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Duck Key in the Florida Keys

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On February, 1922, I returned to my old haunts at Long Key, Florida, to find that absence had only endeared the coral islet to me, and that the interval of study, writing, and the charm of new places had brought me only greater appreciation of old associations.

It is now ten or twelve years since R. C. and I accidentally dropped into Long Key Fishing Camp. We had been en route for Tampico to fish for tarpon, and when the captain of the Ward Liner told us of yellow, fever in Mexico, we disembarked at Nassau and eventually wound up at Long Key.

How well I remember being puzzled by a number of anglers quite out of my ken! They were bonefishermen. At that time this vague classification did not mean anything in my young angling life. I really did not give them credit for rationality. Somebody designated them as "bonefish bugs." It is not my intention to dwell upon the years required to inoculate R. C. and me with this peculiar and irresistible mania.

It will suffice to give a few impressions of what I nicknamed the Bonefish Brigade. Even at that early day they had been coming to Florida every winter in pursuit of their strange and illusive game. They generally appeared along in February, six or eight or even ten in number; and they fell at once into what seemed to me most unproductive and mysterious ways.

First they would convene on the porch of their cottage facing the sea, and there they would loll and lounge, with their pale, tired and pleasant faces up to the sun. They always had an interest in other anglers and their luck, but they were strangely reticent about their own pursuits. Indeed I can see now how they dwelt upon the heights of angling bliss, down from which they condescended to look upon less fortunate mortals.

Usually after a day or two of rest three or four of these gentlemen would don the most disreputable clothes, and armed with an old bag and a bucket they would sally forth on some errand most strikingly and obviously important. It puzzled me. I used to watch them wonderingly and half with pity and amusement. But the ragged old clothes bothered me. I had to respect that circumstance. R. C. and I had imagined the prerogative of wearing comfortable old togs as ours alone. And the bag and bucket made me suspicious. Could it be possible that this gang, among whose number were Standard Oil magnates and other kinds of millionaires, was going to catch bait? The idea was preposterous. I dismissed it from mind. But when they came back wet, tired, dirty and happy, with the bag and bucket full of something manifestly precious, I had a shock. Actually these men had been after bait! R. C. shared my amaze and discomfiture; and thereafter we spied upon these men who had our secret of harking back to boyhood.

Fishermanz, the chief of this brigade, would carry a camp chair out on the beach, and a rod big enough to catch tarpon, and a tin can and a hammer, and a mysterious article about the size of a pancake, only much thicker and heavier. This he would hold on his knees and crack something on it with his hammer. Then, as a small boy throws an apple from a pointed springy stick, Fishermanz would swing his big rod and cast bait and sinker far out into a foot of shallow water. That done, he would recline in the camp chair, the rod over his knees, the line between his fingers, and there he would stay. I repeat the word stay! I used to wonder if he was watching the incoming tide. Much as I studied him that first visit of mine at Long Key, I never saw him get even a bite. He seemed to dream and that made me jealous. I can stand a man to be a better angler than I am-which is not hard to be-but as for the dreamer end of it I claim distinction. Fishermanz did this thing every day, getting a little later each day, until my dense brain began to associate his vigil somehow with the maneuvers of the tide.

Bumfellar was Fishermanz's constant companion, except when they fished. R. C. and I thought this the queerest thing. Manifestly when they fished along the beach they got as far apart as possible. I believe each of them was afraid the other might catch a bonefish. Bumfellar's way was to anchor a skiff some fifty feet offshore and sit in it all day, motionless as an Indian fisherman, which is to be as motionless as a rock.

Loosfish was the most interesting one of this remarkable group. He was the eldest, a slight, serious-faced man, quite frail, and a very courteous and friendly and fine old gentleman, except upon his return from fishing. Then he was energetic, violent, and exceedingly profane. I gathered that, according to his own statements, he could not do anything but lose fish.

He would don a big sun hat, and armed with considerable paraphernalia, he would walk up the beach to a secluded spot, and there act very much like a big dog that turns round and round, finally to settle down for a sleep. Loosfish, however, was certainly wide awake. To my dismay I passed near him twice, once on the beach, where naturally I had to walk, as there was only the narrow strip of coral; and again in a canoe. With the canoe I imagined it much more considerate of me to paddle quite close to the beach, so as not to scare any bonefish. But on the first occasion Loosfish glared so savagely at me that I feared I had done something terrible; and upon the second he spoke in cold cutting language, the content of which I dare not give to the printed page. Really I was ashamed of myself for spying upon these estimable gentlemen, and meekly went upon my way. Nevertheless I did not cease my industry as to what and why and when and where.

