It would be nice if all charter trips were glamorous journeys in search of majestic billfish, and the customers were all “supermodels” working on the perfect tan while the crew hunted for their next world record catch. In reality, some trips will turn out to be ferrying a boat load of jerks around who want to fill all their relatives’ freezers with fish while barfing up whatever beer the local supermarket had on sale most of the day. All a charter operator can hope for is that the majority of his trips will fall somewhere between these two extremes – and most do.
The trip I’m about to describe was a sort of going away party for a utility company executive out of Houston. His employers hired us to take the lucky retiree-to-be and some of his friends and co-workers out for a day on the Gulf. In this group were fellows who were just along for the ride and a couple who knew just enough about fishing to cause problems. Like most captains, I always make a honest effort to put my anglers on fish, and what this trip was paying meant the guys would get a shot at snapper, kings, ling, etc. – anything we could run across within 30 miles or so from the jetties.
Our first stop was at the V.A. Fogg wreck, 31 miles off Freeport – about as far offshore as I was willing to take this group. It wasn’t as hot as the weather has been this summer, but still pretty damn warm. We caught a few snapper, and lost some nice ones because one of the fishermen liked to work the transom corner, and managed to wrap up on the prop and shaft every time he hooked a fish. With the current running opposite of the wind direction, it was awfully hard to hold the boat in position while my mate, “Six-Pack” Jack Pierce, tried to keep the one guy out of the props and the rest from letting their baits drift under the boat. After about an hour, Six Pack was showing signs of wanting to move – possibly to another boat with a different set of customers!
Trolling was a total wash out on this day – not even a bonito. Usually, if I can get this type of crew on a bunch of bonito, I’ll let them fight ‘em ‘til their arms are tired. At least we get good cut bait for the next time we have serious snapper fishermen on board, and the pilgrims get to go head to toe with a legitimate light tackle sport fish. With no bonito on the prowl, our options were getting limited. On our way to the “Baby Bucs” – a small group of rigs inshore and to the east of The Fogg, a captain buddy on another boat radioed that he had found a few dolphin around a floating 4X4 timber, but his crew had managed to scare them off by the time we got there. I intended to drift the rigs for snapper and maybe kings, but wasn’t real optimistic about our chances. If they had let Six Pack catch a few fish for them, and watched his technique, things might be going better – but these were high level management guys, and not inclined to take lessons from a mere deck hand.
There is a pretty good shrimpboat wreck at the Baby Bucs, but it really wasn’t worth the time it would take to find it and drop a buoy for people that wouldn’t know how to fish it anyway. I was already accepting the fact that we’d probably not get a repeat charter from this company, when I saw the shrimpboats tied to the rigs. You’d think this would be a great situation, with two of the best types of fishing “structure” in the Gulf combined on one location, but usually the boats tied up to rigs are Vietnamese. Instead of sleeping through the day like other shrimpers, these folks will often have crew members fishing off the stern with handlines. When this happens, number one – they catch most of the available fish, and number two – the handlines get in our way if we try to drift or troll close to the boat. We decided to give them a try anyway, and I backed down to let Six Pack throw out a few handfuls of chum – maybe we’d find our bonito here!
When fish came out to flash in the chumline, however, they weren’t bonito, but some really pretty little chicken dolphin! These brightly colored fish have saved more than one charter trip from being a washout for me over the years, and Six Pack started the drill immediately. Light tackle would have caused problems with this group, so he rigged the tackle they had been using for snapper with either tandem “Spec Rig” jigs or small hooks baited with the same tiny shad we use for chum. By tossing handfuls of shad behind the boat and keeping the first hooked dolphin in the water, we were able to draw most of the school away from the shrimpers. With inexperienced anglers, it looked like the proverbial Chinese fire drill in the cockpit! Six Pack was chasing dolphin with a hand towel (the only sure way to pick up the slimy little critters) while trying to keep bait on the hooks that needed it and instruct the jig fishermen on how to “fly-line” their lures back to the greedy little dorado. Dolphin were flying through the air, jigs were imbedded in the canvass cockpit overhang, and our customers were more excited than they’d been all day, when disaster struck!
