Nikon 28-70 2.8 @,70mm, ISO-1600, f/14, 1/125 sec.
What follows is a story about the time that Earl and I went fishing in the Florida Keys. Names are changed to protect all involved parties but the main elements of the story are presented pretty much as they occurred. I may be accused by Earl of embellishment, but facts are facts and the ones central to the story are true as best as I can recall them today. There are most always at least two sides to a story and so here is my side of this story, the truth.
It all started when Earl said, “Tell me about fishing down in the Florida Keys”
Fishing in the Keys is one of my favorite things to do and so it doesn’t take much prodding to get me talking about it. Earl allowed me to ramble on about tarpon, and bonefish, and permit, and about the Keys in general for quite a while. Then he interrupted by saying, “Let’s go down there and go fishing. When is the best time to go?”
Have you ever been there?” I asked.
“No. But I’m ready to go. I have always been a hunter and a pretty good one at that if I may say so myself so now I’m ready to be a fisherman too. It doesn’t sound nearly as hard as hunting to me, especially fishing with a guide.”
“Well it can be hard sometimes…” I started, but Earl interrupted again.
“I mean when you are hunting lots of times its cold and wet, you always have to be real careful about your scent and which way the wind is blowing, and sometimes you have to be real still and quiet for long periods.”
“I don’t imagine being still for long periods is all that hard for you, Earl. On the other hand keeping quiet might present a challenge.”
“That’s funny”, Earl said. “But I expect that you’re going find out that I am a mighty angler to be feared by all fishes and respected by other hardy outdoor types.”
“We’ll see, but for now I am out of here. I’ll talk to you in a day or two, Earl.”
Before long it was early in the month of May and time for our fishing trip. It was going to be about a thirteen hour drive so I had thought a departure time in the wee hours of the morning made sense. We were taking my truck and leaving at that time would give me time to get a little sleep before I had to pick Earl up. I went to bed at 8:45 and 9:30 Earl called and woke me.
“We might as well leave now. I’m wide awake.” He said. And so we left earlier than planned.
I noticed that Earl had brought his pillow. Nothing unusual there, lots of folks like to travel with their own pillow when they are able to. It was good for Earl that he had the foresight to bring his pillow because we had barely made it an hour into our trip when he declared that he was no longer wide awake and that he needed to get some sleep. He laid the passenger seat back, adjusted his pillow, and was off to dreamland. Me, I was driving through the lonely, pitch black, South Carolina lowland night. I did have the radio to keep me company and it didn’t seem to disturb Earl’s sleep. He slept soundly until Jacksonville, Florida which put us about 450 miles into our trip.
“Damn.” Earl said sleepily. “Why are you hitting all the bumps?”
“They are working on the road, Earl.”
“Well it sure ruined my little nap.”
“Look, I woke up a couple of times and you looked like you were doing a fine job of driving and I know how you like to drive. I didn’t see any reason that I should deprive you of the pleasure.”
“Thank you, Earl.”
Apparently refreshed by his “ little nap” Earl was good company the rest of the way down Florida and by the time we started across Card Sound he was excited and in good spirits. I thought about making Earl drive at this point but knowing that there are a lot of visual distractions when driving down the Keys, especially for newcomers, I decided that me tired was at this time a safer driver than Earl distracted. We made it safely to Islamorada and our rented cottage and after unpacking we were off to see the sights.
We had a day to sightsee and rest from the drive down (I probably needed more rest than Earl did) before our first scheduled day with the fishing guide. We had planned to go Tarpon fishing but Earl had other things on his mind it turned out.
While we were seeing the sights Earl announced, “I’m sure it’s fun to catch a Tarpon but I want to start at the top of the food chain; I want to catch a shark.”
“Earl, I’ve caught some sharks and it’s not that much fun, at least I don’t think so. It can be a lot of work if it’s a big shark.”
“I’d like to catch one.”
