A fishing trip with no cell service and no headlines was just what the doctor ordered.
The sun had laid down and gone to bed hours ago in a sea of oranges and yellows spread across the sky. Constellations and planets winked at us from above as the Gulf of Mexico flattened out in front of us like a slick, black puddle. Classic rock tunes that I knew every word to rang out of a head-high speaker. My best friend of 15 years stood next to me, cracking jokes and talking smack. And every time my bait hit the bottom, it got bit.
Surely this must be what heaven feels like, especially after being stuck at home for weeks on end with dreams of adventure flooding my thoughts. But this was no dream. This was real time, and I just flipped another keeper over the rail.
Sometime last fall I had decided that I needed to do something special for my forty-fifth birthday. I’d always wanted to fish the prolific waters surrounding the Dry Tortugas, a small group of islands about 70 miles west of Key West. The Tortugas don’t see much in the way of boat traffic, and the fishing, especially the bottom fishing, is legendary. I figured 2020 was the year to make it happen, and I went about putting a trip together to celebrate my catapult into middle age. I knew of a boat in Key West that fished the Tortugas, but getting there would entail a 10-hour car ride and surely an overnight before departure, followed by a two- or three-day trip on the boat and the ensuing drive home. I didn’t have that kind of time.
At a fisheries meeting last November, I sat next to one of the captains who works at SeaTrek Fishing Charters, an operation in Ft. Meyers Beach, Florida, that takes small groups of anglers south toward the Tortugas on multi-day trips aboard a 65-foot head boat. He told me when to go, what to bring and what to expect. We reserved our space for a June 30 to July 2 trip, paid an extra $10 a head to pick our bunks, and let the anticipation build over the next several months.
If you don’t know the term “head boat,” it’s probably not what you’re picturing. Some folks also call these fishing boats “party boats,” and that does not paint an accurate picture either. Any partying on these boats entails cheap canned beer, day-old sandwiches and most likely a few seasick patrons chumming over the rail. The boats themselves are usually wide, aluminum jobs with plenty of room on the side decks for fishing. They chug rather than cruise, and the captain’s plotter is chockablock full of coveted fishing spots.
I grew up fishing on head boats and have fond memories of running out to the codfish grounds on the Hel-Cat in the thick of the New England winter. The boat hailed from Groton, Connecticut, and sported heated rails, running exhaust through the hollow piping, to keep your hands and gear from freezing up and sticking to the cold metal. The vessel wreaked of stale cigarette smoke, greasy egg sandwiches and cut squid. I know it sounds kind of miserable, but I loved it. The camaraderie among fishermen. The different walks of life taking their spot on the rail. But most of all, the big cod that the boat put you on back in those days. That was the reward for waking early and fishing in all manner of nasty weather.
Head boats certainly aren’t for everyone; they are short on frills, but if you want to spend some quality time with old friends and family and carve out a memory or two (complete with some good stories and some bad ones, too), head boats are a worthy platform to pursue. Fishing a head boat with a group of buddies is akin to sitting in a duck blind or camping off the grid. And in the case of this Tortugas trip, there’d be no cell signal, no news headlines and no interruptions. To me, that was a big part of the appeal. A chance to unplug, have some laughs and fill a cooler with some fresh fillets.
Then the pandemic hit. Life shut down. Charters were canceled. You know the story. The fishing trip was certainly not my top priority, but I secretly hoped that we could still pull it off, albeit safely. As Florida began reopening, the SeaTrek folks assured us they were taking extra precautions and that the boat would sail. I was incredibly grateful, as the trip was more needed now than ever.
We met the boat at 8 a.m., paid our balance, got our temperatures checked and began the loading process. First tackle, then coolers, then bags and personal belongings. We threw lines at 10 a.m., and after motoring past the entrance of the channel, the crew began their very thorough safety briefing. The boat was cleaner than any head boat I’d been on—new countertops in the galley, fresh paint on the walls and a hint of disinfectant in the air. We were told to wear masks in the cabin at all times and to drink lots of water and shown where to find life jackets in case of an emergency.
I’ve never seen the Gulf of Mexico so flat. The forecast called for zero to 2-foot seas and light winds, and it held true. I was eternally grateful for that. The top-heavy SeaTrek is known to bury the bow in big seas, sending coolers sliding to the stern and up-chuckers to the rail. There’d be none of that on this voyage. After our debriefing, my buddies and I found a shady spot to enjoy the 10-hour steam to the fishing grounds. The captain had his sights on some patches of live bottom more than 100 miles offshore. Beers were cracked, as were jokes. Before too long, my sides hurt from laughing, a feeling I hadn’t experienced in several weeks.
