Yup. You waited patiently, and what do you get for your reward? A post about a boat called "Fish Bones."
I like fishing. Let's start off with that. I like me some fishing. I'm not sure what it is about fishing that so enamours me of it, but there it is. I'm not a very good fisherman, either, but when given the chance I will sit in a boat or on a dock or beside a deep ditch and fling expensive lure after expensive lure into tree branches, hidden rocks, or culverts. And at the end of the day, burnt a delicate shade of brick red by the sun, near dehydration, out about $50 in lures and nursing blisters on my casting hand I'll be smiling, fishless but fulfilled.
So it was with some trepidation that I viewed the Offshore Fishing Expedition that my father-in-law had been promising us as a lure (heh...pun) to get us down to the Panhandle. Add in a few salient facts to the mix and you see why I was leery:
1) I can't swim. I can sink really well, but swimming is right out.
2) I've never deep-sea fished in my life. The closest I have ever come to deep sea fishing was to pluck hermit crabs out of tide pools on the Oregon coast.
3) I'm a rotten fisherman.
But with head held high and SPF 60 liberally applied we set out early Sunday morning for Destin Beach and the home of Steve, our professional fisherman, captain and fishing guide and his one-man crew, "Live Eel" Lloyd. No, seriously. You can't make up stuff like that.
I knew we were in trouble when we got there and met our two man crew. One looked like a retired office manager--paunchy, a day's worth of salt and pepper scruff, a head of equally greying curls and a smile in a very weather-browned face. The other guy looked and acted like the love child of Jerry Garcia and Karen Carpenter fresh from an all-night wedding reception/drinking marathon. Which he was. And naturally we all thought the clean-cut businessman was Steve, husband of a hospital's COO and commercial fisherman. Wrong. The middle-aged retiree was none other than "Live Eel" and the hungover hippie burnout was Steve, our mighty captain.
Me, I was scared crazy but determined to ride it out or die trying. Which was going to be the end result, I was certain. Life vests? I didn't dare ask, for fear of being handed a beer just before I was tossed overboard to learn how to swim. Safety measures? "Steve, who is driving the boat?" "Oh, I guess I am" he replied as he leapt back to the wheel just before we crashed into the only other boat within three hundred square miles. But that came later.
First, we motored out of a small private inlet into a very large, community-owned water lane and from there under a massive bridge into what I can only assume was Destin Bay or some such, where we caught our bait. There was a first for me--bait I knew was made out of pot metal, painted bright colours and came in a blister pack at Wal-Mart, or worst case was dug up in the back yard and stored in a plastic container full of loam. No, we spent half an hour chasing bait balls with our big boat, reeling here and there across the waters, tossing stringers loaded with six of the tee-tiniest little lures you'd ever seen, which was jiggled in the middle of the bait ball for a few moments and then hauled back onboard, usually containing six mixed fish.
"Live Eel" would grab the line and carefully pluck the little wrigglers off, naming each with frightening ease, tossing them into a live well that looked like the tub out of a washing machine. *pluck* "Squirrel Fish." *splash* *pluck* "Cigar minnow." *splash* *pluck* "Herring, that's a nice one." *splash* This went on until we had a fair microcosm of a bait ball in our live well, and then we pointed the Fish Bones for deep water.
That's the funny thing about the Gulf, you see. It's shallow for the most part. I kept casting a nervous eye at the depth finder, which seemed to be stuck on "3'." We had travelled almost half a mile or more, and the depth never varied from "3'." I was feeling pretty secure. Once Steve got the boat pointed due South, however, that changed. Quickly. The boat shoved it's nose high in the air, the twin inboards roared and smoked and churned up a huge rooster tail,
and we headed for deep water. The further we went the faster that depth finder dropped, but I was more concerned at that point with keeping my footing. Lloyd walked around like he was standing on a billiard table, Steve stayed on his captain's seat perch, and me? I clung to the biggest piece of aluminum I could find. A sea-farer I'm not.
I saw some wonderful things that day. A tiny slice of rainbow that seemed to have been broken off a bigger rainbow and left behind,
flying fish that seemed more bird than fish, startling up out of the water and sailing incredible distances, skimming just above the water, and such a wonderous variety of blues and greens that I finally decided I would never look at blue the same way again.
