Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Tasting The Salt Life Part 4: Why Don't You Just Tie Up To Our Boat?


Fisher folk are some strange people and they've got their own unspoken rules, and they abide by these rules to varying degrees. One pretty strong rule is that you don't fish close to somebody else that is catching fish...although there seems to be quite a bit of disagreement about what the proper distance is. Thus, when encountering a boat full of guys with beer and one guy with a big fish on you might hear, "Why Don't You Just Tie Up To Our Boat?" For those new to English, this is not a question that needs an answer, it needs you go to far away from those guys. In fact, I'm pretty sure it would mean the same thing if we were fishing in Japan.

It is a pretty common occurrence that fish are biting in one spot, yet fifty feet away, you'd get nothing but envious of the guys catching the fish. This was probably one of the big pushes for giant engines on small boats, so the guys could be the 'first one on the spot' in the morning.

On this particular day, our last full day of fishing, we found ourselves out at the Boca pass, which is some kind of natural wonder all by itself. If it is not the deepest natural pass in the USA, it must be close. For comparison, the water in the harbor is around 10 feet deep in average. If you were in a boat on the east coast, you might drive out 30 miles from Cape Canaveral before you hit 50 feet of water. Generally, the water near the coast on the Gulf side of Florida is shallow as well, but the depth of Boca Grande pass is 80 feet. What happens there is during tarpon season, you can find giant boats catching giant 150lb fish mere feet from shore. So, fishing is a big deal there, and those big fish and big boats mean big money to be made. A toll bridge and really fancy homes are there on Boca as well as some fiercely competitive fishing guides.

We pulled up in the pass on a non-tarpon day and few boats were out. Dusty was determined to pull up a huge Goliath grouper from the old Phosphate docks, but that was not to happen today. By the way, back when I was young they called them "Jewfish". I have no idea why, but I have a pretty good idea of why they changed the name...once again, I didn't get the memo, but when I first saw a video of a guy landing a Goliath grouper, I went, "Oh, I know what that is!". Back in my day, I didn't think anyone could catch those things, they could break any pole and any line.

While Dusty was trying to find some bait big enough to interest the grouper, I saw something WAY better. Three old spanish guys were up on the beach on the island, wading with yellow bait buckets towards some rocks where there was some serious splashing happening. Suddenly, one rod bent double and you could hear his line singing all the way to our boat. There other guys cast in the same general direction and it was snook time! Minutes later, the first guy was cradling one of the largest snook I've seen, and slowly swimming him back into the water.

Dusty was already heading in their direction, wondering just how close could we get without getting yelled at. We decided that what was right was about 100 yards away, and we sat there casting good live bait...for nada. We sat with our shoulders drooped while they caught fish after fish...until the first guide boat came flying in with 6 people on board and anchored about 10 feet from the wading guys. I thought that wasn't very polite and then the second guide boat came in with 6 more guys and suddenly nobody was catching fish. I did hear some words being exchanged between the wading guys and the boat captains. I could not make out the conversation...but I'm pretty sure I knew what they were talking about...





Monday, September 14, 2020

Tasting The Salt Life Part 3: The Hundreth Dolphin


Mind you, I've been vacationing in Bokeelia, that little redneck version of Sanibel Island, since I was 18 years old. Before that time, I knew little or nothing about salt water, except what you could learn from going to the beach. Pam's family brought me into the fold, and showed me how to catch snook, how to fish the sandbars, and learn about all of the wildlife. There is so much to see and know, and yet, I can still be amazed after all of these years. Buddy the dolphin, was a unicorn as far as I knew. I've kayaked, surfed, and paddleboarded all over Florida and never saw a dolphin that would give you the time of day..Buddy was different. Buddy could work a crowd, and entice you to give up whatever you had left in the hold...especially if there was a girl in the boat. There have been other dolphins that would hang around and snatch fish after you took them off the hook, but that was different than this guy. I thought he was a singularity, a hurt dolphin that had been nursed back to health and released by Mote Marine or something like that. What happened this trip blew my mind.

There was a story I heard back in my college days (you can look this up on Wikipedia), in Psychology class. Some scientists that were studying monkeys on an island came up with the idea that once a new behavior was shared to 100 monkeys, it became something they all knew. There is even a book called 'The Hundreth Monkey'...but the idea is that at some point a behavior can be observed and repeated and soon enough everybody is doing it. After this trip to the southwest islands of Florida, I'm wondering how many more years before we reach the hundreth dolphin.

As I later found out, the dolphin at the Icehouse wasn't Buddy. Nope, Buddy was still out in the Boca Grande pass working his magic on the boaters there. The thing was that you could tell that Buddy was an older dolphin merely by looking at him and his battle scars. The dolphin at the Icehouse was a young dolphin with smooth skin and no age spots. And...Buddy would let you pet him. He'd probably climb in the boat if there was enough fish in there to make it worth the effort. Did Buddy have offspring? Or were there two released dolphins making their stake in separate areas of the harbor?

