Normally, FinJr and I go deep sea fishing together at least twice a year (and maybe an inshore trip or two as well). We do tons of other stuff together, but there’s nothing we look forward to more than saltwater fishing. My dad took me, his dad took him, and three generations have even taken trips together. It’s what we do. I usually space these trips apart, for whatever reason—maybe to give us more than one date to look forward to, or just in case something else should come up that we need to do. Whatever. But this year I chose to set up our trips back-to-back. Head out for 12 hours, sleep at the motel, head right back out the next day. Save a little travel money; lump it into a big chunk. Why not? You should have seen his face when I ran this plan past him. I’m not sure he had ever considered that such a thing was possible. "Hey, Santa: Really dug the gifts! Let’s do the exact same thing again tomorrow!" Or something like that. So I called the boats in January and secured two primo spots off the stern for June 30th and July 1st. And much like Trrip starts waiting on Mizzou baseball, we began counting the days until summer.
By the way: locking yourself into fishing, in the ocean, on specific days, six months in advance, is a pretty bad idea. There are way too many moving parts beyond your control: weather issues, early season closings, mechanical problems.. One by one, I ran into all three. Saving you as many details as possible, we ended up having to swap June 30th for July 2nd, had to use two boats (only one of which is allowed to catch red snapper; don’t get me started), and plenty of Dramamine for rougher-than-ideal seas. Fine. We’ll take it. Get us offshore, already.
If all of that wasn’t enough, we arrived in Galveston, my beloved beach city and future retirement destination, only to find it even more gross than it usually is. I mean, I’ll readily admit: Galveston has probably the ugliest beach you’ll ever see (hopefully). I don’t care; it has so much going for it. It’s an island, for crying out loud! It’s a beach community! It’s relatively close, it’s affordable.. And every so often, when the conditions are just right, it can be surprisingly beautiful. This year the needle was pegged in the opposite direction. Too nasty for words. I should have taken pictures of the sargassum seaweed piled up six feet high along the shore, but I just couldn’t bring myself to document it. Normally they bulldoze away whatever washes in on a daily basis, but this year the sheer volume makes that impossible. All they can do is shove it into a great wall of rotting matter running the entire length of the beach. And the stench of that much decay completely overpowers the ocean breeze. It was so bad that my wife and I could not even walk along the water’s edge together—who wants to walk through seaweed instead of sand? I met a lady whose neighbor is 92 (SOURCES!). She told me he is a volunteer with the beach cleaning crew, and in his 92 years living on the island, he had never seen it this bad. We had scheduled two full days to play on the beach before our fishing trips; inside of twenty minutes that idea was gone forever. Now what?
While I was inside a shop looking for a specific souvenir, FinJr was petitioning his mom for a THIRD fishing trip! I’m sure I will eventually have prouder moments as a father; I just can’t imagine what they could be. I go into a store looking for a key chain; I come out, and we’re booking another trip. The tears. The joy. It’s hard to talk about even now. This time we were only looking for a 4 hour inshore trip, but those can be fun too. And found money is found money. Well, it was a good idea, at least. But another day, another cancellation, and it was on to Plan C: Fishing from the pier:
The City has done a great job of rebuilding its fishing pier following complete destruction in the wake of Hurricane Ike. We had never tried it, so this was the perfect opportunity. Perfect, other than having to cast and reel around the seaweed still flowing in massive scabs on the ocean surface. Every cast was followed by removing 2.5 pounds of sargussum from hooks and sinkers, but we didn’t care—we were fishing! We caught a bunch of trash fish and FinJr caught a nice little whiting (he kept it for bait). A grandmother caught a 4 foot hammerhead shark. That was pretty cool. But I’d say the highlight of the day was hearing the house PA play Ocean Size by Jane’s Addiction. That one threw me for a loop. By late afternoon, it was time to go home and get ready for Day One.
On Tuesday we boarded our usual boat for an 80 mile run out into the Gulf. No red snapper on this trip, but that’s okay. Plenty of other stuff to catch. I have said it before, but it bears repeating: Always book your spot off the stern (back of the boat) whenever possible. The reason is simple: The captain will anchor up facing into the current, and this determines how your fishing line will drift in the water. Perhaps a crude diagram will help. This one probably won't:
If you can’t get the stern, take the bow (front of the boat). Your lines may drift under the boat, but it beats standing on the sides and having your lines tangled all day long. But tangles are a way of life when it comes to party boat fishing. They can’t be eliminated totally. Which brings me to story #1: The Kingfish.
