The charter boats that run out of Garrison Bight here have an appalling custom. At the end of each day the lifeless carcasses of everything that's been caught are spiked on a pegboard back at the pier, whether they're fish worth keeping or not.
The tourists gather to gape at and photograph the remains of big grouper, king mackerel, sharks, cobia, barracuda and permit fish. It's an effective advertising trick that gets adventure-hungry visitors out the following day.
At which time they find out what really goes on.
Capt. Tommy Lomes has been running headboats out of Key West since 1946 and he knows how to draw a crowd. Last Saturday he had a banner day. An 80-pound black grouper latched onto one of his hooks. Sharks raced in and tore the big fish to shreds before it could be landed, but Lome hauled the head onto the boat and got it back to the pier for the evening show.
It was a grisly scene to whet the appetite of the least bloodthirsty tourist and Lomes, as expected, had a big crowd for the Sunday run.
"I was going to get on the Can't Miss (another boat)," said Ted Brinkerhoff, of fort Lauderdale. "But when I saw that grouper and the permit they caught, I figured I'd be better off here."
Dead wrong. It turns out that Brinkerhoff and the other first-timers aboard Lomes boat Gulfsteam II on Sunday had as much chance of landing a big fish or a prize game fish as they had of hooking a trunkful of gold and rubies.
The giant grouper was real enough, but it turned out it was caught not by an angler but off a meat line strung off the stern and manned by first mate Robert Crespo, who was busy fishing instead of tending to the customers' needs. The meat line, 60 feet of 3/8 inch nylon rope hooked to a length of steel chain and gaff-sized hook, was very sporting, indeed.
The permit and just about all the other decent eating or fighting fish that made their way onto the spiked board on Saturday had been caught by the mates or one of the three or four regulars that fish at special rates with Capt. Tommy every day.
On Sunday the two mates set up shop across the entire stern, which is a coveted area aboard a crowded headboat, and spent almost all their time fishing.The folks who shelled out $12 bucks to share their company and presumably profit from their assistance were on their own.
If they were really unlucky they came without their own gear, and rented one of Capt. Tommy's boat rods -- 60-pound test line on stiff sticks rigged up with three ounces of lead.
The fishing was in 125 feet of water, and the three-ounce sinkers never even made it to the bottom in the sweeping tide, let alone hold the bait there.
One by one the unfortunate anglers asked Crespo for more lead. He turned them down and went back to his own fishing. "Tell it to the boss," he told one angler. "If he says put on more lead, I put on more lead."
The capitain was locked away on the bridge, which was marked with a friendly sign. "Private, Keep Out."
The three regulars aboard had their own gear -- light tackel, sharp hooks and chunks of cut mackerel for bait. They did fine, loading up the cooler with red and silver snapper, two big red grouper around 10 pounds apiece, a bonefish, porgies and grunts, yellow tail snapper and scads of blue runners.
The others fished with shrimp heads, which must be the cheapest bait ever devised, and a small batch of cut, frozen squid.
In all, it was a thoroughly discouraging day that hardened an image Key West as a fleece 'em and forget 'em tourist town.
The first boat into port at the end of last week's Fort Lauderdale-to-Key West sailboat race rounded Sand Key light and headed for the city after 18 1/2 hours at sea. It was 4:30 a.m., and the sailors were tired, but exhilarated.
As they passed the tip of the southernmost city in America, a horrendous stench accosted them. It was the so-called "honey pot," the deep sea discharge site for the city's sewage.
"Smells like land," said one of the crewmen.
Smells like Key West to me.