Submitted by author Alan Yott December 2023
“Keep your hands in the boat” yelled Uncle Chesley, over the sound of the little thirty five horsepower outboard Johnson. “That’s a good way to lose fingers or even a hand”, as the ocean spray blew over the bow of our little Thunderbird seventeen foot skiff. Billy, one of my best preteen friends, and I just looked at each other and did as my uncle said. We had been trailing our hands in the water, unknowingly like bait, on opposite sides of the boat oblivious to the supposed danger lurking there or anywhere for that matter. Uncle Chesley was not one to mince words or tell you something twice, so we followed suit. The bow of the boat was pointed into the waves heading out to the patch reefs east of Tavernier Key Fl.. My dad, Gene, was forward on the front bench seat, Billy and I sharing the middle bench. Me on the port side, Billy on the starboard side, and Uncle Chesley at the stern guiding us at the motor toward a day that would become unforgettable to me.
The sun was hot so the salt spray was cooling and gave the effect of flying through the water although we were only traveling at no more than maybe eight to ten knots powered by what today we’ed call a little kicker. We were in no hurry but excited with the promise of what we would catch that day. Before leaving the dock I heard Uncle Chesley ask my dad,” Gene, what do you want to catch today”? “Snapper, yellowtail?” “I’m sure I can find us a grouper hole with some nice size grouper, if that’s what you have a taste for.
I thought Uncle Chesley, how in the world can you know what we’re going to catch? Yes, I knew that a particular bait would attract a certain kind of fish, but to be so certain that he could ask my dads’ preference was something new. I don’t remember my dads’ reply but remember thinking Uncle Chesley sure has a good sense of humor for a leather skinned burr headed old man. His nickname for me was “Blossom”, and not the blossom of a flower. I took it as a term of endearment. I never really understood why, but I’m sure I gave him plenty of reason. He was a man that had seen more than his share of salt and sun.
Not a pretty human being but a good heart, and the intensity that could quiet a room if the situation called for it. I remember one incident that involved a bottle of “Old Granddad” favored by my aunt and to this day I’ve never forgotten it. Not unlike many men of that generation, including my father, they were men of few words and straightforward in their actions. They were not the slap you on the back kind of brothers in law or buddies, but shared a love for fishing and a deep mutual respect earned over years of trust and understanding. Much of what I learned from my father I learned not by what he said but just by being with him. On that day of fishing Uncle Chesley spoke with confidence as if he could order up anything you wanted to put on your plate. Little did I realize that’s exactly what he could and would do.
Uncle Chesley Albury, born into a conch family in the Florida Keys, was married to one of my father’s nine sisters, Aunt Josephine. We called her aunt Joe. The Albury family was known as conchs due to the fact that they were among those that migrated from the Bahamas into the keys as some of the first settlers. Many were descendents of salvors, pirates and slaves trying to stay one foot ahead of the law and preserving their freedom. They were resilient and resourceful. Fishing to them was not a sport but a livelihood in its truest sense. If you didn’t fish you didn’t eat. A Conch, a large underwater snail, was a staple of the Bahamian diet, and still abundant in the Keys when I was growing. We ate conch right out of the shell raw, with a squeeze of Key Lime. Today you have to travel to the Bahamas for fresh Conch. Uncle Cheslesys’ family home was built on Tavernier Key, with the materials for building barged in from Miami before the railroad was constructed.
What Uncle Chesley would catch, net, harpoon, or trap, Aunt Joe would cook. I can still see the platters of fried fish with grits, slaw, green beans and salt pork, okra and tomatoes, cornbread, crawfish, which at that time were the only kind of lobster I knew existed, and if we were extremely fortunate, turtle steak. What I would give for some of Aunt Joes’ hush puppies. To me fresh means exactly that! Caught, thrown in a tub with ice, scaled, filleted, and headed for the fryin pan. Heads bowed to give thanks, and then down to business.
I was probably eleven or twelve years old and in love with the ocean and all its wonders. I spent as much time underwater as my lungs would allow. There was life everywhere. Too much was never enough. If evolution were true I should have started developing gills.
