Illustrations by Brett Affrunti
The following is an excerpt from the novel Sucked Dry: The Struggle is Reel available on Amazon.
Sandbagger: n. A person who downplays or misrepresents his or her ability in an effort to deceive, cheat or obtain the upper hand, especially in gambling, or in this case, fishing.
“Are you really sure you want to do this?” I asked.
“Yes!” Capt. Teddy Griffin responded emphatically.
“Seriously, Teddy, I think you’re going a bit too far with all of this,” I said.
“I’ll tell you what’s too far, mate. Those motherf’kers have been using our intel for weeks and never shared a goddamn bite. So I’m going to fill this bag with sand, and I’m going to make a statement.”
Teddy’s knees were freckled with bits of crushed rock as he shoveled handfuls of the white Caribbean granules into a plastic zipper bag. He looked ridiculous. A grown man frantically taking handfuls of sand and smashing them into a bag the size of a throw pillow, compacting the grit with a mix of rage and madness. Beads of sweat popped up on his shaved head like condensation on a cold cocktail. He muttered awful thoughts under his breath with discernible phrases like “going to kill” and “maim you” rising to the top of the cauldron.
The shoveling continued until the gallon-size bag was full like a stuffed bear. Teddy held the bag up and grinned at me with an uneasy, teeth-showing half smile.
“You look crazy, man. Maybe you should just take a breath and rethink this for a second.”
“Nah, all good mate,” Teddy said, a menacing gleam to his wide, ice-blue eyes. “Let’s bloody do this!”
He popped up to his bare feet and launched into a high-speed march back toward the marina. I could hardly keep up with him.
“Slow down!” I hollered as he strode farther away from me. “Teddy. Teddy!”
There was no halt to Teddy’s gait. I struggled to keep within five strides of him. The veins on his forearms and neck were enlarged, pumped up and fueled with a fury I’d never seen in him before.
He flew down the ramp to C dock, his march quickening with each step. He was a couple pumps shy of jogging. I picked up my stride, fearing a fight. I spotted a fillet knife on a bait table behind one of the boats on the dock and snatched it up as I motored past, holding it against my leg. Jesus, Teddy, please don’t go nuts, I thought to myself.
Teddy got to Ambitious about 20 seconds before me. He jumped off the bulkhead dock and landed right on the teak deck of the cockpit four feet below, causing a massive boom that I’m sure rattled everyone inside the boat like a cannonball fired from a galleon. In a flash Teddy was standing at the salon door, the bag of sand in his right hand. His left hand was clenched into a tight fist that he used to knock on the door. Not a soft knock. It was a full-on cop knock. Bang! Bang! Bang!
The door to the 70-foot sportfishing yacht slowly slid open, gliding gracefully along its track, powered by a hydraulic ram operated by a button.
“What the f’k, Teddy?!” screamed the man who opened the door. He was in his twenties, tall, tan and in very good shape. But he was scared. You could tell from his pained squint and shaking hands that he was not about to fall on any sword.
“May I please come in?” Teddy asked, his best schoolboy smile smugly plastered across his face.
“No, you may not. The boss is on the phone, and he doesn’t much appreciate you scaring the shit out of everyone.” This was about when I got to the boat and quietly stepped onto the deck. I stood two feet behind Teddy, panting like an overweight Labrador Retriever.
“It will only take a second,” Teddy said and pushed the young man aside. The deckhand didn’t push back. The owner of the boat, a wealthy banker from Brazil, was sitting at the dinette table, speaking Portuguese into a cell phone. He wore his long white hair slicked back and tied in a tight ponytail. He had on a long-sleeve shirt with the name of the boat, Ambitious, and a drawing of the boat on the front pocket. A thick gold chain hung around his neck outside of his shirt. I didn’t know his name. He was a new player on the offshore tournament circuit. For his first boat he purchased a 70-foot yacht-
fisher that probably cost about $3.2 million. He hired a crew to take care of it and put him on fish. All he did was order guys around and reel in whatever they could hook. Unfortunately for the crew, the owner preferred to fish alone. He was ultra-competitive.
