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Bottom Fishing
It couldn't be that hard to land a big one off the coast of Florida. Could it?

By Peter Mandel
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 13, 2002

Fishing in the ocean. There is something rare and pure about it. Salt air, and anticipation, and sun stinging your back. Ernest Hemingway once wrote to a friend that there is no pleasure like "being on the sea, in the unknown wild suddenness of a great fish."

I'm all for wildness, and for fish, though I had never caught one. But as the weather turned cold this fall, I found myself flipping through deep-sea fishing brochures from Florida's Gulf Coast.

This is the place, I think, where I can reel back the soft air of summer. Plus, I am told that it is where real fishermen bait their hooks.

On the advice of a friend, I fly to Tampa and drive to the nearby town of Madeira Beach, which sits on the water just north of Treasure Island and St. Pete Beach. It's a resort town redolent of the 1950s and a center for charter boats, and when I take a walk down to John's Pass, a strange cluster of shacks built on wharf pilings, I find a row of billboards listing captains eager to take out anglers.

I'm excited about battling with big fish in these bathtub-warm, light-green waters. I imagine cutting into char-grilled tuna. I am eerily confident.

I am ready to cast my line.

It's late afternoon and I've ducked into a bar called the Bamboo Beer Garden. I don't see a whole lot of bamboo, but there is a little forest of small bills Scotch-taped to the walls, currency from around the globe.

This is where my fishing friend said to come -- the place to look for Capt. Dave Zalewski, the town's most respected sea salt. His boat, the Lucky Too, sails from the Charter Boat Center on Gulf Boulevard, and this is basically all the bartender will tell me, though she does hand me a mildewed business card, and the phone.

"The gulf is like a desert," advises Dave, over a crackly connection that sounds like I have reached him 50 miles from shore. "You say you want to get out there? Well, in a way, you'll be dropping your hook into the Sahara. All that underwater sand."

"Sand, sure," I say. "But what about the fish?"

"I'm getting to that," says Dave. "To find fish in a desert, you have to find the oases. And in the gulf out from Madeira Beach, from St. Pete, from Clearwater, the oases take root in parking lot-size chunks of limestone. Sponges and algae grow in the cracks of the parking lots. Fish eat the algae."

"These parking lots," I ask, "is that where we're going to fish?"

"That's right," confirms Dave, crackling and popping in the distance. "See you in the a.m., and bring a hat."

"Waves," says Dave. "Five footers, 20-knot winds. I can't take a novice out when it's this stormy. Remember the desert I was talking about? Well, you don't want to cross it when the Lucky Too can't maneuver right, when she can't get to the oases."

"I'm going anyway," I insist, turning toward the boardwalk, the other boats. "I mean, this is Florida. It's probably snowing up north."

"You'll be sick," barks Dave. "You will do a swan dive off the wet deck, and you'll be sorry!"

I think of the power-packed blue marlin I watched once on "Wild Kingdom," and I know I must find a boat before my discount Southwest flight departs in less than two days.

Making a mental note about the beer, I buy my ticket and get in line for rental tackle. As I am testing a rod displayed for sale ("America's strongest and most sensitive," it says on the shaft), I inadvertently hook the T-shirt of a woman with a Sony Walkman and a straw hat. I try to apologize, but she is fuming -- I can't blame her -- so I slink away to peer in at the seashell stores along the boardwalk until it's time to board.

The engine of the Friendly Fisherman turns over, tractor-loud, and the captain tells the 23 passengers about how rough the water is, and the need to be sure that our lines and rods are under control at all times. The woman with the Walkman flashes me a look, and I pretend to study my reel.

"You will be dealing with cut squid as bait," he announces. "You're gonna need a fish towel, and a fresh hand towel, too. Only a dollar each. We've also got double-hook Ralphie rigs for two bucks. Give you a chance to catch two fish at once."

It is full dawn now, behind fat tropical clouds, and I struggle to read the small print at the bottom of my Hubbard's Marina rental brochure. "Attention All Fishermen," it warns. "As part of accepting passage, you understand the risks and hazards . . . associated with offshore party boat fishing. These risks include the effects and injury from: SUN and OTHER WEATHER CONDITIONS -- SEA SICKNESS -- PITCHING -- ROLLING -- SEASPRAY -- SLIPPERY DECKS and DOCKS -- FISHING TACKLE and FISH."

