Fishing. I never quite understood the allure. Sure, I love the taste of fresh fish. But I can drive to the seafood market and back in 20 minutes. Plus, if I lay out $15, I am guaranteed four big tuna steaks.
I never understood the desire to sit still for hours in a frequently fruitless pursuit. But boat rides? They are easily understood. Especially when sunshine is involved. So in the past, whenever someone invited me to go fishing, I'd go. If it was warm and I got to go out on a boat.
My husband, Ronnie, sees fishing in an entirely different way. To him, fishing is both high art and absolute necessity. Fishing is a reward. Something to discuss. Something to read about. To watch on TV. Even when fishing takes a brief rest in his subconscious, a mere wiggle would snatch it quickly and easily back to the surface.
If someone says, "We're going to Ireland," Ronnie's response is: "Oh, good! They fly-fish for trout there. Big rainbows and browns." Mention a honeymoon, planned for Cabo San Lucas. He'll nod his head, "Mmm. Rooster fish. And blue marlin, of course."
A psychiatrist would be wasting his time conducting a Rorschach inkblot test on Ronnie: He would see the screen of a depthfinder on each ink-stained card. Then he would steer the doctor into a discussion of smoked trout.
But Ronnie doesn't have a psychiatrist. Instead, he has Richard.
Richard Stanczyk, 55, owns and operates Bud 'n' Mary's Marina (established 1944) in Islamorada, the mellow fishing village and self-proclaimed "Sportsfishing Capital of the World," where former President George Bush used to go on vacation. (Remember images of the president getting skunked due to the legions of Secret Service-filled boats spooking the fish?)
Bud 'n' Mary's is Islamorada's hub. And yes, there really was a "Bud" and a "Mary." Sadly, they split up years ago when Bud ran off with a younger woman. They're both dead now. (Bud and Mary, that is. I'm not sure about the younger woman.) Mary's ashes were sprinkled in the inlet near the marina.
Richard bought the marina 20 years ago. He is a true fisherman who navigates the water by memory and instinct. Richard, who has fished so many days of his life, still fishes for "fun" on his day off. If, that is, a man who finds it physically impossible to leave water where there might be a bonefish can be said to be having "fun."
Last time we fished with Richard, we went for bonefish. Bonefishing is a serious skill, more akin to hunting than fishing. Richard turned off the motor and poled the boat through the shallow flats as Ronnie stalked fish. When he saw one, he presented the bait directly in the fish's sights. If the fish took the bait, he reeled and reeled, taking about 10 minutes to bring it in. I concentrated on not moving my feet lest they make that rubbing-against-the-boat/scare-the-fish noise I was forbidden to make.
Once again, Richard invited us to go fishing. This time, we would go for tarpon.
"You'll like this better," Richard told me. "It's exciting. Dynamic. These fish are big. Jumpers. It's a thrill."
I didn't know about the thrill part. But, as always, I was up for a boat ride.
The morning we were scheduled to go, thunder rumbled. It was raining. Richard called to say come anyway.
"It will clear by evening," he said.
"You guys fish at night?" I asked.
"For tarpon," Richard said. "Absolutely."
It is sunset when we reach the marina. We see Richard hurrying down the dock with three fishing rods in one hand and a backpack in the other. He's wearing royal blue O.P. corduroy shorts and a long-sleeved Bud & Mary's Fish Naked T-shirt, dark polarized sunglasses and a visor pulled down so his salt-and-pepper hair sticks straight up like stiff pieces of seagrass. He's got zinc oxide smeared over his nose and chin.
He greets us warmly, but then he's all business. He says to meet at his boat in five minutes.
Thick, gray clouds move in layers overhead, covering the ocean. The edge of the clouds follows the curve of the Overseas Highway below it. To the east of the bridge, which connects Islamorada to the lump of land to the south, the sky is black. To the west, on the bay side, which extends all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, it's clear. We'll fish the bay side where tarpon are known to roll through in search of the All You Can Eat mullet buffet.
Ronnie and I walk down the covered wooden dock where the small, flat boats are moored. Richard sends Ronnie to the parking lot to visit the Mullet Lady, a slim, tan, blonde in shorts and a bikini top who sells live mullet for bait from the back of her truck. Ronnie buys a bucketful, then disappears inside the Bait Shop. He emerges wearing a new Shut Up and Fish baseball cap.
Ronnie is 52 but looks much younger, even boyish, in his knee-length surf shorts and white Nike basketball shoes. He bounces down the dock towards me in his leprechaun sort of way. I'm dabbing sunscreen around my eyes, taking care to use my ring finger so as not to tug at the delicate skin. (Tip I picked up reading Cosmo in the car while driving here.)
While tightening the scrunchee around my blond ponytail, I notice that Ronnie and I are wearing matching white Streetcar Café T-shirts, an unplanned act of tourist-like goofiness.
We climb into Richard's 14-foot, gray Maverick skiff and sit in a tight, thigh-to-thigh row. We back out slowly, then putter under the bridge. Once past the bridge, Richard guns it, reaching 38 mph. The wind blows hard against our faces. We bounce rhythmically and in unison, thumping down hard as we hit each wave.
We travel two miles into the channel and stop. Richard puts on a pair of thin, fingerless chamois gloves and pulls a rod out of its holder. He hooks a wiggling mullet on the end and casts. He hands the rod to Ronnie, then does the same for me. He instructs us to stand on the bow and keep our lines apart.