The owner held his hand up to Teddy like you might do to someone you want to high-five, but this slick character didn’t want to slap hands. He was using his hand like a crossing guard, telling Teddy to stop. The man was too engrossed in his phone call, or didn’t want to show Teddy the respect to end the call. Across the dinette from the boat’s owner sat the captain, a 30-something guy that everyone called Beans. The captain knew that Teddy was here to see him, and he didn’t make eye contact. Teddy had no interest in talking to the owner or the deckhand. Teddy got right in the captain’s face. Their noses were two or three inches apart. I’m sure Beans could smell Teddy’s sweat and feel his breath against his chin.
“Don’t you ever call me on the radio again unless you’re f’king sinking,” Teddy said. His words came out slowly and deliberately with just a hint of his Australian accent. Teddy bit down on every syllable, the corners of his jaw moving like he had a mouthful of marbles. Teddy lifted the bag of sand high above his head and held it there until everyone in the room was staring at it. Then he opened his grip and let the sandbag drop onto the table. Thunk. The bag didn’t open or pop, but the message was delivered. The captain’s mouth fell open and he gasped. The deckhand froze, wide-eyed. The owner went quiet and pulled his phone away from his ear. Teddy stepped backward out of the salon, his gaze fixed on Beans. Teddy smiled the whole way out of the boat.
There are not many rules in the sport of offshore fishing, but a code of conduct does exist. These ethics are not written down in any journal or book, but if you spend enough time fishing, you get a sense of the unspoken best practices and can quickly tell the good crews from the bad.
Much like sandbox rules, there is a way to play nice and then there is everything else. You’re going to have to share from time to time. You’re going to have to help one another. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Play fair and you will be liked wherever you go. If you don’t adhere to the rules, the word will get out and you may find yourself in a strange port somewhere with a major boat problem and nobody willing to help you. It always comes back around. As for Beans, the shit was all over the fan. He’d pissed off one of the good guys who had a big network of other good guys.
For many men, fishing is an ego thing, and for these particular men, just about everything is an ego thing. I generally despise these guys. The amount of pressure they put on themselves and everyone around them is infectious—in a bad way. Like the measles. We all prefer to win over losing, but there are various ways to go about it. We’re all inherently competitive. We like the feeling of catching the most fish or the biggest one on the dock. Sometimes it is pure luck that separates the winners from the runners-up. But more often than not, the winners did their homework, they prepared, left nothing to chance and were rewarded for their efforts.
For a fisherman, pulling into the marina as the day’s high hook is akin to winning the “big” game, especially in one of the major fishing hot spots like Hatteras, Montauk, Ocean City, St. Thomas, Cabo or Isla. If you’ve been lucky enough to fish one of those spots, or one similar, then you know the caliber of the crews that tie up there. Beating the best captains and crews in the world makes winning even more triumphant. It’s no fun to beat up on the newbies. That’s easy, but out-fishing someone you respect is pretty spectacular.
Pick your favorite sport to play: football, baseball, tennis or golf—it really doesn’t matter. Think about the day you played your best. The day you beat your rival. That memory lives on inside of you. It’s the same thing for anglers, especially when fishing tournaments.
While I’m not a huge tournament guy, Teddy is. He’s also a professional captain who owns his own vessel and does all of his own marketing. To him, winning a tournament equates to a nice chunk of money in his pocket and generates some buzz about him through social media and the local coconut wire (aka dock talk). Teddy has won plenty of tournaments because of his preparations. He checks and rechecks all of his tackle. He goes through the boat meticulously to make sure all systems are perfect. And when he wins, he’s not a dick about it. He doesn’t talk smack. Sure, Teddy likes to bust balls and light a few fires, but he abides by the unspoken code. For that reason, Teddy lives within the circle of trust. The same cannot be said for Capt. Raymond “Beans” Diaz, a transplanted Puerto Rican guy who got his nickname as a teenager working on the charter boats out of Hillsboro Inlet in South Florida. Some captain he worked for thought Beans was Mexican, even when Raymond explained over and over that he was Puerto Rican, and a U.S. citizen. The name stuck. I didn’t know him before flying down to the Caribbean to fish with Teddy, but I’d heard about him.
Turns out Beans and Teddy had some history. For the past several years the two men fished the Caribbean during the summer, mostly trolling for blue marlin and white marlin from St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. They ran into each other at a tournament or two in Puerto Rico, and both crews fished the final six weeks of the summer blue marlin bite in the Dominican Republic, fishing the FADs (fish-aggregating devices) stationed along the southern coast.
