For several more years I worked and fished my way up and down the Florida Keys. At one time or another I lived in Key Largo, Islamorada, and Marathon, and the fishing was fabulous. My first really big fish was the 63-1/3 .lb Amberjack that I caught off of Islamorada .
Amberjack are usually caught in very deep water on the Oceanside of the reef. This one must have been lost because I caught it in about 60’ of water close to the edge of the reef. It tried to eat a Porgy that I was reeling in; the Porgy weighed about 2 pounds, and the Amberjack hit it so hard he spun it up the leader and the hook got stuck in his mouth. I was fishing with a small level-wind reel mounted on a short boat pole and the reel came lose in its seat during the struggle that ensued. When I finally brought the Amberjack to the surface the knuckles of my right hand were bloody from trying to keep the reel seated on the rod while fighting the fish. The photo of this fish was taken at a tackle shop located next door to the Islamorada HoJo (I think it was Abel’s Bait & Tackle, and the old HoJo is probably gone now). I also photographed this Barracuda, a Sting Ray, and a pair of Dolphin (Mahi Mahi) – a cow and a bull that I caught one afternoon while trolling off the reef.
However, I think the highlight of fishing in my little 15-footer was the capture of this 6’6” Sailfish off of Marathon one Sunday morning. I left the dock shortly after daybreak; crossed the reef and began trolling along the edge of a big weedline just as the sun began to rise. I had two lines out, and both were baited with skirted Ballyhoo. Almost blinded by the sun, I had to steer carefully to avoid getting my lines tangled in the weedline, so I did not see the rod bend when the Sail struck, but I heard the line peel out. I flipped the gearshift into neutral and turned to look at the rods. When I saw the rod that the fish had hit returning to an upright position I assumed that I had missed the fish, so I shifted back into Forward; thinking that since I still had at least one good bait out the fish (I thought it was probably a Dolphin) would strike again. What really happened was that the Sailfish struck the bait with his bill, intending to stun it (a normal and natural move by a bill fish in the wild); then circled and returned to swallow the bait (which, if it had been a live fish, would have been stunned and would have begun to slowly fall toward the bottom). In this case, the ballyhoo, threaded on a hook and leader, did stop moving and started to fall downward when I threw the engine into neutral; however, when I put the motor back into a forward motion the Sail miss hit his target and the two hooks that had originally held the baited Ballyhoo miraculously formed a noose around the bill of the Sailfish. The damned fish was never really hooked! For the entire time that I fought the Sailfish those two hooks held his bill in a vice-like grip; even when it circled the boat, jumping (5 times) as it did so. I was beginning to feel quite a bit like Hemmingway’s “Old Man & The Sea,” as I boated the Sailfish, and wished that there was someone who could see me, and appreciate my accomplishment, when a commercial shrimping boat just happened along – and veered close enough for me to hold up the 6 foot 6 inch Sailfish. I think they were just checking to see if I was alright since one does not encounter many 15-foot outboards so far off shore. I held up the Sail and the crew waved to me and the Captain blew the ship’s horn; then the shrimp boat resumed its course and pulled away. While it did cost quite a bit to get the Sail mounted, the actual fishing trip cost me less than $10.00; I bought a dozen Ballyhoo and topped off the boats six-gallon gas tank before leaving the dock (one of two 6-gallon tanks; the other one was already full). When I pulled back into the dock on the Key Colony Beach Causeway to weigh my catch, the charter boats – those big beautiful 45-foot Sports Fisherman – were already beginning to pull away from their berths with the fishermen who had paid many hundreds of dollars to hopefully have an experience like mine.
The Sailfish looked a little better when mounted (actually, a fiberglass replica) and hung on my wall then it did when I sent it off to the taxidermist! The last time I saw that mount it was hanging on a office wall at the Hawk’s Cay Resort on Duck Key. That old Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge in Marathon had a little fishing dock in the back, and when I couldn’t get away I often cast a line from that dock, although I don’t think I ever caught anything more exciting in the surrounding shallow water than a small ‘cuda.