“Well if that’s what you want to do I’ll call Duke (the guide) and see what he says.”
“If you don’t care.”
“No, its fine with me if that’s what you want to do I’ll call him.”
“Maybe we can catch a shark and a tarpon too.” Earl said. I noticed that he mentioned the shark first.
And so as we drove through Marathon on the way to lunch at Burdines’s Waterfront I called Duke who I have fished with numerous times. I told him that my friend wanted to catch a shark. His response was “Why?”, and my answer was “I have no idea.”
We were planning of fishing near Bahia Honda and Duke said, “Well we can try but a lot of the sharks are pretty big in there so I’m not sure how it will work out.” As it turned out he was right about some of the sharks being pretty big in there.
When I repeated what Duke had said Earl asked, “What did he mean about not being sure about how it will turn out?”
“I suppose he meant that we might hook something that would be hard to handle.”
“Well I doubt it could be all that hard. He probably is more of a Tarpon guide and not interested in sharks.”
“I imagine that’s true.” I agreed.
“Well after I punish a big shark all my future fishing will be downhill and easy from there. I intend to show Mr. Shark who is really at the top of the food chain.”
“You do that, Earl.”
“I plan to. All that guide has to do is find me a big shark and I expect I can handle the rest.”
“Yes we will, and when I’m through with that shark he’ll probably spread the word among the other sharks to stay clear of me.”
“You’ll see. I am going hurt some shark’s feelings.”
So we had a very good lunch and went on about our sightseeing. Somehow Earl had discovered that in Key West there was a marker designating the southernmost point in the country.
“I need you to take my picture at that southernmost marker where ever that is.” Earl said.
We drove to the southernmost point but there was already a long line of tourists waiting to take each other’s picture there, and Earl being the immediate gratification type declared that we should move on rather than wait our turn. So we moved on to Duval Street.
I was driving so I gave Earl my camera to takes some pictures as we slowly made our way down Duval. We saw some of the things that one might expect to see on Duval. Dogs wearing sunglasses, people under the influence of something, and a butch bodybuilder with a tall, pink mohawk that looked like she might be able to slap Mike Tyson silly. For me the high point of our trip down Duval that day was when an unkempt, wild looking man stepped off the curb directly in front of us and with both hands held up a large cardboard sign for us to see. It read, “God is kicking your ass”. Earl was speechless, a rare occurrence. I noticed the camera was lying in Earl’s lap. No pictures. I guess the culture shock was just too much for Earl to process and take pictures too.
“A little different from back home huh, Earl.”
“More than a little I’d say. Turn around and let’s go back down that street again. But I’m rolling my window up and locking the door in case we see that muscled up woman with the Mohawk again.”
“If you’re scared of her I don’t know how you’ll behave when you come face to face with Jaws.”
“Well I believe that I can handle Jaws just fine.” Earl said.
“I hope so Earl. I get along good with this guide so don’t be embarrassing yourself and me too by wilting when things get a little tough.”
“There you go again. Always worrying about yourself.”
The next morning I got Earl up early and we made the drive from Islamorada to the lower Keys where we were to meet Duke. Part of the way there Earl grumbled about getting up so early and the rest of the way about the quality of the coffee that I made while he was still in dreamland. We arrived before the appointed time but Duke was already alongside the dock in his 23 foot center console and ready to go.
“He’s early. He’s just like me, he likes to get up early and get after it.” Earl said.
After a thirty or so minute boat ride we arrived at the spot where Duke said we might hook a shark. He had the remains of a big snapper that had been filleted rigged onto the line of a medium weight spinning rod normally used for tarpon fishing. He told Earl to just hang the carcass in the water right behind the stern and not to let it sink or get far away from the boat. The idea being that the current would carry scent out to be followed in by a shark or sharks. It wasn’t bait per say, it was supposed to be an attractant, chum. Duke then got busy rigging up a heavier rod with a Penn International reel that would be the rod that the actual bait would be presented to the shark with after the chum brought him or them in.
