ISLAMORADA, Fla. Keys — I held the 13-pound bonefish in my arms as though cradling a child. It was exhausted. So was I. But I was also sheepish.
How would I explain this one?
Although I did release that weighty, impressive fish, I didn't actually "hook" it. Yes, I fought it to the boat, its heavy, barrel body battling to streak across the flat. I felt the abrasion as it rubbed its monstrous silver head along the bottom trying to snap the line and dislodge the hook. It took me through wads of floating sargassum.
But I didn't "hook" it. The bonefish was hooked by a rod holder. I didn't make any artful casts, didn't spot its tail waving and deftly present a fly. This fish found me.
I was introduced to this form of bonefishing in early May after a morning trip full of comic failure. My fishing buddy, Sue Cocking, outdoor writer for the Miami Herald, and I managed to demonstrate record ineptitude.
Just before dawn, we left Islamorada's Cheeca Lodge and met up with our guides at Bud 'N Mary's Fishing Marina. Sue and I boarded a Dolphin flats skiff with Capt. Ed Cale, and we motored north under Tea Table bridge.
Sue took first watch on the casting platform and began scanning the water for silvery fins. Her windbreaker flapped like a flag in a gale storm.
"I'm not very good at this," she confessed to Ed. "I usually manage to hit them right on the head with the bait."
Sue is good at most types of fishing; excellent in fact. She was once a Key West guide. But bonefishing is her weakness. It appears to be mine, too.
Of course, we could start with all the excuses. The wind was howling 20-25 knots. The fish were finicky. But what it boiled down to was: We were lousy at casting to bonefish. W
hether it was a case of buck fever or just lack of practice, I'm not sure.
I could tell what Ed must have been thinking: Here are these two female outdoor writers. They both confess to lacking bonefish skills, but they want a story. Is this a joke?
Sue delivered the first punch line.
Ed spotted a far-off bonefish tailing on a flat near Lignumvitae Key. As he poled his skiff, I saw another fish closer and nudging the bottom. Its tail wavered softly in the air.
"Remember, don't look directly at the fish when you're casting, look 10 feet ahead of it, where you want the bait to land. If you look at the fish, you'll hit it," Ed said hopefully.
Sue prepared to cast to the fish as she searched the zone where we pointed. She held the 10-pound-class spinning rod at an angle behind her. The live shrimp dangled at the ready.
"Tailing fish. 12 o'clock. See him?" Ed whispered.
"Oh yeah," Sue said and flung the shrimp ahead. It landed. Nowhere near the fish.
"At least I didn't spook him. He's a happy little fish. There he is again," she said.
"Fifty feet. 11 o'clock," Ed added by way of encouragement.
"Oops, I hit him right on the back. Well we'll never see him again. He's probably got permanent mental trauma," Sue said.
Bonefish 1; anglers 0. My turn.
Stepping onto the boat's forward platform, I had a sick feeling in my gut. Ed pointed out a green hole in the otherwise butterscotch brown flat. Without seeing the fish, I cast to the hole. I practically hit the fish. I spooked it slightly. Then as I lifted the jig to move it, the fish spooked again.
But it didn't go far. It tipped its tail up and fed at about 9 o'clock. I sidearmed the throw and it fell way behind the fish. I quickly reeled in and snapped off another cast. The bait sailed about 15 feet in front of the fish, but in its path. Ok. Finally.
I watched the line. The wind was blowing it into a sweeping arc. If the fish had tapped at the bait, I would never have known. Apparently, it was uninterested. It swam right past.
Bonefish 2; anglers 0. Sue's turn.
We battled the elements and the odds all morning with the same results. Ed put us upwind on more than six different fish, and at one point had us facing down a school in deeper water. Systematically, we beat back his best efforts.
Our trip was over at noon, and we motored dejectedly back to the dock. Our hosts — Richard Stanczyk, owner of Bud 'N Mary's and Andy Newman, whose company promotes the Keys — were smiling, big. They'd caught four bonefish up to 11 pounds.
"I'd sure like to catch a bonefish," I hinted to Richard broadly. And though we were scheduled to fish for tarpon that afternoon, Richard relented and offered to take me to the secret bonefish spot.
Now Richard knows what he's doing. He has the bonefish traffic patterns down. And he obviously had heard about my lame casting experience. It was time for Bonefish 101.
If I couldn't achieve the cast at least I could experience fighting the fish. There's nothing like a bonefish, I'd heard. Blistering runs followed by crafty maneuvers. I've seen anglers catch bonefish, holding the rod way above their heads to avoid a cutoff.
With the tide rising, Richard, Andy Newman and I ran the Maverick skiff north along the ocean side of Islamorada to Plantation Key. Richard staked out first in one zone, didn't like the looks of the water and the push of the wind and moved closer to the channel dropoff.
The flat was deep — about 6 feet — and I could see no fish movement. But Richard knew they were there. He cast out four spinning rods into different quadrants, each baited with a live shrimp and tipped with a piece of shrimp. The shrimp fell to the bottom.
After what appeared to be merely minutes, the port rod arced and the line seared off the reel.
"Grab the rod," Richard urged. And I did. "Hold it up high. Higher!"
I braced the cork rod butt against my forearm and tried to hold the rod way above my head. I found this seriously difficult. This was an 8-pound fish — nice by bonefish standards — but small in comparison to me. Still, the force of its run cramped my wrist.
Richard coached: "You'll have to work him around the push pole if he goes to the bow," he said.
Bow? I just hoped to get this fish within visual range. You know, just to be sure this was a bonefish. It had already peeled off half my reel in two runs, though, so that was practical confirmation.
Soon the fish's silver body flashed near the surface and I realized it was tiring. After a few seesaws boatside, we photographed and released the 8-pounder. Andy motioned for a high-five. I could feel the burn in my forearm.
Richard baited the hooks again and cast them out. The port rod slammed down again, and Andy, with digital camera in his lap, looked at me helplessly.
I picked up the rod and we all knew this was a bigger fish. Richard hauled in the push pole and started moving the boat, hoping to take up line. This fish was headed for shore and the line-snapping mangrove roots.
I held both hands high above my head just trying to hang on and trying to dislodge the thicket of sargassum weed that had floated onto the line.
When the fish slowed, I took up slack. I pumped the rod, working the fish slowly toward the boat. I could feel him scrape his head along the bottom.
"Keep that rod up high, he's trying to rub you off," Richard bellowed.
I saw the fish's long shape approach the boat. In its tired state, it leaned against the line. I let it pass the staked-out push pole, then made several quick pumps and brought it near the boat.
"That'll go 13 pounds," Richard said, waiting for me to guide the fish beside the skiff. Keys bonefish do grow big, bigger these days it seems. And while shots at them are fewer than at Bahamas locations, the Keys still outrank the islands pound-for-pound.
"Try to lift this fish out of the water," he said. Without putting my arm under its head, I couldn't pick it up.
"Nice fish," he grinned.
I grinned, too. But I wavered. Ok, this time I'd accept the excitement of the catch. I'd worked out the jitters, pulled on two big fish and managed to keep them from breaking off. But next time, I will sight-fish and I will cast and I will "hook" a bonefish.
I'm sure Ed will be out of town.
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