In 1979 I took a vacation and towed the boat to my mother’s home in Englewood, Florida; then I rented a small berth for the boat at a marina in Venice, Florida. I decided one night to try a little night fishing around the mangroves just inside of the Venice Jetties. After netting a few very small silversides, I baited a hook on my smallest spinning rod and cast out into the darkness, hoping that I my bait would land in the water and not in a Mangrove Tree. A few minutes later all hell broke lose! Something hit my bait so hard it almost tore the rod and reel from my hand; then it raced out into the deeper water of the channel. Moments later it turned and charged toward the nearest island of mangroves. For what seemed like an eternity, the fish charged back and forth with a frenzy I’d never before experienced. Sometimes it seemed like it was many yards away from the boat, and at other times it sounded like it was thrashing about in the trees just behind the stern. I have no idea how long I fought this battle (probably only minutes), but the fish finally began to tire and I was able to reel it to the boat. It was pitch dark and I had no idea what was on the end of my line but somehow I managed to fumble around and locate the flood light that I used to navigate the channels at night. I flipped the light switch on and found myself staring into the long, fat, silvery shape of one of the biggest Snook that I had ever seen anywhere; mounted or in an aquarium. This sucker was huge! And that’s when I realized that I did not have a gaff in the boat; however, I did have one big landing net so I slipped the net over the side and eased the fish head first into the net. Just as I flipped her (she would prove to be a “her” a bit later that night) into the boat, the whole area was flooded with light; I mean it was like 10:00 o’clock AM on a Sunday morning! I found myself staring into the faces of a couple of Marine Patrol Officers who were shining a spotlight on me from a small patrol boat. My guess is that they heard all of the commotion my fish was making; then saw my spotlight, and thought perhaps I was a water-born drug dealer (not uncommon in Southwest Florida in those days). I carefully reached down; grasped my humongous Snook, and held her up for the officers to view. It was about all I could do to hold that fish up in one hand! The patrol guys waved, then they applauded me, and then they motored off. Once I regained my composure, I pulled up my anchor and headed back to the dock. When I arrived at the marina it was closed up for the night, so I loaded my catch and my gear into my car and drove to Mom’s house, where she took this photograph .
That Snook was 4 feet long and filled with row. We ate Snook “caviar” and fried Snook and broiled Snook for days. You can’t keep one that big today, so that Snook will prove to be the biggest one I ever caught.
In October of 1980 Mom and I toured Florida by automobile, and made our first overnight stop at Daytona Beach where we drove the car and rode our bicycles up and down that famous beach. I also fished from the surf, but all I caught was a small Bonnet Shark .
As you can see from that picture, we were fortunate to have visited Daytona during the shrimping season. Shrimp boats moved up and down the coast every day, and every afternoon a 3/4 ton pickup truck parked in the Cul de Sac right outside of our rental condo with a bed of big, beautiful, fresh shrimp iced down and for sale at $3.50@lb (they went up to $3.75 on the 3rd day of our stay). While in Daytona, we ate Shrimp for breakfast lunch and dinner!
In 1982 I moved to Punta Gorda, where I managed the local Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge for a few months. It was a great assignment, and this HoJo had a long concrete fishing pier that jutted out into the Peace River, and the beginning of Charlotte Harbor. In August of 2004 Hurricane Charlie not only destroyed that fishing pier, it wiped the Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge of Punta Gorda off the face of the earth.
