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 hot dog. 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). However, we did enjoy creeping along the stinky, slimy edges of the river exposed by the low tide, stalking the unwary Stingray or Blow Fish. Now THAT was pure adventure.
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 Red fish 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 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 – only one of which is about “the one that got away”!
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…”
“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 one that got away, even if neither of us actually caught it in the first place!
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.
When I was in my late ‘teens, my mom Betty got re-married. Her second husband Harry was a guy who shared her passion for salt water fishing and before long they owned two boats and a little condo on King’s Bay at Crystal River, on the Gulf of Mexico. Weekends would find them either out on the tidal flats in “the big boat”, fishing for red fish or trout or else they’d venture 20 or more miles offshore to drift-fish for grouper. My younger brother, John, and I would often drive the 40 miles from Ocala to join our folks for a day of fishing or, in the summer, go snorkeling for scallops.
We kids were allowed to take the 16-foot Boston Whaler out on Crystal River. We’d seldom fish because we preferred to snorkel or SCUBA dive the main spring or explore the Three Sisters springs. Generally, we were extremely safety conscious, having been trained by Harry to transport and handle the boat under all sorts of conditions and to even effect repairs on the water for critical things like replacing the shear pin to the prop, a common issue that cropped up when the boat ran over any wayward oyster bar back in a muddy river inlet.
One of The Rules for taking the boat out on the river was Stay In The River. No running the boat out into the Gulf. I followed the rules scrupulously but still managed to lose the boat one day. I was the “skipper” on an “introduction to Crystal River” expedition with my step-sister, Cathy. She wanted to go beach-combing, so I ran the boat downriver the 7-odd miles to Shell Island, situated at the mouth of the river. After I lifted the engine clear, we carefully pulled the lightweight boat up onto the beach on the river side of the island and dug the little mushroom anchor deeply into the dense sand well above the high water mark. We soon made our way around the point to the Gulf side of the island, to where lovely seashells awaited.
As soon as we lost sight of the Whaler around the point, I started to fret. Had we dug the anchor in deep enough? What if someone came along and discovered the engine key that I had tucked inside one of my tennis shoes and left in a locker aboard? If that boat disappeared, I’d be in a world of hurt, especially since the boat was brand-spanking new and had less than 30 hours on the engine!
The more I fretted, the more impatient Cathy became. After awhile she told me I should just go back to the boat and wait for her, she’d be along shortly. I didn’t hesitate, just headed back down the beach and around the apparently endless curve of the point. I watched as large party boats came roaring into the river from the Gulf, throwing up big wakes that swept along the curve of the beach.
By the time I could see the Whaler, or where it was supposed to be, I realized it wasn’t– where it was supposed to be. I was a good quarter of a mile away from where we’d pulled the boat up, and the dang thing was nowhere in sight! My sandaled feet took a beating on rocks and shells as I ran pell-mell along the beach.
As I got closer to the where the boat had been, I could see the trench where the anchor had dug in on its way down the beach and into the river. Looking up-river, I spotted the Whaler some 75 yards or so away, floating out in the middle of the channel, the anchor line dangling off the bow, taut and straight down into the water. Clearly, the boat was being pulled steadily up-river with the incoming tide.
I flew the remaining distance to the water, yanking off the T-shirt over my bikini top, spilling items from my shorts and dancing out of my sandals.
I dove into the murky water and started swimming for all I was worth toward the boat. I remember a welter of thoughts, primarily centered on those big boats barreling up the river. Would they even see me, frantically kicking up a rooster tail as I free-styled my way toward the Whaler?
I stopped to tread water for a second, looking and listening for boats and judging the drift of the Whaler, and then tucked in again, concentrating on a more efficient stroke. Those hours spent in the pool practicing for high school swim meets came into play, as I trimmed my body and got into a less-frantic breathing pattern.
As I closed the distance to the Whaler, I ignored my burning muscles and aching lungs and instead thought about sharks – they come in on the tide but maybe they wouldn’t bother me, I was splashing too much, right? Nope, they’re attracted to splashing! Well, then I’d worry about Mom and Harry spotting me as they came in from a day on the Gulf. Oh-My-God what was I gonna say if they picked me up? Maybe I’d just get lucky and get run over by one of those party boats.
When I reached the Whaler, I could only cling onto the transom and pant. My arms felt too tired to lift my body over the transom and besides, the dang engine was up and I couldn’t use the narrow flange over the prop as a step. I was inspired to haul my carcass over the transom anyway when I glanced downriver and saw the massive bow wave being thrown up from a 60 foot party boat, aimed right at me and slowing down not a whisker.
My hands shook like crazy as I fished inside my tennis shoe for the key and popped it into the ignition. Hours of boat operation took over as I remembered to engage the ignition to lower the engine and, with the prop safely in the water, crank the engine proper. What a sweet sound, the thing cranked on the first turn of the key!
I throttled forward and scooted out of the channel, just as a huge blast from the boat’s horn sounded in my left ear. I nearly jumped back into the river, I was so rattled. The boat roared by, passengers gaping at me, some shaking their heads and others shaking their fists, clearly baffled over someone stupid enough to go swimming or boating or whatever the hell I was doing in the middle of a busy channel!
Once clear of the channel, I maneuvered back down-river, went forward to pull in the anchor and made my way back to the beach, where Cathy was standing, hands on hips and shaking her head, clearly signaling her amazement. Or, more likely, disgust.
