I fell in to love with the Keys in March 1956. I was 14. My family stayed a week at Ocean Reef Club. Back then it was a lot like the Islander in Islamorada, only remote, was out at the upper end of Key Largo. Besides cottages, they had a dining hall that served also as a meeting hall. I remember watching a golf instruction film one night, hosted by Tommy Armour, then a ranking golfer on the PGA Tour. The marina was small, a couple of resident bonefish guides and private fishing boats and yachts. There was an 18-hole golf course and a small landing strip.
It rained a lot that week, and I only got to go bonefishing once. We saw only three fish, late in the day, up in a cove. They spooked before we could cast.The flats skiff in those days was shallow-draft handmade wooden boat, powered by a 35 Evinrude. A metal extension pole was attached to the steering handle, which enabled the guide to stand and steer while the boat was running. The guide always stood and steered while the boat was running, while we sat in two swivel seats mounted side by side forward in the boat. The guide poled from the front of the boat. We mostly sat in the seats, waiting on the guide to see something for us to cast to. Mostly the guide casted to small bonnethead sharks, then handed us the spinning reel with the bail still open, and we reeled the bail over and tightened the line and set the hook. The fare for the entire day was $40. For half a day, $25.
Another day that Keys trip, we drove down to Islamorada, and went offshore with Capt. Angus Boatwright out of Whale Harbor. We caught a few sierra mackerel and a pretty big hammerhead shark, maybe nine feet. When the fish finally was at the boat, Capt. Boatwright shot it with a 30.30 lever-action rifle he kept on board.Shot it in the mouth. Then I helped him drag it over the rear transom onto the back deck. Then the fish decided it wasn’t dead after all and began writhing its head and tail all over everywhere, snapping its jaws at any and everything. I raced up the ladder to the top of the boat cabin, while my father got it all on a video camera: Capt. Boatwright riding the back of that wild flopping, angry shark like it was a bull, one hand holding the dorsal fin, the other slamming it over and over in the top of the head with a carpenter’s hammer, until it decided it was dead after all. We brought the trophy in to the dock and hung it up on a hook and took some more pictures. Maybe a couple of years later, I read a story in maybe “Field & Stream” or “Outdoor Life”, or whatever, about some people who went fishing with Capt. Boatwright and loaded the boat. Some time after that, I heard he was out fishing one day and his boat was hijacked by pirates, and when he started mouthing off, they shot and killed him with his own 30.30. It was said he had a reputation for speaking is mind, and he sure spoke it plenty that day we fished with him.
I think maybe the night after we fished that day with Capt. Boatwright, we ate dinner at the Green Turtle Inn for the first time. Maybe that was before Sid and Roxie broke up, and she got the Green Turtle Inn and he got the Green Turtle Cannery a little ways up and across U.S. 1.Back then, there were plenty of green turtles, all the restaurants served it.Plenty of conch back then, too. Manny and Isa, Cuban immigrants, were the Green Turtle’s cooks. No maybe, that was when something happened, to me, to my father. We were bitten, infected. The next year we stayed at El Capitan near Theatre of the Sea. That was the year I caught my first bonefish. And my second. That was the year I died and went to heaven. I had thought about coming back to Islamorada for 365 days. I had never stopped thinking about coming back, after that first bonefishin attempt at the Ocean Reef Club.
A few years later, 1963, through a chain of unexpected events, my father purchased a lovely property real cheap at Mile Marker 76, in the middle of Lower Matecumbe Key. By then I was able to go out alone in a small Boston Whaler with a homemade push pole and a pair of spinning rods and a bait bucket full of live shrimp and catch bonefish. I had caught the first one in late August 1961, fishing with a friend on the inside flat of Channel 2, where I never once saw a guide fish, even though I would catch many bonefish on that flat. By then I had sort of figured out how to pole the whaler in a somewhat straight line, after quite a few frustrating attempts that caused the boat to go around in circles. It really wasn’t much different from paddling a canoe from one side of the canoe, I learned. We spotted a school of bonefish mudding off the mangrove island where a commercial fisherman kept his wooden traps, and we both hooked up and got a fish into the boat. We killed those fish, to brag about them. We tried to eat one, because we had heard they were good to eat. And boney, it turned out. I had Bud ‘n Mary’s send the other fish to Al Phleuger Taxidermy in Miami.
