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The Florida Keys are well known for their treasures. Some of the world’'s most famous treasures, like the 16th century ships lost carrying Spanish gold, have been found here. But most visitors content themselves with finding treasured time here. They discover their treasure in the sun and warmth, enjoying the beautiful multicolored seas and perfect skies. Swimming, diving, skiing, boating, sailing, sunbathing, and a hundred other leisures are here. Even just sitting and watching is a fabulous pastime in the Keys. Some of the most famous fishing one can find anywhere is here, too. My father and I went fishing here in February 2002, but instead we found treasure - we found Spanish silver. We exceeded our most optimistic hopes of how much treasure you could find.
Most stories about treasure carefully guard exactly where it was found. But we found so much that we’'re not very worried about that. In fact we left it there. Its still there now - there was more than we could have carried away – we could have sunk our boat with it. But we left it all there. We found it in about 12 feet of water in Florida Bay, about 12 miles northwest from the entrance of Vaca Cut at Marathon Shores. It took special equipment to find that treasure – a GPS unit and two bags of fine chum.
Of course, we had to do some exploring before we actually found treasure. On Wednesday, when the seas were especially calm, we had been out on the Atlantic, fishing just past the reef line in 50 feet of water. The waves were small by any standard – just two or three feet, but from my perspective (a Illinois flatlander) they pitched our 27 foot boat around like a cork. Our chum lured in a good number of Yellow Tail, though. The current and the wind were both headed southwest, so by letting unweighted shrimp spool out into the current we did better than half of our limit, hooking into 14 “Tails,” only one of which was under the twelve inch limit. So thirteen Yellow Tails came home with us – seven shy of our limit, but as much as we could eat and a few more to take to Illinois.
On Saturday, we headed “out in the blue” again but the seas were too rough for us. Its hard to say exactly what that means... speaking strictly for myself, I can’'t even look a county fair roller coaster in the eye. So we went through the Vaca Cut and headed out onto Florida Bay where the water was calmer. Now we had silver treasure on our minds - Spanish Mackeral. We went about seven miles northwest and set up near a place simply called “Boats.” If I knew the exact coordinates I'd tell you, but fishermen often have bad memories about these things. We fished in about twelve feet of water, using one bag of fine chum. The current was running strongly to the south. Unfortunately wind was blowing steadily north. Tough conditions. In order to cast down the chum stream we used slip weights above generous steel leaders. Bait was live shrimp.
Even though we were hoping to find that silver – the flashy, long, stream-lined, hard fighting Spanish Mackeral - instead we caught our limit of Mangrove Snappers. We were satisfied - the action was steady and the fish were a great eating size. It was a good day. Soon after the weight hit the bottom a Mangrove Snapper would almost always hit. These toothy snappers were masters at stealing the live shrimp bait and it seemed that you were just as likely to hook into one by waiting five seconds and pulling as by waiting until the line indicated they had taken the bait. We had 6 dozen shrimp with wings - I mean they just flew out of the bait well - barely enough bait to make our limit of five Mangroves each! Legal size was 10 inches, but about a quarter of the snappers were under size and went back in the water. Incidental fish included a single small Yellow Tail and a couple of Jacks. Entertainment was provided by a number of black striped sharksuckers who fearlessly worked the chum bags. At one point a huge sea turtle came swimming up the chum stream, then went under the boat and kept right on going. That turtle’s shell looked three feet long. He surfaced nearby and Dad got a nice picture of him. Early on, Dad caught one Spanish Mackeral that was about 22 inches. I was impressed. Man, I wanted to catch one of those! I tried to troll or bounce the weighted line in to give the Mackerals a better change to hit it, but the snappers were too fast on the bait and the weights too heavy. But eventually I caught a similar Mackeral too. The snappers were fine but the violent strike and the strength of the early runs left us eager for more of that long silver.
FOLLOW THE LEADER
Sunday was our last day to fish. Nonetheless, we didn’t hit the water until about 1:30 pm. We think it might look too eager to the fish if we go out before noon. Maybe it’s the fish who know if you’re too eager – but it’s probably us. No reason to take chances in either case. Our spot was the coordinates known to us as “Jack’s Snapper Hole” but I can't remember these numbers either. It must be popular because another boat was sitting exactly on the coordinates when we got there. We set up nearby. The current was running south and the wind was negligible. We dropped the anchor in twelve feet of water. As soon as the chum was in the water I began fishing with a slip weight over a 36 inch leader – same as the day before. Dad puttered a little bit. It takes some time to let the chum work and I guess he considers himself still in training – well actually he’s ALREADY a world-class puttering competitor so I’m not sure why he still practices so much. (Did I mention he’s a weather channel addict? I’ve always been surprised there’s not television permanently set on the weather channel out in the shop at home – or in the boat, for that matter – its probably just a matter of him realizing the technology exists now … Anyway, don't ever let a casual "nice day, ain't it?" slip out around him. Just a word to the wise...)
