Life Thru a Travel Prism

Fish Tales

I’m certain I got the fishing gene from Mom. She was, like her father and her brother, a fishing fanatic. I recall being a wee thing, maybe in Kindergarten, being hauled off to the Indian River or the Banana River or the Jetties at Port Canaveral to sit in the hot shade and swat at mosquitoes while Mom would stand for hours on the shore or the breakwater or the jetty or the dock and cast and cast or maybe just watch a bobber. Fishing. Blech. Those fish stank, and when Mom would clean them it was icky and I didn’t think fish was very tasty- I much preferred macaroni and cheese or a hotdog. Or better yet, a brownie!

Considering we three kids grew up in and around the Indian River estuarine system on the east coast of Florida, and because we were allowed the full freedom to be outdoors from dawn to dusk (when we weren’t in school or doing chores or practicing for Band), I guess we were destined to become river rats. Although we resided in several homes in the area throughout the 1960s, we lived for the most part within a short bike ride of the western shore of the Indian River in north Cocoa, FL.

While hardly patient enough to spend the hours that Mom would spend stalking her fishy prey, my brothers and I were perfectly delighted to tramp up and down miles of shoreline and docks marked “Private! Stay Out!”, seeking to poke anything that moved in the brackish shallows, using our home-made fish gigs crafted from old broom handles, a couple of nails and some clothesline. To us, fishing with a rod and reel was a boring adult thing (and besides, we didn’t own any rods or reels):  while creeping along the stinky, slimy edges of the river exposed by the low tide, was pure adventure.

It was with a gig in hand that I felt those first, atavistic, primal hunting instincts kick in – when I felt for just a little while that I was controlling not only my destiny but also the destiny of any poor creature I happened to come across and target.

When we actually managed to successfully gig a stingray or a fish that didn’t dart away quickly like say, a Blow Fish, we would stand around the poor creature as it flopped on the ground or the dock, gasping, while we would debate its fate. Now that we got it, what were we gonna do with it? You can’t eat a Blow Fish. And the good eating fish like Redfish and Trout and Red Snapper and Flounder weren’t here in the skinny shallows where we could see and gig them. So what to do? Leave them to die on the shore? That seemed a waste. Well then, throw it back in. So we did that a couple of times, but the critter died anyway. I remember trying to hide my tears and the sense that I’d done something irrevocably wrong by participating in this useless killing. I was torn between the need to not show any weak emotion in front of my older brother, clearly the leader of the hunt, and my own growing conviction that it was just plain wrong to harm animals just because we were “hunting”. What we were doing was very different from the fishing that Mom did.

I can’t claim any realization of Earth First or the onset of incipient enviro-consciousness. I do remember that, not long after we left that poor Blow Fish to desiccate in the sun, all three of us decided to turn our gigs into make-believe “spears”, which we used to terrorize tree trunks and palmetto bushes in the woods that lined the waterfront.

Years went by before I began my serious education in fishing. Mom’s second marriage (to a man who loved the water and saltwater fishing as much as she did) served as the flash point for my almost-ground-zero start in the fine art of in-shore , salt water fishing.

I think I was around 17 years old. I’d become a certified Open Water SCUBA diver that summer of my high school graduation, which only served to whet my appetite for anything having to do with the ocean. Oddly enough, as I learned more about the marine environment and the critters that lived in it, the more I appreciated, um, well, eating them! Pretty much everything I ate was fresh caught, whether we hauled it in ourselves or purchased it from other fisher-folk. So, the more I ate and delighted in fresh seafood, the better I got at catching the fish. Made sense. However, I never was much for cleaning and filleting, so I was always stuck washing the dirty dishes. I saw it as a small price to pay for consuming such delicious fare!

I guess the point of this ramble is, once I was bit by the fishing bug, I was hooked. <heh>. The period I spent away from Florida and fishing was truly, a string of “dry” years. By the time I was able to move back to my home state and live near the coast again, I was in my 40s and able to indulge my passion. I couldn’t afford a boat with a motor, but I did manage to buy a sweet, super-lightweight fishing canoe, and for several years that canoe trekked the inland waterways, intra-coastal waters, and estuaries of the Florida Gulf Coast from the panhandle to the 10,000 islands. But mostly the eastern side of Tampa Bay, around Ruskin, near my house on Timberlee Rd.

I would have a lot more photos of fishing expeditions but I made up my mind years ago that trying to capture my fishing experiences in photos and a visceral enjoyment of the sport of fishing were incompatible. Mostly I have memories. And a few good stories – none of which are about “the one that got away”!

Fish Pix Here

Greenbacks

Lisa and I were out in the canoe in a no-motor zone in the shallows of the eastern shore of Tampa Bay. It was a hot, late spring day. The bay water temp was chilly but warming up enough that the recent fishing report for the area indicated the trout bite was on, so there we were at mid-day during an incoming tide, paddling north along the mangroves in about 4 feet of clear water. I recall paddling quietly and idly watching how the bright sunlight lit up the eelgrass and the sandy bottom of the bay. I was startled when Lisa suddenly cried out “Ohmygod!” and pointed down at the water to starboard.

