Dateline: March 25, 2011 – Islamorada, Florida
The houseboat in the center of this photo was my home for three days. The “back door” and deck involved in the incidents late Friday night are on the left hand side.
The view off my back porch on Friday morning. This is a tarpon, possibly the same one that would be involved in some world-class stupidity just 16 hours after this photo was taken.
Sometimes, just when things look their worst, humans have an incredible ability to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, lift their chin, and go out and do something phenomenally stupid. It took me most of Friday to prove this, but by the wee hours, after what would prove to be a nice day on the water, I managed to do something which, in hindsight, I really, really shouldn’t have.
So I didn’t have the best night of sleep, but the sun still came up on Friday morning, and there was fishing to be done. Today, we would start on the legendary flats, home to some of the best bonefishing in the world.
Poling the flats for Bonefish is one of those things we read about in magazines. It takes incredible skill and keen eyesight on behalf of the guide – he has to push a boat along with a long fiberglass pole in knee-deep water, while scanning the water a couple of hundred feet in every direction to see a small bit of fin or tail. Then he has to be able to describe the location to the angler – who will not see it – all without spitting out frustrated phrases like “IT’S-RIGHT-THERE-YOU-MYOPIC-IDIOT.” The angler will then make a Spellmanesque cast and miss badly*, the fish will flee, and the guide will have to start everything over.
As Islamorada is a famous bonefish location, it comes as no surprise that Friday morning would find us on the nearby Cheeca flats, with Vinnie poling us along, scanning the horizon for telltale signs of … Scrawled Cowfish? That’s right. Scrawled Cowfish. Denizens of the grassy shallows, these small but spirited creatures, which are perhaps not as well-marketed as the mighty bonefish, had not been added to my species list. So there I was, #18 hook and bit of shrimp in hand, waiting for the perfect chance to cast to one of these small but attractive beasts. Asking Vinnie to do this was sort of like paying Jack Nicklaus to line up my putt on a mini-golf course.
And while we poled around the flats – and it always interesting how anglers say “we” poled around even though the guide is doing all the work – Vinnie spotted something even more unusual. A small stingray, which, from a distance, looked a whole lot like the very rare Yellow Stingray. Without thinking, I cast, and, in a rare moment of luck that made up for my lack of skills, I managed to land the shrimp tidbit about 18 inches in front of the little fellow. He pounced on it, and after exactly the fight you would expect from a stingray 10 inches in diameter, I landed it. (With the bait net.) It was in fact a Yellow Stingray – a new and odd species – a creature I had seen only one other time in my life. Vinnie looked on in quiet anguish as a big bonefish swam by 30 feet in front of us.
The Yellow Stingray. Small and rare, but not exactly in high demand.
We then got busy looking for Cowfish; a sort of twisted parody of bonefishing. After pushing us along for a few minutes, scanning the grassy flats, Vinnie called it out out – “Cowfish at 11 o’clock, about 50 feet.” Then he got a puzzled look on his face and said something to the effect of “There’s a sentence I never expected to hear myself say.” This is one of those moments when the invasive perverseness of species-hunting becomes apparent to everyone except me.
The Cowfish was very challenging – I scared them off by casting too close, then we repositioned for another shot. This time, I got the fish to swim over and nip at the bait, but I missed the hookset. So Vinnie kept them in sight while I nervously re-baited and he maneuvered for another shot. We repeated this process for around an hour, changing rigs twice, before I finally hooked the beleaguered little thing, and promptly slashed my finger open on one of his small but incredibly sharp spines. Which serves me right.
The Scrawled Cowfish. Note the nasty little spine he has poised above my pinkie finger. Moments after this photo was taken, he attacked.
Somehow, I have to guess he is good friends with Jaime Hamamoto.
With two unlikely shallow-water victories under our belts, we headed about a mile offshore to the patch reefs – small piles of coral and rubble scattered all over the area in 15-30′ of water. As soon as we dropped the anchor, it was obvious that this was the kind of day we hope for every time out here. Utterly flat, no wind, water like glass – every fish on the reef visible right below us, and every one of them hungry. It was going to be like fishing in an aquarium, without all those pesky security cameras.
We didn’t waste time getting a bait in the water, and with the exceptional clarity, we could move it away from the smaller groupers until we got it in front of the big one we wanted. It was a solid red grouper, and he slurped up the sardine and took off like a freight train. Even with a cranked drag and both thumbs on the spool, I couldn’t stop him and he wedged into a crevice. Getting him off the bottom was like getting my mother out of an antique store, and required pretty much the same skills – patience and brute force. (For more on Mom, see https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2010/09/19/hoodoos-bayous-and-beignets/)
First fish on the patches – a beast of a Red Grouper. Vinnie is actually the one who persuaded it to come out of the rocks.
A Hogfish – member of the wrasse family noted for large lips, a good fight, and being excellent table fare.
The Porkfish, a small but beautiful seabream. This left me only a Pigfish shy of the legendary “Porcine Hat Trick,” but it was not to be that day.
The fishing was simply excellent all afternoon – we got a nice variety of snappers, groupers, porgies, and other assorted oddities, including my first ever Whitefin Sharksucker.
A Whitefin Sharksucker – again, fairly rare. Species #1051.