We caught and released a lot bonefish that week. I died again. I would spend many days stretching into weeks and months, adding it all up, poling that Boston Whaler over the flats around Islamorada with a homemade push pole. Sometimes with someone else in the boat, more often alone. My second wife, Jane, loved going out with me. I remember one day fishing a flat off the outside of Channel 2, surrounded by two channels, where I only once had seen a guide fish. I had a bonefish on when the guide came by with a party, and I waved them welcome and pointed to the far side of the flat, where they went and staked out. Soon they were into a fish, too. It was a big school, working the flat that day.
Anyway, this particular day with Jane, it was like really hot and the wind wasn’t moving much and the water was glassy like it gets on that kind of day in the summertime. The glare was rough and seeing a fish in the water was nearly impossible for this wannabe guide’s eyes, even with Polaroid glasses. Yet there was a solo monster bonefish on that flat that day, and every now and then it would wave its tail at us, and I would cuss and ease the boat to where the fish ought to be, then it would wave its tale at us from somewhere else, and I would cuss and ease the boat over there, and so on. I stalked that monster fish for maybe an hour. Then, it showed itself near enough to cast, and I tossed a shrimp to it and it took it and I set the hook and handed the rod to Jane, figuring she was about to catch herself maybe a 12-13 pound bonefish. We were in the middle of the flat, the bottom was clean, no sea fans or weed. If the hook didn’t pull out, the fish was good as in the boat, I figured.
I did not figure the fish would run straight at the boat. Nope, I did not figure that, because I had never seen a bonefish do that before. But that is just what this monster did, as if it somehow knew that was the easiest way to get free. “REEEEEL!!!” I screamed to Jane, as I stamped my feet hard as I could on the bottom of the Whaler, hoping to scare the racing fish into veering off and passing off to the side. The fish ran straight under the boat and there was no way Jane was agile or experienced enough to stick the rod tip into the water and walk the line around the end of the boat and maybe not have it break rubbing against the bottom of the boat, which is what happened. Pretty darn exciting, left us breathless, wishing we had kept the fish on and gotten it to the boat and measured, weighed and released it. But then, that wouldn’t be quite as exciting a story, I don’t suppose.
By then I had stopped killing bonefish. How that came about was in early January 1966. My first year in law school. My family had gathered at my father’s place on Lower Matecumbe. My brother’s girlfriend was to be Miss Universe, her and his photos would be hung in the Green Turtle for many years, perhaps still hung there. A cold front had come through and the wind was howling and the flats were now all roiled and muddy. Live shrimp were scarce, but we found a few and I went out that day, alone. Why not? It was my last fishing day. The next day we were going up to the Orange Bowl to watch, as it turned out, Alabama surprise Nebraska and walk away with a piece of the mythical National Championship. My father and Bear Bryant were buddies, and even today, I suspect, a pair of tennis shoes in a plastic bag, marked “Bear Bryant’s Booties,” hang in the Green Turtle.
Anyway, I’d drifted and poled from my father’s place, aided by the wind at my back, down the outside of Lower Matecumbe, seeing nothing but not giving up.After all, it was my last fishing day and I would not be back for months.Already I was aching inside, thinking about leaving. I always ached inside when I thought about leaving the Keys. It was like a part of me stayed here when I went back to Alabama, or wherever I was in school. I was bonefishing. It was what I most loved. And when I reached the flat off Anne’s Beach, which we did not call Anne’s Beach back then, or I don’t remember that we did, I had one more chance.
The wind was howling, racing me across that flat where I’d seen many fish in the past but never had caught one there. And it didn’t look like I would this time, either. Just as I was about to give up, a big bonefish tail waved at me at the very downwind end of the flat, maybe fifty yards below the boat. I was drifting right toward it. Unbelievable, a bonefish tailing in this weather, on this turbulent muddy flat. Amazing. It tailed again. I was not imagining. And again. The bottom of that flat is coral and impossible to penetrate with a push pole and stop the boat. I was fishing from the rear of the Whaler and reached down and picked up the anchor and slid it overboard behind the 18 Mercury. No way could the fish hear the anchor in that chop, nor the waves pounding the rear transom. I picked up one of the two baited spinning rods and waited. Not long.The tail waved again, maybe 30 feet below the boat. An easy cast, straight downwind. Maybe the only possible cast in all that wind. Kerplop, the shirmp landed just to the left of the tail. Chomp.
