Don't ask me how I got conned into going on a non paid guided trip but somehow I did. I befriended a guy (Scott) on the internet who is some kind of fisheries guy in Michigan. I think he counts lake trout or walleye or some other silly northern fish. One of those species of fish that I've never seen and really don't care to see. He was looking for some help in the Tortugas so I figured I'd give him some pointers. Next thing you know I invited him out fishing. Seems every year he drags his family down to Big Pine Key where they go out and do what tourists do…. spend money and not catch anything. Anyways, I gave him some do's and don'ts and he sent me some fresh maple syrup as a thank you. He gave me a complete dissertation on how maple syrup is refined. I just usually buy my Aunt Jemima at Publix but he assured me that his was the finest money could buy and since he wasn't charging me for it I thought, what the heck. I had just turned down an all expense paid trip to the Playboy Mansion where Hugh Heffner wanted to meet me and get my autograph but I could do that anytime.
Scott emailed me about 10,000 times wanting to know what tackle, rods, equipment, etc. to bring. I guess since lake Superior is frozen he can't really do much up there except email people that live in area's that it's actually enjoyable to live in. I told him that the best time to come down would be in April but like so many others, he has kids that are out of school for spring break and had to take advantage of late March. With the mild winter we've had, I figured that we'd still get into them enough to make it worth our while.
Since I was going to go all the way to Key West to give these guys a free trip, I figured I'd show them some exciting shark fishing in the shallows as well. I mean, these people watch those Saturday morning fishing shows and actually like them so spring time sharking should get them to shake in their boots, literally.
My new friend Still, yes that is his real name, volunteered his boat. Now Still is a unique kind of guy. He's an Alabama fan… Crimson to the bone. He sells commercial real estate and seems to be pretty good at selling section 8 housing to slum lords. He's kind of the guru of slum properties. Somehow or another he milks his commission out of every deal and those HUD buildings must still be worth a pretty penny because the boy bought himself a real nice 35' Intrepid with twin 300 Suzuki's. Still picks me up in his brand new shiny black suburban pimp mobile. It's got more options on it than the space shuttle. He was dressed like John Travolta but hey, if it sells the property, who cares.
We drive down to Key West. I'm figuring that this young, single, man of the world is going to want to go out and hit the town, especially since it's spring break. I would feel like a dirty old man staring at those young college girls but hey, I'd get over it I thought. Well, much to my surprise Still doesn't like partying late and then he said something that was music to my ears. He said "Hey, if it's OK with you I'd just assume go to sleep early". See, in the old days I would've been traipsing around Key West but at the ripe old age of 48, I'd just assume go to bed early and get up early so he wasn't gonna get any argument from me.
Arriving at the marina we walk down to his boat. There it is, in all its' glory. Now as everyone out there knows, I'm an open fisherman kind of guy. This boat is uh… lets just say, NOT an open fisherman. It's got gucci seats and a cabin! It was in perfect shape to say the least. Still is fairly new to fishing, he's more of a diver than a fisherman and the boat of his choosing was perfect proof to that. He unlocked the cabin and turned on all the electrical stuff. The one thing that DID impress me was the hum of an air conditioner. We would not be sleeping in the moist open air, we would sleep in comfort for sure.
We were planning on shark fishing the next morning and there really isn't any reason to get up early as you can't see anything looking East into the rising sun so we had the Michigan Boys meet us at 9:00am. When I woke up, Still was no where to be seen. Come to find out that he had headed to the John. Now this obviously is no big deal but when this guy hits the head, he doesn't come back for 1/2 an hour. I thought he fell in. Come to find out that Still has a certain problem with his pooper that makes it a time consuming process. I almost wasn't going to write about it but then I thought….. SUCKS TO BE HIM. Editors note: Never tell me your personal problems. So there, now the whole world knows that he could read the bible in the time it takes him to take a dump. Worse yet, his sister has the same problem. Ah what a problem to have when you're a woman. Her boyfriend must really get pissed when he shows up for a date and she's still on the throne an hour later. Either way, Potty man came walking down the dock looking like he just scored the winning run in the World Series. We gas the boat up… ouch, and we start to get stuff ready.