Speaking of sharksuckers, this is the regular one. These fish can stick on to sharks and other large fish and “go along for the ride,” hitchhiking and picking up table scraps.
Closeup of the top of the Sharksucker’s head. They can attach firmly enough to leave a hickey when you pull them off. Or so I have been told by others, because I’m not the kind of person that would ever stick one of these to a sleeping friend’s lower back.
Black Grouper. Not a huge one, but only the 2nd one I have ever caught.
As I was busy hooking big snappers behind the boat, Vinnie suddenly shot upright and pointed below us to the left. “There’s a big green moray down there.” And indeed, it was all three, slowly undulating along the edge of the reef, a lime-green ribbon of impressive size.
The first go-round was comical. I quickly snapped on the heaviest leader in sight, probably around 50#, and dropped a big, smelly chunk of Ladyfish down to him. He ate it immediately, then pulled hard and buried up under a ledge. Just when I started making some progress wrestling him out, a huge Nurse Shark wandered onto the scene, nosed up under the ledge, and tried to eat the eel. We had ringside seats for a lot of thrashing and mud being kicked up, and somewhere in there, unsurprisingly, my line got broken.
I actually hooked and lost him again about an hour later, and this time it was downright frightening. I was using a much heavier rig – 100# mono – and I got him up off the bottom and almost to the boat before he flat out bit right through even that heavy leader. I had a good look at him as he drifted back down to the safety of the reef; he was all of 8 feet long and as big around as my calf. Vinnie said “That was probably for the best.” Vinnie has stood patiently by while I have hauled 100 pound Bull Sharks into his boat for photos, but a big eel is an entirely different ballgame – slippery, maneuverable, well-armed, and with an absolutely foul disposition. (Which also describes Cousin Chuck.)
The hours flew by, as they do when the fish are hitting on every cast. When the sun started getting a bit lower, Vinnie suggested we go in and take one more shot at the Sawfish. It was not to be my night, although the Pinfish were delighted to see me, and we did get a spectacular bite from a Tarpon that exploded 10 feet into the air before shaking the hook. As strange as this sounds, it was a perfect end to the day on the water … and an eerie foreshadowing of events coming up late that night.
Sunset in Islamorada.
A bit of history I didn’t even realize until I later started digging into the records: the Yellow Stingray was my 1050th species, a nice minor milestone on the way up to 2000. But on August 11, 1999, the first day I ever fished with Vinnie, the first thing I got was a (very small) Great Barracuda … which was my 100th species. That was 950 species and 62 countries ago. Wow. Vinnie is right up there in the top few guides for me – he now has 44 species, tops in the USA, placing him third overall behind Scotty Lyons and Jean-Francois Helias.
Vinnie finally gets to go eat dinner. Yes, those are lobsters on my swim trunks. What’s your point?
Late in the evening, after another trip to the Jimmy Buffet, I was sitting on the couch in the houseboat feeling morose. Suddenly, I remembered the fish I saw under the houseboat yesterday. Now, there is no fishing IN the harbor, but the boat was facing OUT on the perimeter of the harbor. There wasn’t time to call the Pope for a ruling, and there weren’t any witnesses, so I figured it was OK. I opened a Stewart’s Lime Soda, put ESPN on the television, a chunk of sardine on the hook, and kicked back to wait for bites. It didn’t take long before I got a healthy mangrove snapper. “Now this is living.” I thought to myself. Sitting on the couch catching snapper after snapper, with my computer and an ID book on the counter and the fridge just a few steps away. They were not beasts, but they were solid keepers, 1-2 pounds, and there were bunches of them.
The rare Florida Couch Snapper.
I walked out on the balcony, enjoying the quiet Keys night, and started casting around the pilings. I was rewarded with a solid thump on my live sardine. “What’s this?” I wondered as the line crept stealthily away in the darkness. “Another snapper? No, too slow.” I set the hook, and got no reaction – the fish just kept heading under the dock. I pushed the rod tip in the water and pulled as hard as I dared. It just kept easing along, then gave two big head shakes. Oh, crap. I had hooked a tarpon, a large, acrobatic fish that can attain minivan size. It wasn’t slow, it was just so darn big it hadn’t realized it was hooked with my puny #4 hook and 8 pound test line. I decided that cowardice was the better part of valor and I started snapping back on the rod, trying to break the line before anything stupid happened. Unfortunately, this just served to irritate the fish, and it surged a bit, which is what they usually do before they … BOOOOOOOOM!!! The explosion of fish skull being propelled at high speed into metal shook the entire harbor. The tarpon, all of a hundred pounds, had hurled itself out of the water with enough force to go 10 feet airborne. Unfortunately, it was directly under the houseboat next door, so it crashed into the hull with stunning force. While the metallic echo reverberated around the heretofore silent harbor, the Keys equivalent of farting in church, I could also hear dishes falling inside the houseboat, and the harshly awakened occupants swearing at what they could only assume was a U-boat attack. I quickly did the dignified, responsible thing – I doused the lights and ran inside like a 9 year-old who just broke a window.
* It should be noted that Mark Spellman has in fact caught a bonefish sight-casting on the Islamorada flats with Vinnie. Should Vinnie ever find himself a miracle short of canonization, he should keep this one handy.