Offshore fishing in the Keys was once the exclusive venue of crusty adventurers, world class sportsmen like Ernest Hemingway, Zane Grey and, more recently, former Dolphins football coach Jimmie Johnson. These were serious men who (except for J.J.), when they came to the Keys, bunked in primitive fish camps, spent their money on boats and guides, fished off shore during the day, and devoted their nights to hard drink and story telling. If they failed to boat the big one, they didn’t mind emotional abuse from a surly, tough-minded crew. They could take it. It was expected. It made for better stories.
Bigger than life men still fish the Keys. After all, fishing the Keys is as good as fishing gets. But they are joined on the water more and more by just plain people on vacation, first-time anglers who may never have dropped a hook into the water, but who feel the need to experience a roller coaster ride that could only have been dreamed up by Mother Nature herself. People like us.
When we go off shore, we want a good, understanding crew, possessed of deep reservoirs of tolerance and patience. We need educators and mentors. We want to experience the incredible excitement and adrenaline rush of landing a huge and magnificent animal for the first time. But we don’t want to suffer to do it. We don’t want fish goobers on our tank tops. We certainly don’t want anyone yelling at us. And, God forbid, we don’t want to break a nail.
Nancy and I owned our own boat, and took it to the reef many times to fish. There were even a few times when we were lucky enough to bring home a modest dinner. But when we wanted to go off shore for truly big game, we called Morris Lewis. We came to think of Morris and his Main Attraction Fishing Team as our personal deep sea fishing guides. We have been out with them three times, each time with our daughter Sacha and her first husband Billy. And Morris still loves us.
While no Marlin Perkins, Billy had a pathological devotion to fishing that was only equaled by his ability to rationalize away getting "skunked." Sacha and her mother would like you to believe that they are only along for the ride, to enjoy the sun and the fresh salt air, and to cheer Billy on. But I know that until both of them caught their first fish, there would be an angst cloud growing in the salon.
Between you and me, I do go along for the ride. I like the excitement. I absolutely love being on boats. I would be happy just cruising around, looking for fish ("Hey, looks like there could be one over there!") and not actually catching any. But when everyone else on the boat so "zoned" on fishing, I find it useful to keep my perspectives to myself. My role is to try with humor to keep the angst cloud from going critical.
The first time we went out was on Sacha and Billy’s honeymoon (they had "eloped" to a quiet, romantic sunset ceremony, bayside in the Upper Keys). We were out twice more later, always Billy's idea. We are grateful to him, really we are, for introducing us to the sport.
You fish for what’s out there, or you don’t. It’s your choice. The big ones are pelagic - they migrate through the Keys seasonally. If you want to target a specific species, you have to plan your vacation accordingly. That’s what the big guys do. If you come to the Keys when it is convenient for you to travel, you have to target species that are running currently – or make your fishing team crazy.
The first time we went out, we went with Morris. We were hunting for kingfish and, should one present itself, a sailfish. Conditions were ideal: almost no wind and dead flat calm seas. Kings are large fish, three-five feet long. Wannabe barracudas, they are extremely fast and powerful and have teeth like mad dogs. When one is boated and gaffed and heading for the cooler, you don’t want to be idling in its way.
The second time we went out, we went with Morris’ son Marty. Smaller boat. Very rough conditions: rainy, windy, 5-6 foot seas. At times we had our rails in the water. We were also hunting for kings.
The third time we went out, we went again with Morris. Billy wanted dolphin. That day, conditions were excellent: calm weather, flat seas. But the dolphin were running outside in deep water, and we only wanted a half day trip. An hour or more out and the same back in does not leave much time to hunt for fish. Morris, for the first time, was concerned about our success. I think that day he had his own angst cloud growing up on the fly bridge.
Offshore sport fishermen refer to themselves as fishing teams. I didn’t really understand the reference until our first trip out. We were on Main Attraction’s 42’ custom Morgan. It has a relatively small forward cabin with v-birth, head (toilet), and small galley (kitchenette). Amidships, directly under the flying bridge overhead, is a large seating area (salon) that can be left open in good weather and protected by clear vinyl in bad. The aft third of the vessel is a large open cockpit. The inside of the stern is padded. This is where you stand, thighs against the pad, when you are trying to land a fish.
The captain is at the controls, high up on the flying bridge. His job is not only to pilot the boat, but, from his high vantage point, to search the horizon for signs of fish: weed lines, circling birds, floating logs and other flotsam. When a fish is hooked up, he will turn to face aft and, with his hands behind him on the throttles, maneuver the boat so that its stern always faces the darting, dancing fish. He controls a floating stage, and his job is to keep that stage (the stern) aimed always at the audience (the fish).
If he’s good, when it is your turn at the stern, all you will notice is that the diesels are changing constantly in pitch, and that your fish is always in front of you, straight off the stern.
The stage itself belongs to the mate. His job is to rig lines, bait hooks, and set out rods. While trolling with lines out, he must maintain a constant vigil on the tips of all the rods. When a fish hits, rod bending, drag whining, he must act quickly to grab the rod, set the hook, and move an angler into position to fight the fish. He must then, in the real-time heat of the fight, teach – not show – the inexperienced angler how to bring the fish to the boat.