I got the answer on our third day out, when we ventured to an area called 'Twin Pines'. We raced across the flat calm water, giving no mind to the already building thunderhead clouds above, figuring an epic day of fishing would be worth the chance of getting caught in a storm. Twin Pines is merely a spot on a map, but there were already a few boats working the spot, so we cut the motor and started some drift fishing. First cast, Dusty had a fish on that broke his line. Dustin is a born boat captain, and when he hooks a fish, it's always a monster and is always most likely a tarpon. He is very good at telling you about the strike, and how the fish is attempting a run at the boat, and what a challenge it will be to get it in the boat. Now, in the family I married into, the prescribed behavior for situations like this is to chant our encouragement when someone hooks a big fish. It goes like this "Catfish! Catfish! Catfish!". Dusty would loved to have proved us wrong, but his line broke and as he examined the cut line, he vowed that it must have been the biggest tarpon that ever swam those waters and nothing less than 150 lbs could have severed that expensive braided line he had on his pole. He was totally wound up and we probably would still be there trying to catch that tarpon if something more exciting didn't happen right then. The rest of us in the boat had been catching small trout, none that you could keep, and we kept seeing a dolphin hanging around the boat. I was sure it was just taking those trout as we tossed them back, but soon she actually came right up to the boat...with her baby. We tossed out some of our live bait, and my eyes went wide as I watched mom push the fish towards the baby's mouth. She was teaching the baby how to take fish from us. Even at that moment, I thought, "hmmmm, is that the best thing to do?", but if dolphins have one thing on their side, it is cuteness....we were helpless against the creatures with the built-in happy smile...




Sunday, September 13, 2020

Tasting The Salt Life Part 2: The Charge Of The Trump Brigade

Here is was, Saturday morning of the long Labor Day weekend, heading out on a week long fishing trip. Not even ten minutest into the trip, we had a dolphin encounter and I wasn't sure if that was an omen, or we had the best part in the very beginning. It turns out that on vacation as in life, I had no clue of what was really coming.

Dusty decided that since this was a Saturday and the weather was nice, we needed to make the run to Captiva Pass. For folks in Orlando, that was like (in normal times), "Hey, it's a weekend, the weather's nice, let's go to Disney!" I figured it would be a fun ride, we'd see a few really fancy boats, but I wasn't into the groove enough yet to think this might not be the best day to head to a popular fishing spot. The ride from Bokeelia to Captiva Pass is about 30 to 45 minutes for somebody like me. This is an area that is well known for very shallow sandbars and secret ways to get places that tourists don't know. I can still vividly remember my first trip back when I was young and running full speed into a sandbar because I didn't really understand how serious those channel markers were. I did know that a passtime for locals was to anchor near a pretty shallow sandbar and wait for some adventurous boater with a big motor see if he could skim over the 'bar. There is some kind of saying about if you see bird walking on the water...don't go that way.

Dustin, however, is a whole different animal. He grew up on these waters and he loved speed. I still remember shivering as I let his 16 year old self drive our boat at our maximum speed of 24mph, weaving through the channels of the bay. Now, he is in his 40's and has a big boat that will go 60mph...and he was doing it..unfortunately, the locals were disappointed if they were hoping for a loud ringing of the prop hitting bottom. Not only did Dusty know the area, he had a very expensive GPS that had Charlotte Harbor laid out like Google Maps.

We probably would have been to Captiva Pass in short order except for one thing: every boat in the whole world got there before us. I'm not sure if it was a flash mob, social media posting or what, but somehow, I didn't get the memo. All of the boats had American flags and Trump flags, big ones. I was very impressed that somebody could get this many people to do anything on a Saturday morning. I started wondering if the boat ramps were all full, or if this parade was made up of people that owned waterfront homes with a boat out back...there wasn't much in the way of the kind of boat I could afford, so my first assumption was that Trump was backing some bill that deeply benefited boat owners. It was something that made me feel good that people are not apathetic anymore, on the other hand, I was kind of expecting Greenpeace guys in Zodiac boats to show up with Biden flags...but that never happened.

We drove down the whole length of Cayo Costa (a barrier island park in the gulf) and finally found a tiny anchorage for our boat. We got to swim in the crystal blue water and marvel at all of the boats...wondering why we didn't bring something to sell out there. Politics aside, we could have made a killing!

It was a day of no fish, but it was only the first day and it was already looking like this trip was going to be like no other. I thought it would be impossible to top this boat parade, but I was still at the point where I thought Buddy the dolphin was the most incredible animal encounter ever...I had more to learn.