My favorite way to fish is by drifting. This is almost entirely impossible if you aren’t on the stern. You take all sinkers off your line, tie a balloon on instead (to ensure your bait actually floats), hook up a big ol’ thread herring for bait, disengage your spool, and wait. The current will take your balloon out as far as you let it go. Keep watching... Sooner or later, a big predator will see it, and your open reel will experience complete chaos! Could be a shark, bonito, ling (cobia), wahoo, or a king mackerel (aka kingfish), but something very fun to hook into will try to run off with that fish. I’ve hooked two kingfish using this method previously, but I have never landed one. That streak ended on Tuesday. The reel started singing, I set the hook, and he was a goner. Looked something like this:
The thing is, kings are very fast, and you always have someone in your way (or you’re the one in someone else’s way) on the deck of a party boat. So Mr. King decided to make a run along the stern, I couldn’t move with him fast enough, and I became That Guy that tangled every other line on the back of the boat.
My fish was gaffed and on the deck, but I felt horrible watching the deckhands cutting other people’s line and trying to sort out that big mess. FinJr cheered me up, though. He reminded me of how many times we’ve had to be patient while someone else’s tangled fish was cut from our lines. It was my turn that day. Very, very nice fish! Lots of fun. That was our first stop on the day, and I was done 45 minutes in. I caught a couple of undersized vermilion snapper, but nothing else. FinJr caught four keepers, but he’s had much better days. In fact, it was a really slow day for the boat in general. A solid week of awful weather really put the fish off the bite. One poor guy got blanked and started buying fish off of people back at the dock. He asked for the head of my kingfish, and I gave it to him (I mean, what else do you say to something like that?). Not a great day out there at all. But boating my first kingfish made it easier to take.
One other event took place that was kind of cool: A deckhand saw our rods & reels (very nice custom tackle bequeathed to me by my dad) and asked us if we wanted to go after shark. Well, sure. We’ve caught blacktips, bonnet heads, sharpnosed sharks; it’s not really a new idea. But he said, "No, not sharks. SHARKS!" He then proceed to pull out a massive hook with a steel leader. Then he took a big blue runner (nasty trash fish) and cut it into huge pieces. He baited me up with the head and gave FinJr two ribeyes worth of meat.
I could hear Mr. Quint from Jaws in my ear the whole time:
"I’m not talkin’ about day sailin’ or pleasure crusin’. I’m talking about workin’ for a livin’. Talking about sharkin’!"
I floated the blue runner’s poor decapitated head out there, and sure enough: A shark of some species, maybe seven feet in length started noshing on the bottom of my bait—you could plainly see it! That's a pretty exciting thing to watch live, I must say. But he never took off with the head. FinJr did have a fish run off with his, and he fought it all the way up to the boat!
But it turned out to be just a big sow of a red snapper, which meant we couldn’t keep it. It was Illegal for Day One, but perfectly wonderful and glorious, had he only caught it on Day Two.
There are 17 boats along the Gulf of Mexico that are involved in a pilot program for the next two years related to red snapper. Every other recreational fishing boat got to fish for reds this summer for exactly nine days! The pilot boats have a year-long quota, and they can fish for reds every day until they hit their quota. It will be interesting to see what they do with the program once the test is over. At any rate, exactly ONE (1) of those 17 boats leaves out of Galveston, and on Wednesday, we were on it.
Back in January, I had us off the stern on that boat, too. We were supposed to go on Monday. However, I got the call on Sunday explaining that they had experienced a fire on the boat. That’s a new one. It was in the dock, and apparently the AC unit above the wheelhouse had some issues. Fishing on Monday was off, but Wednesday was still open (pending an inspection by the coast guard). Obviously, fishing from the stern was taken, but the bow was available. I jumped on it. Lots of people hate the bow: it’s rough and it’s hot. But we’ve caught plenty of big fish off the bow, and tangles are less frequent. We’re fine with it.
A Side Note
All of my elementary principal instincts were put to the ultimate test on this boat. You see, there is a grandson to the captain that comes along. I’m guessing he’s about seven. Grandpa drives the boat in the wheelhouse, and Grandson runs completely amok all day long. The deckhands are scared to correct him. He was on the boat last year when FinJr caught this beauty: Biggest fish on the day.