If the mate is good, he will whisper quietly in your ear, well below the deep bass of the diesels and the scream of adrenaline in your ears. He will talk about the character and behavior of the fish. He will tell you how important it is keep your rod down when the fish is running and to reel in while raising your rod when it is not. He will remind you to keep your back straight and your legs against the stern. He will caution you to keep your rod out when the fish is near the boat so it won’t run under the boat, snag the line on the hull, and escape.
When the angler is successful and the fish is brought alongside, the mate must then move quickly for the gaff. He will then lean well over the side to impale the fish on the hook and then hoist the animal on board and race him to an open cooler, removing the gaff, severing the line, and closing the cooler in one smooth movement.
When the fish start hitting, rods start popping, drags start screeching, people start moving, and the mate and captain must manage everything times two, three, four or more. And when the rods are spent, the mate must then re-rig everything and begin his vigil and the process all over again.
I have seen videos of local fishing teams – well-known local fishing teams - in which there is a lot of yelling on board: yelling between captain and mate, yelling by captain and mate at anglers. It’s certainly explainable. The fishing team does its job when it finds and hooks up the fish. The angler’s role is to successfully land the fish. If, due to angler error, the big one gets away, it falls upon the crew to fall upon their swords.
But when you are fishing with a world-class team like The Main Attraction, communication is wordless, coordination seamless. There is just silent communication based on fundamental understandings, common experience, and shared mission. When your team is good, you will never sense their underlying stress and concern, even though their success depends as much on your expectations, demands, and very limited skills and experience as it does on their expertise.
Our job as novice anglers, of course, is to make ourselves comfortable in the "salon," sip our cool beverages, enjoy the sea around us, pester our mate with naïve questions, and prepare ourselves to deliver ourselves into the hands of the masters when the moment arrived. And arrive it did.
On our first trip, we had beginner’s luck. Quite honestly, I have never seen so many fish in my life. And big ones. Before we knew it, we had a cooler full of the big kings. Kingfish are game fish and are not the most popular species for the table. But fresh and artfully grilled, they are excellent. Most often, you will find them smoked in the local fish markets. Sacha and Billy went home with a cooler full, which they then had smoked to give out to friends and family.
But it wasn’t over. Near the end of the day, Billy hooked up a sail! After a few magnificent jumps, the fish threw the hook, and the big one got away. We were all, never the less, getting really "jazzed" about offshore fishing. A few minutes later, we hooked up another sail, and this one didn’t get away. Billfish in the Keys are caught on a "catch and release" basis. You bring the fish along side, raise it from the water for pictures and measurement, and then release it carefully back into the sea. Trophies today are fabricated in resins from molds based on measurements taken on the boat. On our return trip, Morris flew two red streamers from the outriggers, and our boat won bragging rights for the day.
We got "skunked" for the better part of our second trip out. Conditions were bad and deteriorating. We had booked a three-quarter day trip, but not long into the trip, Captain Marty came down from the fly bridge, dressed in his foul weather gear, to say we could call the trip early if we wanted. Not afraid of any stinkin’ weather, we pressed on. Late in the trip, the outriggers started popping and it was "Katie, bar the door." Where on the previous trip we caught fish steadily throughout the day, on this trip, we met our goals in about 30 minutes of frantic activity at the stern.
On our third trip out, we pushed Morris to his limits. Billy had targeted dolphin, which were running many miles out, and we had booked only a half day trip. At the fuel dock, Morris wandered around grumbling to himself. I could sense an angst cloud forming on the fly bridge.
We spent most of the morning chasing birds and searching for weed lines and other flotsam. Birds like to circle over dolphin – they eat the same things – and dolphin like to hang out under floating stuff. The seas were calm, but it was a gray day, and there was a chilly (for us) mist in the air. We would spot a circling bird, Morris would race over to it, and we would troll the area for a while, but … nothing. At one point, Morris came down from the fly bridge to get a drink of water and muttered something about "barracudas." You can always catch a barracuda. They are great sport, and are frequently used to ensure that the team isn’t "skunked" for the day.
It was just about time to head toward shore when the diesels roared, and we took off at a clip. Morris had spotted a bird, not just any bird, a frigate. The large, graceful black bird was circling a spot on the ocean a mile or so away. Tension and excitement lit up the mist. We reached the area, had all lines out in moments, and <bang> got our first hit. You don’t think of dolphin as fighters, but Billy had hooked up a thirty plus pound bull dolphin, and it took forty minutes of careful play to bring the big fish to the stern. With the male in the cooler, we went after the female, the cow, and after another exciting thirty minutes had boated her as well. Up on the fly bridge, Morris’ angst bomb was dissipating, wisping away to nothing.
But when you do choose to go out, pick a world-class charter like Morris and his Main Attraction Fishing team. As someone once told me, "any fool with a few hundred thousand dollars can buy a boat and go into the fishing business." But not all of them know the fishing business, or how to run a business that is safe, professional and courteous. So be careful out there, have a great time, and let us know how it goes.
Break a nail!
*Note: If you boat a tarpon, your guide might offer you a single scale as a souvenir of your experience. Please decline the offer. It is inhumane, unnecessary, and places the fish at risk of infection. Just take a picture. The fish needs that scale more than you do. Thanks.