I have to admit I struggled with what to write about this week. It's not that the fishing has been poor, because in the past week or so I have experienced some of the best fishing in quite some time. Not to blow my own horn, but I probably have caught 20 or more cobia, mahi mahi, grouper, snapper, triggerfish, monster sea bass and huge red snapper. What really sticks out in my mind about this past week, though, is everything that happened on the way to and from the places I went fishing.
Do any of you remember what the weather was like on Fathers Day? It felt more like fall than a hot, sultry, middle-of-June day. The wind was blowing a steady 20 knots, and the seas were 3 to 5 feet -- not a day when you take a 25-foot boat out to the Betsy Ross Reef some 15 miles offshore.
I was with a friend of mine, Dan Cornell, who I regularly guide when he comes down from Atlanta to his second home in Wexford Plantation on Hilton Head Island. Honestly, if I had not caught bait moments from leaving Wexford, I would have bagged the trip in a heartbeat. But with a live well full of menhaden and two 5-gallon buckets of chum, we decided to give it a go.
Creeping offshore was like a roller coaster ride, and from the lack of chatter on the radio I knew we were the only fathers crazy enough to be out there. The sea reminded me of looking through the window of a washing machine that was on the wash cycle. We hadn't made it five miles when three waterspouts (tornadoes on water) popped out of a long, black cloud ahead of us. Not a good sign, not a good sign at all. But we kept going.
Five miles from the Ross, though, I stopped the boat and cried "uncle." Enough was enough, but since we were close to another reef, I suggested we go there for a few minutes and at least wet a line. Twenty minutes went by when the storm cloud dissipated and the wind dropped maybe 5 knots. Then I said it: "Want to give it one more try?" Being the trooper he is, Dan nodded. It took us another hour to get there, but finally we made it. There wasn't a boat in sight. I should add that Dan had never caught a cobia and there we were all by our lonesome -- usually 20 or 30 boats there on any given day.
Setting out the anchor, I had barely put out the baits and chum bag when the first rod went down. I knew it was a big fish but it wasn't until I saw it that I gasped. It was big all right, and it had five other cobia right with it. Weighing in the upper 60s, it had barely hit the deck when another rod bucked. In all, we caught and released around 15 cobia, many in the 50-plus pound range. At any given time there were four or five lingering right behind our chum bag. It wasn't until I put Dan on a 350-pound lemon shark that he'd finally had enough.
Days like that happen once in a lifetime, and I can assure you that it was a Father's Day both Dan and I will never forget.
Barely recuperating from that trip, I got an invite to go bottom-fishing aboard islander Bob Murray's 33-foot boat. On board was Hilton Head Boathouse manager Grant Kaple, Bob's son and two young guns from Ela's Restaurant at Shelter Cove.
The ocean was like a lake, and we covered 50 miles in no time. Stopping at our first drop, the sonar screen showed fish stacked like cordwood underneath us. In the time it took baits to hit the bottom, all we could hear was grunting and groaning as big grouper and snapper tried their best to break rods and backs. Especially for the two guys from Ela's, neither of whom had ever done any saltwater fishing. They were getting a crash course in butt-kicking as fish tried to yank the rods from their hands.
As we fished, I hung a chum bag off the stern and every few minutes mahi would show up, brilliantly lit up as they ate the chum. Using light tackle and live bait, we would pitch one in front of a mahi, and it was game on as they were hooked. Streaking across the ocean jumping and flashing neon greens, yellows and blues, the fish provided a visual feast.
Between these two trips, the part that stands out most for me was being able to show three people who had never been out in the ocean sights and experiences they will never, ever forget. From giant loggerhead turtles lazing on the surface of brilliant blue water to waves of silver baitfish moving as one, it is an eye-opening experience no matter if it is your first time or for somebody like myself who has seen it hundreds of times.
God does not subtract from the allotted span of a man's life the hours spent in fishing. Columnist Collins Doughtie, a graphic designer by trade and fishing guide by choice, sure hopes that's true.