This one didn’t get away. 30 inches. Skinny. Maybe 10 pounds, I estimated. On this day, though, a trophy bonefish, and by a couple of pounds the largest I had caught. Satisfied, I drifted the whaler off the flat and cranked up the Mercury had headed back to my father’s place, getting beat to hell and back in the chop and wind. I carried the great fish into the house for all my family to see. “That’s nice.” No comprehension of the miracle that had just happened. Short-lived glory. Undeterred, I got back in the Whaler and beat my way up to Bud ‘n Mary’s, to show the fish off there and send it off to be mounted. The men at Bud ‘n Mary’s didn’t believe I had caught it tailing on a flat. No way a bonefish would be on a flat in that weather; I had caught it nigger fishing with shrimp in a channel, they said. I was crushed. I never killed another bonefish.
Many years later, after I no longer cared to bonefish, but still loved the Keys as much as ever, I remembered that day off Anne’s Beach which we didn’t call Anne’s Beach, and I wrote about it. I was on that flat again, in that howling wind, alone, my last day. I was fishing because I could not not be fishing. As I wrote of the return to my father’s place to the “That’s nices,” and the trip up to Bud ‘n Mary’s to face the ridicule of those salts I so wanted so much to impress, real guides, I realized God had put that great fish on that flat that day to teach me something. It gave its life for me, so that I would learn, eventually, if not that day, to never again try to win the approval of men, or of anyone. I was the congregation, the flats were the church, the great bonefish was God’s angel, and when God had taught me how to fish the flats, I would be sent forth to fish in other ways.
My love of bonefishing ended, like, it evaporated, in 1986. It was there, and then it wasn’t there. I realized it was gone that Christmas, when I stayed at my father’s place on Lower Matecumbe with a male friend from Santa Fe, where I then was living. Jane and I had only recently broken up and were moving toward a divorce. I knew something had changed, I could feel it in me. I talked about it one day fishing the flats with Rick Ruoff, a Miami University Marine Biology graduate who had fished the Keys every weekend he was in college and then became a super flats guide. We trailered his skiff up to Key Largo that day and fished off the Ocean Reef Club. That was when Rick told me about Ocean Reef being fined $60,000 a day by a federal judge for dumping its raw sewerage into the Atlantic.I felt awful hearing it. I couldn’t believe I was hearing it. But I could believe I was through bonefishing.
After I caught and released a couple of small ones on fly, I missed a monster when I hit it dead in the left eye with the fly, and it exploded and pushed a submarine-sized wake off the flat in the general direction of Cuba, I suppose. I wanted to stop fishing, go in and have a beer, but Rick protested that we had plenty of good water yet to fish, and plenty of time. No, I was done fishing; I didn’t come out to fish anyway, I said. Puzzled, Rick asked why I came out? “To be with you,” I said. “It’s the only way I get to spend enough time with you.” This time when I said it was time to go in and get a beer, Rick agreed.
I could still drink beer then. No longer. Borderline diabetes and my dream maker stopped that pastime, just as my dream maker, I supposed, stopped me from wanting me to go bonefishing. But it never stopped me from loving the Keys, from weeping when I left, and weeping when I returned. That love it left alone.
About two weeks after that day with Rick, I was snatched up by something a whale of a lot bigger than me, and nothing’s been the same sense. But that’s another love story – I suppose you could call it that, although I have used other less endearing words to describe it.
Several years passed before someone found “Love Affair” and sent this comment:
“I love this story. You’ve captured how I feel about the Keys, but my love affair starts and ends with its visual beauty. Heaven on earth.”
By then, I had run for the mayor of Key West three times, for the Keys county commission three times, and was running for the Keys school board. By then, I was really tired, aching and worn out. By then, the part of the Keys that really nurtured me was Seven Mile Bridge down to Looe Key Tiki Bar at the upper end of Ramrod Key, about a mile as the seagull flies from my place in the woods on Little Torch Key, the next key down US 1 from Big Pine Key. By then, I was still hoping I would find heaven on earth, but was not laying any bets on it happening. A lot of glow leaves the bloom when you get involved in a place’s politics. Especially, when you do it the way I was put to do it. But that, too, is another story.
As is the Green Turtle Inn another story. They sold it and the new owner tore it down and built a new one that was nothing like the old one. I went in there once, to look around. They said they had lost all but a few of the photos in Hurricane Wilma. But they still had a few photos around the corner, on the wall. They had my father and my brother sitting between the future Miss Universe, and they did not know what they had, so I told them. They had never heard of Bear Bryant’s booties. I left, did not go back. God had moved me below Seven Mile Bridge, which I view as the relocated Mason-Dixon Line.
I view everything below Looe Key Tiki Bar as a no-man’s land. Key West is, well, there probably are no words which can accurately describe Key West, but I tried plenty of times at goodmorningkeywest.com
September 8, 2012