The run out to the reef would take roughly an hour so there was plenty of time to think, watch and anticipate, absorb and take it all in. My buddy Billys’ senses were on full alert, this being his first fishing trip on a boat. He was from Bluefield, West Virginia. About as far from the Keys as one world to another. I’m sure that even today he remembers that time with fond memories. And even though he was from the mountains the fishing bug had bit him somewhere along the way, and he was all go for the adventure. Mostly quiet, my dad and uncle were men that could spend long periods of time in silence with few comments between them. Only what was germane to the then and there. Today we call it living in the moment. I have to laugh when I think that they never had to meditate or do yoga to reach that state of mind. Neither drank, that I saw, but I’m sure earlier in their lives their lips had tasted some of that sweet mountain dew that Tenneseeians are famous for. At least I know my father had.
Well out of sight of land the watercolor started to change from green to blue. Uncle Chesley backed off the throttle and started changing course in somewhat of a large circle watching the bottom, looking for coral formations with surrounding sand. The coral varied in size. The sea wasn’t rough that day but he still had to be mindful as to the direction of the waves. The gunwales on our little boat were only about eighteen to twenty inches high so the wrong wave in the right direction would of meant a boatful of water, which would of meant a long swim home. Not good!
As quickly as the water had changed to blue it changed again to more of an emerald green, more shallow with all sorts of shades of brown, tan, darker and lighter hues, like a patchwork quilt almost like arriving over the top of a country side at twenty thousand feet in an airplane, only arriving over one in 30 feet of water. I believe that is where the patch reefs got their name from although I’ve really never heard it explained. I had never seen anything like this. I had fished the Gulfstream, piers, docks, flats, beaches, jetties, and what would later be called the backcountry over beds of turtle grass but this was to me breathtakingly beautiful. I would forever be captivated by what I was seeing, and have traveled there many times in my mind in an attempt to visit that place of surreal and natural beauty.
Slipping the little motor into neutral our forward momentum slowly carried us over the top of the reef. Uncle Chesley reached into the canvas duffle bag he had brought along and pulled out a strange looking wooden bucket. I figured he simply wanted to collect some water to wash his hands for some reason and didn’t want to put his hands over the side of the boat into the water based upon his earlier warning, heeding his own advice. Only he bent over the side and started looking down into the bucket while holding it on top of the water.
He didn’t seem to be satisfied by what he saw so back in gear we went moving along at idle speed as he would periodically peer down into the bucket inspecting the bottom to provide just the right spot for dropping our anchor and lines. With a flick of his wrist he spun the bucket in my direction simply saying, “ Blossom grab It!” So began my first lesson in the use of a glass-bottom-bucket. He knew I had been watching with eyes glued and that I would grab hold of the bucket and follow his instruction. As I peered through the bottom of the glass bottom bucket for the first time I saw more fish in one place than I had ever seen in my life including the famous Seaquarium in Miami. It was unbelievable and right there under the boat. My eyes must have been popping out of my head.
“Gene, when I tell you, drop the anchor was uncle Chesleys instruction to my dad. “The tide is coming in so we’ll drop it into the sand, let it grab and we’ll drift back over the reef so we, or you don’t have to go overboard for it and pull it out of the coral later”. Billy and I looked at each other. Overboard? I thought, Is he kidding? There goes that wacky sense of humor again. I only say that Uncle Chesley, as far as I know never lost an anchor. Finally the anchor caught and my dad let out line as my uncle watched through the bucket I had passed back to him until we were positioned in what he considered the best spot to drop our lines overboard “Tie it off Gene”.
We had brought bait: live shrimp, dead mullet, and my uncle’s favorite bait for grouper, crawfish heads. We had enjoyed a feast of tails the night before so there was no better excuse, if we needed one than to go for grouper than to have the bait on hand.
I’m sure Uncle Chesley wanted to get Billy and my hands occupied as quickly as possible in order to prevent any possible calamity due to our excited state. The only immediate danger at this point was to hook each other, ourselves, or to lose any gear overboard, and to for god sakes to remain seated. There would be no casting. It wouldn’t be necessary. What we were after was right under the boat. This seemed almost too good to be true. We had watched patiently as my uncle rigged and baited our hooks with freshly thawed mullet that had already begun to perfume in the hot sun. He said I’m only going to show you how to do this once. That’s all it took. We were all eyes and ears. I still rig my rods tying my line to my leader and hook just the way he showed us to this day, and every time I do I think of him and how many hours of pleasure I’ve had because that old man wanted to share something he loved doing with us. I don’t know what you call the way it’s done but I can tell you I’ve never lost a fish because the line wasn’t tyed correctly.