One of the brigade was a very short, stout, red-faced man, most wonderfully cheerful, who singularly enough went by the name Rounddelay, for at lying around he had all the others of the brigade beaten to a frazzle.

I always felt sorry for Rounddelay. His gang led him the life of a dog. All because he did not, or could not, or would not fish, yet insisted on going with them! He was the most cheerful man I ever met. When after a day on the sea you encountered him it was to find him most inquisitive, eager as a boy to hear of your luck, and if that had been good he was glad. A most unusual type round a fishing camp! A man to console you! An individual immeasurably above these poor boobs of fishermen who imagine they had the best of you!

It would never do for me to forget Rushenwait, the funniest member of the brigade. He was a great talker, and that was one reason why the brigade made him fish by himself. I took advantage of his weakness and asked him how to catch bonefish. He told me. And I was soon in a state of mental aberration. But I always believed I profited by his concluding remarks: "Den you set dere an' waid for a bide which when it comes you doon know only by de feel an' you must jerg ver queeck."

Crownshanks was scarcely a member of this historic aggregation, yet it is necessary to mention him because he was always there, always on the beach, omnipresent. His forte was walking along the beach. He had very long legs and he could use them; and as a walker along the shore and a collector of trash cast up by the sea he had only one peer, and that was myself.

The tragedy of Crownshanks was that he would assuredly have been a great bonefisherman but for an unfortunate accident upon his very first trial at this tremendous game. Unwittingly he put on two hooks and two baits and hooked two bonefish. At the same time on the one line! Now one bonefish is quite master of most any situation. But two husky bonefish at once! I hesitate to express myself. The two that Crownshanks hooked ran off, as is the unkind disposition of this species, and they split round a snag of mangrove. That is to say one bonefish went one way and the other went another way. Yet, but, nevertheless, and marvelously, Crownshanks caught those two bonefish. It ruined his career. As I stated, he might have been great. But this was too much. He never went bonefishing again. He would listen to the woes and exultings of the brigade, but he could never again see that any of them had hopes of mastering the intricacies of bonefishing. Crownshanks might have had a career, but he became only the best tarpon and sailfish catcher of his day-always releasing his fish alive. To be sure, this is no distinction as compared to what he might have become in the bonefish world, but it will serve to show that he was not altogether an utter failure.

In passing I must mention one of Crownshanks' gifts. It amounted to genius. It was a most fascinating thing to watch. He always had a cigarette in his mouth-no, not exactly that, for the end of the cigarette was pasted on the under edge of his left central incisor tooth.

It hung there. It performed miraculous feats. It never fell. That was the mystery to me. Crownshanks never smoked it, that was sure. I do not know whether he ever had more than one cigarette or not, but he did not need more. Now this genial and intellectual gentleman would discourse with you for hours on any subject, though he preferred fishology, and he was equally well versed in business, politics, religion, literature, socialism, metaphysics, psychology, psychoanalysis, altruism and prizefighting. But I was always so bewitched and bewildered by the sight of his everlasting cigarette-by my irresistible gamble on whether it would stick there longer or not-that I could never concentrate on what he was talking about.

Well, the years went by, and R. C. and I, by dint of dogged persistence and boyish enthusiasm, and development of skill, at length mastered the mystery of bonefishing.

I have never been able to tell why it seems the fullest, the most difficult, the strangest and most thrilling, the lonesomest and most all-satisfying of all kinds of angling. Many salmon fishermen claim that to take the silver king of the Restigouche on the fly is the highest type and greatest of all fishing. Many make this claim for the wonderful steelhead of Oregon and Washington. But bonefishing has all the finesse, the delicacy, the skill, the incomprehensible vagaries, the test of endurance that salmon fishing has. And more! For in bonefishing there is more of a return to boyish emotions than in salmon fishing. Perhaps that is the secret.

Every winter R. C. and I went back to Long Key, to grow more and more like members of the Bonefish Brigade; which I think was a happy and profitable development for us.

Then, owing to outdoor interests in California, we missed going to Long Key for several years. In February, 1922, I went back to renew the unforgotten associations that had haunted me, and I took my friend Lone Angler Wilborn with me. He was famous for a good deal more than his feat of taking tuna and marlin swordfish without the help of boatman or engineer. Wilborn was an expert with fly, and all kinds of light tackle. Needless to say I had lauded bonefish to the skies, and I anticipated more fun and sport than I had ever had before. I had them, but not quite as anticipated.