There were only 12 or so full-time offshore fishing boats operating out of Punta Cana in the D.R. for the months of May and June, when the bite is typically the best. And they all ported in the same marina. A small community, no doubt, with a lot of ocean to cover. The crews hung out together at the marina bar, and the captains touched base on the VHF radio throughout the day. Some captains worked more closely together than others, but for the most part information was shared openly. Boats that work together inevitably catch more fish. They can cover more water, try different techniques and figure out patterns to determine what baits or teasers are working better.
Radio chatter is a way for guys to cut through the boredom in between bites. But it’s not just senseless riling. These captains are mining for intel. Captains have their own ways of pulling information out of one another. Sometimes they’re direct: “What’d you catch over there?” Other times it’s more like banter.
“Reel Affair, Reel Affair, you on here, Billy?”
“I gotcha, Teddy, what’s up?”
“Slow morning, mate,” Teddy says, his Aussie accent giving him away. “Been fishing Two Rocks. Got one bite early on but it didn’t come tight. Small white marlin. Where you at, Billy?”
“Roger that, buddy. We ran out to the FADs. Bite just started to pick up. Just released our second blue.”
“Hey, there ya go. If you catch one with a blue Hawaiian Eye in its face, that’s mine,” Teddy says. “Lost one out there a couple days ago.”
“I’ll keep an eye out for it, Teddy. Good luck today.”
“You too, Billy. If it turns on here, I’ll let you know.”
“Roger that, appreciate it.”
Now both guys knew what was going on at the other spot. No burning intel, just a few tips. If it did turn on, they may let each other know. Or they may not. But if you do share that kind of burning-hot information, telling the other boat to make a 5- or 10-mile run because the bite is going Richter, well then you expect to receive the same kind of information down the road. It’s a reciprocal thing. If you only take and never give, you end up with a bag of sand on your salon table, an upset boss and a bad reputation.
“Don’t take another step, you Aussie coward!” Beans yelled at Teddy and me as we were laughing our way back to the boat. Teddy stopped and turned, his signature smile shining brightly. He opened up his arms like the crucifix and didn’t say a word. I instantly regretted my decision to return the fillet knife I pocketed earlier.
Beans was carrying the bag of sand. When he was about 15 feet away from us, he lifted his left leg like a baseball pitcher and hurled the bag of sand using all of his body weight. His rear leg came off the ground as he let the bag fly, sending it whizzing over Teddy’s head by a good three feet. The bag smashed into a shore-power utility box, knocking off a big chunk of the white plastic covering. The zipper of the bag opened and white sand spilled out onto the concrete bulkhead.
Teddy didn’t move an inch. “Nice throw, Beans,” he said. I couldn’t help but laugh. Beans’ entire face was bright red. He was raging mad, huffing and puffing like the big bad wolf. But he wasn’t that big, nor that bad. Teddy folded his arms and stood his ground. The two men looked like they were about to have an old-fashioned duel, facing one another from a distance of 20 paces. I was waiting for one of them to reach for their weapon, but they were both wearing board shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops.
“Don’t you ever jump on my boat again, you got me,” Beans said, some foam forming at the corners of his lips. His eyes were shielded behind dark, wraparound shades. His hair was jet black and set in place with gel that made it look wet.
“I don’t plan on it, you idiot,” Teddy said. “You know what you did. For days you call me on the radio and ask how they’re biting. I give you honest information of where and when we caught fish. You don’t give me shit, and then at the end of the day I hear that you caught three or four fish. You are a f’king sandbagger and I don’t want shit to do with you.”
“I’m in the tower all day, man,” Beans said. “Maybe the radio isn’t sending out as good as it’s picking up. I don’t know. I’m fishing the FADs 50 miles from you.”
Teddy looked at me. I shook my head ‘no.’ Beans runs a $3 million boat. The radio works fine. We heard him throughout the day, doing the same thing to the other captains in the area. He was trying to bullshit his way out of this.
The captains and mates on the other boats started assembling in the cockpits of their vessels, hoping to see something entertaining. Other than fishing, life gets kind of stagnant at this particular marina. Finally, there was something good to watch.
