It was a Key West kind of joint; you know the style. Canvas for a roof and slowly turning fans above. The lights in the swimming pool behind us were more than what the barroom had, so the potted palm trees swaying at the edge of darkness were enough to keep you suspicious.
There were four of us standing there at the bar, each in a mood more foul than the next. We had come a long way to be marking time in the night.
“The Brain” Narramore grunted and tossed his iPhone down on the slab. NOAA’s website page on the screen was dark blue, which seemed about right. Three zones offshore predicted 22 knot winds and seas to 12 feet. We had planned a 30-mile run to 300 fathoms off the edge of the continental shelf at morning light for our quarry: the swordfish. Not even an 80-foot Viking could cover this bad bet; we were busted.
Across the room a cheap stereo fired up. Three red and three green horizontal lights blinked on in a row and the long dead voice of Janis Joplin wafted beneath the fans.
“Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waitin’ for the train,
And I’s near as faded as my jeans…”
Narramore started shaking; you could feel it more than see it. This was the bad mojo coming, real real bad. Suddenly he squinted his right eye closed and the left orb bugged out…right out of its socket. It beamed a ray of malignant misanthropic madness at the stereo and Janis let out a gasp like she had been stuck in the butt with an icepick. The room fell dead silent. A small plume of white smoke curled above the punked black box and the green and red lights flickered out.
On the wall, the hands on an electronic clock moved noiselessly. The ominous Edgar Allen Poe grade ticking in a dark room, was starkly missing. This staple of detective pulp, cold war spy thrillers and film noir was another casualty of the newer, less human age. Progress had again kicked out the call of literary metaphor [a cheap shot.]
He inhaled and the eyeball sucked back into its socket with a dull “pop,” and a single tear of blood trickled down his sunburned cheek. The most terrible and dreaded stink eye on the planet was over. But he was rollin’. The waiter poured four more El Patrons and the crackling of ice was the quarter’s only sound as he wound it up.
“Hunter Thompson said it best, ‘When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.’”
Four glasses elevated and then slammed back down on the bar in unison. It would be time to head to the boats soon. Narramore grunted and lifted four fingers at the barkeep to refill. There was a sound like a duck call from somewhere behind him and the smell of sulphur and methane filled the room. It was the only time all evening I’d seen him smile.
The rented van toiled against the early wind making for Cudjoe Key. The palms along the water’s edge bent at their spines. No matter the weather, the sky here is never the iron gray of the north. The humid air touches the skin like fingertips and the dark blue patches and pastel lined grays of storm clouds are more passionate. The wind is muscular. In the backseat Narramore expounded on the concept of “a victim of circumstance.” Mick Jagger started into Sympathy for the Devil on the radio and I cranked the volume to drown him out. I could feel a great wave of weirdness creeping closer.
Way down a backstreet, the sight of Cudjoe Gardens Marina was the first good vibe. No 25-foot plastic great white sharks hanging from a chain or giant billboards, just a business-like marina office and dockage with a cooler full of barley pops…old school lower keys. We stopped at the cooler on the way to the dock to fortify ourselves against the elements.
Capt. Beau Woods, of Double O Charters, was my go-to guy. Remembering our first telephone conversation:
“Man, I’ve caught dozens of marlin, every species, and hundreds upon hundreds of sails…who knows how many thousands of dolphin and tuna. But never a swordfish.”
“You don’t know how many times someone has called me with that same story in those exact words.”
He’d packed a box of “secret baits” last week. The northeast wind whistled through trees along the protected marina as we shook hands next to his 30-foot center console. The secret baits were stowed away with our dreams of a swordfish on the first drop.
Beau is a lit up personality with the energy level of a big kid. He had just retired from the Coast Guard to spend more time with his young children and give himself over entirely to his obsession for fishing. He was the perfect captain for a family who start the day with their spinning reels positioned vertically. Guys like me also require an extra measure of patience. He had a light in his eye that never dimmed.
“As long as the wind comes somewhat from the north, we have some leeway to fish the islands.” He smiled, “I’ve got some spots for us…good ones.”
Capt. Andrew Tipler, of last Cast Charters, was our other pro and would unsuspectingly skipper Narramore and my brother, Mike. He was a thinking man’s captain, a student of every aspect of the marine environment and the behavior of his prey.
“Here in the Keys, we have so many overlapping fisheries. We have the Gulfstream current offshore, the third largest barrier reef in the world, the flats and bays and then just to the west is the Gulf of Mexico. There is action all the time, all year round. For example, some locations, such as Central America, may have a better billfish fishery than we do, but on a day too windy you’d be stuck on the dock. Here, we always have other targets of choice.”
Capt. Tipler maintains a bevy of three boats: first a broad-beamed center console for offshore trips, then a flats skiff like a pro golfer with a driver and a putter. Today he fired up the mashie niblick, a bay cruiser for multitasking.