The Bonefish Brigade appeared on schedule, and I was reminded of the passing of years. They were the same in spirit, but the wear of labor and the pallor of the city were upon them. So imperceptibly we pass on through life. It is a blessing that lonely places and sunshine and fishing can restore some semblance of our earlier and more youthful selves.

Fishermanz lay all that first day in his camp chair, his pale face up to the sun, with a slow smile of contentment stealing away the shadows. Bumfellar had grown thinner and Rounddelay had grown thicker. Both had been ill. Long Key was a haven of rest. Rushenwait rushed around to show his new tackle to everybody and to talk. He fished out a photograph of me taken ten years before, posed ridiculously with a queer fish called African pompano. Crownshanks started out at once to walk with the same old inevitable cigarette pasted to his tooth. Then there were new members of the brigade, one of whom was a little spider-shaped man with the look of a fish-hawk, known as Thompsonias. I knew he would catch fish, and I could not see why they had to fetch him along.

We began to fish, and things happened. I cannot chronicle in this story the extraordinary exhibitions given by my friend Lone Angler. I must reserve them for separate treatment and more space. And I will leave to him and R. C. the pleasant task of retaliating.

There appeared to be an unusual number of bonefish on the shoals and some larger than we had ever caught. I caught several running up to eight pounds, which was an unprecedented performance for me and made me exultant. What it did to Fishermanz and his crew I am too generous to state. Then that dark horse Thompsonias appeared in a one-piece bathing suit. He looked like a California bathing girl minus the shape. He was a long-legged spider wearing an abbreviated union suit and a pair of sneakers. Every morning Thompsonias appeared in this rig, and carrying tackle and bag he would disappear up the beach, to return at sunset with at least two bonefish. Sometimes more!

This fellow got on my nerves. I could not fish for worrying about him. I think he had a seine hidden up the beach. He was Fishermanz's bosom friend and I expected Fishermanz to murder him. The way he brought bonefish back to camp was uncanny. I think he never took off that bathing suit. His spider shape changed from white to red and from red to brown. I tried to keep track of him, but as we didn't have any hydroplanes, I had to give that up. As a pedestrian he was in a class by himself. We did not mind that or how long he absented himself from camp. What hurt us was the inconsiderate way he packed bonefish back until in two weeks he had thirty-four. This was heartrending. But unfortunately they were all small, and we knew he was slaving to catch one to beat our record of nine pounds.

Next, to our dismay, there appeared on the scene a newcomer by the name of Lucky Stickem. He had been felicitously named. Of all the lucky fishermen I ever had the bad luck to meet, Stickem was the luckiest. He frankly said that he only fished for exercise, as the fact of fish crawling out and lying down at his feet made it needless for him to work hard. As a matter of fact I never saw him even exercise. By profession he was a fine artist and by disposition a splendid fellow. But I could only appreciate his sterling qualities by approaching him when he was not fishing.

For tackle he had a dinky little bass rod and reel, and a few hundred feet of long-used number six line. When I saw this outfit I felt relieved, because it would be funny what a bonefish would do to that.

I got back one night to be almost overwhelmed by the stunning fact that Stickem had caught two bonefish weighing respectively 9 1/4 and 8 3/4 pounds. He had been seen fighting them-running around in the shallow water, tearing here and there as a fish took line-in a most undignified manner. But he caught them! I knew Fishermanz was ill that night.

Stickem wore his honors easily, as if he had not done much. And he had the effrontery and the unmitigated audacity and the magnificent sportsmanship to tell us he had used a new bait. There was none of our kind of bait, and so he had caught common blue crabs, cut them in half, torn off one side of the shell, and stuck a half on his hook. All we had considered blue crabs good for was to pinch. Stickem revolutionized our bait problem and utterly ruined a perfectly good illusion. Next day everybody except myself took to hunting for blue crabs.

Three days later Lone Angler and I were in my canoe anchored on the coral shoal at the upper end of Long Key-my favorite place for bonefishing. It was a lonely spot, gray shoal near at hand, green sea leading out to blue water, long lines of cocoanut palms leaning with the wind, white strip of coral beach, and the dense wall of mangroves.