I white-knuckle my rod. Maybe Capt. Dave had been right. It's my first fishing trip and I don't want it to be a day of floundering in red weather, struggling to haul in half-hooked, injured and thrashing prey. Do fish have teeth? I'm not sure.

The Friendly Fisherman is escorted by pigeons and pelicans as it grinds past the big pilings of the John's Pass boardwalk. I pick out and study the neon signs for the Tiki Hut, Gator's Jetski and SunCruz Casino Boat, and listen to the talk of the other fishermen.

Tom Larkin and Will Root are trying to hide from the wind on the plastic bench to my left. Tom is from a small town in Michigan, and I can see his nostrils working against the diesel fumes from the boat's fragrant engine. The vessel is heaving now, and -- I'm hoping the captain can't see this -- hooks are dangling, dancing and soaring like dragonflies across the deck.

Tupperware bait-cups of squid jump up and down, rolling and spilling, and it is starting to get slippery underfoot. My sneakers sit in a broth of squid, squid juice, puddled seaspray and spilled cans of Sprite bought from the galley.

"Nothing like a rolling boat and the smell of exhaust," says Tom.

Tom's friend, Will, does not answer, and under the darkening sky, we suddenly notice that Will is no longer on deck.

The Friendly Fisherman surfs unsteadily down the side of a thick wave, and Tom and I instinctively peer over the rail. Tom thinks he sees Will's Sea World cap in a whirlpool of white bubbles and, in seconds, I am at the life buoy by a sign that reads: "Not a Plaything." I pull at the ring and am just about to heave the thing, Frisbee-style, into the foam when I hear Tom yell.

Will is safe. I can see him now, grinning sheepishly, propped up on the bench, bone-dry Sea World cap in hand. Will is chewing a bacon, fried egg and toasted cheese sandwich from the ship's grill.

When Will offers me a bite, I push the sandwich away.

It is time to bait the hook.

"I know, I know," I say. "Two fish for the price of one."

The Friendly Fisherman bobs in the heavy chop, engines silent, bucking like a 25-cent mechanical rocket, the kind I used to ride, again and again, outside the A&P. Up and down. Up and way down. Working carefully, I rest my thumb lightly on the coiled line and let my hook and sinker free-fall through the murky water.

Thunk. Scrambling of spaghetti-like coils of filament. My sinker has hit a rocky bottom and I am fast losing all sense of order on my spool. Tom grabs the rod and tightens up by reeling it in so that the squid chunks will be at fish level, just off the gulf floor.

"Why aren't we moving again?" I ask, bracing myself against the rail as a linebacker-size wave and burst of spray smack the hull of the boat. "How can we troll for marlin or tuna just sitting here?"

Tom and Will give me a look. "Are you seasick or something?" asks Tom.

"No," I lie.

"That's trolling, blue-water fishing you're talking about. You gotta go 60, maybe 100 miles out to catch those big fish."

"Yeah," confirms Will. "Blue water is deep water when it comes to the Gulf of Mexico. But it's only 18 feet deep right here. And we're, what, about eight miles out, Tom? We're going after grouper or small snapper."

"Huh?" I say. There was nothing about this in the brochure. Capt. Dave said nothing. "What is this?"

"Welcome to bottom-fishing," answers Tom, as another wave buffets the boat.

"Jerk the rod," orders a woman dressed in teal fleece.

"Jerk it!" agrees her 7-year-old kid.

I jerk the rod.

Keeping my eyes half-shut against the stinging spray, I reel in my line and begin feeling the weight of whatever has decided to bite down on my bait. Passengers are bent over the side, pop-eyed, inches from the spot where my prey will rise up, tearing the surface of the gulf.

There is a gasp. My catch leaps out of a pool of foam, throwing droplets, gleaming green and silver-gray in the weak sun.

It is a chunk of seaweed.

The captain chugs the waterlogged boat to three of the "parking lots" Capt. Dave had mentioned, each more unlucky for port-siders than the last. Some oases, I think. Even the squid rings in the bait cups are starting to look like fresh seafood, and I overhear Will wondering if you can fry those up.

At one point, I hear a scream from near the bow. Someone has hauled in a wriggling, six-inch squirrelfish decorated with three brown stripes. There is a smattering of applause.

Then excitement from just up the rail. The woman in fleece coaxes in a blob of glistening coral. Someone says that it is alive, and we all get a chance to look at it up close and touch it. It reminds Tom of a shiitake mushroom.

