4 redfish!
Stupidly, I whipped out a cast with my 8lb. Spinning rig. Almost as the jerk bait hit the water the reds pushed towards it. One twitch and it was engulfed! Now attached to a hefty redfish, I began to wonder how I was going to land it. The redfish took agonizing minutes to tire, as the small pool only allowed restricted runs. Nearly 15 minutes later, he began to tire. I moved towards the bow and prayed I could coax him down the creek run towards the boat. With almost no pressure on the line, I led him like a horse on a lead. Moments later I photographed and released the 33" red.
The rest of the redfish in the pool had vanished into the muddy depths after my extended battle stirred up the bottom. We let ourselves drift back out the creek. The redfish we spotted on the drift out were quite skittish. "This creek is a lot smaller, they can feel us in it due to the pressure change," Greg commented. They did seem more nervous.
Having caught more redfish in one morning than most of my days on the water, I was pleased. The wind had picked up, which made the temperature feel like it had dropped. At my request, Greg poled out and headed towards home. Our total for a blustery morning was four reds, 5 cups of coffee, and two runny noses.
When he was accepted to compete on MasterChef, Jamie Hough wasn't really familiar with the show. In fact, he had never seen a single episode of Fox's hit cooking competition. Instead, the Mt. Pleasant angler and charter boat captain saw the reality TV program as an opportunity to gain some attention for the charity he started in response to Hurricane Harvey — and a good opportunity to crack open those unread cooking books he had lying around.
Born on Pawleys Island, Hough moved to Mt. Pleasant in 1995. Opting not to wait tables as he attended classes at the College of Charleston, Hough recalls "borrowing" his neighbor's jon boat to guide others out on the water. A year later, he was able to buy his own boat, and Hough's been leading charters ever since.
Asked how he developed such a deep appreciation for cooking, Hough simply responds that he loves to eat. Although cooking plays a much more important role in his daily routine than that.
After taking his boat out of the water each day, Hough likes to return home, set something on the smoker, and unwind with a few beers while he listens to music alongside his pet pig and hound dog. On the surface, Hough's approach to the culinary arts paints a pretty bucolic picture. But his level of performance thus far on MasterChef has revealed the true level of sophistication in his cooking — this can probably be attributed to Hough's laid-back approach to qualifying for the show.
Completely unfamiliar with MasterChef, the season 10 contestant applied at the insistence of an acquaintance he met at Red's Ice House one evening. After a few drinks and a late-night application, Hough mostly forgot about his chances of appearing on TV. For weeks, he ignored calls from an unknown California number until finally Hough picked up the line. It was MasterChef. And they needed Hough to audition the following day. One serving of shrimp and grits later, and Hough had qualified for the next round.
"I didn't know anything about the show. Obviously, it's a reality show, but it's a cooking-based reality show, so I didn't know how much of it was going to be personal—ity versus story versus cooking skills," says Hough, who operates Redfish Mafia Charters. "I was real nervous because I don't have any culinary training whatsoever, and there are people on the show who have been to Johnson and Wales, Cordon Bleu, and Harvard who majored in culinary sciences. It's a melting pot of people with various experience levels in the culinary world, and I know that I'm on the bottom of that totem pole. The whole experience has really opened my eyes to how things should be cooked and should be prepared."
Finally opening up those aforementioned cooking books he had received as gifts years before, Hough found his culinary horizons rapidly expand. He gained a deeper appreciation for what he put on a plate. And when you watch him on MasterChef, it shows.
"Being even considered for this show has had a profoundly positive impact on my life as far as how I cook," says Hough. "We don't do really good buffet-style at our house anymore. Now, I've got 10 plates on the counter trying to plate everything with forceps and tweezers, just trying to make everything look good."
One advantage that Hough holds above his fellow season 10 competitors is a familiarity with being in front of the camera. Thanks to his career on the water, Hough has appeared on numerous fishing shows and is no stranger to speaking in front of large groups.
No, instead of worrying about performing in front of a film crew, Hough found his biggest challenge to be adapting his low-and-slow style of cooking to the high tension of MasterChef's dreaded pressure tests.
"What made me nervous was most of the things I cook, I'll put a brisket on for 17 hours or a Boston butt on for nine hours," says Hough. "Trying to turn something out that is Michelin star quality in an hour by yourself with no sous chef, no prep cook, no pre-diced anything, that's what made me most nervous."
One tactic that has preserved Hough's spot on the show has been his willingness to learn from MasterChef judges Gordon Ramsay, Aarón Sanchez, and Joe Bastianich. Despite their often combative depiction on the show, the three judges try to pass down as much advice as they can to contestants.
"You have to trust in them. They're trusting you to come on the show, be yourself, and put yourself on a plate. You're already trusting them without knowing it, that they are going to portray you in the right light when the show comes out," says Hough. "You're already trusting them, basically, with your livelihood. It's going to have a profound effect on your career, maybe your family life depending on how you act on the show."
Since competitors on the show must keep their time on MasterChef under wraps as much as possible, Hough recalls returning home to find two large rumors circulating to explain his extended absence. Despite speculation that he was either in rehab or in jail, Hough finds a bit of humor in the situation, joking that it only speaks to how well his wife kept his television experience a secret.
Making his way into the final 16 contestants of MasterChef this season, Hough hopes that this national exposure will benefit Southeast Rescue and Relief, the charity that he established in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Along with a trained team, Hough traveled to Houston and rescued survivors from flooded homes, fed first responders, and provided people with some sense of normalcy following natural disaster.
"I really want to get some notoriety for the charity, so that we can raise more money and help more people. That was really the reason I wanted to compete on the show. I want to focus on Southeast Rescue and Relief," says Hough, who is also available for in-home cooking demonstrations. "At southeastrelief.org, people can sign up to be a part of it, help with phone calls, help with fundraising, and help with cooking. They can donate goods, money, or services. I think over the next month or so I'm going to wind up with a lot more people knowing about it than before. That was my goal and I think MasterChef is going to be a great vessel for that."
(Article originally appeared - charlestoncitypaper.com )