A Fishing Kook’s Key West Tale
He was an old man who fished with his friends in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone over 40 years now without taking a fish.
Ok, ok. Enough Hemingway mimicry. But I really did go fishing off Key West like him, and I really did experience a bit of what Santiago did in The Old Man And The Sea. Something I never expected happened to me when I did. Maybe I should have because I read the book.
First though, we have to go back—way back—for context.
ardly any guys from my old neighborhood went fishing. In fact, the only guy that I knew who did was Lou Dericco, who you might have read about before. So even though I grew up just a mile away from Jamaica Bay, I didn’t have any anglers around to learn from. No old salts at all.
But there were plenty of old greasers and wise-guys to model. They taught the neighborhood kids how to talk tough: they sprinkled the F-bomb throughout their conversations constantly, as both an adjective and an adverb—as well as a noun. Not often as a verb…not around kids at least. And never with malice. To express malice, neighborhood guys used ‘Motherfucker’ and, remarkably, ‘Fuckin’ fuck.’ Terrible, I know.
When I started to imitate ‘dem guys’ the summer after second grade, my dad quickly put a stop to it, and it never really resumed. Not for me. But it laid latent—a time-release F-bomb. I went to Catholic schools until I was 18, and then NYU for the next seven years. I worked at white-shoe law firms and went to the Hamptons. I read a lot. Basically, I’m a good Catholic boy…educated, civilized, and maybe even cultured. So even though I’m from the old neighborhood, cursing is just not a thing I ever do.
And neither is fishing. So when I was invited by my buddy Milo to join his fishing club for a weekend of fishing off Key West, I was tabula rasa, a know-nothing. I had never fished before. I didn’t even know what to wear for it. But the great DeRicco was to be my teacher! He instructed me to get Crocs and a baseball cap with ear flaps, so I did, even though I thought I looked like a kook in them. And he told me to follow his lead once at sea.
Anchors AweighCaptain Tyson was our guide. He’s a burly guy with a salt-and-pepper beard and ponytail, a big, bright smile and a N’awlins drawl. I was told he could spot a school of fish from 50 yards, speed to it, cast, and hit one “o dem dere fishes” in seconds. Impressive.
We motored past islands of mangroves (no meerkats, no Richard Parker), the Marquesas (scores of Gilligan’s Islands) and even mermaids (models being photographed in bikinis in the morning light on a skiff by a Walter Iooss aspirant) out to where the big fish are. A stiff wind blew out of the north, and the water was choppy. The ride was bumpy, but beautiful. A scarlet sun rose over the ocean and the sky was nearly pink. The sea turned turquoise and Egyptian blue.
“Lenny,” Tyson called when we stopped. “Lemme show yaw’l how dis woiks.” And I got my first lesson in using a rod and reel.
“There’s more,” Milo added. “When you feel the tug, you have to pull up a little to set the hook. Then you see-saw. Tilt back and pull…then tilt down quickly while reeling in. Keep the bottom of the rod right under your hip bone.”
I looked to the great DeRicco.
“They’re right,” he said in his signature soft voice.
Then we all casted. The great DeRicco’s fishing rod cut through the air with a swoosh and his line travelled 15 yards farther than everyone else’s. Milo and his son didn’t do bad either. But I did. I tried again. And again. And then, I got it.
I cast way out and I waited. Then I felt it…the tug on the line Milo spoke of. I jerked back the rod and yelled
“I’ve got one!”
“You did it!” the great DeRicco said as he approached me.
“Broke your maiden, baby,” Milo said from behind me.
“You gonna’ bring dis aboard, Lenny,” Tyson assured me.
Dat’s Some Foist Fish
I leaned back and pulled against the weight and the strength of the fish…my fish. Then I dropped forward and reeled furiously with my left hand. I did this over and over as my fellow fishermen- you read that right- cheered me on and shouted advice and made a racket. They had put aside their poles for this moment. The fish and I battled…and I was winning.
