Ted and Jimmie and TonyBob and Me

Ted Williams’ best fishing buddy was a crusty old guide named Jimmie Albright, who in the late 1940s was one of the first locals to recognize that there was money to made taking visitors sport fishing in the shallow waters around Islamorado, one of the those sleepy little redneck country towns formed by the islands along the Florida Keys between Miami and Key West. Jimmie fished with Hemingway. He fished with Zane Gray. He was driving the boat when Joe Brooks, a fly fishing Hall of Famer, supposedly became the first person to catch a bonefish on the fly in 1946, using Albright’s own Frankee-Belle bonefish pattern fly. That makes you suspect that Jimmie had probably caught one before Brooks did but a good guide — like a good ghostwriter — never tells. He was Ted’s favorite guide, maybe because he was big and ornery and fearless himself and probably because he was the only person in the world who could stand to be stuck on a 5 foot by 7 foot, shallow-bottomed boat for several hours at a time with Ted Williams.

For many years, a magazine that I edited was printed in Stuart, Florida, the sailfish capital of the world, and Robert Anthony, whom everybody called. TonyBob, was the printing company’s star rep and one of my closest buddies. He and I shared an interest in fishing and drinking (not necessarily at the same time) so we would often avail ourselves of the opportunity to combine press approvals with some fishing and drinking. Florida has splendid resources in both categories. TonyBob thought it would be a great idea to have the legendary Jimmie Albright take us out so we drove down to Islamorado and met up him one morning in the parking lot at Bud and Mary’s Marina and headed out a few miles into the Florida Bay in search of the mighty tarpon.

I had never seen a tarpon in real life but I had seen pictures and knew them to be big pre-historic looking monsters that weigh in at 100–150 pounds. I was not prepared, however, when a couple of minutes after Jimmie stopped the boat one of these giants boiled up out of the water about 10 feet in front of us. My first reaction was that of Matt Hooper in Jaws: “We’re going to need a bigger boat.”

Jimmie handed TonyBob and me each a rod and gave us some precursory instructions and then crawled back to the tiller to catch some shuteye while the yahoos tried to catch a fish. He looked like he was sleeping off a 30-year drunk and, in fact, he probably was. So there we are, 115 degrees, no shade, tossing our lures out, while dozens of these stubborn creatures kept bubbling up all around us to frustrate us. Then, suddenly one hit my line and I yanked and he was gone.

Just as suddenly, there was Jimmie, yelling at me. “Give me the goddam rod.” he grumbled, and the lecture began. He had known from the moment he laid eyes on me that I was not a real fisherman. Should have just gotten in the car and gone back home. Wasting his time with fucking amateurs. Probably my father and grandfather were inept fishermen, too. My mother was almost assuredly a hooker. I was probably a failure as a human being. Certainly I had no redeeming qualities that qualified me to share the planet’s air supply. He wasn’t sure he could stand to be in the same boat with me and maybe I should just walk the five miles back to shore (in eight feet of water). “These things have got a mouth like formica,” he says, in summation. “Next time, nail the sonofabitch.” Then he crawled back to his perch and fell asleep again.

About an hour later, I got another bite and this time I nailed the sonofabitch, jerked the hook about halfway through the roof of his mouth. The fish proceeded to drag us around the bay for about a half-hour before I finally got it up to the boat. Damn thing was at least six feet long and 120 pounds. My knuckles were bloody but I felt like I had won a Nobel Prize. Jimmie leaned over the boat and eased the hook out of his mouth and the fish was gone. “You done good,” he said, without glancing in my direction but I heard him anyway. “You done good.”

I felt like I had just won a Nobel Prize in fishing.