When the Michigan boys showed up they looked like they just came out of Mayberry. There was 5 of them in all. One of them was a Pawn store employee and was so proud of his ability to snooker people that he once pawned an old ladies teeth out of her head. When she was an hour late he wouldn't give her back her dentures till she signed over her Buick. I asked him why he didn't have a TV show like them guys on Pawn Stars and he just kind of said that he was working on it. Never mind that his chewing tobacco was dripping down his chin the whole time. They brought along Tom, he was the senior of the group. Why Tom's so old that when he was born, fishing hadn't been invented yet. They also brought Ryan, a forester. I thought to myself, "Great, another tree hugger, do they know who they are going fishing with?" I mean, I'm not exactly shy of killing stuff and these guys counted trees for a living. Hadn't they done an internet search on me? Maybe they were spies for the US Government? No way could there be 5 goofy people from one state. Last but not least (especially in stomach size) was Jason, he had just graduated Michigan Tech with what else but a forestry degree. I'm sure he made his mother proud when he said "Ma, I'm gunna cownt treez and get pade fur it". The only time I saw him move fast was when the box of donuts came out. I tried striking up a conversation with him but he was much too smart for me. I asked him if he had a girlfriend and he just kind of looked at me. Maybe he had a boyfriend? I couldn't tell but his calf muscles were big enough to kick start a 747 so I didn't want to make him mad. I think the last time he saw a woman naked was when he was coming out of one. I have to send him a copy of my latest book, "Hammer's Tricks to Seduce Even the Hottest of Hotties". Only problem is, this mute probably doesn't read. With my luck, the next time I see him, he'll be a Ranger at the Dry Tortugas and take it out on me.
In one of the countless emails I told Scott to bring 10 7/0 hooks, steel leader, heavy mono leader and a bag of balloons. The yankee Einstein brings them all with the exception of the balloons. He pulls out one green balloon from his pocket. I say to him "What's that?" Why would you show up with just one balloon? He says "I've got two bags in my boat". DUH, we're not in your boat. I send him up to the Walgreens to buy a bag of balloons. I should've made him buy a box of condoms….. extra small, just to embarrass him. He probably had a couple of those in his wallet though. We're pulling out of the marina when luckily for us, Still checks to see if we had drinks…..NOPE. Our northern buddies brought lunch but nothing to drink so we rush into the marina and get a case of water. Maybe in Michigan they just drink the water out of the lake but that's simply not going to cut it down here.
We run out to a wreck to catch some cuda's for bait and the first thing I ask them is "Do all you guys know how to fish?". I think that's a pretty legitimate questions and of course they all answered "Yes". I figured that if I didn't ask then it would be my fault if they backlashed a reel or did something stupid but I had to take their word for it. I tossed out a couple of tube lures and like expected they were pounced on by the toothy critters. I handed a rod to Tom and he immediately turned it upside down and started reeling backwards! Now I've seen novices turn a spinning reel upside down but this was a conventional reel. Is this how they do it up north? After "politely" telling him he was an f-up. I gaffed his cuda and stuck it in the boat.
We caught a few more of the stinky critters and soon we're off to the edge of the flats. I fillet up a cuda and tossed him over the side, dangling his guts to develop a chum line. I rigged up a couple of rods and soon we're doing the waiting game. The wind was blowing about 5 mph and not exactly what I was hoping for. Why have most of my recent trips been when the weather was flat calm? Most people pray for calm seas, I was like a sailboater; praying for wind. Either way the sharks started coming in. To get the northern gilligans use to fighting a fish I let them catch a nurse shark. The fish probably weighed 125 lbs. These fish are so pathetic they don't even pull drag. Here's where it gets weird; these guys wanted to KILL it and eat it! And Yankees make fun of what the southerners eat???? Everyone knows that I'm the first guy to want to kill fish BUT there ain't no way I'm going to pull into my marina with a goofy old nurse shark laying dead in the cooler. I'd be laughed off the dock. Scott says "We ate one last year and it was great". I told him that I didn't care if it taste like filet mignon, he wasn't killing a nurse shark on my watch. In China they eat dogs and cats but I'm not gonna supply them with my clients dead pets. Sometimes you have to just draw the line and I draw the line at nurse sharks. Nuff said.
We saw plenty of sharks but when they would come in they'd shy away. It's frustrating to watch yet another bull or lemon shark just mosey away. Still decided that it was once again his time to check in on the porcelain throne again so he was gone for another 1/2 hour. We moved to an area called the "mullets" and basically had some small sharks come in and out of the chum line. One was so small he was hiding behind the bait. I decided to call it a day as we would be leaving the next morning at 6am to hit the tuna's in the gulf.
The next morning the alarm clock went off at 5:30 and of course my captain had already left to find the nearest toilet. It's got to suck spending 1/24th of your life sitting on the pot but Still just laughs it off. What else you gonna do? At 6:00am the group shows up again, ready for blood. This time they even brought water and some potato chips and of course more donuts guarded by Jason. I had Still leave his track line on his GPS the previous day so it would be easier to navigate in the darkness. His Raymarine radar does not work…. go figure. I must interject here, Why do people buy anything other than Furuno? Every time I go on someones boat their electronics have some kind of problem. Just buy Furuno and it works, simple as that. We run out Northwest channel and hit the open gulf. How we did not crash into anything is beyond me. You can see lights out in the distance, shrimpers, still dragging. I tell Still to just go on by them as they're in too shallow of water. We're looking for at least 90' of water.