“Dat’s a blackfin tuna, son,” Tyson said. “Dats some foist fish. Keep goin’. He’s almost up.”
Then I heard something from behind me.
“Oh, no. Oh, NO. OH, NO.” The great DeRicco and Milo were screaming.
I didn’t see it. I was reeling and lifting. I only saw the yellow streaked silvery skin of my fish reflecting the sunlight. But it was right behind her, below the surface, grey and mean. Then I saw it.
Now I was screaming too. A shark had come up behind my fish and latched on.
I jerked the rod violently to one side, trying to shake the shark lose. It didn’t work. Then it happened.
“You motherfucker,” I snarled at the shark. “You fuck, you.” I didn’t know what I was saying.
I pulled the pole violently back and forth.
“Get offa her you fuckin’ fuck.”
I dropped and I reeled and I leaned and I pulled. The shark took off. He almost pulled the pole out of my hand, but I held on. He changed direction and pulled me to the bow. I wedged my foot between the deck and the curved hull and pulled back. He was thrashing about wildly and the skiff was bobbing up and down in the gulf, and all this movement had me banging off that hull pretty hard. I didn’t care.
Big mistake. Never do this.
Just then a wave came over the pointed front of the boat and hit me neck to knees.
“Dat’s cawled a ball-soak, son,” Tyson laughed. “Courtesy of Jaws dere.”
And then I really let loose.
“Motherfucker! You motherfucker!”
I just kept repeating it over and over and over as I pulled and twisted and shook the rod. The great DeRicco laughed so hard he was crying. Milo was doubled over too. I didn’t know what was so funny at the time. My only focus was my beautiful fish.
The shark swam under the boat. I ran to its other side and started reeling and cursing louder. I put the butt of the pole in my belly button (Note: big mistake. Never do this.) and leaned backwards with all my weight letting the shark keep me from falling on my butt. Then I charged forward, lowered the pole and I reeled. I got him near the surface.
And then I felt a snap.
“I broke the line, Tyson! I broke the line!”
“Naw, ya dint.”
“Bring it in, Len,” the great DeRicco said. He and Milo were not laughing anymore.
I reeled in my line. The entire head of my blackfin tuna remained hooked to it. There was a perfect arc where the shark bit through it.
“Dat woulda’ been a 20 pounda,” Tyson advised.
“Screw that,” the great DeRicco said dismissively. “Did you see that shark?”
“I only saw his nose.” I was calm now.
“Lenny,” Milo said as he massaged my traps, “that was a Bull shark. He was friggin’ huge: 8-10 feet easy.”
“Oh, wow. How long did I fight him?”
“About 20 minutes. Man, you were someone else,” Milo said. “You weren’t you.”
“I towld you to stop like 10 times,” Tyson added.
“That was crazy,” DeRicco said. “Motherfucker. Motherfucker.” He imitated me until his voice trailed off, overtaken by his laughter.
“You know, you never beat the shark,” Tyson schooled.
“But man is not meant for defeat,” I replied.
“What?” Tyson shot back.
“Ohh!” Milo roared. “I get it. You’re Santiago. Perfect! That’s perfect for you.”
Man Is Not Meant for Defeat
We all got back to fishing. I caught my first fish minutes later—a big, beautiful Permit. We took a picture together, then I put her back in the sea. I caught a bunch more that day. Not a one made me curse.
Fishing is really 10 hours of conversation interrupted by moments of furious activity: casting, reeling and capturing. For what was left of those 10 hours, Tyson, Milo, the great DeRicco and I talked about a lot of things no one in my old neighborhood would give a…darn about. (You see. I really don’t curse.) Like how embarrassing my metamorphosis was. No one where I grew up would even have noticed.
A week after returning from the trip, I went to see my friend Steve, a podiatric surgeon, at his office. I told him that my foot had been hurting ever since I fought that shark. He took an X-Ray.
“Well, Len, you have a stress fracture of the fifth metatarsal,” he said. “That must’ve been some shark.”
“Motherfucker,“ I scowled.