A Redfish Called Lazarus

Fish-'toon 3

“I can’t come up with a single story from our past that makes us look like anything other than potential Darwin Award candidates.” – Lee Kissell (trying to think of good stories from our younger days.)

It’s rare when you can reduce a 27-year friendship to one simple sentence, but Lee pretty much summed up ours with that one. There’s a fine line between careless and reckless. Between ’85 and ’90, he and I didn’t just cross that line; there were several times when we built a ramp, got a running start and jumped way over to the other side.

Lee reminded me recently of one such incident from our misspent youth that involved a redfish caught at St. George Island. In all honesty, though, I lay a lot of blame for this one on New Orleans Chef Paul Prudhomme. Thanks to that fat, fuzzy Cajun, the world’s supply of redfish went from plentiful to “blackened” almost overnight.

As a result, Florida’s Marine Fisheries Commission stepped in and for a few years made it illegal to keep even one redfish. Turns out that was a smart move. It only took a little while for the stocks to recover. But it took a few years before the State loosened up its rules on keeping them.

Pictured: Every redfish caught in the early '80s.

It was during that interim that Lee and I bought the POS* II and began fishing the coast like it was our job. (If I’m exaggerating, it’s only because back then we didn’t take our jobs quite as seriously as our fishing.) Of course, the redfish ban ensured that was the only species we caught from then on, especially when we fished Bob Sikes Cut.

We released every redfish we caught, coming back empty handed most days. After a while, it became a joke: The most expensive part of fishing was stopping by the seafood store on the way home.

* * *

Now, all I catch are undersized redfish.

On one of these trips, we said enough was enough. So we decided to tempt fate and slip one in the ice chest. (Side note: Fate doesn’t resist temptation very well.)

Part of our rationale was that any fish we could catch consistently must be doing well. In fact, if we were catching them at all, it probably meant they were on the verge of overpopulation. Hell, we were likely doing the world a service by keeping one.

A more important factor in this decision was that we had never seen a Marine Patrol officer in all the times we had fished the cut. (This is a literary device known as “foreshadowing.”)

* * *

Our “illegal harvest” had been on ice for all of about 15 minutes before a gray and black boat with blue lights appeared in the cut about 100 yards away. It was the Marine Patrol. That meant the four-pound redfish in the cooler was now a $500 fine just waiting to be discovered.

There was nowhere to run or hide as the big boat headed directly toward us. I could feel the color draining from my face, and money I didn’t have draining from my wallet.

"I'll let you off with just a pistol-whipping this time."

But just as the officers had cut the distance between us in half, they turned 90 degrees right and pulled up to check the only other boat on our side of the cut. It was just the break we needed.

Though they were close enough to clearly see what we were up to, both officers turned their backs long enough for me to reach in the ice chest and quickly toss our contraband catch overboard.

I breathed a sigh of relief, but it was cut short because of two troublesome developments:

1) After spending 15 minutes on ice, our redfish wasn’t exactly an enthusiastic swimmer. Instead, he was a big, silver carcass of State’s evidence drifting in the current; and

2) Said current was taking him on a beeline to the Marine Patrol boat just a few yards away.

I’ve yet to meet anyone who actually hoped a big one would get away, but that’s exactly what we were doing at that moment. No one outside Seaworld has ever been so focused on the health of a fish. “Come on, buddy!” we were saying. “You can make it. Please. Do it for your grand-fish!”

As he bobbed downstream, I quietly considered testifying against Lee in exchange for leniency. But just seconds before the redfish became Exhibit A in People vs. Us, he swirled his tail and dove below the surface, out of sight. He may be the only fish in history who was wished back to life.

As it turned out, all our worry was unnecessary. The officers cranked up their boat and went back the same way they came. By then, Lee and I were emotionally drained and ready to call it a day. So we pulled up the anchor and headed for the landing.

We did drive a little slower than usual, however. And we watched the water carefully – you know, just in case a half-frozen, brain-damaged redfish happened to pop up in front of us.

Learning from mistakes was never our strong suit.

* * *

I’d love to say that we’ve gotten a lot smarter over the years, but that’s not quite true. Like Ron White says, “You can’t fix stupid.” As our wives and families can attest, however, you can age it, wear it down and distract it long enough for it to stop being a public nuisance.

Failing that you just have to hope it moves 200 miles away like I did.

The POS in all it's '70s-era glory.

*POS stands for Piece of S**t and, yes, it was the second such boat we had. Our friend Dan Neustadter took a look at it and said, “Wow. This one’s a piece of s**t just like the other one!” The name stuck and for more than 20 years, it did everything from fishing to scalloping to pulling skiers. It was a crappy boat, but it was better than we deserve, even to this day.

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