Solitary Offshore Fishing Is Not Worth The Gamble
Stories of anglers fighting huge fish alone off surf boards and newspaper accounts of folks who cross oceans single handed in small boats give me the heebie-geebies! There are too many things that can go wrong out there on the big water – which is not man’s natural element, least anyone forget. A person who regularly fishes offshore alone – even in a capable boat – in my opinion, is also taking too many chances. In my largely misspent past, I have done a fair share of solitary boat fishing on freshwater lakes, ponds and rivers, and even in such protected waters this can be dangerous. During one period of my life I did some exploring past the breakers by myself in a surf launched skiff, but the only time I ever ventured offshore alone to fish on purpose was overall not an experience I want to repeat!
The situation arose that I had a day off from work during the middle of the week, when it was difficult to find crew members, and the Gulf was so flat that it created an opportunity that would have been hard for a small boat fisherman to pass on – so I didn’t. Leaving just after daylight, I followed Chocolate Bayou to West Galveston Bay and across, entering the Gulf at San Luis Pass, between Galveston Island and Follett’s Island – which is really the mainland on the Brazoria County side. The craft between my feet and the oily slick surface of the water was an old 18 foot, cold molded, semi-vee, mahogany plywood closed bow runabout built in 1960 by the B-Line boat company in Houston, Texas. I bought it from a neighbor who had it custom built, then replaced the old, original outboard with a new 85 hp model in 1979, the year this adventure occurred. The old boat served me well for several years for bayou and bay fishing, a little shrimping, and an occasional offshore trip in smooth water conditions – like on this day. Several miles offshore, I found a whole fleet of shrimp boats still working, but none yet anchored and culling. With just enough current to drift, I set out three rods – a deep shark bait on a 30# rig, a bait closer to the surface under a balloon on another 30, and a smaller drift bait on a 20# outfit. With the baits positioned where I wanted them, a chum-line consisting of small whole shad (menhaden) glittering in the clear water was started.
The wait for action was brief. First, a trawling shrimp boat seemed determined to run me over, but I guess he was just having a little fun because he missed me by a good several feet. Not long after I stopping bobbing in his wake, the deep bait was picked up by a good fish! After a pretty good tussle, a bull shark of at least seven feet in length was close enough to the boat for me to begin wondering what I was going to do with it. Fortunately, I guess, the situation was resolved when the fish made a run across the stern and cut the line on my outboard’s propeller. Tilting the engine clear of the water so that wouldn’t happen again and re-rigging, I had a little time to take in the situation around me – still water, a beautiful day, and no close neighbors except the shrimp boats and a flock of gulls. Being alone on the water didn’t seem bad at all, at the time.
My next fish took the balloon bait, and fought even harder than the first. When I had it within sight, it became another nice bull shark, although a foot or so smaller in length than the one I lost in the prop. I fought this one out carefully, then reached for my 12 gauge bang stick to complete the capture. After whacking the fish in the head several times, it became obvious the power head was not going to participate today (it turned out that the “barrel” had vibrated enough on the ride out to unscrew a bit, preventing the firing pin from contacting the shell). Falling back to plan “B”, I got my hand cannon out of its case. This is a Thompson Contender single shot, .44 magnum pistol. Just as I squeezed off the shot, I remembered that firing this thing with one hand is not a really smart move. I’ve seen Dirty Harry mow down the bad guys with a .44 magnum Smith held out at arms length in one hand in the movies, but I always figured that: a.) Clint Eastwood is a tougher man than me, and b.) Mr. Harry was probably shooting fairly light loads. What I had stuffed in the hand cannon were your all meat weiners – 245 grain hollow-points loaded more with the little Ruger carbines in mind than for a shark pistol. Of course, these thoughts came a little too late. I did manage to hang on to both the gun and the rod, but I felt like the recoil had broken my wrist! When I put the pistol down far enough away that I’d have to think a little more if I reached for it again anytime soon, the shark was a goner – probably just from the concussion. I wrapped the leader wire several times around the lifting hook on a hand cranked gin pole I used for shrimping, and began winching him high enough to get a good hold with the flying gaff. Of course, that’s when the snap swivel broke, and my hard-earned prize dropped back into the water – and kept on dropping deeper and deeper until it was out of sight. I watched it so long that the shrimpers probably thought I was hanging over the side seasick, but I was just sick.
Before I could reflect too long on the things I’d done wrong with this fish, I was startled back to the present by the screaming of a reel clicker! When clearing things out of the way during the previous fight, I’d dropped the little 20# outfit on the deck, and now it was loosing line at an alarming rate. This was a brand new rig – a little Penn International 6 that I don’t think was in production long enough to appear in an annual catalogue. Although it apparently didn’t see much demand as a light tackle record setter for billfish and tuna, the pair I still fish with are great little reels for kings, ling and other medium offshore fish – I even had a white marlin on one for a short time once. The 400 yards of 20# mono I had just days before spooled on the reel were now going off faster than I had put them on! By far the most enjoyable fight of the day, this one finally appeared as a 45# blacktip shark – a really pretty fish, and the one that didn’t get away.