“What?” I shouted, snatching my paddle out of the water, expecting an imminent attack by a shark or something equally horrible.

“Money!” she stabbed her finger repeatedly at a spot somewhere further off the starboard side.

I looked, but just then the breeze riffled the water and blocked my view of the bottom. So we started paddling up and across the wind, trying to get back to the approximate spot where, Lisa swore, she’d seen bills, dollar bills and at least a fiver, lying absolutely flat on the sand bottom.

“There!” she yelled and, sure enough, I could see bills- greenbacks!- passing under the boat.

I quickly and gently dropped our little mushroom anchor overboard, letting the wind blow us back down a bit, just enough to put a bit of scope on the line but not enough to come off our spot. We waited for the cloud of sand the anchor kicked up to disperse and then, ever so gently, paddled the boat so that we pivoted on the anchor. Amazing! There, in about 4-5 feet of slightly greenish bay water, were a handful of greenbacks of different denominations scattered over the bottom. Some floated a couple of inches above the sand, entangled in the eelgrass, and some bills appeared as if they had been laid out on the hard sand bottom of the bay.

By now we were determined to grab those greenbacks, but how to manage that without stirring up the bottom and possibly losing them in the now-rising tidal current? We had to work fast.

Wouldn’t you know it, we didn’t have a fish net aboard, as we’d stopped carrying one because using them for catch-and-release often harmed fish. We discussed one of us going overboard in our fishing clothes (typically quick-dry shorts and a shirt anyway). Having volunteered to take the dip, Lisa slid overboard down current from the center of the area where the greenbacks were waiting. As she floated on the surface, careful to swim just enough to move slowly up-current but not disturb the sand, I paddled ahead of her, directing her to where I could see the bills.

Soon, she was dropping perfectly intact, if soaked, one and five dollar bills into the middle of the canoe. A handful! She hung onto the side of the canoe, keeping her feet still and floating above the bottom, while I paddled to keep us roughly in place. The technique worked, but before long she was cold and blue-lipped, so she clambered aboard and as she dried herself with the small hand-towels we kept in the tackle box, I scoured the bottom for more signs of greenbacks, but didn’t see any.

We rinsed the mud and sand off the bills and squeezed them out against the canoe bottom. Our haul was $42.00. Not bad for a morning’s fishing expedition, but I admit we were disappointed. We both had visions of a drug-runner’s stash of at least a thousand dollars being blown overboard and into our eager hands, but apparently someone had merely lost their wallet.

At any rate, our little adventure more than paid for the truck gas we’d used driving to the boat ramp, and also made for a lively phone discussion with Lisa’s parents, rabid salt-water fisher-folk, that evening.

“Went fishing today, out in the bay…”

“Catch anything?”

“Yeah! Caught some greenbacks”.

A moment of silence on the other end. Then Lisa’s dad, in his Wise Old Fisherman Dad voice, offered the observation that one doesn’t CATCH greenbacks, ones uses greenbacks for BAIT.

“No Dad, I mean we got greenbacks. Money. Like forty-two dollars!”

Definitely a story that got passed around that fishing family for years.

Someone Else’s Fish

On another occasion, we were back-country canoe fishing among the mangroves on the east side of Tampa Bay and spotted a red and white bobber some 100 feet or so in front of the canoe. Ever mindful of the environment (and picking up free fishing tackle), we headed to the bobber to fetch it.

We approached the bobber and as Lisa stretched her hand out to lift it off the surface of the water, it suddenly darted away! We sat flabbergasted for a second, and then both laughed at the same time, when we figured out the dang thing must be attached to some poor fish.

The bobber came to a stop and floated quietly a few canoe lengths away. We decided to try a slow and cautious paddle through the shallow, clear water so as to avoid spooking the fish.

Once again, we approached the bobber, and once again as Lisa reached out, the thing darted away, coming to a stop 50 feet away. This time we scratched our heads, trying to figure out how we could be smarter than a fish and manage to sneak up on the thing so we could set it free! Obviously it was tired or it would take off and keep going. Ergo, we figured we could just try to run it down, and either it or we would tire first. We figured it was 2 to 1 so the fish should give up before we did.

Determined, we paddled around that little lagoon tucked between clumps of mangrove islets until we were sweating and cursing. Lisa finally snagged the line attached to the bobber with her paddle. As she drew the line toward her hand, the tension on the line was just enough to snap the line below the bobber. The fish swam away and she was left with the bobber and a foot or so of old fishing line in her hand.

“What was it? Did you see what kind of fish that was” I asked hopefully.

“Nope. It took off too quick.”

That was the only fish we caught that day, even if neither of us actually caught it in the first place!

Grouper Fingers

This story may rightfully be deemed a SCUBA tale but I think it’s a much better fish story.  I was diving on a reef off of Harbor Island, in the Bahamas. It was a lovely morning, the bright sunshine spearing down through more than 30 feet of water to light up the colorful and fishy reef below. I had a cheap plastic underwater camera and was floating upright just off the sandy bottom, positioned to record the dive master hand feeding a few of the “tame” Nassau groupers.  A small cluster of divers hovered nearby, eagerly watching the dive master as she pulled some goody from the front pocket of her BC (buoyancy compensator) and approached the reef.