A couple of years later my mother passed away. In 1985 I sold the house in Englewood; bought a van, and traveled 16,000 miles back and forth across the United States. On the first leg of this trip, and after spending too much time and too much money in Las Vegas, I ended up at a resort very close to the mouth of the Smith River at the northern edge of the California-Oregon border. It was already late in September, but the Salmon were running, so I connected with another resort guest and together we hired a fishing guide. First thing in the morning we piled into his skiff and headed toward the mouth of the river. The boat – the skiff – was about 16’ long with a pointed bow and a square ended stern wide enough to carry a small outboard motor. However our boat did not have a motor; our guide apparently preferred to row, and he proved to be one ornery SOB. When our guide reached the place where we were to fish, he quickly anchored the boat by slamming down a wooden lever that released a heavy lead ball that was hanging from a rope that had been threaded through a metal ring attached to the bow of the boat. This enabled the guide to anchor the boat in a fast-moving incoming tide while maintaining his position with the motor (or, in our case, with the oars). After instructing us in the fine art of salmon-catching, and after threatening us is within an inch of our lives if we were to touch the reel’s drag setting, he told us to lower our lines into the current; one on each side of the boat. By the time we began fishing, it became obvious that we were anchored in a long line of similar skiffs that had spread across the breadth of the river; perhaps 200 or 300 yards back from the narrow mouth of the Smith River, and probably less than 50’ from the boats on either side of ours. Water from the Pacific Ocean was flowing rapidly into the river; splashing hard against the huge rocks that formed the north side of the river entrance, and swirling and foaming as it spread around a spit of land that formed the south side of the entrance. Our guide had explained that although the Chinook (King) Salmon that swam into the river might be quite large, we would barely feel one when it bit or struck the small spinner lures that we were using for bait. He said that we might feel a couple of little “taps,” and if we did we were to quickly raise the tip of our rod in order to set the hook. While I pondered whether or not to tell this guy that I was not a total idiot, and that I fished all over the east coast of the United States, and that I had caught some really big fish in the Florida Keys, I felt a couple of quick taps and quickly raised my rod tip. All hell broke loose as what appeared to be a rather large fish charged back toward the Pacific Ocean. The fish was taking out a lot of line and I felt that the drag was much too lose, but just as thought about tightening the drag a notch or two, the guide shouted “Don’t touch that drag,” as if he was reading my mind. The fish finally slowed down (it probably tired out trying to swim against the every strengthening incoming tide), and I was able to reel it back to the boat. After making a couple more short runs, I brought a beautiful Chinook Salmon to the surface and the guide netted it. It weighed 28 pounds; not a whopper, but definitely a keeper.
While I was continuing to bask in the glory of my catch our guide stated that we had better get our lines back in the water (my fishing mate had to bring his line in while I fought my fish) because it would not be long before the tide changed and the water started flowing back out into the Pacific. He made it very clear that we did not want to get caught in the outgoing tide because he would not be able to row against it, and – as he gestured toward the Pacific – we would end up “out there somewhere!” Both of us quickly lowered our lines back into the river. Although my fishing companion did raise his rod sharply on a couple of occasions, his timing was off, or he did not really have a strike. Whatever the reason, it caused our burley guide to utter a few vulgar curse words.
