KEY WEST — The Key West morning clung to my clothes like thick cigar smoke. Palm trees crowded tin-roofed houses and tarpon rolled in the harbor.
Here in this humid tropical city, it was easy to picture the famous man: dark shock of hair and beard; bold, piercing eyes. The literary man, the drinker, the fisherman.
He would have sat in the fighting chair shirtless, watching lines trolling out behind the boat, scanning a horizon flat and blue. Marlin fishing.
I often try imagining what Ernest Hemingway may have thought as he trolled between Key West and Cuba. Was he thinking of the fish? Or was he plotting his next novel?
As I sat aboard the Sea Boots last week 20 miles south of Key West, I was simply thinking about hallucinations. The longer I watched the plastic and natural baits skipping and plowing through our wake, the more often I saw a thrashing marlin bill in my mind's eye.
I rehearsed my actions mentally. How I would get the rod out of the holder and get it to the chair. How I would move the lever drag on the Penn International reel. How I would prepare to rock for hours nursing the fish to the surface.
So much has changed since Hemingway's day, and so much hasn't.
Hitting the Wall
Hemingway may have divined where the Key West "Wall" was in the 1940s by using keen eyesight and vast fishing knowledge. But today, the marlin trolling hot spot is well known. Hemingway would have liked its looks on a depth recorder: a precipitous drop from 900 feet down to 2000 feet. Our captain, Jim Sharpe, ran the Sea Boots right to it.
The Wall runs for 40 miles west to east from the Marquesas to Big Pine Key. It follows the curve of the loop current, which flows by Mexico north along the Gulf coast of Texas and Louisiana, then south past Florida and around the Keys. It features several deep cracks where upwellings occur and fish such as dolphin and marlin come to feed.
Sharpe was one of several captains to witness the most recent marlin heyday here. During one year in the 1980s, the Key West Marlin Tournament featured 46 blue marlin caught during four days among 100 boats. In one day, tournament anglers caught 12 blues estimated to weigh more than 300 pounds each.
"Since then, there's been a steady decline. Lately, I think it's been because of climate changes. El Nino changes the (Gulf) Stream; it changes the bait migration," Sharpe said. "There's also been an overall decline from the pressure of longlining. You have to weigh that with the cycling of the fish, too."
Sharpe was our media-boat captain last week during the 2001 Drambuie Key West Marlin Tournament. His eyes were fixed on the marlin prize throughout the three-day event, though top dolphin catches were only in the high 20-pound range.
Admittedly, July is not the best month for marlin fishing out of Key West. The fish turn on more during the fall in September and October. However, the event is timed to coincide with Hemingway Days, a week's worth of events dedicated to the memory of the former Key West resident and literary master.
This year, 57 boats plowed the offshore waters. While most trolled lures and natural baits such as ballyhoo, a few — including the winning boat, Finesse, captained by Key Wester Kenny Harris — fished live blue runners. (See related story.)
Sharpe trolled lures and skirted ballyhoo, single-hook-rigged for big fish on 50- and 80-pound-test trolling outfits. The lures were about a foot long and two inches in diameter, mostly Kona and Moldcraft styles.
At 8 knots, he worked the rips formed by the underwater structure of the Wall and found more than a few weedlines holding small dolphin. Pods of bottlenose dolphin circled, signaling bait schools. But the hours of trolling only produced three mahi: two in the teens and one swashbuckling 5-pounder.
Highs and Lows
Sharpe prefers hunting marlin a few days on either side of a new or full moon. Perfect conditions would include 82-degree water, a N-NE wind about 10 mph and changing weather conditions.
"A big Bermuda high above us is good. But upper level lows are the kiss of death for dolphin and marlin fishing," he said.
Guess what was sitting broadside above us near Orlando? An upper-level low.
Whether it was a barometric pressure problem, lockjaw or late migration, the blue marlin refused to bite aggressively during the tournament. One blue was released; one white marlin was released, and several boats a day reported hookups. But the material that makes exciting big game fish stories was not abundant this year.
We trolled seven hours each day. Sharpe's mate, Steve Kijak, changed the baits, but stayed with the predominant colors: black/purple; blue/white; pink/blue. We ran six lines; four on outriggers, two flat. A massive dolphin-colored buoy teaser was tied with a line to the stern.
I watched for bills, imagined or real. Thoughts of leaping, thrashing marlin kept me alert. When a 19-pound dolphin hit a trolled ballyhoo on a flat line, four of us leaped to action.
Ben Iannotta, a Keys freelance writer, was closest to the rod. He took it from the gunwale and sat in the nearest fighting chair. The rest of us cleared lines and waited to see the fish. A dolphin in the 30-pound class could win that division.
Iannotta brought the fish to the boat. But when Kijak gaffed it, we could see it wouldn't make the weight. Kijak rebaited the hook and we resumed the wait.
We heard about more dolphin and marlin hookups throughout the day. But our piece of ocean was empty. Perhaps Hemingway was exerting some unseen will, playing a game, dangling a teaser to taunt the outdoor writers.
Or maybe it was all a hallucination...