The sun came out as we ran leeward of a couple of big keys and then the bright green of sandy bottom contrasted with dappling of turtle grass. I was, as always, instantly enchanted. We filled our wells with live pilchard and the thing was on.
So there was no long run to the continental shelf, but after all the sun was shining. Then the rods bent u-shaped and the reels sang. The wind did its thing and so did we. Handfuls of pilchards volunteered for a rain of live chum. Brutish jacks ran, ladyfish leapt, multiple species of fish ate us up and we all filled our boxes with a limit of mangrove snapper. Scores of fish were landed to each boat by midday. It was the same Keys magic we felt as kids at Christmas. It is amazing how much less fishing pressure there is in the lower Keys compared to the upper ones. We had the whole place to ourselves, as far as the eye could see.
Gliding back into the marina I was still watching every piece of bottom, watching for the shadows to move and take a familiar form. I’m so hooked that I’ll never change…at least I hope not. On the dock, Mike and The Brain were in familiar form, giving life to the old adage: If you give a man a fish you’ll feed him for a day, but if you teach a man to fish, well then…he’ll sit in a boat and drink beer all day. Capt. Tipler looked a little dazed but manned up.
Key West is among the best for dining and pub crawling I ever saw and a touchstone here is Captain Tony’s. I’m old enough to remember Capt. Tony Tarracino, having first wandered into his dive back in the 70s. Meeting Capt. Tony in the 70s was easy enough to do if you let the gravity flux of the saloon plant your backside on a barstool. That’s what it tended to do to his. He had an earthy Jack Kerouac cool, always ready with a story, never really into politics. The karma lost its grip on the night however as my alma mater blew a 17-point fourth quarter lead and lost to South Carolina in double overtime on the big screen. The bar had gotten bigger but still smelled the same.
For Broadway plays you head to the Big Apple, for fashion: Milan, and for romance: Paris. But if you’re seeking a little pro-grade weirdness you need travel no further than our nation’s southernmost city during the weekend of Fantasy Fest. 100,000 partiers invaded the island bent on celebration, and some just bent. They seemed divided into the half who wore fantastic costumes and the demi group adorned with body paint only. It was a hoot and one helluva parade. I love Key West.
It’s always good to get out there, open up some more possibilities, but not to make a move offshore. Our strategy was to divide and conquer some of these possibilities. Mike and The Brain went with Capt. Andrew to one of his favorite haunts…a secluded back-bay area for lemon shark. My partner, Guthrie Allen and I were hitting some cut-through channel structure and patch reefs, which Capt. Beau kept like aces up his sleeve.
The shark expedition involved some of the best of what you go for. The environment in the lower keys is still breathtaking. The water is shallow and clear; you can spot the big boys a long ways out. Sharks can smell bait like women can smell money. On a bright sunny day you miss nothing. Obeying their character, initially wary, then warming to their hunt…the electrical excitement building…their button finally is pushed and then it’s murder incorporated. You see why they live so long and get so big…the grace, the power, the speed…they’re the wild’s wonderful assassins. It’s a synopsis of the law of nature in a single volume. They hooked sharks to eight feet in length and landed seven. The catch was ponderous and toothy, possessing characteristics much in common with the guys who caught them. Narramore made it all day without anyone getting hurt.
The patch reef option worked like a dream. Only hooking up at two places, we stayed hot with a short lull for a slack tide bagging at least 20 species of fish. Extended lengths of fluorocarbon leaders, joined by 40-wrap Bimini twists to braided main line insured plenty of attention to our live pilchards. Mutton snapper, grouper, yellowtail, cobia, cero mackerel, nurse shark, and duskies…who knew what might come from beneath the mystery of the surface, that division of universes, next? One after another, they were all beauties. Some proved too strong for our gear to lift from their world into ours. Most were released but some volunteered for the cooler and the trip home. All the fun, all the wonder of those first fishing trips of youth; it was all right there. Nobody was missing the swordfish out off the distant shelf. We had so much fun we almost broke our faces laughing. How weird would it be to want to be anywhere else?
Tooling down the road we almost missed the turn Beau Woods gave us on Stock Island. Screeching tires, a spray of gravel and when the cloud of rubbery smoke cleared we were at the Hogfish Bar and Grill. The cero, just swimming a couple of hours prior, headed for the kitchen to enter its new circumstance on the food chain. The room was open air with a young combo slickly laying down some classic R&B hits. The Margaritas were the size of goldfish bowls. Narramore made it to the table without anyone calling security. The universe turned correctly on its axis.
Whatever your mission in these parts, Key West and the lower Keys are jewels in the crown of North America fishing environments. lt would be a life well spent attempting to exhaust all the fishing opportunities that exist here, as well as, all the culture, nightlife, and fun. The swordfish beckon and if the next trip gets busted like this one…well, I can’t wait. As “The Brain” Narramore summed things up: “Good things come to those who bait.”
Love, Riley. “Busted Trip to Key West.” GAFF. April/May 2014