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Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Tour de Florida: Gulf Coast

September 8, 2022

On a tour of Florida’s Gulf Coast this summer, the Courthouse News editor meets Captain Chuck and hears tales of the deep.

Bill Girdner

By Bill Girdner

Editor of Courthouse News Service.

“Let’s get you boys a picture,” says the boat captain.

We are 13 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico. Brilliant blue ocean all around, wisps of white clouds above, no land in sight.

He takes a black, iron hook almost the size of my hand, and uses a clasp that resembles a jumbo metal clothespin to attach the hook to a multi-thread, black line that cuts through the water without the line memory of nylon — which was the kind of line I was used to from fishing in Baja growing up.

Back from the hook, he attaches a dull-black iron weight to the line, a ball about twice the size of golf ball, leaving the hook to dangle free at the very end of the line.

The line is running through the eyes of a short stout pole, and at the base of the pole into a massive brass reel that is a good six inches in diameter. Captain Chuck then reaches into the bait tank and grabs a blue runner, an eight-inch fish we had caught earlier. He pushes the massive hook through the blue runner just below its spine.

He tosses the hook baited with the struggling fish into the blue water. It has been dropping for no more than four seconds before the line zings out. He grabs the pole which was in a holder in the back of the boat and hands it to me. I start reeling, which prompts the line to zing outward again, a back-and-forth dance that lasts for ten minutes or so.

As the fish comes up behind the boat, the first mate, Danny, puts a finger through the gill of a three-and-a-half foot amberjack and pulls it on board. And we get our photo.

The fish will be smoked, according to Danny, but we never saw the picture, so it may have ended up on the menu at a restaurant on the barrier reef Siesta Key.

On a hot day, the three us, me and two of our bureau chiefs, then jump off the back of the boat into the ocean. The cool blue water is clear as clear can be, and from the boat Danny says he can see a school of four to five-foot amberjacks swimming about twenty feet under our toes.

Back on the boat we can see them too, long, whitish forms distorted slightly in the blue water, flashing back and forth and around, behind and below the boat.

We are fishing on top of a wreck with known coordinates that Captain Chuck steered us to by using a GPS monitor which he combines with a sonar screen that shows the fish below as small green dots.

He had been hoping for us to catch a goliath grouper, an enormous fish that is protected, and that would need to be returned to the ocean after it was caught and photographed.

As we fished and talked, Chuck told a story once in a while, about diving for antique anchors, for teeth of preshistoric sharks that fed off dying whales — with evidence in the form of a megalodon tooth stuck in a fossilized whale vertebrae — but mostly he told about diving on wrecks, spearing fish to pay back the cost for various trips around the Gulf and along the Atlantic shore.

He told of a time when he was more than 100 feet down, with a ring of speared fish on his belt, and he said he saw his buddy’s eyes grow big above him. A goliath had come up behind him and placed its huge jaws onto his tank and regulator, ripping the regulator off.

It sounded almost like the grouper was attacking the predator that was killing everything swimming down there. Chuck said he always dove with a tiny spare tank and regulator attached to his leg. So he used that to get enough air to get back to the top.

The captain is not drinking and neither am I as he is navigating and I am in charge of driving later on. But the first mate and the bureau chiefs have been drinking Miller Lights since we got into deep water.

I catch another smaller amberjack but since we are driving out that afternoon, I toss it back into the sea. And that becomes one of the memorable photos of the trip, the fish looking straight back at the boat, sailing high in the air above the water.

The boys then each drink another couple beers as we bump along over the swells with Captain Chuck steering the boat 13 miles back to harbor in the early afternoon.

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