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Staying Well, Fishing Story
By Steve Robertson
Sunday, December 07, 2003

It is my philosophy that in order to stay well, you must go fishing often. I take my own advice here with a fishing trip about 70 miles off shore in the Atlantic Ocean.

I always said that the reason people got sick was that they didn't go fishing. It was time for me to get a new inoculation and that opportunity came via a visit with my good friend and fishing buddy, Eric Bryson. This was Friday evening when we shared a brew at Ragtime Tavern and Seafood Grill. Eric said that he was going out to the ledge Monday and that I was welcome to come. The "ledge" is the continental shelf, which lies about 55 to 60 miles east from the beach. Of course I said yes. If you can help it, you shouldn't turn down a fishing trip, especially one that would be offshore. "Offshore," starts about 30 miles out. "Inshore" extends out to the 30 miles. We would be able to make about 22 knots in Eric's 26 foot Glacier Bay Catamaran that had twin 130 hp Honda four stroke outboards. That meant a little more than three hours to get there. We would leave around 3:00 A.M. in the morning. I was excited.

Saturday, I was interviewed on the First Coast News morning show on channel 12 concerning the novel I wrote. After that, I signed books all day and when I got home that evening, the wind had started blowing. From where I live, if I can hear the ocean that means it's rough. I could hear the ocean. Sunday morning, Eric called and said NOAA forecast high seas and a small craft advisory for the next day. We wouldn't be able to get out. Shucks. I was hoping I wouldn't get sick.

Monday, I got up and walked to the corner to get the newspaper about 7:00 A.M. I washed the dishes, which always made my wife extremely happy, and cooked our breakfast. Around 8:00 A.M., the phone rang. It was Eric. "NOAA has made me extremely unhappy! I was up at 3:00 A.M. and the forecast was still bad so I went back to bed. I just checked and the sea is fine. Do you want to go?"

I'm always willing to stay well so I immediately said yes. Eric told me to pick up 50 pounds of ice and meet him at the Bar Pilot Station in an hour. I started throwing my stuff together. It was a good thing that I had washed those dishes. I packed my bag with fish cleaning knives, extra clothing, plastic bags and my Ocean Waves fishing dark glasses, showered, et al., and jumped in the truck headed for Mayport. Along the way, I stopped at B & M Bait and Tackle shop to pick up the ice. When I got back on the road, I remembered I had forgotten two crucial items, food and, especially, water. I stopped in Mayport Marine and purchased seven bottles of water and some sandwiches. Never, never go to sea with out plenty of water.

I've always liked the drive to the little fishing village. As a fisherman and former professional salvage scuba diver, some of my best times have started there. Except for the two casino cruise boats, the Coast Guard Station, Mayport Marine and the new, gargantuan Safe Harbor Seafood building, driving into Mayport was like going back into time. I have been driving out there for 36 years and much of it hasn't ever changed. The drive down Ocean Street (A-1-A) took you past a line of docks on the shore of the St. Johns River to the north where dozens of shrimp boats could be seen berthed there. On the south side of the road, Mr. King's old haunted house, as featured in the book "Jetty Man" by G. W. Reynolds III, loomed with all of its eerie presence. It passed Mr. Leek's and Matt Roland's seafood businesses and docks. There were trailers and ancient houses lining the streets of Washington, Pearl, Henry, Palmer, Broad, Ferris and Julia. The road passed the launching ramp and terminated at the Jacksonville Bar Pilot's Station next to the Mayport Naval Base.

I saw that Eric had already pulled the boat over to the launching ramp from the Pilot Station next door so I pulled into the ramp parking lot and drove over to the boat. I handed up the ice and my things to Eric who was on the boat. It was still on the trailer at the water's edge. The catamaran, named "Black Fish," was huge and it looked even larger on the trailer. It was eight feet from the ground to the top of the gunwale. I drove the truck over and parked it at the Pilot Station then trotted back over to the ramp. Eric had me back the boat into the water then park the car and trailer after he had pulled the boat off. He would idle near the dock until I could climb aboard. It was around 9 A. M. by this time. We were getting a late start and it would be a long day.

This was the first time I had started out for the ledge in daylight, but it was good to have slept "in" before starting out. As we proceeded out of the river, we passed two huge dredges, which were working on getting the collected silt out of the channel to deepen it. As we passed the Mayport Naval Station piers to the south, we could see the huge USS John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier docked there. It was hard to believe that the floating mass of steel was three football fields long. It was completely shrouded by some type of canvas or material because it was undergoing an overhaul. As we proceeded out of the mouth of the jetties, we encountered a large swell.