I heard one of the fishermen yelling, “Shark! I see a shark! Look! It’s right over there! Maybe I can hook it. Wow!”
Six Pack took one look at the “shark”, and moved towards our potential Capt. Quint. “Hold on now! That ain’t a shark, it’s a damn remora! Plu-e-e-ze don’t let him have that jig!”
But it was too late. The little remora had inhaled the jig, and was now doing what remoras do best when hooked – which is next to nothing. Six Pack grabbed the leader and swung it aboard, all the while dodging a barrage of jigs from other anglers who wanted to be shark fishermen, as well as one guy still trying to catch dolphin. The fellow who had hooked the suckerfish was as fascinated with it as though he actually had caught “jaws”, and asked Six Pack what sort of creature this was.
“It’s a damn remora, or shark sucker. We mostly call ‘em tennis-shoe-heads, ‘cuz of the way the suction cup on top looks so much like the tread on the bottom of a tennis shoe – you guys probably call ‘em runnin’ shoes or sumpthin. They’ll eat every bait you don’t jerk out of their mouth, and swallow all my dolphin jigs, too – ‘cept for the ones I got stuck in my head from the way you guys have been thrashin’ ‘em around in the air!”
“I got a shark over here, too! A big one!”
Six Pack looked at the bent rod and shook his head, “No sir, you hooked a damn tennis-shoe head, too, but you let him suck onto the boat when you didn’t haul him out of the water like you shoulda.” He tried pulling the sucker loose, then reached for the short gaff to lever it off the hull. “I’ll have him off in a jiffy, Skipper, I can fix these gouges in the gel coat next time we haul for a bottom job!” Just as he managed to scratch the remora off and bring it aboard, another angler thrust his catch in his face and asked, ”Are you sure this isn’t a baby shark?”
“No sir, ‘cuz if it wuz a shark, it would have bit me by now!”
“Are these fish good to eat?”
“Nope. That’s how they stay alive, ya know?” He was diligently running a fillet knife through the hapless remora’s suction equipment as he talked – they are repeat offenders, and will keep right on hitting baits they’re not wanted on if you practice “catch and release”. “They suck onto sharks, big ling, an’ billfish – shrimpboats, too, and ride along until the big fish kills somethin’, then they cut loose an’ go after the scraps. Kinda like lawyers of the sea – ain’t none of you guys from the legal department, are ya? In a way, they remind me a lot of a couple of my ex-wives. In fact, this one even looks a lot like my last ex-wife! To make sure they were able to make a livin’ as scavengers, the good lord made them taste so bad that the host fish wouldn’t eat ‘em for nothing. If you cut one up for chum, the scent’ll chase every livin’ creature away within several miles – even the seagulls.”
“Why are they so easy to catch,” asked one of the customers.
“Well, Mother Nature played a cruel trick on this here fish. She gave him this fancy suction equipment – sure none of you fellows want me to stick one on your leg? Makes a real interestin’ hicky! – so he could make a real easy livin’, but with the location where she put it, there wasn’t any room in his head for any brains! Now if you gentlemen will allow me to remove this here jig from my earlobe before people on other boats start thinkin’ I took up wearing ear rings, an’ let me unwrap that ol’ boy in the corner from around the prop shaft again, we’ll try that next shrimpboat for some more dolphin. Just promise me you’ll leave the tennis-shoe-heads alone next time, OK?”
Another fine day at sea. There’s no other life like it!
Later, at the dock, Six Pack began working on his revenge. I saw it coming, of course, but I didn’t see that there was much I could do about it. Besides, there’s a certain satisfaction in watching a real pro at work.
After the catch was cleaned and iced, and the boat washed down, my star deckhand was helping the customers load up their gear for the trip home. As one of our fishing pilgrims started to transfer the remainder of the day’s beer ration from the big cooler on the boat to his personal ice chest, Six Pack moved in to stop him.
