By Cap’n Larry Jarboe
Over three decades ago, I had two of the best jobs in the world. During the day, I was mate then captain of a large snorkel boat that operated out of the concession at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, Florida. On weekends, after cleaning up the snorkel boat, I ran the night fishing party boat out of the Holiday Inn dock three miles south.
You might think I would have had my fill of boats, but on the few days that I had off, I could usually be found on a boat fishing in the Gulf Stream.
So, during a captain’s holiday in June of 1979, I joined Capt. Dave Shaver, mate Jeff Banagan and about twenty customers on a half day trip out to blue water on the Miss Majestic. Capt. Dave and Jeff both originally hailed from the Baltimore area. Last I heard, Jeff is selling Komatsu heavy equipment in the Baltimore metro area.
In my little bait cooler were a half dozen iced down goggle eyed scads from the Saturday night fishing trip. Goggle eyes are a baitfish about six inches long that feed in the chum line at night. They are also deadly mutton snapper bait. A ten or twelve pound mutton snapper makes for some mighty fine catching and eating.
The Gulf Stream north current was pretty strong that particular day, so Capt. Dave anchored at the base of the first drop-off in ninety feet of water. There, the current was steady but very fishable. Patiently, I waited with my bait on the bottom for the gentle bump that signified a big snapper was tasting my bait. The time slowly passed for me on the port side of the boat but old Frankie hooked a big one near the stern.
I pulled my line in and went to help Jeff with the fish. From deep in the clear blue water, we could see a twenty pound gag grouper coming to the surface. The fish was barely lip hooked and there were lines tangled around the fish. Capt. Dave called out for no one to pull should they feel a bite but his words did not register with all the customers. Someone felt that fish on their line and jerked. Ten feet down, we saw another line literally pull the hook out of the fish’s mouth. Jeff stabbed for the fish with his long handled gaff but it was too far down. The fish drifted north and came belly up behind the stern still beyond the reach of Jeff’s gaff.
It had been a terrible year for bottom fishing as the Federal Government had adjusted their boundary lines closer to shore.
This opened up a loop hole in the law that allowed fish traps on the reefs.
In only a few months, commercial fish trappers had cleaned the reefs of snapper and grouper while destroying parrotfish and angelfish in their by-catch.
Frankie who was nearing eighty years old was a true grouper trooper. He had caught more than his share of forty to fifty pound black groupers. This year he had not caught a single big fish.
As I swam to the fish, I called to Jeff, “Bring the gaff!”
Like a a brave javelin thrower, my fellow Marylander flew over the stern with the long handle gaff.
I grabbed the upside down fish by the eye sockets while treading water with my feet. Jeff caught up with me. I turned the fish upright with it’s back on the surface.
Jeff complied but the bloated belly grouper was having no part of being stuck one more time. As the gaff hook point hit his back, the fish dove hard breaking loose of my grip. Down the fish dove with Jeff swimming behind it trying to drive the gaff home. Again, we missed the fish.
We had no choice but to swim back to the boat. As we began the swim up current, the customers called out, “He’s back up!”
Jeff and I looked back to see that white belly a hundred yards behind us. We made the swim in no time. After the first failed rehearsal, we did not mess up a second time.
Together, we took turns doing the one armed sidestroke dragging the gaff and hooked gag grouper against the current about 300 yards back to the boat. Capt. Dave reached over the stern and grabbed the gaff and grouper out of the water while the customers helped haul us in.
While we dried off on the deck, Capt. Dave told us that he had seen the largest school of barracuda that he had ever witnessed right under our feet as we got back to the boat. Jeff and I said, “Why didn’t you warn us!”
Capt. Dave replied, “I didn’t want you to drop that fish, again.”
Old Frank won the fish pool that morning. He gave Jeff and I ten bucks each which was a lot of money back then. In following years, I asked about him but he was not seen on the party boats since that exciting day.
Likely, this was Frankie’s last big fish. We three Maryland boys working in the Keys were fortunate to play a part getting it into the boat. I am even more grateful to have a tale to share with you about a very slippery gag grouper.