Anyway, the first fish to take the bait was a poor little Puffer, who swallowed it whole. He was so light that I pulled him across the surface towards the boat. As I brought him in, I noticed long slender shadows dart in on him twice. What the heck acts that way - a shark? I wasn’t sure, but didn’t expect to find out. As I turned the leader out of the hook eye to release the puffer (with my best wishes for quick corrosion of his new piercing) I was thinking of my daughters. Some of them have had some of that awful metal hardware stuck in their faces for a few months at a time (actually theirs wasn't as good as a fish hook because theirs couldn’t finally rust out). So I figured the Puffer was better off than my girls. But then again, they could still eat. Well, at least his metal was hidden…
The day before we had thought we should try to fish higher in the water column to get the Spanish Mackeral. But there was no casting anything but heavy lead against that wind. A conversation with a fish-wise friend on Sunday morning confirmed that we had to get the bait up in the water, maybe even right at the surface. Maybe today the wind would let us try some other methods to get the bait up. My first, admittedly impulsive, attempt to fish high, after I got over my guilt about that the puffer, was to simply grab one of the yellow tail rigs from earlier in the week and cast an unweighted shrimp on eight pound test line out about 25 feet along the chum stream – no leader. I left the bail open for the current to spool it out, just as we had for the yellowtail. But the process was immediately interrupted. A huge strike had me scrambling to shut the bail. Then what was clearly going to be a violent run was immediately interrupted by totally slack line. Of course! What was I thinking? No line without a steel leader was going to hold the toothy denizens of this neighborhood.
Next I went back to the 36 inch steel leader line already rigged with a slip weight (on 16 pound test), but now I put a generous bobber on it. The bait would sit at about five feet below surface. But the bait never got that far. The strike came again immediately. The bobber disappeared as soon as it bobbed up – not two seconds passed before it shot down out of sight. I set the hook and a violent run started. A second later it ended. Again I had only slack line. Not just the hook, leader, and weight were gone – that big old bobber was gone, too. Huh? What happened? I understand the line breaking at the leader connection and I’ve never claimed I was expert with knots, but how did I lose the bobber? The bobber popped up a few seconds later and floated away. I pondered it abstractedly and tried to piece things together – it didn’t make sense. Then Dad (admittedly a sharper tack than I am when it comes to fish) said he thought maybe it was a Spanish Mackeral and that others were running along with the one on the line, snapping at any presumed food object that they saw. I recalled the shadows that darted in on that puffer and it started to make more sense. I also eased away from thinking how nice a swim might feel. But the objects of these fishes' frenzied desire apparently included the weight and even the bobber. Both strikes had been terminated by cut lines almost as soon as the run started. And the second one was cut five feet above the bait, and two feet above the 36 inch leader – it was cut above the bobber! That must be it – it started to sink in that we were not catching bass and bluegills on our fly rods in an Illinois farm pond.
By now Dad had his line ready. Did I mention he sometimes putters a bit? Here I was with two fish already... um... well, never mind. Trying to improvise based on what had just happened, he minimized the weight, which he placed above a 36 inch steel leader. Hopefully the tiny weight would attract less attention to the line above the leader. As I had, he hooked up immediately and quickly played a small Spanish Mackeral of about 16 inches to the boat. Now we could actually see other Mackeral running in frenzied fashion alongside this one. They followed him right up to the boat. In fact, they seemed to miss him while he was in the boat – or maybe they were hoping we’d give him back to them in pieces. I was still feverishly tying up a new leader. Dad’s next cast again had an immediate strike. Apparently his small weight above the 36 inch steel leader still drew sufficient attention for the interlopers to snap at because his line went slack a second later.
By now I’d had enough of weights altogether. These fish clearly didn’t care if the line was weighted or even very far from the boat. I wasn't even sure the bait had to be all the way into the water. In the back of my mind a flashing silver shadow of a thought whispered that these fish might not even care if the “bait” had fingernails or toenails. I wiggled my toes uncomfortably and thought about putting my shoes back on in case I slipped overboard in the excitement. But I was on vacation. Besides, I was in a hurry…
I set up with an unweighted 24 inch steel leader. I didn’t feel very confident about it but we were about out of 36 inch leaders. I cast the shrimp out – only about 20 feet. The result was the same as every other cast after the first – before it sank two feet I set the hook on a nice mackeral. Now he was off on a reel stripping run. This was more like it. But just as I settled in for a battle, the line was cut again, even though there was no weight up there to attract attention. This was exciting, but even a bluegill fisherman can eventually start to get frustrated.