As we chugged along, the deckhands, two 30-something guys, one named Robbie and the other named Callum (who answered to Cole, Tallum or anything close to his South African name), filled the bait buckets with squid strips and cut bait. They also went through everyone’s tackle, tying on top shots of mono or advising a change in weight or hook size. Then they set a diving plug out over the stern on a trolling outfit, as the boat travels at an ideal speed for wahoo, a healthy 10 knots. Massive schools of flying fish skittered across the glassy surface. Dolphin played in the wake. The crew caught a nice kingfish on the plug and followed that with a beefy, 50-pound wahoo. I regretted not bringing a trolling rod.
Around dark, we made it to our first fishing spot. With only 18 anglers on the boat, there was ample space to put some distance between ourselves, and the company rotates out the prime spots on the stern so everyone gets some time in the hot seat. The anchor went down, followed by the baits. After 15 minutes or so with little to no action, my buddies began to doubt the captain’s prowess. “Well, you can always catch a buzz,” I said, digging a cold one out of the cooler.
The next stop, and the one after that, and the one after that, all told a much different story. Lines stayed tight, fish came up from the bottom, and photos were snapped. That first night, my buddies and I had the stern. Rob and his 14-year-old son Aiden were constantly doubled up, laughing, sweating and hugging. Steve and I hooked one yellowtail snapper after another and my other buddy Matt landed a real trophy yellowtail, the biggest I’ve ever seen at nearly six pounds, what we Floridians call a “flag” because of the bright yellow stripes that extend down its flanks. They’re beautiful, and fun to catch.
We also got to know some of our neighbors on the boat. The mates kept referring to an older gent who never left his spot on the port side as “Uncle John,” and I asked him why. “I’ve been fishing this boat for 30 years,” he said. “I’ve watched these guys grow up.” Turns out John had quite the interesting back story. Now in his late 70s, he was a songwriter and musician in a doo-wop band in the early ‘60s. He had met Martin Luther King Jr. and told us some riveting tales of traveling through the segregated South with his mostly African American bandmates.
Also aboard was a truck driver named Tom, a chiropractor and his brother, and a young serviceman out for a few laughs between deployments with his father and uncle, who sell roofing supplies. Everyone was friendly and grateful to be on good fishing.
As the night wore on, my arms grew sore, my hands stunk and my cheeks hurt from smiling. When the mates told us it was time to rotate out of the stern, I asked what time it was. He glanced at his watch and said, “take a guess.” I had no clue. “Midnight?” I said. “It’s 4:30 in the morning.”
I went inside to make a cup of coffee. I didn’t want to stop fishing.
The sun came up and the mutton snapper began to bite. Nice fish, too. The relief captain, who’s also a rep for Accurate fishing reels, hooked into a whopper that weighed 20 pounds. The world-record mutton was caught in these same waters, and didn’t weigh much more. We also found a large school of blackfin tuna, and the anglers in the bow blasted casting jigs at them to hook up. At some point, I began to slip fishing wise. Guys next to me were hooking up on the same exact bait I was using, but I couldn’t catch a cold. I hardly cared, but I decided to hit the rack for a couple hours.
I couldn’t tell you what time it was when someone woke me up with claims of grouper and red snapper, but I flew out of the berth into the 100-degree heat. Fishing was still hot, and I hooked up on my second drop, but the barracudas and sharks had found us. My catch went bye-bye in a very National Geographic-esque explosion next to the boat.
We kept fishing for another few hours, picking away at a bevy of different species. I was still in the same clothes I had walked on the boat wearing. My legs were covered in sweat, sunblock, fish scales and blood. My shirt was beyond ripe. Steve was fishing next to me, and I could tell he was fading. After a shark bit him off, he whispered that he was going to go take a shower. The boat holds 1,000 gallons of water so each person is allowed only one shower. You don’t want to waste that ticket, and Steve was the first man to break the seal. I kept fishing, but when Steve returned from the cabin donning fresh clothes and smelling of Irish Spring, I asked him how the shower was. “Absolutely perfect,” he said. “Good pressure and hot water.” I decided to go for it.
The head was nothing pretty. A toilet about the ideal size for a toddler sat in a corner just an arm’s reach from a fiberglass shower stall. But man that shower felt good. It woke me up, took me out of my fish focus and made me human again.
As I went back out on deck in fresh duds with combed hair, the captain made the call to reel up the lines and get ready for the long steam home. I was happy with my decision as all the guys jockeyed for their spot in the shower lineup.
The sun went down again, and we warmed up some London broil, chicken wings and buttered noodles in the microwave. We ate on paper plates, using coolers as tables. The food tasted heavenly. The beers went down, the ball busting began again, and at 3 a.m. we were back at the dock.
I haven’t felt that exhausted yet recharged in a long, long time. It’s funny what a good trip will do for the psyche.