Friday, September 11, 2020

Tasting The Salt Life Part 1: Buddy Finds The Motherlode


 It's been a long time since I've seen this place, and surprisingly it fit right on me like an old pair of shoes. I could look in just about any direction and recall things that had happened there during my life and realized this is why people go back to familiar vacation spots. My children grew up coming here and parts of what I see when I look around is them at various ages, feeling free in the southwest version of a redneck Riviera. It's Pine Island, a ironic and at the same time generic name for this place of net fishermen and Palm tree plantations. Only four hours from home, but without a good boat, there is not much to do. After our kids grew up and a boat seemed like too much work to maintain, Pam and I came many times with a kayak and stayed for a few days on Charlotte harbor, but this trip was with my son and daughter in law and their really nice fishing boat. 

The very first odd change I've noticed in the old province of Bokeelia, was that there were some people actually wearing masks. Since we were are still in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, you might assume that everybody was taking every precaution available to prevent the spread of the disease, but that meant you'd never been to a place like this. I fully expected everyone to act as if all of that virus stuff was happening on TV only, but people were being careful. That made a lot of sense after I thought it over, since Pine Island has a few residents, and the majority of folks here are travelers and who know what germs they brought with them?

The second odd change was the gentrifying of the fishing houses on the canals in Bokeelia. These homes look like old houses from the 1950's, just big enough to live in, with maybe a carport and a crushed shell driveway and a couple of pilings in the canal to tie up one's net boat. These net boats usually looked like something made locally with plywood, about 20 feet long with an outboard motor mounted in the center of the boat and the steering in front. They were rough boats, painted with housepaint and a large brush, and looking like nothing much to go out in the harbor with, except that the motors were surprising large and shiny...my presumption was that the purpose of those motors was to outrun the law. The net fishermen that lived in these homes were not known for being nice upstanding members of the community. More like hard living, hard drinking men that would shoot you if they caught you messing with their traps or running your net near where they wanted to fish. The fishing died out, or the fishermen died out, I'm not sure which, but property values rose, and soon those little houses were worth more than a life of net fishing. In this trip, we were staying in one of those old houses, that looked just like it did back in the day, but for a fresh coat of paint. The yard was a minefield of sticker plants, and I'm not talking about the ordinary stickers that might make a 3 year old cry. I'm talking about sharp brown bayonets that would have an army soldier calling out for a medic. Once you went inside the house, everything changed. It was a total remodel, top grade stainless steel everything, beautiful furniture, roomy showers, giant flatscreen TVs in each room with WIFI and premium channels. If ever there was a sleeper house, this was it.

In Bokeelia, and most everywhere, what you are paying for, is where you are on the water, and our house was at most, 2 minutes from Charlotte Harbor..and this trip, the surprises started within those first 2 minutes on the water. I could stand in the backyard of the house (and I'm using the term 'backyard' as loosely as possible) and see the opening in Jug Creek. Halfway to that spot was the place we always referred to as the Icehouse, a throwback to the days of the net fishermen and the place they would drop off their catch and load up with blocks of ice for the coolers. Nowadays, it was a good place to get gas for the boat, ice for the cooler and perhaps a candy bar for those with a sweet tooth or a 6-pack of beer for those otherwise inclined. 

As we idled out to the harbor in my son's nothing-but-business flats boat and were passing the icehouse, we ran into an old friend. Buddy, the dolphin was working the area. It had been years, and it appeared he had found the world's best way to get free food, people in boats coming in from their fishing trips. You're probably wondering how we knew this was Buddy, and not just some random dolphin. I would reply that I spend a lot of time in the water and see a lot of dolphins..I have never seen one like this guy. The first time we ran into him it was way out in the harbor by the Boca Grande pass, and it seemed like he hung around one of the markers, or at least that was how we would find him. He'd wait until we were catching some fish and then suddenly appear at the side of the boat saying 'I'd gladly pay you Tuesday for a fish today!'

Now, all these years later, he has found a much more lucrative way to get fish. There are kids on the dock at the icehouse with fish, but Buddy still takes a few moments to show off for Leslie and Pam, swimming up to our boat and rolling around. I've never seen him do anything acrobatic, but if there is one particular feeling that emanates from Buddy is that he is the friendliest, and laziest dolphin in this town. He was swimming alongside our boat like he was half asleep and managed to stay just far enough away so that Leslie couldn't pat him on the head. I told Leslie to look at his teeth and to think about what would happen if Buddy's eyesight wasn't that great.

It was incredible. One of the most lasting memories of one of our previous trips was seeing this dolphin that must have escaped from Seaworld, and now we met him again before we even left Jug Creek. I thought that we had reached the peak of experiences...but I was wrong, even if I only counted that one day....