Hammer and the Tropical Anglers do the Yankee
With the aftermath of Hurricane Irma’s devastation of the lower keys, we, the members of Tropical Anglers here in Miami decided to help stimulate the Conch Republics economy by chartering none other than The Yankee Capts for a trip way out west of the Dry Tortugas. Greg, the captain/owner of the Yankee gave us a deep discount of $1.25 per person and threw in all the peanuts we could eat so we set the dates for mid December and crossed our fingers for good weather. It’s no secret to anyone that owns and egg sinker that Greg’s aquatic endeavors have been very productive in the recent years. He’s kind of like the star ship Enterprise trying to go where no man has gone before.. at least with a spinning rod, thus, he has unleashed… Pulley Ridge. While most of his trips way out West of the Tortuga’s include electric reels, this trip would be done the old fashioned way… with hi tech $400 reels and $600 jigging rods.. the same way that it was done by our fore fathers at the turn of the century.. kind of.
We made announcement after announcement at the club and week after week more people would make the commitment to join. We needed 20 people to fill the boat and after some late cancellations by people that didn’t have their act together, we’d assembled a motley crew of anglers. I’m not saying they were good looking anglers because they weren’t, but none of their credit cards were declined so with an incredible window of weather we were looking as good as possible during a notorious time of the year.
For those of you that have never fished on the Capts, he provides squid and bally hoo. If you want anything else for bait, you can bring it. Now, that being said, as fishermen we always want what nobody else has so me, being the biggest purveyor of that mentality, brought fillets of Spanish mackerel, Cero mackerel, king fish, blue fish, sardines, pilchards, mullet, barracuda, goggle eyes and bonita. I figured that if I had different type baits, I’d have the edge. The only thing I was lacking that I wanted was octopus… my supplier hadn’t been pulling his stone crab traps so he was out….grrr. Either way, we were loaded for bear and everyone had a positive attitude which was a plus.
Greg had asked us if we could show up a bit early so that we could get some more fishing time in before the impending cold front hit. That was like asking drunks at a strip club “ Who wants a free lap dance?”. When I left my house that morning, it was 39 degrees! ****! Driving across the 18 mile stretch, there was fog across the Everglades, a tell tale sign of calm winds. Everyone in our group was on time with grander of blood dripping out of the scuppers. The pansies that believe in catch and release were still sipping their Cappuccino’s at Starbucks when we started loading the boat.
We left the dock at 10am and in short order, Key West was disappearing from our stern. Running up NW Channel, the blazing speed of the Yankee Capts was evident… 10 kts.! We had sea turtles laughing as they passed us but Greg didn’t seem to care, he had his trusted side kick “Brizo” next to him so he was happy. We chatted Tortuga talk. His knowledge of the Tortuga’s and surrounding area’s is as deep as Pulley Ridge itself but that doesn’t stop him from constantly expanding his horizons. In the old days, it was secret GPS no’s, now the secret is to venture out to virgin waters.
Fast forward 11 hours, the adrenaline was flowing in all of our veins. Greg slowed the vessel and had the mates deploy the sea anchor off the stern. Over the loud speaker Greg said “OK, lets try here”. In the blackness of night, 20 baits raced for the bottom. My jig hadn’t even been jigged twice when a red grouper pounced on it. It wasn’t a monster but it was a keeper. Another guy in the back had his rod bent as well. Unlike a lot of the fishing that I do, this is not spot specific, it is area and contour specific meaning that the way he catches fish is to simply vacuum cleaner the productive live bottom with baits.. and it works. The sea anchor kept our drift at a very reasonable rate of about a mile per hour allowing you to use lighter lead with less tangles.
In the midnight hours, we had porpoise playing around the boat eating flying fish like kids eating tic tacs. Squid and sea snakes would come up and bask in the lights. When the porpoise would swim up to a sea snake, they’d roll up into a ball. We’d have times where we’d go 20 minutes without a bite and then all hell would break loose with people yelling “color” when they’d see their fish coming up from the deep letting the mates know that their long gaffs were needed. I do have to interject here that the mates were really top notch. Most of them were either commercial or very experienced fishermen with excellent patience. All through the wee hours of the morning they’d gaff fish, staple the anglers number to the cheek of the fish and put them on ice moving from bow to stern and vice versa. Unfortunately many mates in this line of work rank right next to carnival workers, these guys were just the opposite and conducted themselves like pro’s.
