PUNTA GORDA, Fla. - A playful dolphin leaps a few feet away, looking for a throwback fish that might become an easy meal.
Charlotte Harbor on the Gulf of Mexico is attractive to fish of all types. Big numbers of birds and other wildlife also inhabit the area.
A fishing trip off Don Pedro Island was an impressive prelude to this year's Southeastern Outdoor Press Association conference.
Capt. Van Hubbard of the Let's Go Fishin' charter service directed the excursion. Others in our group included San Marcos, Texas, outdoor television show host Jimmy Darnell - also a minister - and his wife, Beth.
Anglers talk about two prime areas in Charlotte Harbor: the back bay and Gulf's edge. On the latter, the captain said, "We've got a little more variety. We've been getting some cobia off and on. We've got king mackerel, grouper, snapper, triple tail, sharks and barracuda.
"Every once in a while, you'll see a sailfish, but that's pretty unusual."
A trip a day earlier produced a couple of kings in the 25-pound class, Capt. Hubbard said. Back-bay fishing usually yields snook, trout and redfish, he pointed out.
Darnell, who had stopped in Louisiana on the way to the conference to lead a church wild-game dinner service, landed a redfish weighing nearly five pounds. It measured just inside the upper end of the 18-to-27-inch slot allowed for keeping reds.
Hubbard had risen early, using his own "Magic Chum" to net bait for us. It was a day free of imposing barracudas. These freeloaders can hide underneath the boat, racing to get the hooked fish as one reels.
"You're not going to beat them very often," the captain said. "They'll hang out around structure a lot, but they'll cruise some, too."
A columnist for Florida Times Magazine, Hubbard also contributes to Woods 'N' Water. He's been a guide for more than 30 years and is a past president of the Florida Guides Association and a member of the Florida Stock Enhancement Advisory Board.
He's seen it all in coastal fishing - highs to lows. Among the lows have been below-freezing temperatures. When a rare freeze this far south does happen, it makes things tough for anglers.
"It can kill our mangroves (important cover for fish), and if it's a hard freeze, it can kill our snook," Hubbard said. "Sometimes it can kill a few trout and redfish, but that's rare. If there's a real low tide, it can kill some of the grass, too.
"It will definitely slow the fishing for a while."
A "red tide," which happens when microorganisms destroy oxygen in the water, can kill aquatics such as crabs and oysters.
"In 2005, we had Hurricane Charlie that flushed everything from all the creeks, all of the runoff," Hubbard said. "These nutrients allowed the microorganisms to multiply."
It's hard to think long about such concerns, though, as a gentle breeze brings comfort on a warm day and Hubbard's four-stroke Yamaha engine powers his boat home - and his clients toward a dinner of grilled redfish hosted by the Darnells.