One of the gambles you take is that if you pass shrimpers expecting there to be more shrimpers further out, you could actually go out to the far boats and not have any by catch. Many time you pull up to a shrimper only to find that he just dumped his by catch leaving you bait less. We finally decided to stop at a shrimper that was just pulling in his nets. Friendly guys and it was so calm we just literally held on to the side of their boat. I offered to help sort trash from the shrimp and they had no problem with it so I jumped up on the boat. I offered to trade Jason for a pound of shrimp and the shrimper just smiled with his one front tooth and said "Hell, I can't afford to feed that big boy". I picked out all the lane snappers as our illustrious NOAA law enforcement boat has started giving citations to people having undersized snappers in their possession, even if they're in the shrimp boat trash and are already dead. Common sense isn't a prerequisite for being one of their officers. GRRRR They'll have to find some other way to harass us and I'm sure they will.
Having all of our bait that we needed we continued deep into the Gulf of Mexico. We pulled up to a shrimper and started chumming.
The bonito's were so thick you could walk on them. I let the guys hook up to get them use to having multiple hook ups and just as I expected it was a chinese fire drill. They broke off more times than I care to mention. I was rigging as fast as my hands could and I was thinking to myself…."Why am I doing this?" I must be a glutton for punishment. I stopped guiding so I wouldn't have to do this! They did manage to catch the stupidest of all the bonita. We saved a half dozen of them for a buddy of mine that uses them for yellowtail bait. We moved around to another shrimper and God must've felt sorry for me because he actually put a tuna below the boat. Now I'm not the sharpest stick in the stack but if there's a tuna within the zip code, I'm gonna hook him and that's exactly what happened. There's 75 bonito and 1 tuna and it made the mistake of biting my bait. The fish takes off and I hand the rod to Scott. I think he was the better of the group so I had to put my faith in him. Within minutes he had the fish next to the boat, only problem was that a shark had bit it and it's a bit difficult to fight hard when you've been cut in half. Either way, we drew first blood. Oh, BTW, at this point I had re rigged 10 times! I almost thought they were breaking off on purpose.
We bounced shrimpers and it was more of the same story, lots of bone heads and very few tunas. We did catch more tuna's and the boys were happy. I wanted to make sure that Still caught a tuna so I told him to get ready. Shortly thereafter he was fighting the biggest one of the day. His boat is not conducive to easily walking from the bow to the stern (that's the front to the back for you land lubbers) but he still didn't break the fish off on the pulpit or the lower units so I was happy.
I hooked yet another tuna and handed it to Scott, he did a magnificent job of LOSING IT right at the end of the fight…. thanks Scott. In all fairness he didn't screw up because lord knows if he did, I'd write about it. While fighting yet another bonito a Key West guide approached us, he had done the same thing we'd done, only difference, he didn't have a tuna to show for it.
With a storm approaching we decide to head on back. It was slick calm so I point the beast back to Key West and hit the throttles, like the pig that it is, it climbs to a plane and then the starboard motor just dies out like it's out of fuel. Wondering if I did something wrong (no chance), I looked at Still and he said "This has happened a couple times before". I ask the logical question "What's wrong?". He replies "Nothing that I can fix out here, it's something within the engine". Here we are 40 miles out and we will have to basically troll all the way in at 10 kts. That means that 4 hours of my life will be wasted trying to make conversation with Jason. I think a log has more intellect than this guy so I decide to take advantage of the cabin and sleep it off. 10 minutes later Still says "Hey, I remembered how to fix it". He goes down in the bilge and does something and sure enough, the Suzuki starts right up. How do you forget how to fix a 10 second fix? That's like saying "I just remembered how to tie my shoes". Who cares, we were back at the blazing speed of a snail on roller skates.
Getting back to the dock I assigned some of the boys to help with cleaning the boat and I would show the Yankee's how to clean tuna. We ended up with 5 of them.
Scott was proud of his knife collection and I proceeded to pull a sushi chef on one of them. Jason did a great job of holding the zip lock bag open while I put fillets in it. I just love a guy that takes the bull by the horns and is not afraid to get a little dirty. Scott started cleaning one and next thing you know, I cleaned 4 of them and Scott cleaned a whopping 1. Maybe he's good at cleaning perch?
All in all, we had a great time and yes I ragged on the guys but that's just part of fishing with Hammer.