Enest Hemingway, lovingly referred to as Papa by historians and Key West locals, was an iconic American writer of the twentieth century. He set up residence there from 1931-1940, and was said to enjoy being “the big fish” on the little island.
I read a few of Hemingway’s classics as well as some of his more obscure short stories back in college. I remember being fascinated by his terse, straightforward prose and being aware of the tragic way he died, but I knew little of his life before I became a fellow Conch Republic addict.
Writers are often advised to write what they know. Hemingway was an avid fisherman and hunter, as well as writer. It makes sense to me that he often wrote tales with man vs. nature themes. During his Key West years, Papa wrote many stories, including his novel, The Sun Also Rises. Yet, it’s his 1953 Pulitzer Prize winner, Old Man and the Sea, that comes to mind when I imagine him living and working there.
The more times we’ve visited the southernmost part of the United States, the more my husband and I desired to go fishing. Key West’s economy has always been driven, in part, by the fishing industry. I have no issue with legal hunting and fishing, as long as the animals caught are eaten and not used merely as trophies. The prospect of being one-on-one with nature was exciting AND overwhelming. I’ve seen tv shows with people on deep-sea fishing charters reeling in huge fish such as marlin and sailfish. To reel in fish like these, a person is sometimes strapped into a fighting chair so the fish doesn’t pull him overboard. Scary thought. We wanted a beginner’s excursion equivalent to the bunny slope when learning to snow ski. After some research, we chose backcountry or flats fishing.
I’ll admit it. I’m squeamish about putting bait onto a hook or taking fish off a hook. I’m girly that way, I suppose. However, as soon as we left the dock, watching our captain collect live bait and select our fishing spot, I was eager to try my hand at casting and reeling. I’m an avid observer, but on this day I participated, too. I soaked up Captain Rob’s advice, his history, and as a word nerd, his dialect, too. I learned about the parts of a boat, fishing terms, and most of all, what it feels like to struggle with a fish to bring it in. Before that day, I could count on one hand how many times I’d caught fish, and that includes ice fishing as a youngster with my grandfather on Lake Champlain. (Ice fishing is a passive activity compared to tackle fishing.)
We traveled through water locals call “The Lakes.” The sea is shallow there, between 5-6 ft., an estuary that divides the Atlantic from the Gulf of Mexico. We anchored at Destroyer Island about three miles offshore on the Atlantic side where the ocean is close to thirteen feet deep. We had left early in the morning for a greater chance of success and were rewarded with dozens of fish swimming around our boat.
Shortly after Captain Rob had shown us how to cast (or pitch, as he calls it), he surprised me by blowing up a balloon. I wondered if we were celebrating the day with a party, but then realized he was setting up a sportfishing line. He was as excited as we were about the kinds and sizes of fish, and about the chance of bringing in “a big one.” We spied a young tarpon and a small school of snook. Captain Rob explained that snook were out-of-season but would have put up a good fight. Oh well. We still had plenty of fun.
My husband caught two barracuda, and we suspect one cut my line. The first fish I caught big enough to keep was the one shown above. From the effort it took to reel it in, I was certain the fish on my line was the tarpon we had seen earlier, and wondered why we didn’t have a fighting chair to keep me from flying overboard. When it surfaced, wriggling at the end of my line, I was surprised. Maybe I should lift heavier weights when I exercise? We also reeled in gray snappers, a number of them keepers.
Two sunscreen applications later, the current changed and our captain moved to a new fishing spot. We anchored a bit further offshore where my husband and I were introduced to an interesting fish called a grunt. They have flourescent orange mouths with sharp teeth. I soon learned how they got their name. These fish sound so much like deer, my hunter husband was on the lookout for four-legged creatures.
In our last hour on the water, my husband caught the prize fish of the day. Hogfish are generally caught using a spearhook instead of light tackle, so Captain Rob was quite impressed. This fish is considered by many to be the best-tasting local fish, too. Of course, we enjoyed sampling every kind we kept–grilled or blackened.
Fishing may not seem a woman’s kind of escape, but you may surprise yourself, ladies. I did. We tell children, “Try it, you may like it,” when encouraging them to take a risk. That motto may work for us adults as well.
I caught more than fish that day; I caught the fishing bug. We plan to book another charter boat our next trip. Popular wisdom claims pursuing a common hobby is good for a couple’s relationship. We never have. Who knows? This may be the one.
Have you ever surprised yourself by enjoying an activity far more than anticipated?