I wouldn’t say the bite was red hot but there was never a time when anyone would grumble “we should move”. Red groupers, muttons and black fin tuna’s were without question the prevalent species. If you wanted a tuna, you’d just throw a jig, let it sink down about 100’ and work it back to the boat, the tuna’s would find it. Heck, some times they’d find you’re bait drifting off the bottom some 220’ below. Surprisingly we had very little shark problem. I think that we had one big sand bar shark, one big nurse and a few of the atlantic sharp nosed sharks to harass us but compared to the shallow waters around the Tortugas, I’d take this every time.
When the sun came up, so did the muttons and we picked at them. Again, there was never a 10 minute period of time that someone wasn’t fighting a fish. Greg would periodically move the boat and we’d start another drift. Some were better than others but all were good. When the chef “Chad” said that breakfast was ready he wasn’t joking. He’d made us bacon, egg, sausage and ham bagels with cinnamon rolls inside them. They were delicious. I’m sure they were off the charts as far as calories but by the size of my belly, calories has never been a major concern for me. Who wants to die skinny?
Capt. Greg decided to change up the game and move to some deeper water where on the first drop, Frank hooked up to a black grouper that hit his bait while it was falling. Now this is not anything new but we were in 400’ and the grouper ate the bait at 300’. This mistake on the groupers part cost him his life. The grouper ended up weighing 38 lbs.
While he was tussling with his grouper, I was fighting a hambone aka black fin snapper. The bottom was loaded with them and most everyone was catching them. There were a few smaller vermillion mixed in as well as some yellow eyes. I’ve decided that at age 54, it’s smarter to do that deep water fishing with electric reels. The dropping and jigging is the easy part, it’s the reeling the fish in that gets you tired. This is where you need dumb teen agers around you to pass the rod off, unfortunately, I only had Nick and he’s a senior in college so he wouldn’t take the rod because he’s been tricked before.
We caught plenty of fish, Buzz even caught a Kitty Mitchell grouper which are fairly rare.
I didn’t get to witness the catch as I needed some sleep. Staying up for 24 hours straight is for young guys that are trying to prove something; me… I’ve caught enough fish so I gladly relinquished the rail to those that have to sow their oats. After the deep water, Greg moved us back to 220’ where we once again started catching groupers and muttons. I fished till about midnight and hit the sack. I was awakened by the pounding of fish on the deck above my bunk. It was just breaking daylight when I saw a bunch of black fins laying, bleeding on the deck. One guy (Frank) caught 5 in a matter of 15 minutes. I grabbed my jigging rod and once again tried my luck. I have to admit, I did use the rail to my advantage by laying the rod on the rail and pushing down hard on the butt while lifting the tip. Laugh as you may, the method works. The rails are at 42” which is the perfect height to make it virtually impossible to jig effectively. This is not the Yankees fault, it is a requirement by the Coast Guard so that people don’t fall out of the boat. I say that if you fall over a 36” rail, you deserve to go for a swim but everything on the Yankee had to be Coast Guard approved and it was..grrr.
FOOD- Now normally I wouldn’t even comment about food but this guy Chad.. he’s out of control. He’s NOT a cook, he’s a chef. His bacon cheese burgers were gourmet burgers. He baked chickens, then put them in some crazy type of light BBQ sauce served over rice. He had blackened fish salad with sliced strawberries. He made prime rib roast that literally melted in your mouth. The guy could literally work at the Pier House but chooses to work on the Yankee Capts. I joked with him calling him “Chef Boy R D”. If you go on the Y/C, don’t even think about bringing your own food!
Now up to this time, I haven’t mentioned that Dale aka the president of the club and Eli wanted to make a bet on which of us three would have the greatest number of snapper and grouper at the end of the trip. I don’t know what it is about Dale that feels that he has to compete against me every time we fish but he does. You would think that after fishing with me a dozen times he’d say “****, Hammer beats me every time, I’m not going to challenge him” but no, Dale is simply a glutton for punishment and this time was to be no different, in fact, the other times I’ve had to run the boat and actually be the captain whereas this time, I had nothing to do except fish… and whoop his ***. To put it mildly, I treated him like a red headed step child with a hair lip.
