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!"
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.