We headed southeast at 130 degrees. We were doing around 20 knots. Fortunately, the swells were far apart because they were 9' to 10' in size. We would run up "hill" and when we reached the top of the swell, the boat would plunge down the other side. This would make me momentarily weightless until my body caught up to the falling boat. I learned quickly that I had to hold my self down because it would hurt when my body would slam back down on the seat. Other than that, it was a beautiful day. There were wispy clouds, blue sky, emerald water and glorious sunshine. Eric loaded the stereo CD player with a disk and turned up the volume. It was like the intro to the movie "Apocalypse Now" was playing and we were going into battle.

There wasn't as much sea life as I have seen on other trips. We passed a Mola Mola or Ocean Sunfish as it swam on the surface, one fin sticking up out of the water. Now that was one strange looking fish! It looked like a head with a couple fins sticking out of it.
Usually I saw a lot of bottle beak dolphins and sea turtles, but there were none on this trip. As usual, when we got about 40 miles offshore, we started running through schools of flying fish. They
were interesting creatures and I never tired of seeing them. The boat would scare them and they would burst out of the water going up to 40 miles per hour and sail 50 to 100 yards before plunging back into the ocean. They spread their elongated pectoral fins like wings. These little fellows had an elongated bottom to the caudal fin (tail), which they used to give them a little more distance. They flipped it rapidly in the water beneath them as they sailed along. This was another example of how Mother Nature had given one of her creatures an escape mechanism. Flying fish were a favorite fare of the dolphin fish (not the mammal). Leaving the water to sail a distance helped the little fish escape from being a tasty morsel for the beautiful blue, green and gold dolphins and other large predatory striking fish that liked to eat them.
We reached the area where we started trolling a few minutes after twelve noon about 60 miles from shore. It was amazing how clear, blue and beautiful the water got that far from shore. It was crystalline. We fished two rods and reels on outriggers, which were long poles that stretched out on both sides of the boat. These spread the lines apart wide to either side. On another rig, we attached the line a planer, which took that line down deep. Two more were stretched back from both sides of the boat and a sixth was dropped back a couple hundred yards in the center. Each bait was a different distance from the boat. There were two methods to this "madness." One was to keep the lines from tangling when a turn was made or a fish got on. The other was to spread the baits over as much area as possible so that any fish in the area would have a bait pass by it. We were fishing for striking fish.

Eric rigged a dead ballyhoo with a hook and a "feathered" lure in front of its nose. The beaks were broken off and a six-foot wire leader led away from the hook and was attached to the line. When trolling dead baits, the troll speed was relatively fast. Also, the baits were checked every so often to make sure they were in good shape. If not, they were replaced. Actually, this type of fishing was pretty physically demanding.

It was about 1:30 before we had any action. A reel went off. When a reel "went off," that meant the fish was stripping line rapidly off of the reel spool. A "clicker" had been set so an exciting whirrrr sounded the alarm. Eric handed the pole to me and grabbed another pole from the holder. He dropped the line back and a second fish hooked up. It was a Chinese fire drill for a while, with both of us each fighting a huge fish. We were trying to dodge the other poles and lines while we were reeling furiously. I would get some line back on the reel and the fish would strip it back off. This was an intentional thing. A "drag" was set so that when the fish was pulling hard enough to break the line, the drag allowed line to spool slowly off of the reel instead. Finally, the denizen was getting close to the boat. Eric had gotten his close also. It was easy to see deep into the clear water through my Ocean Waves polarized sunglasses. The telltale flash of blue, green and gold proved to be a couple of nice mahi mahi as the Hawaiians called the dolphins. Since we both had a large fish, it was difficult to land the fish in the boat. Usually, one fisherman assisted the other with a gaff to get these leviathans out of the water. Unfortunately, Eric's fish, which was the larger of the two, threw the hook as Eric was attempting to get it into the boat and got away. Eric grabbed the gaff and hauled mine in. Few things were more beautiful than a dolphin that had just come out of the water. They looked like a Christmas tree with colored lights blazing. It is also amazing how ugly and gray these fish looked moments later when the pall of death set in. We threw him in the fish box, which was under the deck, and started getting the baits back in the water. This was always good because you always want to get the "skunk" out of the boat. To get skunked meant that you didn't catch any fish.
A half hour later, another reel went off. I grabbed the pole and pulled it out of the rod holder on the port gunwale. It was the strike of the century. Whatever was on the other end was a true monster. I was reeling for all it was worth and trying to keep from being pulled in, but the line was leaving the spool faster than I could get it in. Eric was working madly to get all the other lines reeled in and the planer up and out of the way. Finally, I started getting some line back on the spool. After what seemed like an eternity and with aching arms and back, I was able to get the fish near the boat.
All of a sudden, the huge pull slacked off and was replaced by a lesser one. I knew I didn't have a break off because I could see a fish still on the line behind the boat. Then I saw it. An absolutely gigantic bull dolphin had latched onto the bonito, which had taken my bait. We had been in a tug of war between me and the dolphin for this fish on my hook ever since. The bull dolphin had seen the boat and let go of the fish. When I got the bonito in the boat, it had large bite marks on the sides. I sure hated not hooking up that monster.
We trolled a little longer without any luck so Eric decided we should reel the baits in and go for the bottom fish. We put up the trolling poles and got out the bottom poles and rigs. Each rig had two lines with a hook attached to each. From the bottom of the rig, hung a sixteen-ounce lead sinker. Now, bottom fishing was a thing at which I was extremely good. I was excited because I knew we would get some fish. Eric steered the boat back west about ten or so miles. His electronic array on the boat was excellent. Using his Fathometer display, he looked for the change in the contour of the bottom and for fish. We had saved the bonito for bait and I cut that up into chunks. The meat was extremely red and bloody. It was great bait. We also had cigar minnows and squid. I put a chunk of bonito on one hook and cigar minnow with a piece of squid on the other.