“Hey Billy,” Teddy hollered to Capt. Billy Whitman who was sitting on a cooler in the cockpit of Reel Affair, a gorgeous 60-foot Carolina custom sport-fisher with a flared bow and teak toe rail. He was drinking a rum cocktail out of a red plastic cup, enjoying this little debate. “When was the last time Beans asked you how they were biting?”
“And did you give some information on the fish you’d seen?”
“Sure I did,” Billy said. “That’s how us North Carolina boys do things. We are a very sharing, caring people.”
“Did Beans reciprocate?”
“F’k no,” Billy said. “When I saw his mate at the bar that night, I said if he ever calls me on the radio again I’d have to tell him to go f’k a sheep.”
“What about that time I gave you a few dozen ballyhoo, Billy?” Beans said. “You saying you’ll take my bait but you won’t be a Carolina gentleman?”
Old Billy didn’t like that comment one bit. He took a gulp from his drink, put it down on the covering board and stood up. Billy was pushing 50, but he had gone to school at Duke and played defensive end. He certainly hadn’t forgotten how to hurt a man. Billy slowly stepped from his boat onto the dock and started to walk toward Beans.
“All right, all right, you guys made your point,” Beans said, holding up his hands. “This is stupid. From this point on I am going to announce all of my hookups over the radio, okay? I’ll tell you the GPS coordinates for each bite. Hell, I’m going to tell you guys when I fart, when I crap and what I’m eating for lunch. Sound good? Happy now?”
Beans took the walk of shame back toward his boat. His sinewy 20-year-old mate lingered a good 50 feet away from him, talking to one of the deckhands from another boat.
“Thanks a lot for backing me up, Sean!” Beans hollered at the kid. Sean just looked at the ground. When Beans was out of earshot, Sean called him a stupid ass. The young man then came over to me, Teddy and Billy.
“You have no idea how much it sucks working for him,” Sean said. “He and the boss hardly get along, and the entire vibe on the boat is all business and no fun. They don’t play any music. There is no beer on the boat. When the bite is good, it’s somewhat tolerable, but I’m going nuts, man.”
“Sounds like you’re looking for a job,” Billy said to the young man. “You don’t want to work for a captain like that. He’ll only teach you how to do things the easy way, which is usually the wrong way.”
* * *
In an effort to assuage future dockside shenanigans, I have taken the liberty of constructing some basic rules for fishermen to abide by. So let it be said that the unwritten rules are now written. (Forgive me if I sound a bit preachy.)
The Ten Commandments of Fishing
1. Don’t Be a Dick
I claim this rule to be self-evident.
2. Never Leave a Boat in Need
Always, always, always respond to emergencies at sea. If you see a dead boat, make an effort to help out. It is Mariner’s Law. What goes around comes around.
3. Thou Shalt Not Steal Another Man’s Spot
Don’t be that guy. A fisherman’s GPS waypoints and unmarked hot spots are sacred property. We spend thousands of hours on the water and obscene amounts of money to accumulate a log full of fishing spots. Yes, you can cruise right by and grab my numbers, but I say shame on you.
4. Don’t Cheat and Don’t Lie
All fishermen exaggerate the truth at times, but don’t lie. Don’t cheat in tournaments. Don’t shove weights down the belly of a fish you’re about to place on a scale. It makes us all look bad.
5. Maintain a Wide Berth When Someone is Hooked Up
Nothing is more frustrating than another boat motoring over to you as you’re fighting a fish. I’ve seen people try to run over each other’s lines in big-money tournaments to cut off a potential winning fish. People like that deserve a jellyfish down their shorts.
6. Respect the Locals
Every location has its own way of doing things. Be friendly and courteous when you arrive to fish a new spot. Help the locals. Gain their respect and you will be rewarded.
7. Don’t Covet Thy Neighbor’s Boat
It’s not the size of the boat that matters ...
8. Don’t Covet Thy Neighbor’s Mate (meaning deckhand, not spouse)
This one has a fair bit of gray area, but you shouldn’t make a habit of stealing good deckhands from others. If they come to you on their own, well, that’s different.
9. Own Up to Your Mistakes
If you break something on the boat, be honest about it and either pay to get it fixed or roll up your sleeves and do it yourself. If you screw up and miss a fish, expect to be mocked. Take it like a champ. It happens to all of us.
10. Have Fun
It’s fishing. Not school. Not work. If you’re not having fun, you aren’t doing it right.