Luckily, Mom and Harry didn’t come in from the grouper grounds until a couple of hours after we had returned to the condo. I managed to convince Cathy to keep our little secret, or we’d be beached for the rest of the weekend. She hadn’t come all the way from Colorado to sit inside and watch TV, so she agreed, if reluctantly.
Well, it was One Of Those Things, I guess. I figured out a large wake had been enough to lift the Whaler off the beach and send it astray. That was one lesson in boating “safety” I learned the hard way. It wasn’t until years later that the story came out, and we all had a good laugh. Still. Harry told me that if he’d known of the incident at the time, my boating days in the Whaler, or any other boat my folks owned, would likely have been suspended. Not so much over the potential loss of the boat (there was little chance of that, someone would have found it and likely turned it over to Harry, he was quite well known in the area and of course the boat was registered.) It was about the foolish risk I took swimming for the boat in a dangerously busy channel.
Luckily, over the years brother John and I managed to avoid any further major mishaps as we and friends along for the ride managed to buzz around various rivers in north central Florida, diving, snorkeling, fishing and simply messing about in boats. Sometimes it takes a close call to remind you just how dangerous boating, or swimming, or life in general, can be.
It was a hot August Sunday. Mom and Harry were out on the Gulf of Mexico, grouper fishing in their new Bayliner. Brother John was off with friends in the nearby Ocala National Forest, water skiing on one of the larger lakes in the area. I was slated to SCUBA dive the Silver River with S____, my dive buddy and best friend’s hubby.
Fast-forward to early evening, everyone’s arriving at the house simultaneously. Mom and Harry are acting strange. The station wagon doors and rear gate are propped open, a carload of fishing and boating gear abandoned. I enter the kitchen and there they are chattering loudly and a bit frantically as they mix cocktails with shaking hands.
I tried to get a word in edgewise to tell them of my near-death SCUBA experience (see earlier blog entry) and I’m floored into silence as I catch something to the effect of a Great White shark menacing the Bayliner. “What?” Amazed, I stood transfixed, my chopped off hair standing almost straight out, as I listened to their tale.
There they were, 20 or so miles out in the Gulf, a glassy, hot day and no fish biting when Mom idly glanced over the side and spotted what she thought was a whale shark swimming slowly alongside the boat.
Harry had just set the anchor and settled down to fish from the bow when Mom said something to him about a whale shark sniffing around, and he laughingly asked her how many gill slits it had. The water was clear and she had no problem counting five, and reported the same. “Right number of gills, does it have spots?” Harry asked, still concentrating on his fishing.
“Honey, um, I don’t see any spots and this thing is really big”, Mom reported. Harry said he could tell she was no longer fascinated. In fact, she was nervous.
“You need to come back here and see this thing,” she called out and as Harry made his way aft he spotted the dorsal and upper caudal and tail fins of what he immediately recognized as a shark– a really big shark.
Turns out the dang critter was indeed a Great White, painstakingly identified by both fisher folk, as they had plenty of time to study the fish while it described figure eights just off the transom.
“It’s the live well,” Harry said. “It smells the bait.” No reply from Mom. She watched, transfixed, as the fish swam close by the side of the boat. Mom reported that when it rolled slightly and “glared” at her through that black eye, her bones went cold. When she computed that the shark was a bit longer than their 24 foot boat, that’s when she hit the panic button.
The finer points of their stories diverged at that point, but they agreed that a sudden urge to leave the area hit them both simultaneously. They burst into action, Mom taking the helm while Harry scrambled onto the bow to fetch the anchor. The damned engine refused to turn over and Harry decided to snatch the anchor line aboard rather than drive up to it, the more reasonable and efficient approach.
Mom said Harry must have snatched a good 50 or more feet of line aboard in one pull. Then he cussed a blue streak at the engine refusing to turn over, while Mom stood exactly amidships, behind her co-pilot’s seat, keeping as much distance between her and the shark as possible.
When the engine caught, Mom said Harry snatched the thing into forward and she fell backward, luckily into the rear bench seat rather than overboard. They both said they didn’t slow down until they hit the mouth of Crystal River, over 20 miles to the east.
I was still trying to take it all in when Mom cried “What happened to your HAIR?” I launched into a soft-pedaled version of my getting-stuck-in-a-tree-underwater story when my brother John tumbled through the garage door and said “Holy Cow, wait until I tell you what happened to me today!”
Another round of babble ensued as we all talked at once, until Mom held up her hands and said something like “Let’s take turns so we can all hear”. We laughed and in the lull, John told a brief but harrowing tale of getting caught in a waterspout on the lake in the Ocala National Forest.
Now, my brother has been given to slight exaggeration in his story-telling but I was immediately convinced of his veracity by the lacerations on his face, neck and the exposed skin of his chest, back, arms, legs and feet. He’d been wearing only a pair of shorts while skiing and you could clearly see the line at the shorts where the sand-scrubbing left off and protected skin began. He was still digging sand out of his eyes, nose and ears and, apparently, other orifices we didn’t press him about.
Turns out that twister rammed the boat into the dock, destroying the dock and totaling the boat. Only the engine was salvageable. Apparently, the boys and their parents watched from the screen porch as John disappeared behind a “brown, muddy” wall of water before the family ran inside the house. Several huge old water oaks on the property were toppled by the water spout, leaving deep holes and massive root systems exposed.
At some point we all calmed down, unpacked the car, took our showers, shared a meal and decided that nobody’s story was the “best”. It was another One Of Those Days, with a weird kind of synergistic coincidence, resulting in tales too strange to concoct!