As evening approached, I was feeling pretty good about the day, but ready to head in. As I got closer to shore, however, I could see the splashes of big fish actively feeding just past the surf line, so I slowed and put out two trolling lures – big gold Russel lures that are hell on kingfish – hoping for a tarpon strike to finish a great experience on the water. A strong hit came quickly, and the fish pulled so hard I imagined I had actually hooked my dream tarpon, – or another hefty shark. To even the odds a bit, I cut the line on the other trolling rod – the fish wouldn’t let me devote the time to reel it in – as well as killing the engine and tilting it up. After a long give-and-take struggle, my prize finally came into view – a 17 pound jack crevalle foul-hooked near the tail!
A bit dejected as well as flat worn out, I sat in the boat and pondered the jackfish over the first beer of the day – something I felt I’d earned at this point. When the mood passed and I turned the key to crank up and head back home, I heard only a frazzled buzzing noise! Repeated tries only confirmed that the engine was NOT going to start. I was a little too tired to panic, but definitely worried. I took the cowling off and tried to rope start the big outboard – something my dealer swore was possible, but it would barely turn under the best pressure I could apply. In those days, I didn’t fish offshore very much, so there was no VHF radio on board – only a CB. I could hear two fellows on base stations in Galveston gossiping about their neighbors – and I suspect they heard my calls for help, also – but no one ever answered. At one point a Marine Corps Reserve helicopter flew over, oblivious to my plight, and I considered opening fire on them with the hand cannon – figuring being arrested would be better than being lost at sea!
At this point, I was barely a long mile offshore, but just how long that mile was became apparent when I decided to slip over the side and swim in. Anchoring the boat and putting my wallet and the hand cannon in an Igloo Playmate cooler that could serve as both a dry-box and float, I hoped to get in, find a phone, and come back later with my 11 foot outboard powered inflatable to retrieve the boat. Perspectives change with angles of view – sometimes quickly and dramatically. It looked a lot farther to shore from the water’s surface than from even the slight elevation of the deck on the 18 footer. I told myself I had never tried to climb in this boat from the water, and should go through that drill in case I had to return for whatever reason, more tired than at the beginning of the swim. Without a swim platform or ladder, I had to climb up the outboard. It was difficult enough and it felt so much better out of the water that I talked myself into staying where I was. The wind had been out of the north all morning – blowing away from land – but just now it shifted to an easterly flow. I decided to pull the anchor, hoping to drift towards San Luis Pass and maybe to land on the other side. The drifting technique worked so well that it was soon obvious I would float to the pass, but I remembered that I had no idea if the tide was coming or going. An incoming tide might pull me inside the pass, where I could wade to shore, but a strong outgoing tide might push me out into the Gulf again!
The old boat had a folding canvass top that came off the windshield, and I thought if I put this up it might act as a sail – or a least a scoop – to increase my drift speed. Amazingly, the top caused the boat to make a sharp right turn and proceed to the beach at a pretty good rate of speed! There was only one vehicle on the sand on such a lazy Thursday evening, and I sailed towards it straight as an arrow! Beaching on the shallow second sandbar, I waded in to talk to a gentleman and his wife who thought until the end that I was coming ashore on purpose – not being shipwrecked! These nice folks took me to a bait camp where I called the Mrs. Holmes of that time period to get a fishing neighbor to bring my truck and trailer down and help me load the boat in the surf – or try to. An hour or so later, my pregnant wife arrived with the truck – by herself. It seems the neighbor had helped her hook up the trailer, but said he couldn’t come himself because he had tickets to a pay-for-view boxing match in Houston that night. Since I had gone out on the bay looking for him one night not long past when HIS wife called and said he was overdue at home – only to find he and a cohort were in a bar most of the time – my response was that if he wanted to see a fight, he was going to see a real good one the next time our paths crossed!
It wasn’t as hard to load the boat as I might have thought, and my new friends on the beach stayed to help. The verdict on the outboard later was starter brushes burnt up – easily fixed after the fact. No harm was done to anyone but a few hapless fish, and I learned a valuable lesson about how foolhardy it is to venture out in big water alone. I mean, if there’d been someone else aboard, I could’ve made THEM swim to shore! The jackfish, by the way, is mounted on my wall, right next to my 5 foot ‘gator gar.
I waited two days to call the neighbor who didn’t have time for a rescue. In a weak voice I croaked “David … this is Mike … when you get time . . . I’m still down here on the beach waitin’ for help … and the mosquitoes are gettin’ kinda bothersome.”
My advice on this subject is simple. If you want to be alone while fishing the Gulf, tie a couple of surf rods on the truck and drive down the beach!
(Author’s Note: This is a true story, written partly as a “mood” type article that appeared on the back page of Saltwater Sportsman.)