It was easy to tell when Eric had found good bottom because he threw the engines into reverse to position the boat over it and yelled, "drop 'em." We were in 185 feet of water so that meant it would take close to a minute to get the bait to the bottom. Eric took up his place beside me on the starboard gunwale and dropped his baits down. I felt the line go taut on the pole. Since I had two baits, I decided to wait a few seconds and see if the one on would attract a second. I started reeling. The pole was bent double. I wasn't getting any line on the spool so I tightened the drag and was able to start gaining line. It felt like I was reeling up a shipwreck off of the bottom. About ten minutes later the fish became visible about twenty feet down. Eric grabbed the net and we landed two huge triggerfish. Triggerfish were absolutely delicious to eat and were one of my wife's favorites. Their diet consisted mainly of crabs, other crustaceans and sea urchins. This made the meat very tasty. One was an Atlantic Grey, which was a keeper. The other was a Queen Trigger, which were illegal to keep so I threw him back. They were beautifully colored fish. A double header was a great way to start this part of our adventure.
We had drifted off of the ledge so Eric put the engines in gear and steered us back to it. I baited up the hooks again. This time Eric and I both pulled in triggerfish. We were starting to fill up the fish box. We both caught some trash fish, which were thrown back or used for bait, and then Eric hooked up huge! He was really struggling and his pole was bent almost double. He fought and fought and finally gained some line. Out of the depths came this beautiful, absolutely huge, red snapper. Eric was yelling, "Get the net, we don't want to lose this one. I was way ahead of him. That was food coming up from the depths and I never wanted to lose food, especially a morsel as delicious as snapper. Actually, I was not a sportsman at all. I could have cared less about catching a fish that couldn't be eaten like a tarpon. I didn't want to mess with a creature just to play with it and either kill it in the process or half kill it. I wanted to eat fish. Of course I enjoyed the adventures tremendously. This was a big fish. Actually, it was the largest snapper I had been around when one was caught. I got the net under it and lifted it over the gunwale and into the boat. It went into the rapidly filling fish box.