The restfulness and peacefulness coincident with bonefishing are much of its charms. Of course there is no rest or peace if you hook a bonefish-rather toil and torture-but as these incidents are infrequent an angler can be happy.

Lone Angler had not yet caught a bonefish. He had performed miraculously at casting, and he said he had imagined he had a bite. When his hook came in minus the bait, he always assured me the crabs had eaten it off.

I was sinking into what may be termed bonefish oblivion - a combination of suspense, dream, and sleep-when I had a tremendous strike. It sort of paralyzed me.

"Hey! Didn't your rod jerk?" yelled Lone Angler.

"Quiet!" I hissed, tensely.

I waited until I could not wait anymore, perhaps a matter of a couple of endless seconds. The second tug is the one I wait for and strike on. But as this second tug did not come I was unable to refrain from jerking.

Sharp and hard I came up on a live weight. There was a quivering of my tight line. My rod bent double. The old thrill went over me, deep and wonderful sensation. Then the shallow water opened with a sodden thump and mud colored the spray. I had hooked a heavy bonefish.

His opening run was not electrifying for its speed, but the very slowness and heaviness of it made me shake. I stood up while Lone Angler balanced the canoe.

This fish ran off five hundred feet and stayed out there. If he had not splashed and thumped on the surface I would have been certain I had fouled my line-an accident that causes loss of so many bonefish. But this fellow hung out there and jerked his head. I could not move him an inch. I pulled until I heard the rod crack and the line sing. If he started another run I knew it would be good-by.

By dint of risky and hard pulling, I got his head turned and he began the famous circle performed by this gamefish. As he swam round the boat I pumped and reeled as hard as I dared, gradually working him closer, so that on the first circle I had him within a hundred feet. I strained my eyes to see him, but could not. But I began to be afraid I had a larger bonefish than I had ever hooked before. This meant nothing but disaster.

Lone Angler's amazement and enthusiasm inspired me, and gave me as many thrills as the fish. I had a good bamboo rod and ninethread line, yet I could not do much with this bonefish. Suddenly he boiled the water and started off again, inshore. I saw a blackish checkered form. He hit the little mounds of coral marl, making muddy patches in the water. Then finding it too shallow, he sheered off for the open sea. His run grew harder and longer than the first, though no swifter. I gave him up. I had a sinking sensation in my stomach. Would I never stop one of these big fellows?

"Stop him or lose him!" shouted Wilborn, excitedly. "You can't risk all that line."

"I'm not risking line. He's taking it," I retorted. Yet I did shut down on the reel and burned a blister on my thumb. The line held and he turned at right angles, beginning a wide, sweeping circle that slowly narrowed its radius. I got him perhaps seventy feet from the canoe, and from that point he began a tugging, sullen fight to tear loose the hook. He did not make any more long runs.

Still not sure of the size of this fish, I handled him with more hurry and force than I should have used. But I was a long time in whipping him, and when at last I caught a glimpse of him I nearly fell out of the canoe. From that instant I handled him with ridiculous delicacy, much to Lone Angler's amusement.

I could not keep the bonefish from circling in close to the canoe and the anchors. He was too heavy to lead. I had to hold tight and let him swim. He came to within ten feet of us and then circled. In two feet of crystal clear water he looked as long as the canoe to me. And he was thick, round, heavy. He was covered with mud. His black eyes appeared sharp, staring, wild. I stood in the center of the canoe and moved my rod round with him. Wilborn had pulled up one anchor. But there was the other and I could not risk reaching for it or letting him pass me in the canoe. I should have stepped out into the water and led the bonefish ashore, but I never thought of that.

He must have circled us at least twenty times before he showed signs of weariness. I lifted him carefully, but every time Wilborn leaned out with the net he plunged and went down.

This part of the battle, with the fish in plain sight, and the risks so great, made me as weak as if I had been fighting a swordfish. I knew he was the biggest one I had ever gotten close to capture. It would not have been such a strain if I had not been able to see him so clearly. He rolled over. He stuck his big head out of the water and gaped. He gave the line sullen heavy jerks. But he grew slower and slower, and after what seemed an interminable time of stress, I lifted him high enough for Wilborn to slip the net under him.

When he lay in the canoe, gasping, a gleaming silver and opal, with lavender tinted fins and tail, a most beautiful creature of the sea, and so long and thick that I could scarcely believe my eyes, I almost succumbed and let him go free.