A short while later, and just as the current was beginning to slow down, I thought I felt something “tapping” on my line. Now familiar with the routine I quickly raised the tip of my rod skyward, and something quickly pulled it back down and almost into the water as line began screaming from the reel. I thought that the fish was going to strip all of the line off of my reel, and I wanted once again to tighten the drag; in fact, I put my hand on the star-shaped drag handle but before I could turn it the guide shouted again “Don’t touch that drag.” At about the same time, the line of boats broke; guides were cranking up their outboards and turning their boats back toward the fishing camps down the river. All of a sudden the current appeared to stop moving; then ever so slowly it started to flow back toward the Pacific Ocean. The scene became chaotic as one boat turned to quickly and flipped over. Fishermen and guides were bobbing up and down in the river, along with gas cans and seat cushions. A couple of boats went to their rescue as others tried to maneuver out-of-the-way, and one boat came too close to ours and got my line tangled on one of his rods. I was still trying to fight my fish (actually, I was simply holding onto the rod and praying for a miracle as I watched the line dwindling down). Our guide got really pissed off at the boat that fouled my line and he tried to ram them. Yes, this idiot was going to try to use his boat as a battering ram, and he began rowing toward them as fast as he could, shouting obscenities as he pulled at the oars. Miraculously, my line came free, but it was almost too late. Just for a moment, I saw the head of a huge King Salmon as it broke water close to rocks at the edge of the river’s mouth (I would later estimate that the fish weighed at least 65 pounds; maybe more). Our guide had already turned the boat and pointed it back down the river toward Crescent City when I shouted “What in the hell I am supposed to do? How I am going to get this fish; I’m almost out of line.” The guide told me that he had to get the boat back away from the mouth of the river, and the only thing he could do was to drop me off on “that spit of land” on the south side of the mouth of the river, and I could fight the fish from there. Then, if I was lucky enough to catch the fish, I could start walking back toward the fishing camps and somebody would eventually spot me and drive out there in a jeep or ATV and fetch me. Before I could tell the guide what I thought about him – and his idea – the fish broke off apparently having snagged the line in the rocks just before it ripped the last few feet of it from the spindle of the reel. Rowing frantically, our guide managed to keep the skiff from being swept out to sea, and we slowly made our way back to the resort. When we reached the dock, I asked my companion to take a photograph of me holding the 28-lb Chinook that I had caught earlier in the day; then I gave him the fish since he was driving back to his home and because I was planning to move on in the morning. Neither of us spoke to our guide; nor did we tip him or thank him.
The next morning I checked out early and drove on to Gold Beach. I wanted to see and fish Oregon’s famous Rogue River, but having no definite plan I simply drove the winding road that followed the south bank of the river inland. When I look at a map of the river online today, I do not really remember any of the noted landmarks, however, I think I drove Jerrys Flat Road to Huntley Park. I do remember that the view all along the way was spectacular,
and that I wanted to spend some time in the area. On the way out I passed an old RV park that offered daily, weekly, and monthly rentals; I think the place was called Ma & Pa’s RV Park, so I drove back to that park and went into the office. Although the office was empty, a buzzer went off when I opened the door and a few seconds later a very elderly lady entered the room through a back door. When I asked her if she might have something I could rent for a night or two, she said, “Well, Pa’s not here right now, but that old trailer in number 8 is empty if you’d like to take a look at it.” I told her that I would; she gave me the door key, and I drove back to No. 8. It was a huge old 3-bedroom trailer about 72’ long and it was equipped with a big electric stove and oven, a big refrigerator, a huge old TV connected to an antenna, and what appeared to be a propane furnace. After determining that the stove and refrigerator worked, and that the toilet flushed, I drove back to the office and asked “Ma” how much she would charge me to rent it for 2 or 3 nights. “Well, like I said,” She said, “Pa’s not here right now, but I guess $25 a night would be OK, if that’s alright with you.” IT WAS! I gave her $50 bucks; then drove back to Huntley Park. When I arrived at the area I wanted to fish, I drove off the main road and down a winding car path onto what looked like gray “rocks” that lined the river bank. I’m not sure what they were; sort of oval-shaped slightly flat gray rocks or stones – probably a mixture of black and gray shale, sandstone and lava, but I parked the van on the rocks and got out a small spinning rod. I tied on a small spinning lure; one that closely resembled what we were using in the Smith River, and started casting toward the overhanging growth on the opposite shore as I walked slowly down the river bank. A few minutes later I spotted what might have been a splash created by a feeding fish; just underneath an overhanging tree and inside of an eddy caused by the water swirling around a fallen tree limb. I cast the lure under the tree limb and had barely begun to retrieve it when a fish struck hard and started racing down the river, toward the Pacific Ocean. For a few seconds I thought he might make it; the reel was only spooled with 10.lb monofilament, and the drag was a bit loose. After cautiously tightening the drag a little and running in the same direction the fish was going while reeling fast, I managed to get some line back. After what seemed like a very long time, but was probably only a few minutes, I was able to slide a beautiful, fat, Chinook Salmon into the small landing net that I had the foresight to fasten on to my belt. When I got back to my van I weighed the fish, and it weighed 8.lbs. I filleted it right there on the banks of the Rogue River – and even enjoyed a few slivers of the raw salmon as I did so. When I got back to the RV Park, I went to the office and offered Ma half of the fish and she eagerly accepted it. Then, after refrigerating the other half in “my trailer” I drove back to Gold Beach where I purchased some soy sauce and a tube of wasabi. Later than afternoon I lightly broiled a big slice of fresh salmon and devoured it greedily as I dipped it in a mixture of soy sauce and wasabi that opened my sinuses and brought tears to my eyes. OMG!
