Dateline: August 18, 2012 – Flamingo, Florida
Hexes are powerful things. But they don’t always hit the intended victim, and in this case, I was the collateral damage.
On a windswept Caribbean beach in the late 17th century, the founder of the Arostegui clan, Ebeneezer Juan de Igfa Arostegui, ran afoul of a powerful priestess, either voodoo or Presbyterian, the records aren’t clear. We’re not sure what made her so mad – perhaps she was jealous of his perfect hair – but whatever it was, she placed a powerful curse on him and his descendants. This spell was so vindictive that it persists to this very day, but it was also so bizarre, and indeed, so lame, that they didn’t notice it until I showed up, 341 years later.
Ebeneezer Juan de Igfa Arostegui, circa 1671. Portrait by the famous Cuban artist Tomas Alfonso del Kincayde, “El Pintador de la Luz.”
The hex was simple in form – “De verdad se tomó la molestia de traducir esto!” which means something like “Ebeneezer, from now until eternity you and your guests will catch no small fish!” We don’t know why the priestess invoked this particular hex – perhaps she got the wrong page in the hex book, or she was drunk, or Polish. The Arosteguis, being trophy hunters anyway, went about their business, and the unfortunate episode faded from memory.
But when you’re a species hunter like me, small fish are critical, so a curse like this represents disaster. I am quite familiar with curses – see https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2010/10/19/curse-of-the-gypsy-crone/ – but this was far worse than the Romanian mess.
If you are unfamiliar with the Arostegui family, I might refer you to a couple of earlier posts – see https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2011/08/04/pilates-of-the-caribbean/ or https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2011/11/11/from-zero-to-cero/. Fundamentally, they are a family of world-class anglers based in Miami. We have become friends through some of the IGFA events, and they have been kind enough to bring me fishing whenever schedules will allow. As I was already on the East Coast, the Arosteguis extended an invitation. In the middle of the summer, surely there was something for us to catch together.
The targets get more limited with each trip, but Martini is tireless in his research and found two shark species in the gulf – the blacknose and finetooth – that we could attempt to catch. The three of us headed out to the Everglades early on a Wednesday morning. It’s a long, straight drive with swamp on both sides, but it’s nice to see someplace that isn’t jammed with condos.
I kept a sharp eye out for alligators during launch, but we were not attacked. We ran the boat out a few miles and set up on a grass flat to catch our bait, the dreaded pinfish. (See https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2011/03/24/communing-with-manatees/) These vicious little beasts tend to be the “dominant pest” wherever they are found, and they have prevented me from catching dozens of species by racing to the bait first. I am slightly ashamed to admit it gave me some feeling of revenge to use these savage pests as bait. Perhaps they would learn their lesson.
Because we were hunting sharks under 20 pounds, we used largemouth bass-type gear -spinning rigs loaded with light braid. This would make catching smaller sharks a lot of fun. I quietly wondered what would happen if we hooked a larger fish, but the Arosteguis looked at me bemusedly and both said “You fight it. You land it.”
We put out two float rods while we loaded up on bait, and in moments, one of them went down hard. Too hard. As the fish headed for the horizon, it occurred to me that it was much bigger than we had hoped. I looked at the Arosteguis, then at the pitiably small rod. “You fight it. You land it.” they said. It took a long time, but I finally did bring a rather large lemon shark to boatside.
Steve stares forlornly at a big lemon shark that he wishes was a small finetooth shark.
One big shark could be an exception, but this is where the Arostegui curse came in to play. It’s not like they didn’t try to get the smaller fish. All I wanted was a nice 10 pound finetooth or blacknose shark, and they stumbled into a bunch of 150-pound lemon sharks – we didn’t catch anything less than six feet all day. I am likely the first shark fisherman to ever complain about this, although snook and bonefish guys do it all the time when their trophy turns into hammerhead chow.
For video of one of the lemons http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=adAeqB_sZ9U&feature=youtu.be
As always, I learned quite a bit about fishing from just observing. You know, the basics. Circle hooks. Small swivels. Proper wiring technique. Not weighing 220 pounds on the front of a small skiff in choppy water. And just to show me, Martini put on a light-tackle clinic by landing a 200-ish-pound bull shark on a rod I wouldn’t use for pike.
Martini does light-tackle battle with something big.
Marty moves in to grab the leader.
This all took less than 45 minutes. If I had hooked it, we’d still be out there.
On the way back in, we were whizzing through some weed patches at 30 miles an hour when Marty suddenly shut down the boat (causing me to cough Pepsi up through my nose.) He threw me a rod and yelled “Tripletail! Cast in front of him!” I still can’t figure out how he spotted it.
It’s not a huge tripletail, but they are sure fun to catch. Not sure whose blood is on my knee, but the pants needed emergency laundering that night. With some spare candles and a portrait of St. Jude, I turned this into an exorcism ritual that would hopefully break the “no small fish” curse.
That evening, we had dinner at a local sushi place, and I got to meet Martini’s sister Danielle. She also has world records. And even though she is appreciably better-looking than Martini, she is also smarter, and she has never snatched a huge Spanish grunt from right under my nose.
Dinner with the Arosteguis. Less than an hour later, the family cat would add some excitement to the evening.
