My son’s first catch wasn’t the only story that developed (per se). Another fish came into focus that cemented lifetime memories.
To go fishing… in my world… is best defined by replacing one letter in the word itself – ‘W.’
‘Wishing’ in ponds, lakes and oceans is the typical result when I am trying to actually catch something with gills. I would have better luck going to the fish store and asking my son to toss me a wrapped salmon. That way, I could claim I honestly caught it.
The opportunity to fish with my son was a tradition I started this summer and one I looked forward to for years. I will admit I delayed this by a year or so, which stemmed in part from my history as a successful fisherman… which is nonexistent.
Since the time I became a man, the streak of luck I’ve had fishing would amount to half a page of content until this past weekend. Attempts to procure fish from the seas and rivers include debacles that range from decorating trees with miscast fly tackle (i.e. fly fishing) to wading into the ocean in Manasquan, New Jersey, wearing oversized waders that nearly drowned me.
I’m not kidding about that last memory. Try wading into an ocean at the crack of dawn wearing oversized waders fit for a six-foot-five man after you partied the night before until 1:00 am. That actually happened. That’s how desperate I was to catch a fish.
These events occurred before my son was born. Avoiding the sport completely would have been a disservice to my only child. I was happy to purchase fishing rods for all of us in July and our freshwater outings in New Jersey and Pennsylvania were fun and exciting, but yet… no fish.
A recent trip to visit family in Florida provided a fresh opportunity in the Atlantic. My half-sister treated us, including my stepmother and half-brother, to a day on the sea.
And it came with a good omen! The night prior, we witnessed a full moon, but it was also orange. When this occurs, it’s defined as a harvest moon, which is both rare and cool.
Someone in our party noted it would provide us with a good day of fishing. The cynic in me, based on twenty years of fishing failures, called bullshit on the comment. However, it turned out to be accurate. The ‘wishing’ for me would soon come to an end as my son and I enjoyed the greatest fishing experience we could ever imagine.
The day was crisp and the air clean during the early morning hours in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The young and relaxed deck drew greeted us with smiles and we embarked towards the intracoastal waters to catch bait fish before parting the waters in the Atlantic.
It was during this time when my son landed his first fish. A beautiful yellowtail snapper, six inches in length. To behold his smile, and to see his drought of caught fish come to an end, was pure joy. Finally, a fish for the young lad!
To see him catch it, with family on hand, made it even more special. Memories of fishing with my dad (and more extensively with my mom) rushed back into my mind. Here we were, at dawn, fishing for bait in the early morning light. Poetic is the word that comes to mind.
The crew threw wide nets to snag baitfish and their bounty was plentiful – another good omen! The moon Gods rewarded us! Or in my case, taking pity – even a broken clock is right twice a day.
We started trolling at 8:00 am and in no time at all my half-brother snagged a three-foot kingfish. Gorgeous, but not as tasty compared to other treats available in these wild and tropical seas. Our hunt continued and in short order, a beautiful dolphin fish trailed at the end of the fishing line. We would not be denied a delicious meal of mahi-mahi.
Another memory flashed across my mind: 1997, off the coast of New Jersey, saltwater fly-fishing. I witnessed a dolphin fish flash in the waters below when it chased my bait, yet it eluded me… until now!
The excitement of the moment faded as time passed by. We trolled… and trolled… for another hour without so much as a bite. My curse had returned. Oh, moon Gods, do not curse thee, I cannot bear another bad fishing experience after 20 years of anguish!
Our captain changed course and we headed further out in search of seagrass. Beneath them, we were told, lurks bigger prey: Dolphin fish aplenty and bigger schools.
He was spot-on in his assessment. We came upon a patch of grass 20 yards in diameter and trolled back and forth with live bait hooked at the end of our lines. Fortunately, school was out for Summer and the fish darted out of the seagrass classroom.
One strike, then another… and another! We hit pay dirt and started reeling in arm-length dolphin fish at a clip. Hard fighters they were and everyone got a chance to reel them into the boat.
That included my son. He could barely see over the side of the boat, but there he was, struggling to reel in a fat one. When I reached in to help he nudged me back. “I want to get it!”
I smiled in pride as I watched him struggle for 10 minutes, fighting an animal half his weight. He had to duck under someone else so their lines wouldn’t cross and get tangled. He lurched, grunted and fought the bastard with no remorse!
The match came to an end when the deckhand lifted him successfully out of the seas and into the cooler. I cannot overstate how excited I was for him, and for me, how proud I was to have been there to witness the event. A trophy fish, 29-inches in length with the same coloring, will adorn his bedroom wall in the near future (a fiberglass version, for the record).
That set me back $700 bucks. Not the wisest decision but sometimes in life, you have to say…
Back to the boat. At this point, the crew decided to head back inland to a spot where we could cast for huge game: bottom fishing for sharks. This involves taking a slab of baitfish the size of a New York strip steak, stabbing it with a five-inch hook and throwing it to the bottom of the ocean floor.
The game soon changed. The next fish involved two adult men, an hour of backbreaking strain and every ounce of muscle we could muster.
We didn’t know what was hooked, but the crew was in high gear when the line tightened. It took an hour to figure out why they were so excited. When we witnessed what we reeled up from the depths of the sea, one foot of fishing line at a time, we hit the equivalent of Fort Knox.
It was a thousand-pound beast. The captain and deckhand said they had never caught so large a fish… ever. They had never witnessed in their life what was now splashing at the end of the line… in their combined 40 years of fishing experience.
Tethered from our rod and reel, attached through a 400-pound test fishing line, was a large… female… Tiger Shark!
My half-brother and I took turns over the hour to reel her in and it was a fight I never imagined happening, let alone landing.
When it comes to the written word, I can write a thousand-page book. I can write a thousand-word essay in an hour, but Arnold Schwarzenegger I am not. I’m a white-collared guy from New Jersey with the arm strength of an accountant, so by the time this fight came to an end, I have to be honest; that shark beat the shit out of me.
I could not have done it without the help of my younger bro, Kyle, who is no Schwarzenegger himself but the kid works out, so he brought some solid brawn to the game.
The ‘wishing’ era of my life came to an end when we tagged the tiger. This ensures that if she’s ever caught again, I’ll get pinged about her size, length, and perhaps lifespan. Fishing for sharks is now exclusively based on a catch-and-release basis in Florida, which is the policy we would have implemented anyway. There’s no way we would have killed her and strapped her to the side of the boat with my son on hand. It would have sent the wrong message – i.e. kill everything you catch in the sea.
Other lessons were passed down during this experience, which made it a great one for us to share with my son, Connor: perseverance, respect for the ocean and its animals, the bounty one can procure if one is patient and the subsequent meal one can share with others in the family.
That’s what this experience was all about – family. Fishing with loved ones, letting everyone get their turn and cooking a delicious meal to enjoy (thanks my brother and sister).
When you’re a father, make the effort to set up these kinds of outings with your family. When your kids are old enough to cement lifelong memories, they are best shared when you do so with loved ones.
Post Script: Props to the Fishing Headquarters Charter Company out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Nick and Tyler, our captain and guide (respectively), were phenomenal and cool to fish with. I highly recommend their services.