Our second day of boating, we planned to go out to the reef and beyond. A steady breeze didn't seem enough to curtail what we most looked forward to, and the ever so reliable weather channel predicted two-foot seas, no problem with a 23-foot Mako, if a little unstable. What we encountered trying to get out three times was much worse. Seas loomed at least three feet over 26 feet of water. They looked more like four feet on occasion and even my daring son Matt wanted to turn back. Later that evening I spoke to guys who got out there in a 29-foot boat, and they reported six-foot seas beyond the reef.
So we fished inside and outside the Bahia Honda bridge, mostly inside plumbing 15 to 22-foot depths with half-ounce egg sinkers weighting size 2 hooks. Many dozens of small snappers and grunts came over the gunnels on light tackle as we persisted with shrimp, having each lost a couple of good fish. The yellow tail snapper photographed I had measured to be sure not mistaken that the fish was about 11 inches--that exactly--because I wanted to try a yellow tail at the table.
Then we tried cut bait and caught four or five groupers. That's a Nassau grouper I'm holding--the fish fought harder than a comparable bass--Nassau grouper protected. None may be taken to the table. The others photographed red groupers; I caught a black grouper little over a foot long.
Action slowed or we faded; at any rate, we went in for lunch, about a seven-mile boat trek around No Name Key, under the bridge and into the marina. The deal involved going back out and returning around five to pick Patricia up in town, having dropped her off. So we headed back to Bahia Honda.
I hooked something enormous. I'm positive a sting ray because of the steady, one direction swimming. We followed it at idle speed for 20 minutes, the fish hooked on 10-pound test line, I could not lift the fish off bottom at all, absolutely not. Matt had visions of a hundred-pound Goliath grouper, but a grouper would have really ran on the line I'm sure.
The motor quit. Wouldn't start. The sting ray or whatever it was simply kept on going at the same speed and spooled the reel, the line snapping loudly. Matt gave a grimace. He really wanted that fish more than I did. I did want to at least raise it to visible level, but I grew convinced this would never happen, even before the motor conked.
I suddenly noticed us as if drifting down the Mississippi River--current enormously powerful going through Bahia Channel as concrete bridge pillars loomed. I threw anchor thoughtlessly. Just try holding an anchor line against a 23-foot Mako in really powerful current. Had I got tangled in the line and yanked over, I'd have drowned. With no time to think out loud, I went for the center bow cleat with all my might and got the line secure. Anchor held.
The only really serious thought in my head--if we couldn't get the motor started, my wife remained in town without a cell phone. Hers got wet. On a boat rescued by the Coast Guard once many years before, this isn't a big deal. But Patricia having no concrete idea why was she abandoned in town at night would have really sucked.
Just an air lock in the line. I pumped the bulb about 25 times until it hardened, turned the key, and we resumed fishing.
After fetching Patricia, we all went out together for more tarpon fishing. As the two-and-a-half hours lengthened, Matt grew convinced we did something wrong. We saw tarpon rise. One of them rose yards from my crab. Why didn't they hit? We live lined the crabs as naturally as if they were free.
I later learned from another guy at the marina that he had simply taken a bucket of fresh fish carcasses to throw overboard, creating a slick, to which the tarpon swarmed. When I told Matt this, he pointed out our watching tarpon get fed at Islamorada Fish Company. This guy had then tossed out a hook with a fish chunk, hooked up, and fought a tarpon for three hours, finally jumping overboard in shallow water to just wrap both arms around the enormous fish for a photo.