Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Biggest Fish: Fort Lauderdale 2009

I am not a fisherman. Yes, I've fished--as a kid on the lakes of South Dakota and Minnesota, in the streams and creeks of Iowa; a little bit in the rivers of Montana, more on the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico and on the bayside of the Keys in Florida. But, I'll say again, I am not a fisherman.

I was back down in Fort Lauderdale just over a week ago. Stayed with Billy. Francis came down from Montreal and stayed at Billy's as well . . . Billy is a fisherman. Francis also, though not a saltwater one like Billy. But it was the three of us, maybe five years ago (the actual year is fuzzy, so I'm only making a guess on 2009), who went out on Billy's small Boston Whaler one gray morning to catch fish and hooked The Biggest Fish, one that Billy still talks about to this day.

As mentioned, it was a gray day, cool for Florida, spittles of rain. It was also rough--especially for a small boat like Billy's worn-down Whaler. Yet, out we went, bouncing high over the wake of freighters and cruise ships and tugs in the passage out of the port, then bouncing, pitching, popping among the cresting waves of the sea that day. I don't know--four to six feet. The waves did not come regular, rather they came at odd and divergent angles, piling into each other to create diamond-shaped crests that kept the boat tilted one way and another at all times. A churning sea. A washing machine sea. Few other fishermen were out there. But we were out there.

(Me? I like flat calm seas, like those in the Keys. But Billy says fishing is not good in those seas--he likes it a bit rougher. He won't sit in a boat and throw a line out along the reefs, for Snapper or Grouper or what-have-you. he only trolls, back and forth, usually south of the port, to Hollywood, Hallandale, North Miami and back, sometimes a mile or three out, six hundred to one thousand feet of water, fishing for Dolphin (Mahi mahi), Tuna, Wahoo. I've caught those fish (and Barracuda) except Wahoo, which is the fish I'd like to catch, of course . . . But we kept closer to shore that day--400, 200 ft--due to the rough seas.)

I was steering the boat when one of the lines went zinging. Billy got it and--as he usually does--handed the pole to someone else, in this case Francis. Francis was a little sea sick--what with the boat bouncing, the drinking of beer for breakfast, and the fact he was a lake fisherman. But Francis was game and he took it and he could tell it was something larger than he had ever caught before. he fought that fish--despite being seas sick--for a good half hour before Billy spelled him. And then Billy could tell that it was even a bigger fish than he had ever had. So, this was The Biggest Fish. It was a Dolphin. A Bull. Billy thought it was at least fifty pounds, maybe sixty.

I steered the boat (as said, I am not a fisherman and it was probably best I didn't take the line what with such a large fish on it, one that Billy wanted to see brought into his boat), keeping its bow forward in the tall diamond-waved sea as best I could at a very slow-to-null speed. And Billy fought that fish for a half an hour. Billy liked to see other people catch fish--he was/is generous like that and he handed the pole back to Francis who pulled and retrieved and let out line for another half hour or so and then they switched back and, after a time, switched back again.

We were out there for two hours fighting one big fish. It was a dolphin. They got it to to surface, got it close to the boat. And even though I did not take a turn, I sympathized with the fish. (Which is why I'm not a good fisherman, or a good hunter, or much of a good spider-in-the-house-killer for that matter.) That big fish wanted to live. It fought like crazy to live. So, I was of the mind that, you know, it should live--though I never said this at the time, only later that day. Billy wanted it in his boat. Francis--a year or so later, said he was for the fish as well (though I had to promise to never tell Billy this, and I have not) but I don't think because of that he didn't try hard to land this dolphin fish, I know he didn't.

Well, the fish got tired. It did not give up but eventually we got it alongside the boat. Billy got the gaff and, just as he was going to gaff this huge colorful bull---PING--the line broke.

Goodbye The Biggest Fish.

It was free and it drifted--exhausted--down into the depths.

Secretly, I was okay with that.

Billy almost jumped into the churning Atlantic after it. he pounded the gaff in the water, on the boat. he yelled and screamed and cursed, animated, excited, angry and happy all the same. Francis felt horrible for losing it. It was the biggest fish Billy would have ever had in his little boat. No doubt he was already thinking of the photos, the pride, the stories and the great big fat filets that fish would provide.

But it was not to be.

And the sad thing was that that fish--so big and now so tired--would not survive. A huge hammerhead, in fact, came slipping by not long after the fish had escaped. Billy was certain it was going to get itself a nice lunch with our fish . . . So it goes.

Yet, though the fish was not caught, the story of almost catching it has become a legend in Billy-World. It is told and retold and alluded to all the time, especially this last time when Francis was there and I was there and we went out fishing twice (we caught nothing; nothing!; not even a bite).

I still hold out hope that the fish lived. That there was no shark (I did not see it, but I know Billy did) or that the shark was not after the fish who fought so hard to survive. Who can say what happened? I can't. But the story of the fish is, perhaps, greater than the fish. It is greater. And it will live on, for Billy and Francis and me, live on in the neighborhood in Fort Lauderdale and in the minds of anyone who hears the tale and who understands it, other fishermen of that ilk.

The Biggest Fish was not caught, but its mythos survives in oral tales amongst we who know of it.

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