And then we fished.
Steve piloted us out to an exact, and I mean an EXACT spot in an otherwise completely identical Gulf, steering by three different GPS units. He warned Lloyd a quarter mile out we were nearing "the spot," and Lloyd went into action baiting hooks, readying reels and otherwise doing all the dirty work. NICE! And when Steve started calling out distances, "Thirty feet. Twenty. Ten. Five..." I knew we were seriously fishing. And when he shouted "Drop" you dropped. It was Time, that was the Place, and you didn't question that wavery, drunken-sounding voice because he was captain and the fish were Here. So I stood there and let what seemed like miles of fifty pound test line spool off that huge brass reel, watched the three pound Easter Egg of lead disappear into that cool blue-green depth, and I heard someone ask Steve how deep we were fishing.
"One thirty five," he called back. Feet. A hundred thirty five feet, and he'd stopped us dead above, I was to later find out, a rocky patch of sea floor that was a favourite haunt of Red Grouper. I also learned pretty fast that deep sea fish don't play around, either. You've got a bite within five minutes or you're moving again, because the fish just ain't there. And boy was he there. The first catch was mine, and I fought like the devil for him. You see, dropping a line one hundred thirty five feet down is easy--all you have to do is wait, and keep your thumb on the reel to control it's spin. The hard part is getting a very large fish back up to the boat, a fish that is very determined NOT to go up.
I struggled. I cranked on the reel. I sweated. I trembled like an epileptic. And worse, I had a whole boat-full of people cat-calling and cheering and yelling behind me, and I knew that if the first catch of the day was lost I'd never hear the end of it. So, I worked harder. And I know that I have never had to expend so much energy just to get a fish out of the water. I don't think I've ever expended that much energy on ANYTHING. And after about a year and a half of cranking, having that huge brass reel hit my forearm, enduring the rubber-capped butt of the rod being jammed straight through my hip, a huge reddish-brown monster showed it's face just under the surface of the water, and with another two cranks it was on the boat. Steve was calling "Red Grouper!" like I had won the lottery, "Live Eel" was helping get the beast secured, and I was ready to fall down on the deck and twitch for a while I was so exhausted.
And when it was all said and done and the grouper was in the huge cooler box I was back at it, it seemed with no intervention at all. The fish were there, Fish Bones was being held at station right over the spot, and all I had to do was drop another line. Which I did. There, and again and again over many other seemingly identical spots that only the GPS could tell us were different. And all I had time for was to wonder if I could do it again--did I have the strength to pull another of those behemoths up from some hundreds of feet?
I found out over the course of the day that I did have the strength, and could in fact do it. I could stand there in the steamy wet heat thirty miles off the coast of Florida in the back of a small, rolling boat floating at times some two hundred and thirty feet above the bottom and fish like I really meant it. Freshwater fishing has nothing on being in the Gulf. We fished a sunken tugboat. We fished rocky outcroppings. We fished hills and valleys and secret places, and we caught fish of every sort and description, and the pain? The pain came back later to find me, but for those hours it was stuck on land somewhere, sunning itself on a beach and drinking a pink fuzzy fruit drink.
We threw back Amberjack that weren't big enough to keep even though they could have swallowed my arm whole and asked for a shoulder. We caught and we sweated and we trembled and we struggled. Every time any of us caught a fish that person endured that struggle; the trembling muscles ready to give up at any moment, the powerful rush of adrenaline, the sudden intensity of the sun beating down on that little white boat in the middle of a very large, very uncaring body of water. And when it was all said and done and we were headed back to shore some eight hours later we all knew what it was like to really work for something that you couldn't even see until the last few moments, all the while wondering just what the hell you had gotten yourself into.
Lloyd knew it after I had caught that first fish. When he looked at me standing there in my little back corner of the boat, sweat pouring off me in rivulets, my arms trembling from the struggle he smiled a wide, white smile in a very sun-browned face, proffered a freshly-baited hook and said "Want to go again?"
He already knew the answer.