Sunday, October 20, 2013

Gone Fishing...

Most of what we caught on our fishing trip were Vermilion Snapper - legal this time of year in the Gulf.  We caught a lot of Red Snapper and Trigger Fish too but had to throw our catches back in the water.  Not a bad haul for late in the season.  You see our feet above with the tails of the larger fish we caught displayed proudly in the "official" trip shot.  My feet are on the extreme left.
On Friday I went on an all-day fishing expedition in the Gulf of Mexico. This was supposed to be R&R for the six-man management team of the company I work for after a long day strategic planning session at a conference room in a large hotel on the gulf coast. We arrived last Wednesday evening and ate an enormous and tasty seafood dinner. Thursday we plowed through a long meeting on how we might be able to double the sales of the company in the next 3 years. After that brain-numbing exercise, we were treated by our president to a mindless, beer drinking day out on the beautiful waters of the Gulf.

It was a perfect day for fishing. There was a threat of rain in the morning and it remained overcast almost all day. So, we didn't have to worry about sunscreen and burning from the the warm Florida sun. This was a late season trip, which meant many of the fish that the group caught would have to be to tossed back in the ocean. But we had plenty of beer and sandwiches and snacks. Just getting off the shore and spending several hours at sea would be refreshing.

Or, so went the pitch from my boss, the president. He is a big time fisherman and had been out this past summer with this same captain and his boat. We had the 40-foot boat to ourselves, with the captain and his first mate to assist us. I am not a fisherman at all. You can search this blog and you won't find any reference to me hunting or fishing in the past five years. But, I do love the outdoors and can appreciate that frame of mind. Still, the last time I went "deep sea fishing" was in my youth, before Jennifer and I married.

So, this was different. Of the six members of our management team, two had been sea fishing this past summer, one had been five years ago, one had fished at sea decades ago but had developed an acute sensitivity to seasickness due to a busted ear drum in his twenties. The other two of us had little or no experience at all. The seasick guy had used a patch prescribed by his physician. It worked like a charm and, as the day went on and he continued to feel great, he was joyful and said he felt like he had his youth back, since he loved to hunt and fish and lived near the coast in North Carolina. The patch opened up the possibility for him to get back on the ocean again. This excited him. He was thinking about surprising his wife with a cruise for Christmas to celebrate his re-found freedom.

We had only been out about 30-minutes, still not at our initial fishing destination, when a rod hanging on the stern of the boat hooked what turned out to be the biggest catch of the day - a 25-pound wahoo. Our accounting manager, a novice like myself, was the lucky guy that hot to battle it and slowly reel it into the boat, which took about 15-minutes and exhausted the strength in his arm. It was a beautiful streamlined fish, made for speed. We all cheered with encouragement. When he finally got it to the boat, the first mate hooked it in the water and tossed it expertly into the large cooler toward the rear of the fishing deck. He slammed the lip shut and told us not to open it.

The wahoo was flapping fiercely inside and his length was about equal to the long cooler. The lid flapped up and down angrily for a few minutes. Only after a long pause did we open it up and admire the animal closely. A marvelous catch that sent high hopes through everyone that this might be an extraordinary day, despite the fact it was so late in the season, which shuts down at the end of October.

But, we didn't hook anything so large the rest of the day. Fishing is a gamble. You are never guaranteed to catch anything. Even though my boss and our sales manager each managed to hook nice sized king mackerel later on, they were only about half to two-thirds the size of the wahoo. Our captain took care to attempt to get us bigger fish and for the first four hours out we visited various barrages, concrete reinforced chicken coops, old buses, and various other debris that is sunk about 14 miles off the coast in about 80-90 feet of water, trying to land more big ones. These artificial reefs are great draws for all kinds of marine life. There were probably a half-dozen other private fishing vessels out there with us over the span of maybe a mile or two.

Most of what I caught at this location had to be tossed back into the water. I probably reeled up a half dozen red snapper, for example, but they are out of season now so the first mate flipped them back into the water and I had to bait my hooks again. Our reels all has three hooks on them and we were using chucks of squid for bait. Great for your hands and fingers. I smelt like a fisherman whether I actually was one or not.