Pretty soon, three or four large groupers swam out of their holes in the reef and slowly, almost hesitatingly, approached the dive master. I took a quick “establishing” shot, careful to capture the dive master, most of the fish and the group of tourists. I tried to crank the roll of film manually to the next frame, but the gloves I had on to protect from sharp coral (I stopped wearing gloves the same year, for all you SCUBA purists) made operating the film advance wheel quite impossible.

I used both hands to part the tough-to-rip-open Velcro pocket on the front of my BC, and removing my gloves, tucked them safely into the pocket.  I remember pausing long enough to look toward the reef to check on the action and plan my next shot. While my eyes scanned the reef, my right hand fumbled to secure the Velcro pocket, while my left hand floated freely away from my body, buoyed by the light camera.

Suddenly my left hand felt like it was hit by a pile driver. In reaction to the shock, my whole body jerked convulsively. That is, all but my left hand, which strangely seemed to be locked in place, floating just above my left shoulder.

My peripheral view was blocked by the opaque skirt of my mask, so I had to pivot my head to see what the hell was causing that pain in my left hand. It took me a second to process what I was seeing: a big-ass Nassau grouper, its head mere inches from my face, a (really large) fish mouth partially open and completely engulfing my entire left hand- camera and all.

I think I just floated there, frozen, while I tried to figure out what the hell had happened and what I was gonna do about this situation. My first instinct was to grab the fish or otherwise use my right hand, but some instinct told me to just be still and think. So I did, and apparently so did the fish. It just hung there, impaled.

While one part of my brain prepared to crank up the panic, another part was amazed that I could see straight through the fish’s wide-open gills to my hand, which was formed in a fist, clutching the camera body. I could see the bright yellow of the plastic camera case, the black lanyard around my wrist and some, oh yeah, little drops of blood seeping out of the critter’s gills and floating lazily toward the surface.

My blood? Fish blood? Is fish blood red underwater?

I tried not to think about sharks. Instead, I tried waving my arm gently; to see if the fish would just spit me out. But no, all I did was drag the fish through a short arc. The grouper gave a twitch, and appeared to try to open its mouth. I waited. Nothing. It just hung there.

By now I had remembered all those marine biology books I’d read, and how those fish with teeth (especially predators) typically have teeth that angle into their mouth, to keep prey from easily swimming back out. So I tried hard to not pull back against this big guy (or gal’s) grip.

I tried a quick flick, to see if she (not sure when I decided this was a She) would take the hint and just let go. Her  eyes rolled and suddenly her mouth gaped wide open and her gills seemed to strain to their furthest point, and just like that, she spat my hand out.

I quickly brought my hand close to my face, to assess what damage I could see through my fogged mask. My knuckles, all five of them, were cut, rather deep, and more cuts decorated the back of my hand. Fingers were intact, probably because I had instinctively formed a fist when the hand was swallowed.

Droplets of blood were floating toward the surface, and even as I watched, the droplets were starting to run together into a stream. Back to the Velcro pocket I went, fishing for my left glove. As I was trying to get the angle to see into my pocket, the grouper swam into my field of vision, right next to my pocket! She obviously wanted food and thought I had some in there. Didn’t she learn her lesson a minute before?

While I fished for my left glove and struggled to pull it over my torn hand, I kicked at the dang pest, which only served to send me into a half flip but which didn’t dissuade her in the least. She nosed into the pocket. I flicked her nose with my right hand. Go away!

More worried about blood trails than the grouper, I thought to use the camera lanyard to twist the glove closed around my wrist so that I might continue the dive. I looked at the camera. The body was cracked, all photos ruined. Damn! Fleetingly I hoped the fish had taken a picture of the inside of her mouth, but I could see water in the viewfinder. That camera was toast.

By now I had drifted some distance away from the reef, lost my neutral buoyancy and floated toward the surface. I was torn between swimming back down to the reef and joining the group for the rest of the dive, but the grouper was hovering just below my feet, and as I dithered, too distracted to correct my buoyancy, I continued to float upward.

Oh hell. My knuckles were starting to throb and blood was seeping from the glove. I decided to just go back to the boat, doctor the knuckles and get ready for the second dive of the day- on a different reef, hopefully away from any activity that featured “tame” fish or anything else that could swallow a body part with one gulp.

Nobody on the dive had witnessed my incident with the confused grouper, but when I showed my (more severely lacerated than I first thought) left hand, eyebrows went up. Followed by tittering, then outright laughter. Oh yeah. Ha-ha.

The dive master interrupted the hilarity, suggesting that people might want to buy cheap cameras that were a different color than yellow and showed us why, by reaching into her BC pocket and producing the enticing goodie that the local fish had been trained to love- a bright YELLOW can of Cheez Whiz!

PS: For the uninitiated, “grouper fingers” are thin strips of filleted grouper, battered and fried. The lightest batter, the freshest oil and of course the freshest fish make for a lip-smacking treat- without the need for Cheez Whiz.

More Pix Here

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