Given his addictions (weather channel) and compulsions (puttering) Dad was all diagnostician, as usual. You ought to see how happy he is when the car breaks down. He can get downright cheery. OK, we understood now that there could be no weights, bobbers, or anything else that attracted ANY attention up the line from the hook and leader. But now I had lost an unweighted leader just as easily. There was nothing out there but the swivel itself to attract attention – and every leader has a swivel. Were we stuck? These fish were magnificent! From what we could see so far they were about two feet long and they were just as eager to tie into us as we were to them. A farm pond full of stunted bluegills couldn’t provide more dependable strikes, but we couldn’t keep them on the line! Fish after fish was taking the bait, but all we had managed to boat in the first half dozen hook ups was one small mackeral. All indications were that boating even that fish had been a good bit of luck since we saw other mackeral racing along with him. Probably the main mob hadn't shown up yet or the little guy never would have got to the bait. Were we doomed to lose fish after fish in what seemed to be just about the most guaranteed strike and run situation we had ever experienced?
We were catching on, but we weren’t equipped for this. What to do? We had already lost most of our three foot steel leaders. We needed something like a 6 foot steel leader, but now we had mostly only 24 and 18 inch ones. As always, the obvious escaped me. So Dad took out some visual aids and made it remedial for me – just put the short leaders end to end. Oh! I get it! (I told you he was sharper than me.) It seemed a little weird (I mean, morally, does that seem right to you? Is that cheating?). But of course he was right. That was the next logical step. Sooner or later we’d find a zone of safety above the hooked fish. Privately I was envisioning a new kind of super bait-casting rod that could reel and throw a 30 foot steel leader. But I cast out a double leader. Then I felt the by now fully expected violent strike and surging run start. And it held.
NOW WE'RE HAVIN' FUN!
Good lord, these fish can pull! A local sport fishing columnist had just written earlier in the week that if you were fishing for Spanish Mackeral you might want to wear some Depends brand adult undergarments. Now that I'm more humble than I was then, I can admit the thought had crossed my mind that maybe, in spite of him being a fellow fisherman, he might have exaggerated for effect. And, of course, I forgave him, because I knew he meant well and he probably had a family that he supported by lying about fishing. But now – well… now I admired such pious testimony. The man might even be a saint, he practiced such exactitude! After a relatively short but strong battle we netted a 21 inch mackeral, took a picture and released him. I noticed the uncharacteristic speed with which Dad had added another leader to his line, but I didn't say anything about that breach of custom. I just made a note to myself that it would have to stay between him and me. There are a lot of people who don't need to know he can get something done that quickly. As I baited up again, he was enjoying an equal success in holding on to a fish that had clearly lost its mind. Now the fish began coming to the boat in rapid succession. Twenty-one inches, twenty-two inches, twenty-four inches. OK, this was fun!
We slowed down and took some photos before releasing the first few fish. Then we got into a steady catch and release mode. No more sign of small mackeral. I hated to imagine what would happen to a 16 inch mackeral that threw in with this crowd. All these fish topped twenty inches and an average fish was 21 to 25 inches. Once I caught one with a previous line (ours?) trailing from his mouth. Another had a violently chewed tail, but his other end was working just fine. What a pack of wolves! Often we could see two or three other mackeral darting around near the hooked one. Typically the hooked fish started with a scorching run in any direction except up or down the chum stream. Now we knew why. His buddies were trying to kill him while he was busy with us! Finally the run would slow and he would either turn towards the boat and go fast and deep, or arc out and down, continuing with hard tugging, and make a couple of lesser runs. They gave it all they had in the first couple of minutes. Those in the twenty to twenty-four inch range put on a showy shorter fight while the bigger ones pulled steadier, harder, and dove deep sooner. That first glimpse of a long silver fish that had gone deep and fought longer before showing himself was always exciting. Pretty soon Dad had an obviously larger mackeral on the line. How big was this one? Twenty-eight inches. Time for another photo. Should we keep him? No, he was just too fine of a fish. We had the photo. Back he went.
We kept playing and releasing fish, one after the other. I have no idea how many we caught. The steel leaders were taking a tremendous beating. All along their length the plastic coating was slashed and shredded. Five and six inch sections of the leaders were bent into bobbing spiral curly-cues from being run violently through bony mouths. Pretty soon we had another twenty-eight inch fish. Then another in the twenty-seven inch range. Those under twenty-five inches were being released without netting or measuring, and sometimes without even coming into the boat. Often we just reached out (cautiously!) with pliers and turned our circle hooks out of their mouths. They never swallowed the bait and we seldom missed a strike. They were grabbing the bait fully in their mouths and running for all they were worth. Twice the frenzy rush of multiple fish to strike the bait resulted in foul hookings – one in the gut and once in the dorsal fin. The action didn’t slow down - immediate violent strikes continued to be guaranteed. The bait never made it three feet into the water.