Well, Grandson wouldn’t stop messing with his fish! They hung it up to show it off as we came back into the dock, and the kid just stood there ripping scales off of it! I told him to leave my son’s fish alone. He looked me dead in the eye, and ripped off another one. I had hoped he had matured some, but a year later, no difference. Even worse, maybe. A guy caught a gorgeous mahi-mahi--probably 25 pounds or better. This kid took the meat scissors to it while it hung from the display hook, and cut off part of its dorsal fin! The man that caught the fish had to come outside and shoo him off while the deckhands turned a blind eye to the whole thing. Then he started just mashing up people’s sardines and mullet! Kid just goes nuts because no one is there to stop him. No one has taught him to respect the customers or their property. He is almost a deal breaker all by himself. If we ever boat with them again, I may have to risk the ban hammer and have a talk with Captain Grandpa. They aren't doing him any favors.
The Red Snapper
You can only keep two snapper, and they must be at least 16" in length. There are a ton of keepers out there, but you can also wear yourself out winding up fish after fish measuring 14-15 inches. FinJr caught his two keepers within the first 20 minutes. From that point on, he was what I call Down with OPF (other people’s fish). See, the boat won’t make you stop fishing once you have your two. If there are 100 people, they want 200 keepers as fast as they can get them. Not fair. But then, realistically, neither is asking 82 people to sit there without fishing while 18 people try to limit out. The result: If you don’t catch your limit quickly enough, someone else will. Then your stringer will contain one or two fish that someone else caught. These are called "mercy snapper". No one wants to go home with mercy snapper. By the second to last stop, I was dangerously close to receiving two mercy snapper. I must’ve caught 12 fish that were 15", and my stringer sat there as empty and pitiful as when we left. FinJr just kept right on catching keepers. He asked me if I wanted his extras—the smarty pants. Of course not! But then I changed from cigar minnows to thread herring, and I tore them up! Caught my two in two drops. Actually, my next eight drops failed to hit the bottom at all. Thread herring is my new bait of choice. But then again, next time it will be something else. Fish are fickle. These weren’t great in size, but they will be great on the grill! Smaller fish are more tender than old, Get Off My Lawn! snapper. But bigger is more fun and more impressive; no denying that.
With about 90 minutes left to go, our boat reached its snapper limit. Once all mercy snapper had found their homes, it was time to try something else. And guess what? That nasty old sargassum seaweed has a use after all! It’s awful on the beach, but out it open water, it attracts cobia, sharks, and dorado (mahi-mahi on your menu). I’ve known this for years, and FinJr and I live for these tiny opportunities to land something rare and truly memorable. Long story shorter, the boat landed eight dorado, and I got one of them.
The small ones like this we call "chicken" dorado. The guy that cleaned it said,
"Do you want me to fillet it, or cuddle with it? Look how cute it is!"
Funny, but don’t let that fool you. Only two of the eight dorado were large, but everyone on that boat would have gladly spent all twelve hours going after chickens if we could have. Dorado are extremely hard to catch while party boat fishing for about half a dozen reasons. You really need a charter boat for all that. FinJr had one take the bait all the way into its mouth, but it spit the hook right before he could set it. Then it was time to head back home. He took it pretty rough. But hey. It took me 44 years to final get a dorado—and a chicken dorado at that! They’ll be there for him in the future. If we ever stop throwing trash in the ocean or flooding it with crude, that is. SPIDERS!
So, it terms of volume of fish, this wasn’t a great year. But anytime you can scratch two fish off your bucket list, that has to be a successful trip. I do have three bags of kingfish fillets that I will try to smoke, but they aren’t highly regarded as table fare. However, they are an excellent natural source of methylmercury, just in case you’re low on that. We’ll see recipes are out there. Snapper is always great, of course. We are certainly going to take my two little dorado fillets, broil them, and serve them with drawn butter like lobster. Looking forward.
And with that, so ends the saltwater fishing season for The Fins, 2014. Next year we may try something different. Maybe a trip to a different Gulf city, maybe I can finagle a group rate on a small charter. I would certainly like to put FinJr onto some different fish, but I’ll figure that out later. Time to put the saltwater gear back in storage.
And time to get out the fly rods.