“Sorry, Sir, but I’m afraid I’ll have to impound those cans of beer, Federal Law, ya know.”
“Huh?” moaned the confused customer.
“Due to new regulations, we’re required to monitor the number of full cans of beer brought aboard, the amount we can visually verify as consumed, and match these figures against the full cans remaining at the end of the day – which must be left with the crew as part of the record-keeping process.” Six Pack’s diction had improved tremendously. “Now, I already counted the empties in the recycle sack, and what with these two six packs you got left floatin’ around in the cooler, I only come up with a three can discrepancy from the original quantity of suds ya’ll brought aboard this mornin’. I figure I can cut you some slack here, seein’ as how you mighta drank those while I had the glasses on those girls in the dive boat back at the Fogg.”
(They could have drank ALL the beer while you were ogling those babes, I figured.)
“What is this, some kind of anti-drunk driving law?” asked one of the guests.
“No sir, it’s strictly a conservation measure. I always thought it a sad reflection on our species that some of us can be so cruel and wasteful, but facts is facts, an’ history backs ‘em up. You probably remember how greedy market hunters in the old West shot whole herds of buffalo down just to cut out their tongues for the Eastern market – leavin’ the rest of the carcass to rot on the plains? More recently we have the problem of commercial longliners – mostly Japanese, though it may not be politically correct to say so – catchin’ sharks an’ cuttin’ off the fins to sell to the Chinese, who think eatin’ soup made outa them’ll put lead in their pencils, an’ dumpin’ the rest of the fish overboard. The poor ol’ shark caint steer without fins, an’ usually dies in a head on collision with somethin’ or the other.”
“But what does that have to with our beer?”
“Well, I’m getting’ to that. See, when the price of some part of a critter gets to be worth enough that the time it takes to save the whole thing properly don’t pay no more, there’s a danger of wasteful slaughter to profit off the high-priced part. Now, with the price of aluminum getting’ so high these days …”
“Wait a minute! If you want the empty cans, just say so.”
“Oh, no sir, I don’t sell cans. With the generous tips my customers leave me, I don’t have to. You fellas DID remember to include a gratuity for the crew, huh? No, see, when the price of cans went over 40 cents a pound, a cruel practice developed around here. It seems that some people are dumpin’ the poor beer out over the side, an’ keepin’ just the cans for resale!”
“What sense does that make?”
“My point, exactly! Skipper, how long do you think a beer will survive outside the protection of its can?”
“Well, I know it goes flat in a glass in just a matter of minutes in warm weather. “ I was hoping he wouldn’t get me involved in this.
“So, if you pour it into open water, it’s gonna be gone just like that!” He snapped his fingers in one man’s face for emphasis. “Anyhow, to prevent the cruel and wasteful practice of ‘canning’, as it’s come to be known, – like finning the sharks, dontcha know – the Coast Guard requires all charter crews to monitor beer consumption on the water, make sure no significant amounts are purposely dumped, and then confiscate all remainin’ full cans upon reachin’ port. You might find this hard to believe, but they suspect some crooks are usin’ fishin’ trips as a cover to dump beer in the Gulf, and profit from the empty can sales!”
At this point, the only guy still trying to understand Six Pack’s little lecture was being dragged towards the parking lot by his buddies. I was glad they’d already given me a deposit for another trip before this foolishness started.
“I hope you’re proud of yourself.”
“I WAS pretty good, wasn’t I?”
“Why don’t you just ask for the leftover beer? They’d probably give it to you.”
“No sport in that, Skipper. An’ it tastes a whole lot better when it’s theirs, not mine. Besides, I figure I’m doin’ a public service. Probably get a man of the year award from them Madd Mothers.”
“How do you figure that?”
“Well, THEY ain’t drinking, an’ WE ain’t drivin’! Just need to come up with a scam for bottles, though. I really rather drink my beer out of bottles, you know.”
This story first appeared in Sportfishing Magazine’s Fish Tales column.