Richard, who is used to being both guide and entertainer, begins describing what happens when a fish hits. He speaks softly and continuously, like a golf commentator.
"I've got something!" I interrupt.
Richard takes my rod.
"That's just your bait," he says, then gets right back to his commentary. Then, abruptly, he says, "Let's go."
He pulls up anchor. We reel in. He starts the motor and we zoom to another spot. He throws out the lines and again we are in position. Richard leans against the poling stand, his arms locked, his hands gripping the edge. "Now, get ready," he says. "These are big fish. The mullet will get nervous if tarpon are close. You've really got to reel."
I turn and look at Ronnie. He is gripping his rod tightly with both hands. His stance is firm; he keeps moving his head in short bursts, like a hunting dog. It is almost completely dark now. It's silent except for the sound of the waves lapping against the boat and an occasional distant splash.
"They're here," Richard whispers.
I look down at my feet, positioned only six inches from the boat's edge. This reminds me of Roy Scheider's great line from the movie Jaws: "I think we need a bigger boat."
Normally when I fish, I am passive, relaxed. I don't like this prickly foreboding. My mullet is beyond nervous: This little, silver critter needs a prescription for Prozac. To reduce the tension, I secretly decide not to try.
I relax, remembering how I usually lose fish by failing to set the hook.
"Reel! Reel! Reel!" Richard shouts.
"Whoa! Did you see that?" Ronnie yells.
A tarpon just leapt two feet out of the water in a charge for my mullet. She crashes back down, setting the hook, then takes off furiously. My rod is bent. I reel with all my strength, feeling sure the rod or my wrists will break.
Richard comes up to the bow and wraps a fighting belt around my waist. "Keep the rod up!" he says. "Reel! Don't give her line!"
After 10 minutes of excruciating tugging and reeling, we see the fish move past the boat.
"120 pounds," Richard says. "Easy."
I am stunned. When Richard told me tarpon were "big," I had no idea he meant the size of a growing teenage boy. I stop reeling and look down at my tarpon, which is half the length of the boat. The fish took advantage of my distraction, peeling off the yards of line I had gained.
When it stops, I crank the reel again. When I can't reel another inch, I tug. When she slacks, I reel. When I slack, she rips off more line. Another 20 minutes go by. Torture.
Then, just as I am beginning to win by inches, it starts raining. Softly at first. Then hard, in our faces. I have to step around the boat to keep the line from snapping on the anchor. When I am again planted firmly on the bow, I realize the fish is towing us back towards the marina.
"If you need help, just say," Richard yells. "There's lots of guys who couldn't bring in that fish."
"Don't touch me!" I shout in my best Bette Davis voice. (The driving rain provides extra drama.)
After another 10 minutes of reeling and tugging, a big lightning bolt hits nearby.
"We can't snap the line till we tag her," he says.
"Tag her?" I say. "I'm risking my life so she will be 'it?'"
"Yeah," he says. "Catch-and-release only. They're no good to eat."
I struggle some more. I can barely reel. But I want the fish. The fear of lightning and the strong desire to be rid of the long graphite pole I am holding provides a burst of strength.
"C'mon, girl!" I shout. "Let's be done!"
"Hey," Ronnie says. "The rain stopped."
I look up. We are now directly under the bridge, temporarily sheltered. I give a desperate tug. The fish rolls next to the boat, baring her huge silvery belly above the black water. I lean out to try to see her head, but she has ducked it too far down. To me, she looks like a massive, lumbering shark pushing through the water. I tighten every muscle in my face, my arms, my legs and cry out, "Ugggggh!"
I'm determined to turn her over. But still, I'm conflicted. I badly want to tag her, to finish and to get out of this rain! But I don't want to hurt her. My wrists shake. One last tug. I feel her stop struggling. I lead her next to the boat and, in an instant, Richard tags and releases her.
We all sit down. Soaked. Silent. Then Richard starts the motor. The water cascading off the bridge drenches us as we pass under it and head into the inlet. We all shriek and laugh. I punch both fists in the air. I feel like I've won something.
Richard guns it back towards the marina. I wrap both arms around Ronnie and lift my head up, letting the rain pelt my face.
Later, in our room, I take the most resplendent hot shower I can remember. Ronnie pokes his head in through the steam.
"I'm hungry," he says. "Wanna go get some fish?"
I hurry. I can't wait to get down to the bar and find someone to listen to our story. Preferably other fishermen. Like us.
M.B. Roberts' last story for Travel was on Alaska. She lives in Boulder Junction, Wis.
Bud 'n' Mary's, there since 1944. (Bud 'n' Mary's photo)
IF YOU GOGetting there: Take Route 1 south to Mile Marker 79.8
Activities: fishing, deep sea/offshore, backcountry, party boat. Also: diving, snorkeling, glass bottom boat, full service marina and motel.
Back country guides: Full day: $375; half day: $275.
Evening tarpon trips: $300 (includes bait).
Lodging: Motel rooms: $85 per night, double occupancy. Penthouse apartment: $250 a night, with full cooking facilities, two bedrooms (each with two double beds) wrap-around deck with ocean view.
Reservations: Bud 'n' Mary's Fishing Marina, P.O. Box 628, Mile Marker 79.8, Islamorada, Florida 33036; phone: 800-742-7945; fax: 305-664-5592; Dive Shop: 800-344-7352.
Information: For Islamorada, call: 800-322-5397.