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The Not-So-Old Woman and The Sea

Hemingway, the Fisherman

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.

Hemingway Photo  Turtle Kraals Restaurant

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.

Our early morning fishing spot

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.

My first keeper, a rainbow snapper

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.

Our hard work pays off!

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?

15 comments on “The Not-So-Old Woman and The Sea

  1. Enjoyed your post, and I must say, I’m not one to want to go fishing either. But on that note, I have paid to do a course to go hunting. So now my husband and I can do something together on occasion. 🙂

    1. Thanks for commenting, Karen. I don’t think I have the patience to be a hunter, or the tolerance to sit in cold, miserable conditions like my husband does for hours on end. I’d be interested to know how the course goes.

  2. Fun story, Jolyse! I like trout fishing – we go camping every year up in Mammoth Lakes, and there’s a creek up there that’s kept stocked with trout for rubes like us. It’s fun, always a workout (scrambling down banks and following the creek isn’t always easy) and the fish taste so darned good!

    Looks like I’ll have to go to Key West to enjoy some mild ocean fishing, though…

  3. Nice catch, Jolyse. I don’t fish because like you I believe if you kill something you shouldn’t waste it and I don’t eat fish. But as a child we use to go out in our boat catching flounder and blowfish. It was fun except afterwards I was forced to eat it. So I did with a lot of ketchup (a kid’s favorite condiment).

    Truthfully I can’t think of anything I enjoyed more than what I expected. Sorry.

  4. I can’t narrow down one specific time but in most things that involve leaving my laptop, I find myself not lookiing forward to it and tend to drag my feet as a result. But during or afterwards, I often remark to myself that I was glad I did it! I remember when I was little my parents used to clean their own fish in our backyard and between the smell and site of their scales, I’ve been turned off of fish to this day. Except for tuna. Tuna, I can eat forever 😉

    1. I understand your sentiment, Tuere. My family fished primarily in the winter season, using a fish shanty on frozen Lake Champlain to catch smelt. I was the only child in the family who didn’t behead and gut the smelt (being so squeamish about blood,etc), so I had the honor of scraping the inside along the spine to clear out any residual “ick.” Then I’d rinse them and flop them into a colander where my mother would or an older sister would flour them in a baggie before frying.

      Perhaps I had a stronger stomach than I thought, or was hungry enough to forget my qualms, but I relished the smell of fried smelt and ate as many as allowed .I often ate the thin spine and tail, along with the meat of the fish, too.

      Funny how you’ve triggered memories I’d long forgotten. I cherish those family dinners I enjoyed with my entire family.

      My daughter is a HUGE tuna fan like you, but tolerates other fish. 🙂

    1. Hi Jeannie,

      To be honest, I’d never consider fishing on our local lake. The setting and history of Key West was a huge influence on my excitement about this excursion. Our charter captain’s knowledge and stories were a big draw, too. Thanks for the compliment. 🙂

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