We notice that when the woman's sinker goes back under there is another hit almost immediately. Her kid hangs onto the sponge-rubber rod handle while she works the reel, and we see the curl of a lip, then a staring, angry, glazed-over eye.

"It's a mother-in-law fish," yells Tom. "Don't touch it! Cut the line!"

I am not entirely sure I want to know why.

"Those things are ugly, aren't they?" says Tom almost conversationally. "Deadly poison, too."

The worst of the storm has passed and now that the boat is more stable, our unlucky port side suddenly strikes it rich, bringing in nice-size snappers and groupers that resemble the fish in pictures hung on the walls of a lodge. These glossy fish seem to me to be perfectly good prey, after all, and Tom tells me they are edible, too. Who needs marlin?

Though I have contributed nothing, I am enjoying the washcloth-soft air, the whizzing sounds of busy reels, even the rise and fall of the bouncing, drifting boat. Bottom-fishing is starting to feel like fun.

As the engine mutters again, I realize it is nearly time to head back. Will produces a leftover corner of the bacon, egg and cheese sandwich. "Settle your stomach," he says.

I thank him for the food, divide it and spear it carefully on each of my two Ralphie hooks. For good measure, I collect and squeeze on all the scraps of squid that will fit. Tom and Will watch me, looking worried, as I fasten my rod in its sleeve, bending it so the rod projects out over the water. Then, I let down my line, which is looking festive with its multiple hooks, blackened toast, and white-and-yellow flaps of cheese and fried egg.

The Friendly Fisherman hops from whitecap to whitecap on its way back to Madeira Beach. The boat is churning at full power now, and I can see my baited line in the white water, bouncing and cutting the waves. "Trolling at last," I boast, and Tom and Will exchange looks.

The sun is straining to come out and cans of Old Milwaukee beer are cracked open to celebrate. The mild, seltzer-like beverage is shared up and down the bench, and my bacon-and-egged line is forgotten.

Tom, Will and I can see the faint line of the barrier beach starting to form in the distance. "That's Clearwater," says Tom, and we begin rolling up our dollar-apiece fish and hand towels to go ashore, when Will tells everyone to be quiet.

There is a sound like a yo-yo. Like a Duncan Professional yo-yo going crazy.

I jump up, clumsily slipping on the deck, when I see that my line is reeling off its spool. The filament is inches from its end when I lunge and grab the rod. I know I've got to work fast to get some of the plastic thread back on without messing up and gnarling it.

I turn the handle as quickly as if I were opening a can and brace one wet foot against the rail. Tom and Will are shouting step-by-step corrections, itching to grab the rod. I do not let them.

The fish comes up once, twice, sparkling, twisting, and there is a rainbow for just seconds spun out of shafts of sun, and fish-droplets, and the spray of the Friendly Fisherman. I am reeling my transparent line through this sudden prism -- violet-to-red, orange-to-gold-to-green -- and it is somehow in these wet, bright colors that I learn a small thing.

I learn what it is to want very badly to capture something from the world of water. To pull it out of its element and into mine. Air, slippery hands, pail and towel, docking, wood of the boardwalk and, at last . . . dry land.

It doesn't take long to cook. In a couple of minutes, the waitress unloads dishes from a cafeteria tray: a cardboard container of potato puffs, thimble of ketchup and side of slaw. Next to this rests the silvery skin of my fish, crisscrossed with grill marks and covered with a glaze of fast-liquefying margarine.

I am proud of this fish. It's only a two-pounder, but I can't help looking around to see if anyone is watching and trying to guess if I caught it myself. Not likely. I swallow some white wine as I make a flourish of squeezing on slices of lemon, sending celebratory plumes of spray all over my shirt collar and sleeve.

Smelling the lemon brings back a flash of the afternoon, of pulling against the blob of seaweed, of the storm-dark, hazy and rolling gulf. I no longer have the urge to go deep-water fishing or trolling 100 miles from shore. The ocean where I let out my line was real ocean, with its own fish battles, sharp hooks and equipment. And I do not long for tuna. I have snapper right in front of me, snapper that I hauled in, and that is fine.

