A Really (or is that Reel-y?) Nice Boat Ride

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Anyone who has fished offshore (or anywhere for that matter) more than a few times has had days when it seems there are no fish in the ocean or  if there are, none want your baits. In the charter biz, there are any number of ways to describe those days. Some include “a day in the barrel,”  “scrupulously avoiding  the fish,” “having to improve just to suck,”and “using the rubber hooks.” One of the simplest, and my personal favorite, is: “We had a nice boat ride.” Sometimes you get the feeling it’s going to be one of those days even before you leave the dock. June 1, 2013, was going to be just such a day for me - or so I thought. Six locals - including four bartenders/servers from the Conch Republic Seafood Co., friends and people who take very good care of me when I go there (which is often) - had chartered our boat for the annual Yamaha Dolphin Masters tournament, which is based out of that restaurant. They included Andrew Jarosz, Kristen Floyd,  Jessica Forsythe, Tyler Nau, and two of their friends, Bobby Neese and Sarah Warfield. Bobby is a contract engineer with the U.S. Naval Research Lab. Sarah works at Outback. I knew they were all pretty much novice fishermen (or less) - Jessica had even told me that she had never caught a dolphin of any size herself - so, I have to admit that I figured we realistically had no chance in hell of winning or even placing. But, I also figured: “What the heck. It’s friends.” I further reasoned that I’d get paid something (even though I did cut them a break on the price), my mate would get tipped well (duh!, they are service industry people), and “at least we’ll have a nice boat ride.” Besides, all three women are real easy on the eyes and they promised to wear bikinis, fitting in perfectly with the “nice boat ride” theme. 6-1-13_Dolphin_Masters_23_JPGThose were my thoughts as I awaited their arrival on June 1. Lines could be in the water at 7 A.M., so we planned on leaving no later than 6:15. Deep down I figured: “Yeh, right, Key West bartenders being ready to go at 6:15 AM. Fat chance!” But, lo and behold, there they were - 6:10 AM - on the side of my boat! Oh yeah, they were there. OK, but so were the 70+ beers and the bottle of tequila they brought with them, too. What ran through my mind? You guessed it! “Well, at least it’ll be a nice boat ride.” Loud and raucous, but nice nevertheless. We got underway pretty much on time and the weather was almost perfect - not too hot with calm seas. Again that refrain rang through my head. “At least we’ll have a nice boat ride.” By 7, we had cleared the reef and at 7:02 the first line hit the water in 150’. We had decided to try to stay inshore,  zig-zagging between 150’ and 350’ of water, at least for the first few hours, as that is where most of the good dolphin bites had been the last few days before, including some thirty pounders and larger. Yes, believe it or not, we actually had discussed stategy! For the first half hour, we had  no bites, and I’m still thinking: “Nice boat ride.” Then, a little after 7:30, we had our first hit. In a tournament, the mate can’t hook the fish and hand it off to an angler. They would have to set the hook themselves. Unfortunately, the gang didn’t react in time and we missed it. No big deal. It happens. But, again, I had that thought: “Oh well. At least it’ll be a nice boat ride.” Then suddenly, at  7:35, one of the lines was hit by an explosion of white foam and a large leaping dolphin emerged from the sea in about 190’ with one of our hooks firmly implanted in his jaw. This time, Bobby reacted in a flash, grabbed the rod from the rod holder, and sat himself down in the fighting chair. At first glance, I thought it looked like a 20 pounder but, the second time it jumped, I was pretty certain it was a lot bigger. Could that be? Were we really going to catch a competitive-weight fish? You betcha!! Bobby did a masterful job of getting the beast to the boat in less than 15 minutes and there it was - a beautiful big bull that my mate Cullen and I initially both estimated at around thirty five pounds - flouncing around the cockpit of our boat while Cullen tried to subdue him. As soon as I saw it hit the deck, a thought hit me. “Maybe this could be be a really NICE boat ride!” The only caveat I had in my mind was that this was a three-fish-aggregate-weight tournament, which meant we still had to catch two more decent fish to have a realistic chance of placing, let alone winning. Not a bad start, but could three miracle big dolphin suicides actually take place in our presence in one day? I had my doubts. Serious ones! Oh well, at least it was going to be a nicer boat ride. Less than five minutes later, still under 200’ in depth and as I was still recovering from my shock that our crew had actually caught such a relative monster, another line exploded. This time, it was Andrew’s turn to react quickly, grab the rod from the holder and jump into the chair. Again, a large, leaping, hooked dolphin crashed the surface. Ten minutes and a great job by Andrew later, a nice second  “weighable” fish in the 20 pound range was ours. Could this really be happening? Would this really be more than “just a nice boat ride?” Still , my doubts continued. One more suicidal dolphin was needed  to make this “impossible dream” possible. Fat chance. Couldn’t happen again, right? You betcha it could! 6-1-13-Dolphin-Masters-13-About fifteen minutes later, a smaller dolphin - 6-7 pounds - hit and Kristen got it to the boat quickly. Right after that, another explosion occurred and a larger dolphin broke the surface with one of our lines in its mouth. Tyler sprang immediately, grabbed the rod and made quick work of it. Soon, a 15 pounder was dropped on the deck. Incredulity would be the best way to describe my thoughts at that time. It was not even  9AM and my already-beer-drinking crew had put an estimated three dolphin aggretate of about 70 pounds on the boat. All in 200’ or less of depth. Maybe not enough to win, but it sure gave us a “puncher’s chance”. I thought: “This is turning out to be a REAL NICE boat ride!” I don’t have to tell you how  amped our crew was, which made their beers come even faster after that. Even had a couple of guys do the “short term beer rental” thing overboard later in the morning but they hung in tough and kept the party going all day. The bite slowed after that, and the only other fish we got the rest of the day were a barracuda that Sarah caught and two small blackfin tuna that Andrew and Jessica reeled in. Nobody seemed to  mind however, as we were all probably just anxious to get the day done and get back to the dock to see where our catch placed us. So, the spirits kept flowing; the crew’s spirits stayed high; and all I could keep thinking the rest of the day was: “Geez. You know, this is one of the nicest boat rides I’ve ever been on.” We had to be back in Key West Bight by 4 PM for our fish to qualify and we wanted a margin of error, so we got back at 3:40 PM. The scales opened at 3:30 PM. As we were spinning the boat to back into our slip, we could see fish being weighed at the “Conch”. None looked anywhere as  large as our big one and again I’m thinking: “This could have been a REALLY, REALLY NICE boat ride!” Then, once we got our fish bag to the scales and plopped our monster on the floor, the crowd reaction made it clear that we had the catch of the day to that point. As we watched excitedly, the scale then told its story - 40.1 pounds for the big boy. The other two weighed in at just over 21 and just over 15, for a three-fish total of 76.6 pounds - five pounds more than any other competitors. No later weigh-ins came close. All that remained was me to pass the mandatory lie detector test. I did! Yes folks, Santa lives, Oz is real, pigs do fly, and the High Class Hooker team of rag-tag fishing rookies are the 2013 Yamaha Dolphin Masters Invitational Tournament Champions. Who’da thunk it!! I still really don’t believe it actually happened the way it did, and the only thing that makes me realize it isn’t all some old Rod Serling “Twilight Zone” episode is the way some of the crew at the Conch kept greeting me for days afterward with “Hi, champ” every time I walked in. Sure is a good feeling. In retrospect, and on deeper reflection, I gotta tell you: “THAT WAS ONE HELL OF A NICE BOAT RIDE!!!”


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