It was late in September, and although it was still hot as hell in Florida it was already starting to get very cold in Oregon. By 4:00AM it was so cold in the old trailer that Ma rented to me I thought my toes were going to freeze. I got out of bed and wandered into the living room where I stared at the old propane furnace for a few minutes, but I was afraid to try to light the pilot light, so I got dressed and piled my gear into the van. After writing an apologetic note to Ma telling her that I had decided to move on, I drove to the office; pinned the note on the office door, and hit the trail – heading southwest. I eventually ended up just outside of Heber Springs, Arkansas. While exploring the area I discovered a fishing camp on the banks of the Little Red River, not far from Greer’s Ferry Dam. The resort had a long dock with small outboard powered boats for rent, and great little fishing pier that extended out, into the river (which was really rather green; not red), and a few nice looking wooden cabins tucked in under the evergreens on a rise overlooking the riverfront.
I rented one of the cabins, then, after getting settled in, I went back to the office – which also served as a Bait & Tackle shop, handled boat rentals, provided fishing guides and a taxidermist – and got some advice on fishing in the Little Red River. Later that afternoon, armed with a little jar of Salmon Eggs, I gathered up my fishing tackle and headed for the docks where I wandered out to the end of the pier. Not long after I began fishing, a very tall, lanky looking person wearing what appeared to be a sky blue nylon jump suit stepped onto the pier carrying a fly rod and began casting along the shoreline. Although this person soon unzipped the hood of the jump suit, revealing a mop of shaggy silver hair, I could not tell if it was a he or a she, but I guessed that he was a very old man. He continued to whip the fly line back and forth, making long casts into the swirling current of the river, and gradually worked his way toward the end of the pier where I was fishing. When he became close enough for us to converse, he turned to face me and said, “Hi, I’m Gracie Bell.” He was a she; a very old lady, gnarled and weather-beaten; extremely tall and thin. “Gracie” soon had me in stitches as she told me that her old man – her husband of many years – was sitting “up there in the car,” and that he “doesn’t do anything anymore.” She told me that she was “Gracie Bell, the daughter of Mississippi Curtis,” and that she had a nephew named Love Bird. She went on, telling me that on Love’s first day at school a teacher – in a way of getting the children to know each other – asked him “and what is your name, young man?” When he replied “Love Bird,” she became very angry and told him to stop fooling with her and to tell her his real name. When he insisted that was his real name, she grabbed him by the arm; yanked him out of his seat, and marched him to the Principal’s office. When they walked into the office, the Principal looked up from his desk; smiled, and said “Hi, Love, what’s wrong?” The teacher almost fainted when she learned that the little boy was really “Love Bird.” This is a true story, and I can’t begin to tell you how sad I felt when Gracie announced that she had better leave before her husband froze to death “sitting there in the car.” As for fishing in the Little Red River: The water level was extremely low and all I caught was one small fingerling trout; a little Brook Trout so small I was ashamed to have reeled it in!
This is the end of “A Fishy Story, Part Two . . . Part Three should follow in the near future.