A two shark lunch

Kim Fundingsland/MDN Shane Goodman, Minot, landed this nurse shark on the famed flats near Key Largo, Florida. A variety of sharks frequently hunt in the shallow water.

KEY LARGO, Fla. – It never gets old or monotonous or taken for granted. Not even close.

For a North Dakotan it only gets better and better and better, especially in late April and early May when the sound of a forced-air furnace is replaced by the faint whisper of a light breeze flowing through the narrow and lengthy leaves of stately palm trees. There’s a world of difference between the changing seasons on the High Plains as compared to the consistent tropical wonderment of the Florida Keys.

Upon approach to the Miami airport the pilot of the plane announced to passengers that the temperature on arrival was 86 degrees. It was 37 degrees in North Dakota earlier that same day. Quite a change. A near perfect way to start the fishing season.

Calling such a journey a fishing trip is like settling into your seat at the seventh game of a World Series and treating it as an opportunity to enjoy sunflower seeds. Oh, there’s fishing alright, but so much more. Spending time in the Keys is infectious – from the fishing to the weather to the people to the food. All is good.

Recently I was fortunate enough to join two other fishermen for five days of fishing on the famed flats of the Florida Keys. It wasn’t my first fishing trip to the Keys, but each one is somehow better than the last. This most recent trip was no exception. I wasn’t surprised.

Fishermen fully understand the value of spending time on the water. Each day, each hour, each minute is coveted for the relaxation, enjoyment and camaraderie provided. Fishing in the Keys elevates the experience for a “flat lander,” and others too, I’m sure. The brilliantly subtle hues of clear ocean water, the variety of bottom cover from colorful coral to green grasses and a stunning array of wildlife above and below the water adds significantly to the experience of fishing in the Keys. It’s a wonderful blend of magic and magnificence.

During a typical day of fishing the ocean, any number of sights capture the eye of the angler. Sometimes it’s the style and design of large ocean-view homes that symbolize the laid-back life in the Keys. Or it is the ornate and fascinating design that is worn by a small jellyfish drifting slowly past the boat. Maybe it’s the huge head and shell of a sea turtle observing its surroundings before quietly slipping beneath the ocean’s surface. It could be the brown pelicans drifting silently overhead or the graceful white herons that frequent the shorelines and provide magnificent contrast to the endless tangles of green mangrove trees.

From the wide and angled wings of the elegant Frigate bird floating high above to the distinct outline of rays and manatees in the shallow water below, each day the Keys delivers a series of visual highlights that remain entrenched in the mind. What is called “fishing” takes on a much, much broader definition. The pleasure derived from each fishing voyage goes well beyond traditional or perceived definitions of the sport.

While I thoroughly enjoy every fishing opportunity, I learned long ago that no fishing trip should be graded by the “catch” alone. Yet, in the Keys, where a wide variety of fish are readily available, I have found there is a certain satisfaction derived from hooking and landing fish, big and small, from the ocean. This is by no means to infer that the “catch” is the measure of the day while fishing tropical-like waters. Far from it. The experience alone in the Keys easily ensures a successful day but, certainly, catching fish adds to the enjoyment.

There were three of us in the boat for each of our five enjoyable days on the water. Our dauntless trio consisted of myself, Mort Bank of Bismarck and fellow Minoter Shane Goodman. For the latter it was his first experience living the “salt life.” He brought aboard the boat a vigorous enthusiasm for his new adventure. It was a refreshing pleasure to witness his response to various events that occurred during each day. It is infinitely gratifying to see the reaction of others upon their introductory journey to saltwater fishing.

While there were too many hightailed on the water to detail all of them on these pages, I will share with you several moments that will never be forgotten. The first was when Goodman strode proudly through the wide front doors of the house in which we were staying and announced that he had caught his first saltwater dwelling fish. Huh?

A bit more background is necessary here. You see, we arrived at what would be our home for the following several days late in the afternoon, too late to get on the water. The fishing would have to wait until the following morning. However, Goodman, armed with the knowledge that we had previously caught fish while casting from the dock, which was located just a few steps from the front door, caved to the temptation that resides in all true fishermen.

When Goodman stepped inside the house to announce his success he was, of course, immediately subject to a barrage from two sources demanding to see proof of his professed accomplishment. Goodman explained that he had released the fish, an utterance that only fueled further disbelief in his dubious claim. Naturally, when he produced a cell phone picture of a small barracuda, the evidence was countered with claims of “Photoshopped!” Fishing is always fun.

During the following days we caught toothy barracuda, large and small, on numerous presentations. At one point Goodman was lamenting the effectiveness of top-water lures when a sudden, splashing strike from a predatory barracuda stopped him in mid-sentence. Priceless!

Bank, an outstanding and relentless wielder of a fishing rod, always sets the standard for the day. Among his catches were the largest barracuda, largest Jack Crevalle and the largest mangrove snapper we’d ever seen. Not to be forgotten is his swinging into the boat of a “money fish,” a sizable speckled-trout. Memorable.

Also in the memorable category was our lunch on the water on day five. Rather, I should say, almost lunch. With the power pole down and the cooler open, the three of us sat down to begin a much anticipated lunch break. A prerequisite to doing so is always placing the heavy shark rod where it can be easily observed while eating. The shark rod is outfitted with a large bobber and a large circle hook baited with a chunk of barracuda meat.

Moments before beginning our lunch we had added a fresh caught barracuda to the chum stringer, which was of the large steel clothes pin-type used by spear fishermen to secure their fish. The chum stringer is essential to attracting sharks. Previously we had been using day-old fish that apparently were not putting much scent in the water. Fresh blood scent disperses in the water. Sharks can detect blood scent from more than a mile away. It quickly became obvious that the fresh cuda we placed on the chum stringer was doing the work intended.

As soon as we had begun to enjoy a fresh salad we spotted the shadowy figure of a shark approaching along the starboard side of the boat. It was headed straight for the bobber and bait. Exciting!

It was Goodman’s turn on the shark rod and he was eager for the bobber to go under. However, the shark merely nosed the bait and swam away. A moment later the shark appeared on the port side of the boat, the same side where the chum stringer was dangling. Goodman grabbed a second shark rod, this one set up with a hook and bait only so that it could be used to cast in front of an incoming shark. This time though, no cast was necessary.

Goodman simply dropped the bait in front of the shark at boatside and the five-footer, a nurse shark, inhaled the meat. The battle was on! While the outcome of this encounter was yet to be decided, a second shark, and then a third, came into view. At least two more arrived within a few seconds. Goodman landed the first shark and was able to remove the hook, just in time to cast to another ocean predator – a blacktip shark that had been swirling around the boat.

The blacktip was as ornery as he was hungry and took the bait without hesitation. The disposition of a blacktip is much different than that of a nurse shark, so caution was in order as Goodman began to win the fight on hook and line. In the meantime Bank and I were staring at an approaching shadow in the water on the opposite side of the boat, a very large shadow. Bank identified the determined fish as a bull shark, a known man-eater. It was huge!

The bull shark turned and approached directly toward the side of the boat, veering away just a few feet distant. It swam toward the bait underneath the bobber and disappeared. There is nothing on the water that compares to the visual excitement of fishing the flats!

A few moments later Goodman was able to bring the blacktip boatside and, with some very cautious maneuvering, which showed complete respect for a broad mouth full of razor sharp teeth, and with the assistance of a long pliers, was able to remove the hook. His “two shark” lunch was complete. Welcome to fishing the Florida Keys.