If there is anything more serious than a debt of honor, I don't know what it could be, and I owe such a debt to my brother-in-law, Johnny. We are both outdoorsmen, and over the last ten years each time I went to Florida to visit the in-laws with my wife, Johnny always took me fishing or diving or both. Most of the times, the trip was a major production involving big boats, lots of gas, time and money.
The last time he took me out was New Year's Day of 2014. With hangovers appropriate for the date, we headed out of the inlet about dawn in a 35 foot Donzi- a very big, very nice boat. The waves were very big, and not very nice. Besides myself and Johnny were the boat's owner Carlos, and an old friend of Johhny's named Mike who is a salty old professional fisherman.
The plan was to catch some bait at a buoy just outside the inlet, then do some bottom fishing. The current was rushing out of the inlet against the wind, which created huge waves. As we got outside the inlet, we went up, up, up a big wave. I looked around at everyone's face, and they were grim. At the top of the wave, Mike said, "These conditions are marginal." We went down the back of the wave and up, up, up the next one. Mike said, "The last time I was out in marginal conditions, I swore I would never do it again."
I would say a person's stomach contents are in one of three states. One is content, you're not thinking about it. Two is lively, you're not actually sick, but your stomach is restless and a mutiny is likely. Three, of course, is 'anchors away.' All four of us were in condition two.
But nobody actually said "Let's go back," because that would have meant you weren't as tough as the other men. The four of us belonged to a fraternity who's single condition of membership is willingness to get sick or whatever, in exchange for the chance to catch a fish. We might hurl, and we might even sink the boat, but we are not heading back. And I owed my membership to Johnny.
At the buoy we could see the bait on the depthfinder, but we couldn't get the boat to cooperate because the swells kept pushing us around. Mike was at the helm, playing a game of getting on top of the bait while not getting on top of the buoy. For those of us trying to catch bait, looking down into the ocean was like looking down into our own swirling, heaving stomachs, but somehow we actually caught a few baitfish and headed offshore to look for the big boys.
It was a little calmer once we got away from the inlet, but still rough enough to make holding onto something very prudent.
Mike took us to a secret spot where a reef rose ten feet off the bottom, making a fish magnet. And sure enough, we barely had lines down when a toad of a grouper took Carlos' bait, but after a brief struggle, it managed to get into the coral and broke the line. And no wonder, the boat was bucking like a mule, so it was hard to keep a tight line. But the big fish had our blood up, and we were focused.
We tried to get baits back onto the reef, but it was a small target and managing the boat was impossible in the sloppy conditions. Finally we gave up bottom fishing, and decided to troll. Trolling involves slowly driving the boat while dragging baits behind, so you don't have to worry about staying at one location.
On the east coast, trolling is mostly done with ballyhoo, a long thin fish like a barracuda, but smaller, with a bill. Rigging a ballyhoo for trolling is quite an art, and you have to be really good to do it quickly.
Trolling is more relaxed than bottom fishing, so we were able to swap stories and muse about where the fish might be. They weren't on our hooks.
After a few hours of trolling, we decided to head in, but we kept the lines in the water and slowly headed home. A few miles from the inlet, a line went off, and a green-and-yellow dolphin took to the air with our bait in it's mouth. I had the honor of reeling it in, and at least we had a fish in the box. Then another one hit, and Carlos brought it in. If it had been earlier in the day we would have circled back and trolled the same area a few more times, but we were pretty beat up and nobody said anything as we headed home.
Anybody can fish when the weather is nice, but when it's nasty outside only a few people choose to participate. And it's quite an honor to get invited on a really ugly day, because it says they think you can handle it.
And as I said, Johnny has been treating me like this for ten years.
When he came to Storm Lake to visit us last week the best I could offer him was an hour long trip to Little Storm Lake to do a little bottom fishing for carp.
They were only carp, but it was a cold windy day and we were the only people fishing. I wouldn't even have asked most people, but Johnny was happy to go.
* The columnist is a member of the Pilot news staff. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org