Eric piloted us back over the good bottom and we dropped down again. I got another huge bite. This time it was another Atlantic gray triggerfish, another keeper. In the mean time, Eric pulled in a trigger also. We only got to drop down one and sometimes two times before we drifted off of the bottom and had to re-position. The wind and swell was too great for us to anchor up, so Eric would have to put the engines in gear and put us back over the fish each time. This time I got another huge bite. I liked to pretend I was superman and didn't tire out and didn't give up, but I was getting seriously tired and holding the rod heavy with fish and weight about burned out my left forearm. Fishing in 170 feet of water meant even if you reeled up empty to replace bait, it required several minutes of reeling a one-pound weight to the surface. We had to either reel up and check the bait or bring up a fish every two or three minutes for about three solid hours. It really was hard work. I got another pole bending bite. This was a serious fish! Again, I reeled for all I was worth, but still had to recover line that was stripped back off of the spool. My forearm was aching and my grip on the pole required extra effort. Eric was standing by with the net and both of us burst forth with, "All right, it is a grouper!" Eric added the admonition, "Be careful, they have tender mouths and don't throw the hook." He netted this additional morsel and we added it to our box full of fish. We had just added a nice scamp grouper to our array of fish.
The best thing about our load of fish was that we had the best tasting creatures in the ocean. We had snapper, grouper, trigger, and mahi mahi. Go to a restaurant or fish market and check out the prices for these species. The only thing missing was yellow fin tuna, but that was for another time. Actually, Eric thought we would encounter some but we didn't. In days before, huge schools were in the same area. Fish were affected by water temperature so they may have moved out of the area because of the change.
As the afternoon waned, we had less and less action. We had caught a bunch of fish and had thrown a bunch back because they were too small or illegal to keep. At least three of these were queen triggerfish. Our catch for the day included the huge snapper, the grouper, five large Atlantic gray triggerfish, and a dolphin. It had been a good day. It was 5:00 PM and time to start for home. We had a three plus hour ride ahead of us. Fortunately, Eric had been able to purchase and install an autopilot on the boat. This was a substantial improvement because it allowed who ever was in the captain's chair to let the autopilot do the steering. Actually, none even need to be in the chair, but it was always wise to have someone watch for flotsam or jetsam or other crafts. The GPS system (Global Positioning Satellite) took orders from above and provided the data to the autopilot, which guided the boat accordingly. We were headed west toward the sea buoy that marked the entrance to the channel and St. Johns River.
We were lucky that the seas had lain down and that it was moderately calm. I watched the miles slowly trickle down on the screen of the GPS viewing screen. It would be a long journey back and I found myself nodding off. We were making a respectable twenty two to twenty four knots speed across the sea. Eric and I chatted as the boat made its way. When we got within three miles of the beach, I used my cell phone to call Kathy, my wife and tell her I was still alive. I could see the channel marker buoys blinking. To the north was the red one, "red on right returning," and green was to the south of the channel as we proceeded into the jetties and up the St. Johns river. I was really tired and we still had the boat to wash and the fish to clean. It was after 8:00 P. M. Eric guided "Black Fish" up to the floating dock at the launching ramp and I climbed over the railing of the bow and jumped down on it. I backed the trailer down in the water. After loading the boat on the trailer, Eric drove around to the Pilot Station and backed the boat into its slot. It had become dark.
Eric would wash down the boat while I cleaned the fish. Remember, I liked food! I was meticulous when I cleaned a fish and Eric trusted me with the task. I loaded the large cooler with the bountiful catch of fish on the back of the Pilot Station's golf cart and headed for the end of the dock. It was a very long concrete dock. On the end, a fish cleaning station that I made for them was attached to one side. It was a large, wooden cleaning station replete with a stainless steel sink. Actually, I made it for myself also, because occasionally, I was allowed to use it. It was the ideal place to clean fish. When the fish was filleted and skinned, the unused parts were tossed over into the river for the crabs, fish, et al., to recycle.
I filleted the grouper, dolphin and snapper first. My knives were outstanding and they were so sharp that a person could shave with them. That was important when cleaning fish. I slipped the fillets off of each side of the backbone and spine. What remained was the head, guts and spinal bones with so little meat left that one could see through them. Remember, I wasn't going to waste any meat. There was a special method that needed to be employed when cleaning the triggerfish. The skin was a cross between a bastard file and coarse sandpaper. There was a magic spot between the scales and the dorsal fin where a knife would slide right in. I put my knife in this slot and pushed down to keep the knife against the spinal bones and away from the meat. Also needed were a pair of butcher's clippers. These were like a pair of heavy duty scissors. They were necessary to clip across areas from the dorsal fin to the belly. It was hard to believe how rugged the skin of the trigger was.
I had decided to wait until last to take the skin off of the fillets. That way we could bag them in generically sorted bags. Eric finished washing the boat and joined me for the final stages of cleaning the fish. We slipped the skin off of the fillets and bagged them in separate bags. It was very interesting how the fish were skinned. The boneless fillets were laid skin down on the table and the knife was slid between the skin and the meat while the knife was pressed down hard against the table. When I ate, I didn't want to have to do any work. I wanted only fish meat, no bones no skin. We ended up with six one-quart bags of cleaned fillets, one for each species, and three for each of us. We doubled up and put the grouper and snapper in the same bags. It was now after 9:30 P.M. We had spent over twelve hours on the ocean and cleaning up afterward. I was really tired and sore and stiff. But, I was elated. I had food and I had added another great adventure to my experiences. I shook hands with Eric and thanked him for a wonderful day and mounted up in "Great White," my truck, and headed for home. I would sleep like a dead man until time to get up for work the next day. Also, I wasn't going to have to worry about getting sick for quite a while.