Photos by Pat Ford
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.”
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-mid-30-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 email@example.com. Thanks also to Oceans Edge Resort & Marina for the accommodations. Spindrift is berthed at the resort’s marina. (877) 935-0862