The entertainment that night was provided by Rossi, the Arostegui cat who has eaten a couple of dozen fish species I have never caught. Danielle must have done something to make the cat mad. Cats are vengeful creatures, and Rossi acted with immediacy and purpose. He marched his little kitty self outside and yakked up a half-digested bird onto Danielle’s windshield. He then strolled back inside and expected to be petted.
Rossi Arostegui lounges, satisfied that he had taught Danielle a lesson.
On the second day, we took the big boat and headed out into Biscayne Bay off Miami. The quarry: anything new. There aren’t a lot of new critters for me off South Florida, as I have been there quite a bit and pounded the reefs in every season with every bait and every size hook. Still, there are surprises to be had, and I was certain I was going to find one of them.
A hazy dawn as we head out into the bay.
Father and son keep a keen eye out as we set up over one of the reefs.
Martini with a beautiful parrotfish. We caught quite a few, but alas, all were species that were already on “the list.”
A redfin parrotfish. These things usually eat by scraping coral, but they can occasionally be caught on shrimp.
A little tunny. You can’t say we didn’t get a good bit of variety.
We roamed from reef to reef, and all the while they tried to help me catch a new species or a record. Martini behaved himself, except for one unfortunate 5 minute period, when he did his best Jaime Hamamoto impression. (She’s cuter, but he has better hair.) He started out by shamelessly catching a Caesar grunt, which I never have.
This is a Caesar grunt. Et tu, Martini?
Moments later, he caught a record Spanish grunt. Grunts are usually not big animals. This thing was a beast.
Just like Charlie, he stole my fish.
Frustrated at these two events, I was forced to be pointlessly vindictive. I would have thrown up a half-digested bird on his windshield if I could have, but the below will have to suffice.
Because Martini chose to catch my fish, I am forced to publish what may be a photo from his junior prom, or a random photo from the internet, I forget which.
So we spent an entire day pounding the reefs with no new species for me, which is a big clue that I need to go to Fiji. Still, a day fishing with the Arosteguis is a good thing, and there’s nothing wrong with catching solid fish on almost every cast all day long. But as we headed back to the boathouse, I was still determined to catch a new species, and when I am determined, I do stupid things.
This stupid thing involved a # 28 hook and a species Martini likes to call “the boathouse minnow.” Breathtakingly tiny creatures, these small, silvery ribbons live near the entrance to the Arostegui’s boathouse, and I had previously written them off as fry of something I had caught before. But with an afternoon to kill, I figured I would give it a shot. This involved bits of bait so small that I had to face the fact that bifocals are in my immediate future.
After an hour of hits and misses, I finally hauled one of the little beasts up onto the dock. It turned out to be the tragically undermarketed tidewater silverside, a close relative of the equally obscure Atlantic silverside I had caught up in North Carolina the previous week. I was on a silverside roll.
The tidewater silverside. And I was actually PROUD of this at the time.
For our final day, Martini and I headed back to the Everglades. Although we knew our rare shark chances were low, Martini is even more of an optimist than I am – there is a fine line between being bubblingly positive and stupid, and frankly, we cross it often. It would still be better than watching Martini drag up rare grunts, so off we went into a hazy Florida dawn.
My dirty pants ritual had apparently not worked. We anchored in a backwater channel, and our first two sharks were intimidatingly big. After an hour or so with no small sharks in sight, Martini and I hit on the bright idea of going a bit further offshore, out to deeper, less turbid water. We set up near a channel marker and floated out some baits.
To keep myself interested, I started casting a few jigs, and I don’t think even one of them reached the bottom. Speckled trout, jacks, and even catfish jumped all over the lures. It was some of the best steady action I have ever had – a fish on every cast for a couple of hours. The shark rods went down a couple of times, but these were blacktips – a hard-jumping, surface fight. At one stage, we had dozens of small blacktips circling the boat and tearing into anything that we put into the water. But still no oddball sharks.
Video of a savage pack of small blacktip sharks http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZgV38MAvJ5E&feature=youtu.be
Early in the afternoon, the pinfish bait rod went down again and we hooked a fish. This was a different fight than a blacktip, less zooming side to side and more head shaking and going deep. It was the right size, so I wondered if it possibly could be one of the target fish. As it got close to the boat, Martini suddenly changed his tone to all business. “Steve. Back off your drag, don’t pull on him too hard, and do NOT give him any slack.” I know better than to question him. Moments later, we landed a beautiful blacknose shark, the very species we were hunting. We gave high-fives and man-hugged, and then he showed me why he had been so concerned – the hook was only pinned onto a tiny flap of skin on the edge of the shark’s mouth. One slip and it would have been gone. Damn the kid is good.
The blacknose shark I had been looking for.
We celebrate the beast. Martini had a lot more to do with it than I did.
You have to really trust someone to get this photo. Sure, I thought about driving off, but his mother would have killed me.
We drove home in great satisfaction, stopping for milkshakes and randomly high-fiving. We had overcome great odds and an ancient curse, and somehow found yet another species for me in South Florida. On the way home, we had one of those rare moments of understanding that come from spending endless hours on the water together.
Martini said “Of course, my Spanish grunt could have eaten that shark.”
I responded “I should have left you on the channel marker.”
Thanks again, Arostegui family, for all the hospitality and few more marvelous days on the water. And thank you Rossi, for not leaving anything on my pillow.