I was jigging off the bow and Dale was about 10’ from me, I hooked up and reeled in a plump red grouper. The mate stapled my no.14 in the fishes cheek and headed toward the cooler in the rear of the boat. I again dropped my jig and it got pounced on by yet another red grouper. At this point, Dale was standing right next to me trying to figure out what I was doing differently than he was. The mate had a big smile on his face while he repeated the steps he’d just made a few minutes earlier. I dropped my jig again and “wham”, it got eaten by yet another grouper. Dale was fit to be tied. He did manage to hook a fish while my jig was being de hooked from a grouper. I told him that the only reason he caught that fish was because my jig wasn’t in the water. When I returned to the rail, I once again nailed yet another grouper just to rub it in his face. He hates losing, especially to me. Well, it was about this time that a fellow club member (Ronnie) came up and point blank said “Hammer, I’m struggling. I haven’t even caught a grouper yet”. Ronnie’s a school teacher so I figured it was time to give him a lesson. I said to him “Just watch what I’m doing”. From there I showed him how to properly jig and “WHAM” a grouper grabbed my jig. I had to force him to take the rod but he did and reeled up a fat red grouper. I told him to stay there and jig while I went to the back of the boat to target mutton snappers. I no more had my bait on the bottom when I heard someone say “Get em Ronnie”. Obviously Ronnie was hooked up to what looked like a big grouper. Dale was standing next to him with his jaw hanging open. Ronnie boated a nice fish that he’d hooked and fought all by himself. Oh but it gets worse. 2 minutes later I heard the same “Get em Ronnie” and sure enough, he was fighting a 3rd grouper. Dale came back to the back of the boat mumbling and grumbling. Right about that time, I had a bite and reeled up a 10 lb mutton snapper. Dales frustration could be seen in his tearful eyes. Everyone was now catching fish and Dale raced back up to the front to try and get in on the action. When he dropped, he hooked a small fish which turned out to be a “slippery ****”. As fate would have it, while trying to get the hook out, his fish shook and Dale got a hook imbedded in his finger. Dale immediately yanked it out but was bleeding all over the place so he asked the mate to get him a bandage. While doing so, Frank asked Dale if he could try his new rod. Dale didn’t seem to mind because he knew that he would be out of commission for 5 minutes. Frank dropped Dales jig and hooked into a 15 lb scamp grouper. I thought Dale was going to explode. He walked by me and mumbled “I quit, I just f*#@ing quit”. He then went on saying that everyone is crowding him…blah blah blah. Truth be told, he was simply having some bad luck. Me, being the nice guy that I am simply held up my thumb and index finger in the shape of an L and called him a LOSER. Hammer gives no sympathy on a boat… suck it up cupcake. Serves him right, he voted for Obama and Hillary so that proves he’s a loser.
Ah but Dale wasn’t the only loser of the trip, Nick, the only member of the group that was still in college had to prove that he too was right behind Dale in the special needs category. He bragged about catching the biggest rock.. yes rock. When he wasn’t catching rocks, he did catch a big nurse shark that wasted 30 minutes of his life… this AFTER I told him he had a shark but he had hopes of grandeur in winning the pool with a giant grouper. His hopes doused by seawater when the big oversized catfish showed itself in the darkness.
One of our latin members (yes we do have a few token Latinos in the club) positioned himself in the rear corner of the boat and used what I call the Miami method of catching muttons, he put a ridiculously long leader and fished nothing but butterflied goggle eyes and did very well, in fact, he caught the most muttons of anyone on the boat. His new name, “Corner Jorge”. He wanted “The Mutton Man” but it was already taken.
There were times when we’d have nothing hooked, then times when the mates were literally running up and down the deck trying to keep up with us. My biggest fish was a 20 lb gag and Eli and Greg D. each had some red groupers that were pushing the 20 lb mark.
It was getting late and Jorge had asked to borrow my jigging rod as he wanted to add grouper to his box of muttons. He was up on the bow when the Capt said “Lets pack it up”. Right then, Jorge, shoulder to shoulder with Dale, hooked the last grouper of the trip… I think Dale was looking for a gun to put in his mouth.
On trips like these, somebody will be the hot rod, somebody will be the low rod but everyone catches fish and spending time with your fishing buddies making memories is priceless.
On the long ride back, we sat around the boat and poked fun of each other. Everyone caught a bunch of fish and that’s the reason you go on the Yankee Capts. If you ever want to have a really good fishing experience, even if you’re a boat owner, you need to go on The Yankee Capts. Unlike fishing on your own, your only worries are reeling in fish.
Till Next Time,
Hammer aka "The Reef Bandit"