One benefit of being empty-nesters is that my husband and I can take a vacation whenever we want, no longer directed by our children’s schools’ schedules. If we want to go to Key West, Florida for a long weekend in February, by golly, we can do it! Last week, we did just that, not so much to escape the chilly South Texas temperatures, but to chase the ghost of Ernest Hemingway.
Key West was Hemingway’s home for nine years, and the house in which he lived and wrote many of his famous novels, was around the corner from our hotel. Upon entering the gates, we met Bogart and Hepburn, a couple of the author’s six-toed felines’ offspring, then we strolled the lush grounds, before a tour guide ushered us up a narrow stairway to the author’s writing studio. At the top, we were thrilled to find a large, window-filled room with a round table in the middle, small Royal typewriter on top, all overseen by a large deer mount on the center wall and a stuffed fish in the corner. It wasn’t hard to picture the adventurer writing here on a cool February morning.
Afterwards, inspired by our close encounter with the great one’s ghost, we decided to fish in the same waters he and Captain Tony fished, recalling “To Have and Have Not,” which was set in the Keys. We booked an excursion with Captain Jimi (pronounced “jim-eye”) for 9:00 the following morning. I was excited at first, then became nervous, having never fished off a boat in the Gulf. I’m pretty good with a rod and reel on the shores of a placid, well-stocked lake, but wondered how I’d handle standing in a wobbly boat with an experienced guide watching my every move for four hours? FOUR HOURS? What if I got hungry? or hot? or seasick? WHAT IF I HAD TO GO TO THE BATHROOM? I tossed and turned all night. Morning came and I was up early, applying sunscreen and chapstick and contemplating Dramamine. We ate a good breakfast and I tried not to drink much coffee. Shortly thereafter, we drove to the old seaport and found our man, who looked to be about our age, with weathered, tan skin, calloused hands and a kind smile. “I’m ready to go,” he plainly announced. Jimi expertly backed the small boat out of a narrow slip and steered toward the open ocean. Just then, a large catamaran crossed in front of us sending buckets of water into our boat, soaking us through. “Not a good way to start the morning,” quipped our captain with a grin. Then he gunned it and we were moving quickly. Whoosh! There went my visor off the back of the boat. It didn’t seem like a good idea to mention it.
We rode in silence for twenty minutes as our skiff rhythmically beat against the surface of the water. Suddenly, the boat stopped in what I assumed was the middle of the Gulf. Jimi announced that we were in shallow water and were going to jig. He handed a rod to my husband, who appeared to know just what to do. When he turned to hand one to me, I quietly uttered, “Um, I’m a novice. I’m not sure how to jig.” He instructed me to cast the line, count to ten as the lure sank, then “jig, jig, jig it all the way back to the boat.” The idea was to emulate a wounded shrimp. Ok, makes sense. Just then my husband jerked his line and the captain turned away from me. “Did you feel something?” He nodded and promptly landed a jack cravasse which squealed like a pig when Jimi unhooked it. He laughed and quickly returned it to the sea. We repeatedly casted and jigged and I was getting the hang of it. Occasionally something struck my line causing the rod to bend slightly. “Jig, jig!” the captain yelled, and I jigged the best I could, but the fish always got away. “Awwww. You’ve really got to stick it to them. Jerk their eyes out!” he demanded. Geez, I could sense his disappointment. Later, Jimi drove the boat to a different spot and as soon as I cast I felt a sharp tug on the line. I jerked/jigged as hard as I could and began reeling. Finally, I had something. “Keep your line in the water,” Jimi barked as I got my catch close to the boat. I refrained from suggesting that perhaps a little advance instruction would have been helpful. I landed a blue runner, and the guys seemed very excited. Jimi quickly unhooked it and slipped it back into its ocean home before I could grab my phone and take a selfie. In the meantime, my hubby caught “jacks” with practically every cast, while I looked on longingly. “Here, try this rod,” he helpfully offered. But, alas, I’d caught my sole fish of the day.
After another hour or so, Jimi said, “I’ve got an idea. Let’s go get some ‘cuda!” He started the boat again and we took off towards an island. Did he mean BARRACUDA? He slowed the boat as we got close to the land mass and grabbed a rod with a huge neon green lure dangling from it. He spoke in a hushed tone, “You two will have to take turns. Bill, you go first.” Whew! Jimi directed him to get up on a platform in the front of the boat and look for anything resembling a silver log, while he stood elevated at the back, using a long pole to quietly steer the boat through the clear, shallow waters. He informed us that he’d find the fish and tell us where to place the line. My husband was in intense hunting mode, his face focused and set, eyes straining to see through the water around us. His shoulders were hunched, knees slightly bent, his back muscles tense through his shirt. Jimi said, calmly, “Ok, I see a barracuda at 1:00. Point your rod at it.” My husband obeyed, but Jimi, clearly irritated, yelled, “Not 12:30. Show me 1:00.” My husband eased his rod a little to the right. “Now put it out there.” I was perspiring, trying hard to think where 12:30 was in the water. Bill cast, then, “NO, NO, NO. You hit them right on their heads. They’re spooked and gone.” I wanted to shout, “Don’t talk to my husband in that tone of voice,” but, instead, uttered a silent prayer, “Please, dear Lord, don’t let it ever be my turn.” Then, “I see a ‘cuda at 2:00. He’s facing away from us. Now place your bait right in front of him.” Jimi was excited again. My husband squinted, and murmured conspiratorially, in a McConaughey tone of voice, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” seemingly not bothered by our brusque captain. He tossed out his line. “You’re too far. Damn. Try again.” Plop. “Ah hell. Now they’ve seen you. Forget it.” My husband pleaded, “But, he’s right there.” “Forget him, here’s four others. Cast right in between them. Put your bait to the right of the two looking away from you.” I held my breath then heard, “Aw man. They ignored you. Come on ‘cuda!” Over and over he casted but the lure landed too close or too far, the fish were too skittish, or the water was too cold. Suddenly I heard a high-pitched whirr, looked up, saw a ferocious splash and caught a glimmer of shiny silver. The line was flying out of the reel while Jimi coached, “Way to go, Bill! Reel, reel, reel, faster, faster!” I jumped to my feet while my husband grinned and wound up that reel like a crazy man. The rod was bent nearly to the water when it popped back into place and we heard nothing but silence. Uh-oh. I quietly took my place back in the middle of the boat and tried to disappear, when I heard the captain say, “Hey too bad, man. That was fun, eh?” Then, “I guess we’d better take her in and call it a day.” Hallelujah! He’d forgotten all about me! The rods were stowed, the engines fired up, and we flew back across the placid Gulf. Back on the dock, the captain smiled broadly and shook our hands, “I sure hope y’all had a good time. I enjoyed fishing with y’all.” I sighed and waited for my husband to tell him what we really thought, imagining his wrath. “Are you kidding me? My wife caught only one fish, and you forgot to give her a shot at the barracuda.” Instead, I heard him express his profound gratitude, his delight over the thrill of the barracuda hunt, and his promise to call him again. I slowly walked away from the boat, and my hubby contentedly draped his arm around me. “Wasn’t that a blast?” “Yeah,” I muttered, then suggested we follow Hemingway’s footsteps straight to Sloppy Joe’s for a beer and a fish sandwich. Oh, and a restroom.