The chum hadn’t been in the water very long when I turned to say something to Earl and saw that he was staring, mouth agape at the water where the snapper carcass was just below the surface. He was silent and his eyes were opened much wider than usual. I looked to see a really big hammerhead shark gliding toward the surface and into focus. There was no splashing, no commotion at all, the shark just took the snapper carcass in one bite, turned and swam away. The two of us that still had control of our voices could see the shark was way too big to turn anytime soon with the tarpon rod so Duke started to chase the shark with the boat. Earl seemed more than a little perplexed as to just what he should do but at least he was hanging onto the rod. I of course was enjoying Earl’s predicament.
The chase was soon ended when something between the rod and the hook let go freeing the shark that probably was barely aware that he was attached to something. The shark was gone and so was our snapper carcass. Duke announced that we had to go catch something else for shark bait and so we headed for the highway bridge at Bahia Honda. In no time we had a large jack crevalle which Duke said would work just fine for our purposes. Earl seemed subdued and perhaps a little shaken. He had however regained the ability to speak although I noticed there hadn’t been any more talk of “punishing” since Earl first saw a big shark at close range.
Returning to the same spot where we had briefly hooked the first shark we set about putting a bait out on the stouter rod with the Penn reel. In no time at all Earl got another kick at the can. It was another huge hammerhead or maybe the same one for all I know; anyway he was hooked and heading to sea. Earl was hanging on with both hands, perhaps because Duke had mentioned how much anybody that lost this rod and reel combo over the side had to pony up. Earl is not a small man but he had a big, strong shark on the end of his line, which by the way was disappearing from the reel spool at an alarming rate. So there we were, the shark rapidly swimming toward Cuba, Duke driving the boat after the shark, Earl hanging on for dear life, and me having more fun than everybody else added up.
I was reminded of a time years before when I was fishing with a guide at Long Key Bridge when we saw a boat in the distance that was apparently coming our direction. As it drew nearer we could see a man standing in the bow straining against a very bent rod. A mildly disinterested looking woman was on the seat ahead of the center console, while a man I assume was a guide silently navigated the boat. After they had passed us and disappeared from view, my guide said a single word, “shark”. I remember thinking at that time that having a big shark hooked didn’t look like that much fun to me, and later experiences re-enforced those thoughts, at least as far as my own fishing preferences. But this was different; it was fun, at least for me.
Earl seemed to be concentrating most of his efforts on not losing the rod or getting himself pulled overboard and so I was helping him get to the bow of the boat where I knew he needed to be. In doing this I noticed with some alarm how much line the shark already had and that it was fast getting more. Afraid that Earl’s shark was going to spool us at the rate the line was disappearing, and at Duke’s direction I put some more drag into the reel. Pretty soon Earl began to get some line back and I was settling in to watch what I was sure would a lengthy struggle under the broiling Keys sun when Earl’s line went slack. The hook straightened. Just today I looked at a photograph of Earl holding up the straightened hook. He has a huge smile on his face, no doubt having realized what he had been in for and so was relieved that the monster got away.
Safe and sound on dry land once more we drove back up the Keys to our lodgings Earl said, “I’ll admit that shark was pretty tough but I got the best of him.”
“Really. How do you figure that, Earl?”
“Easy. That shark saw real quickly what he was up against so he gave it everything he had and managed to straighten the hook. If that hadn’t happened I would have given him a spanking that he would never forget.”
“Is that right?”
“You know it is.” Earl said. “Sharks call me “The Punisher”.”
Tonight after dark I set my camera on the tripod outside my house and pointed it toward the sky. I started it clicking away and went inside to wash dishes and stay warm. After the battery died and I downloaded the images and stacked them, I was surprised to see the streak of light that starts at the lower left and goes to the right and up at a slight angle. I don’t think its a plane since their lights usually blink. Maybe a shooting star, anyway I missed it while I was washing dishes…