I soon tired of the fact that you had to work harder to reel in fish that you couldn't keep than you did to reel in smaller fish that could be sent to the cooler. The captain moved to a few other places , watching his various sonar devices to detect where the higher concentrations might be. I sat back and drank beer mostly at our second and third destinations. I watched the other guys and enjoyed the overcast day. By this time we were beyond the horizon of the coastline and in open waters. I could tell by how much the reels bent whether or not someone was going to be able to keep their fish. The more it bent the less likely it was they would get to put it in the cooler. It seemed counter-intuitive to me. The harder you worked the less likely you were to keep whatever was on your hook.

The captain tried of find another spot to catch big fish that we could keep. He found a spot where our two mackerels were hooked. But there were dolphins nearby and that was bad news for fishing. The dolphins eat most of what we were catching that was in season. So, they scared everything off after a few minutes of fishing. One dolphin was brave and came within a couple of feet of the stern. We got a nice view of it looking down into the clear blue water. The gulf is beautiful 18-20 miles out.

We ended up about 26 miles out in about 130 feet of water. The gulf is not as deep as the Atlantic out this far. At one point our support manager and I were drinking beers and looking all around. You could not see another ship of any kind all the way to the horizon in every direction. We were all alone out there. The support manager and I agreed that it was a wonderful experience being so isolated out there. But we didn't get to enjoy our beers for long as the captain found a large group of snapper that were in season near the bottom. Our president, the biggest fisherman of the group, was reeling them in rapidly and started calling "Come on boys, I got mouths to feed. Get your asses out here and fish."

And so we did. It was amazing. Although these were not large fish they were plentiful and hungry and there were no predictors nearby so they stayed under the boat. I would bait up and drop. Like everyone else, within a few seconds you'd hook something and reel it in. The first mate was running around the deck unhooking fish into the cooler.

The first mate also fished himself. When he caught something of size he would usually give his reel to someone else. At one point, the two guys next to me got their lines tangled just as the mate had hooked a larger fish. He was extremely hard working and a good coach but a rather aggressive one. He handed me his bent reel with the command of "Here, catch this fish!" I reeled in my largest fish of the day while he untangled lines.

The sun started breaking through the overcast. The rays of sunshine shone down into the beautiful blue depths of the gulf waters. I was told visibility was a couple of dozen feet. I could tell as I saw my fish on my line at this spot long before I ever finished getting them to the surface. Meanwhile, large jellyfish swam maybe 6-8 feet under the surface. You could see them clearly with their gorgeous pink and sliver and blue colorations in the sparkling sun. Sucker fish too swam all around, seeking to latch on to anything of size. Although the fish were not the large ones the captain had been trying to find for us, they were bountiful. We caught probably 100 pounds of seafood in that last hour of fishing.

It was two and half hours back to the dock. We were all fairly beat from the long day at sea. The captain microwaved some of our catch with some seasoning he had on board. It was delicious. We were literally eating fish that was flapping around ten minutes before. You can't get it much refresher than that. Just delicious. We toasted the captain and the first mate. As it turned out, it was the mate's last trip out after 14 years of working with the captain. He was getting married the next day and his wife didn't want him out at sea so much. The captain piped in that he hated to lose his first mate, but he was in no place to offer advice to women since he had never been married and couldn't even keep a girlfriend. Ah, the life of a small time seaman. Long hours away from everything but the open sea.

It was all my boss's idea. Strategic planning coupled with a bonding experience in the form of a fishing trip. He was charged up by the day. For me it was fun but not the type of thing that really means anything to me. After the long haul back to the dock we took pictures. Naturally, the three guys with the large catches wanted their photos taken while holding their fish. Then we waited around while everything was cleaned and cut up for packing in our cooler. It all barely fit, about 60 pounds of meat all said and done. It wasn't the largest total haul my boss had seen but not bad for being so late in the season either, especially considering how many larger fish we had to toss back after reeling it in.

So, if the boss is happy everybody is happy. We went to a "hook and cook" restaurant that night and sampled a small portion of our haul fried, grilled, and blackened. It was more than we could eat but at least we could now shut the lid on our crammed-full cooler. It was tasty and the day was memorable, even though I'm not a fisherman. I don't think I have ever been out so far at sea. I have never been on a cruise and as a kid we used to fish the Atlantic, where the water is much deeper so you don't have to venture so far off shore. I think of being out there some 26 miles in 130 feet of pristine blue water in the sudden sun and realize I was blessed and in a foreign place for just a moment.

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