Sea’s Just Not That Into You.
I’ve never been the biggest fan of fish.
As my boyfriend says, I have a leg quota of two when it comes to wild animals. (Granted, this rule was originally intended for snakes, but it applies here just as well.)
My dad took me fishing a few times when I was a kid. It wasn’t your typical scenario of a Southern dad and son sitting on a hot lake waiting for a large-mouthed bass to bite on a line every half hour or so. I tried that once at the sole overnight summer camp I attended as a cub scout. I couldn’t bear to stick the poor, helpless worms with hooks because they were still wiggling, so that’s about as far as I got with that.
No — instead, Dad and I were fishermen of the deep-sea variety. He befriended a gentleman named Todd in the mid-90s while working on a construction project near Fort Myers. He started inviting my dad on short fishing excursions at the end of their work week. After Todd became persistent, my dad finally accepted an invitation and flew me down from Atlanta one weekend to give it a shot.
Aside from Little League baseball, my dad and I weren’t your typical outdoorsmen. I’ve never been hunting, water/snow skiing, scuba diving or even hiking (beyond a mile or so), and I’ve always been just fine with that. Stick me on a baseball field or a beach, and that’s the extent of how outdoorsy I get. Find me a beach with no sand, and I’m in heaven.
So it was odd that my dad and I both enjoyed and bonded over our handful of deep-sea excursions. We would wake up at 4 or 5 a.m., load up Todd’s boat with sandwiches, beer and Cokes, and venture out for a solid hour or two into the Gulf of Mexico until there was nothing but water on the horizon. We’d drop the anchor, Todd would crack open a beer, and then we were set for a long day of grouper, snapper and shark hunting.
Deep-sea fishing is a distinctly different experience from lake fishing. From what I understand about fishing for bass or catfish or what-have-you, you can sit on a lake for hours without getting so much as a slight tug on your line. It tends to result in a lot of sunburns and hangovers, but not much else.
Out in the ocean (or gulf, as it was), you hook a small bait fish by the eye and drop it into the water a few hundred feet until you feel it hit bottom. This can take up to a solid minute. Pull the line off the bottom, and 95% of the time, you already have a fish of some variety on the line. Snapper were the smallest and easiest to reel in. Grouper would give you a decent fight, and even the smallest sharks would drag the boat around for 30 minutes until you pulled it in or the line broke. We’d keep a few of the big grouper for dinner and throw everything else back.
I didn’t love it at first. The smell of fish easily turned my stomach, especially when compounded by the beer on Todd’s breath. I got somewhat comfortable with hooking the bait fish because they were long dead (unlike those poor, poor worms). As the recent viral video points out, the sea is the shark’s house, so you have to abide by the shark’s rules. I wasn’t — and still am not — jazzed about going to the shark’s house.
I also couldn’t watch as Todd cleaned the fish at the end of the trip, but somehow the grilled fresh grouper later in the evening was still the best-tasting fish I’ve ever eaten. Chalk it up to sentimentality and a lot of hard work, I guess.
It wasn’t long before I started to look forward to Florida fishing trips with my dad. On the third or fourth trip, we met in Key West to fish for marlin. After a day of snorkeling in the Dry Tortugas, where a ten-foot barracuda chased my dad around the old fort (the barracuda in this story somehow grows a foot each time he tells it). The next day, we got wind of a storm headed to South Florida named Andrew.
(Needless to say, we didn’t make it marlin fishing. Thanks to my dad’s clout with Delta Air Lines, we made it on the last flight back to Atlanta out of Miami. The hotel we stayed at in Homestead the night before our flight was completely obliterated the next day.)
That was our last trip with Todd. Not because of Hurricane Andrew — apparently, midlife hit him pretty hard, and he found a new wife with a new life that didn’t include the Morris guys.
But a couple of years later, my dad booked us on a chartered fishing boat out of Daytona Beach in an attempt to rekindle that deep-sea bond we had established with Todd. It was a larger boat, so we shared it with two college guys and a middle-aged hillbilly couple. Apparently the shark was still not ready to welcome us into his house, because we hit a major storm that left us all retching toward the water and praying toward the sky — except for the hillbilly couple, who continued to pound beers and munch on sour cream & onion potato chips as the other six of us (two captains included) lost our breakfasts over the side of the boat. That’s the only time thus far in my life that I really thought I was going to die. The capsize alarm on the boat — which the two experienced captains claim they had never heard in all their years — went off nine times during the maelstrom. Nine times.
If there is a god, I probably owe him a solid for making it back safely that day. The two captains headed straight for the bar, while the hillbilly couple was raising hell about going back out to catch fish in the mini-hurricane. The college guys, my dad and I kissed the dry ground and got the hell out of there. I haven’t been back out on a fishing boat since.
Today, I live just miles from the Gulf, but I have no interest in getting back out there. The closest I get is my job, editing magazine articles written by people who are enthused by giant, multicolored Japanese carp. (You might know them as koi.) I have to watch it, because It’s not really the same as fishing — I’ve had to curtail my “hook, line and sinker” puns, because it’s apparently on par with cracking a hunting joke at a PETA convention. (I learned that the hard way.) But regardless of where I am or what I’m doing, I still tend to be drawn toward the beautiful, deep blue sea.
That intimidating, terrifying, cavernous, treacherous, abysmal, shark-infested — yet somehow wonderful, deep blue sea.