But that night at the camp he weighed ten pounds, two ounces, and was the Long Key record. The way I condescended to tell Lucky Stickem how to catch bonefish, and the way I tortured poor Fishermanz, who had been yearning to catch such a bonefish for 25 years, was a shameful thing. But such fun! After all, anglers are the most simple-minded of men. I could scarcely realize my good fortune, and I was scared stiff for fear someone would beat my record, yet I strutted around nonchalantly and sympathized with the fellows who did not know how to fish.

One day I fished alone, and had both good and bad luck, as I caught three small bonefish and lost several large ones.

As I was going down the walk toward the lodge, Mrs. Wilborn appeared suddenly from behind a thick clump of palms. She looked vastly important. My heart began to sink. But her smile saved one from awful conclusions.

"They've put up a job on you," she whispered. "Play up to it now!"

Then she vanished. I plodded along pondering this subtle hint. Job! What could it be? Play up to it now! That meant clearly I must be game to meet some situation.

When I turned the corner of the walk to face the gang on the lodge porch, I was greeted by a lusty yell and many calls, from which I gathered that catastrophe had befallen me.

Wilborn came off the porch to meet me. He wore his old bright smile and his eyes were keen. Too keen! I caught a twinkle that I might have missed but for his good wife's bidding me be prepared. I was reminded of his tricks when we played on the varsity in college.

The sly fox! But I gave no sign. I was as innocent as he affected to be.

"Hard luck, Chief," he said, with his hand going to my shoulder. "Your record's broken. Fishermanz has trimmed you! Go in and see!"

Right there I blessed Mrs. Wilborn for having intuition to understand my sensitive feelings. For even with the assurance of a monstrous deceit to be perpetrated upon me I experienced an inward quaking.

"Is that so?" And I stepped into the lodge.

Upon a large platter lay what seemed the most wonderful bonefish I had ever seen. I got up on a chair so to see the better. And I looked down. It took all my willpower to concentrate upon Mrs. Wilborn's hint. She must have meant that this bonefish did not truly beat my record though the brigade had made it appear so.

10 pounds 5 ounces
Mr. Fishermanz

Long Key Record

So ran the words on a large white placard. I had a queer sensation. Surely this fish was bigger than mine. Of course it was! Then my conscience twinged me for doubting Mrs. W.'s loyalty. What a terrible ordeal that would have been for me if she had not told me!

The Bonefish Brigade filed in, accompanied by Lone Angler Wilborn and Lucky Stickem. What a bunch of destructive wretches they were! They crowded around me and the table, solicitous, sympathizing, crooked as rail fences in their pretended commiseration for me. The truth was they were most curiously bent on seeing how I would take my defeat. It was a diabolical trick that owed its origin to the fertile brain of Lone Angler. His wife had divined that. The Bonefish Brigade never had an idea in their lives except to sit down in the sun and wait for a bite. If they had anticipated extreme joy in seeing me utterly crushed-the villains-they were to be sadly disappointed.

I expanded. I gazed with rapt admiration. I stared at that bonefish in delight.

"What a magnificent fish!" I burst out. "Why, he makes mine look little . . . Three ounces to the good? Surely he looks three pounds!"

Then I got down off the chair and faced Fishermanz with the mien of a vanquished champion true to the traditions of sportsmanship.

"I congratulate you," I said, heartily, as I wrung his hand. "There's no angler in the world so worthy of this record as you are. My fish was only a lucky catch. It only inspired you to greater effort. Believe me, Fishermanz, I would be happy if your new record was one I could never beat."

The funny thing about this oration of mine was that it was true.

The brigade to a man looked crestfallen. Thanks to my gentle monitor I had played up to their bent and had fooled them. The moment passed to my credit and we went back upon the porch. The bonefish was brought outside. Long Angler insisted that I take a photograph of it and the brigade. After that was done he took the fish and, walking over to me, held it out. That sly little twinkle gleamed in his eyes.

"Say, Chief, feel that," he said, with his hand on the plump belly of the bonefish. He tried to appear tremendously concerned.

I felt some hard lumps inside the fish, and remarked that they must be some of Stickem's hard-shelled crabs.

"Don't you want to weigh this fish yourself?" he queried, anxiously. "Fishermanz was very careful to see yours weighed."

"Weigh it myself? No indeed," I replied loftily. "His word is enough for me."

Whereupon Lone Angler turned the bonefish upside down, and jogged it vigorously, as if to dislodge something from its insides. Suddenly out plumped half a dozen heavy lead sinkers!




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