When it comes to fishing, many of you might think of a character like Tom Sawyer sitting on the banks of the Mississippi with a straw hat, cane pole and the sound of cicadas just a-clickin' in the trees. I think just about anyone who grew up fishing has his or her roots firmly planted in this image. Remember as a kid watching that red and white striped bobber slowly sink out of sight and after a short fight pulling up your first 6-inch brim? I do. Well, let me tell you folks, fishing is not as gentle a sport as it is cracked up to be.
I'll bet my bottom dollar that right about now you are asking yourself where in the heck I am heading with this. Let me give credit where credit is due: My nephew Byron Sewell, back from New Zealand on a three-week vacation from his jaunt on a mega yacht, and I were reminiscing about some of our earlier adventures when we started talking about a few of our fishing mishaps.
While trading stories, we got on the subject of how big fish can prove to be a quite a handful. Before taking the job on the mega yacht, Byron was a local charter captain. One day he called me from his cellphone and excitedly told me he had caught what he believed to be a new state record tripletail. A tripletail is a rather elusive fish that lazes along, riding the tide, and resembles a mix between a giant brim and a grouper. Somewhat prehistoric-looking, tripletail are mottled brown, stocky and have a very thick tail. They are often mistaken for a chunk of wood floating in the water, so it takes a sharp eye to pick out a tripletail -- but if you see it, in time a bait pitched in front of it is rarely passed up. They are strong fighters and excellent table fare.
After Byron's call, I went on the Internet and looked up the current state record tripletail, which was 25 pounds, 13 ounces, and called him with the info. As fishermen are notorious for doing, Byron finally confessed that the "caught" part of his message was missing the key word "almost." Here is his story: While tarpon fishing in Port Royal Sound, old eagle eye Byron saw this huge tripletail and chunked a live menhaden to it that it instantly inhaled. Also on board was John Jamison Jr. (aka Boogie), and the fight was on. After a short fight, they got the fish to the boat, but they didn't have a landing net. Trying to grab a thrashing fish of any size is nearly impossible, and this old tripletail was no exception. After trying in vain to land the squirming fish, it happened: The hook fell out of its mouth and the tired tripletail just lay there. So what did Boogie do? He shed his sunglasses and dove in, with hopes of grabbing their state record fish.
No sooner had Boogy wrapped his hands around that tripletail when it took that big tail and slapped him square in the face, leaving a welt in the perfect shape of his tail. No, they didn't get the fish, but I am willing to bet that to Boogie, the name "tripletail" has taken on a whole new meaning.
Pretty darn funny, isn't it? I, too, laughed until my stomach hurt, but I have "been there, done that" when it comes to being slapped by fish. Name just about any big saltwater fish and I have been a recipient of their thrashing tail. Marlin? You betcha. Kingfish? Heck, yes. I have been slapped by the best of them.
It is funny as heck to watch when someone gets plastered, but it can put a hurting on you. I have watched cobia clear out the cockpit of a boat. Once I got hit so hard by a cobia's massive tail that I saw stars for 30 minutes. The thing about being smacked is that it usually happens when you least expect it. Here are a few juicy scenarios.
A few years back, my late friend Warren Matthews and I were on a tarpon "roll." Tarpon are amazingly strong to begin with, but when you find yourself on the tail end of one, it is no fun at all.
We had landed two fish already and I was chosen to bring in the third tarpon of the day. The fish was around 90 pounds and appeared totally spent when it reached the boat. Warren leaned over the side, wrapped the leader around his hand and, in the blink of an eye, the tarpon turned tail and hit him square in the kisser, breaking his glasses and leaving a slimy tarpon tail print across his face.
I have been creamed by tarpon at least a dozen or more times over the years. I am talking welts that last for days. Macho guys might call them "battle scars," but all I know is that it really hurts.
Here is one last one for you. Once, while fishing in the Gulf Stream, we hooked a monster mahi-mahi. Our angler brought in this huge bull dolphin, I gaffed it and before I could put it in the box, everyone on board wanted to take pictures. So that you understand, freshly gaffed fish often go crazy (and for good reason!) so it is best to put them directly in the fish box until they expire.
I was outvoted as the angler stood next to me, while I held up the big dolphin. One shutter click, two shutter clicks and wham-o! That dolphin slapped her leg so hard it turned black and blue from her ankle to her hip.
So, state record or not, watch that tail because it can get you. Isn't that right, Boogie?
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.