TOO MUCH FUN? HEY, WHOSE FRENZY IS THIS?
An hour unlike any I had ever experienced passed. In the back of my mind I began to muse, “OK, this is interesting… So, what now? What is the proper and logical mode for experiencing and then eventually concluding this type of fishing success? What an interesting question!” I always did think too much about such things. But I was seeing that it might make me think about fishing in a new way. When I fish, I do not relax. I am intent - I concentrate – my childhood had far too many missed strikes for relaxing to be part of fishing. To echo the double meaning of one of my favorite songs, I “ain’t never had too much fun” while fishing. Could this maybe be “too much fun” for the first time? Well, not yet, anyway. I pushed that heresy out of my mind.
We talked about it. “Do you imagine this is rare?” “Do you think this frenzy will taper off or end pretty soon? Or could it just go on and on?” It was hot and I was getting thirsty. I didn’t want to stop for a drink, but it raised the question. Would we finally just wear ourselves out, like the mackeral had by the end of their runs? Or was it more reasonable to just start to relax – to slow down and drop bit by bit into an appreciative and contemplative mood? After an hour and a half, I thought I probably now could sit quite happily and watched someone else catch, play, and release at least every other one of these magnificent fish. How could fishing get any better than finally having the desire to fish taper off because you knew exactly what was going to happen each and every time you cast the line and you had done it “enough” times?
This was new territory for me. I love to fish. And I’ve fished with Dad for over 45 years – since before my actual first cast, since before the ice-fishing chisel went to the bottom of the lake, since before my sister caught that hook in her ear, since before... well... never mind. Kids do strange things. Who knows what they are thinking. But these particular strange thoughts had never occurred to me before – not even close. Even the best fishing experience had always had an "end." The feeding frenczy tapered off or the sun went down or we ran out of bait or had to go get a hook taken out by an emotionally uninvolved party – you know, something always happened…. Even after teaching my own kids to fish, the thought that I might ever enjoy watching as much as fishing was brand new to me – it was as new as guaranteed strikes from large strong fish in apparently unlimited numbers. I started to see that this had the potential to change the meaning of fishing for me in some significant way. I didn’t know if I liked that thought.
A lifetime of conditioning told me to keep fishing. This might never happen to me again. A more recently acquired (some might tell you it was a practically brand new) adult perspective told me to relax and enjoy this – whether I continued fishing or not. So I relaxed. But I kept fishing. By the time two hours had passed we were stopping momentarily to take drinks and talk. Then curiosity about that next strike would draw us back to the water. But before too much longer we knew we had had enough. There was no point in continuing past two and a half hours of this. The frenzy wasn’t going to stop, and although some of the rules in the natural order of things seemed to be suspended for the day, we assumed the sun might eventually go down. And we sensed that, exactly because we chose to stop while the frenzy continued, that it would go on for the rest of our lives. We fed the remaining dozens of shrimp to the mackeral in appreciation, turned the chum bags out, pulled up the anchor and headed back south. Soon enough Bonefish Tower appeared in the haze.
AFTER THE SILVER RUSH
We cleaned up the boat and put away the gear. Tomorrow we'd drop it off at storage and head for the flat land, where it was still winter. And now there was another interesting aspect of this experience. It was hard to talk about – even to each other. What can you say? It was the best. And how many times can you say that? The only word I kept coming back to was “amazing” but all this makes for pretty short conversations. But after trying a couple times, that one word “amazing” was about all we could seem to come up with. I felt rich beyond imagining. Imagine the best fishing day in a lifetime, in my case with the man who taught me to fish in strip mines and farm ponds in ancient days. Now imagine not really talking much about a fishing day like that afterwards. It was just a bit too good for words. Was this rare for this kind of fishing? I was aware at the time that I didn’t know. Sitting here well after midnight writing about it – trying to preserve the moment - I still don’t know. I do know that I don’t care. I don’t care one bit. It was a found treasure by every measure that matters. And that is rare by definition.
All we could finally conclude, as we sat at the Seven Mile Grill over our second pieces of the world’s greatest key lime pie (this was not a day for restraint) was that you would never, ever, ever want to take a youngster out and have him experience a fishing day like this one. It would simply ruin him. This kind of fishing is only for grown ups. In fact, I'm worried it may have ruined me – I’m not even 50 yet. I may be ruined now for all I can tell. So this kind of fishing is for Dad. Its too much for me, but I’m glad he can handle it. I may eventually grow into it, but its clear that I’m not cut out for this treasure hunting stuff yet. So for my own good, it better not happen again… at least it better not happen again right away…
written the same evening in February 2002 (revised Feb. 15, 2004 and July 13, 2005)