I may have been wrong to think of the gulf as a place to seek out lost summer. But the sand near the dock looks like somebody shook it from a Domino sugar box, and the wind has been sweat shirt warm. Storms or no storms, I am already thinking about coming back to fish here next year. To the nobody-knows-you township of Madeira Beach. To Hubbard's Marina, with its neon lure.

I think suddenly of Capt. Dave, safe at home, far from the day's weather, and a grin dawns.

Raising triumphantly my plastic knife and fork, I begin to eat.

Peter Mandel last wrote for Travel on driving the Appalachian Trail.

CHOOSING A BOAT: There are two basic types of deep-sea fishing off the Florida Gulf Coast: bottom-fishing in the shallow waters relatively close to shore, where you stop your boat, drop your line and let your bait sit in the hope that a grouper or gray snapper will swim by and bite; and trolling or blue-water fishing, where you venture 60 to 150 miles from shore and drag your bait or lure from the back of a moving boat.

Bottom-fishing trips can be as brief as a half-day, and if you choose a large party boat, you may pay as little as $25 to $35. Since it takes longer to reach the deep water, blue-water trips tend to be more expensive and time consuming (full-day or even overnight). Privately chartered trips, for bottom or blue-water fishing, start at about $350 for a half-day and $500 for a full day, though you can cut costs by hitching up with an already chartered boat as an add-on.

The Charter Boat Center (13201 Gulf Blvd., Madeira Beach, 727-399-2988) is a small marina that is home port for a number of locally recommended fishing boats, including regional guru Capt. Dave Zalewski and his modest-looking though well-swabbed boat, the Lucky Too (727-397-8815). Zalewski's son, also named Dave, sails from here as well in the Indecision (727-510-4276).

Party boat central is Hubbard's Marina (150 John's Pass Boardwalk, Madeira Beach, 727-393-1947, www.hubbardsmarina.com). Hubbard's operates several boats, including the Friendly Fisherman and the Florida Fisherman II, and an array of different expeditions including half-day, full-day, 12-hour day trips and 34-hour overnight trips that go up to 125 miles out. This is deep-sea fishing at its most commercial, but the positive side is that you can rent or buy everything you need -- rod and reel, tackle, towels, hats, bait, etc., for reasonable fees. Rod and reel rental on the half-day trip is $5.

EQUIPMENT: The equipment you'll need depends on the type of fishing you choose. As noted, you can rent almost anything before boarding your boat (see Hubbard's Marina and the bait shop listed below). But if you want to bone up on what you'll need in advance, bottom-fishing generally requires a 30- to 40-pound fishing line, whereas trolling's heavier demands call for a 100-pound or more monofilament line. For both kinds, an open-faced conventional reel is recommended, with a fiberglass or graphite pole. A complete kit (rod, reel, line, tackle) for either kind of fishing costs $150 to $300, more if you get fancy.

BAIT: Bottom-fishing bait tends to be simple organic stuff like squid rings. Trollers rely either on "frozen ballyhoo" (frozen fish, like sardines), plastic lures or "jigs" that are artistically made to look like fish.

Hubbard's Marina has its own bait shop, but a much more extensive and atmospheric stop-off is nearby Don's Dock (215 Boardwalk Place E., Madeira Beach, 727-391-3223). A hangout for local fishermen since 1946, this small shack is packed to the rafters with sinkers and lures of all shapes and sizes. If you're a novice, you won't get information from owner Don "Luke" Beggs III without paying for it with a wisecrack or two.

RECOMMENDED READING: A good introduction to the world of deep-sea fishing is "The Complete Book of Saltwater Fishing" by Milt Rosko (Krause Publications, $29.95, 800-258-0929). If you're interested in Ernest Hemingway's angling adventures, pick up "Hemingway on Fishing" (Lyons Press, $29.95), an anthology of his fishing-related writing edited by Nick Lyons.

INFORMATION: A decent source for Florida fishing information is www.floridafishing-boating.com, an angling Web site maintained by the Florida Sports Foundation in Tallahassee (850-488-8347). The group also publishes a useful annual guide to freshwater and saltwater fishing, "Florida Fishing & Boating."

For wind, wave, weather and ocean-temperature updates in the Tampa Bay area, call Ports (727-822-0022), an automated service that will tell you in detail whether it's a good day to charter a boat.

For general tourist information on the Madeira Beach area and John's Pass Village and Boardwalk: Visit Florida, 888-7FLA-USA, www.flausa.com.

-- Peter Mandel

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