I’ve lost plenty of fish, but not for that reason. He had us wait till we were both ready to start fishing when he said “let your line out slowly the lead sinker will take it straight down to the bottom”.” When you feel the line go slack, that means it’s hit the bottom, start reeling up you have a fish on.” I knew that there were a lot of fish down there because I had seen them. Ah, Uncle Chesley, it just came right out of my mouth. You’ve got to be kidding with us now. But to start reeling up when it hits the bottom, you’ve got one, come on. How is that possible? How would you know? He didn’t bother to answer. So as instructed we once again did as we were told. I felt my line sinking to the bottom through the eyes of the rod and make its way off my old Orvis spinning reel until all at once it stopped. Okay, I was sure he was just joking. One turn, on the reel, two turns, nothing, slowly, three turns, all of a sudden the line has a mind of its own and a crazy one at that.
The end of the rod is bending toward the water and my little Orvis spinner is struggling to retrieve the line that I had let out and let plunge to the bottom. I have a fish. And it’s on my line, on my rod and reel, and I’m bringing it in. I’m so thrilled I have to remind myself to keep seated in the boat. Almost simultaneously Billy is doing the same, although I’m so excited I hardly notice anything except the flashes in the water making their way up to the side of the boat. “ “Blossom keep the rod tip up so you don’t lose him”, Uncle Chesley instructs. As he all the while was readying the dip net to gather up the most beautiful yellowtail I have ever seen. How did you know Uncle Chesley? How’d you know? “Nice one”, was his reply. Now you’ve got your dinner how about getting some for the rest of us.
Billy and I set about doing just that. Down went our bait until we could feel it hit the bottom and then almost immediately the life struggle that ended in the galvanized tub with the block of ice covered with the old green canvas tarp that kept everything from spoiling.
Just like life, the good stuff usually happens while you’re busy doing something else. My attention was so focused on what I was doing that I barely noticed what was happening with my other fishing companions. I had my back to my dad who was on the bow so I hadn’t even noticed that when he baited his hook it was with a crawfish head and not a little piece of greasy mullet. His goal was for Grouper, and good size grouper at that. He wanted the prize of the plate. His rig was heavier and more suitable for bringing in a ten or twelve pounder. Our little yellowtail was kid stuff compared to a fish that size.
There is a certain skill to catching grouper. They love to dwell in the rocks and attack their prey unsuspecting. At the first sign of trouble they head back into the relative safety of the rocks and expand their bodies to make it almost impossible to be extracted. When one comes out after the bait you want to do everything possible to prevent them from retreating. A grouper will practically swallow its prey, almost like a vacuum, sucking it in, in this case crawfish head, whole. If it isn’t satisfied with what has been swallowed, it will just as quick spit it out, and then swallow it again, almost like giving a second opinion.
Timing is everything. This is where skill and experience come in. All that drama was taking place underwater without an audience, so one would think. On a reef there are eyes everywhere looking for an opportunity for the next meal. It’s what is not seen that usually has the greatest advantage and prevails on top of the food chain. Meanwhile Billy and I are trying to fill the ice tub with as many fish as possible. My attention is focused on the task at hand. All of a sudden the quiet and calm was broken with a flurry of excitement that I only got to see the result of. True to my fathers character he had been reeling in a large grouper without any fanfare or hurrah when right up next to the boat a flash like lightning cut through the water and with teeth like razors cut my fathers prize catch in half. He had come right up to the boat and practically out of the water to do it! The first thing I saw when turning around were Billy’s eyes as big as saucers. He had seen it all, I had seen nothing.
The next thing I saw was the remainder of the grouper dangling on my father’s line with more than half of its body missing and a few innards hanging from that which was left, which wasn’t much. Mostly just the groupers head. Everything from just below the gills was gone. That had been a big grouper. It had been a huge….Barracuda. I was amazed at how fast it all had happened, disappointed that I had missed it, and sorry that my dads prize fish had been stolen from him by a denizen from the deep so close to the boat. Still the best was yet to come. Of course all fishing came to a halt. “Boys bring your lines in, no use trying to catch anything just now”. Uncle Chesley, not to be thwarted by the monsters behavior had a trick in his tackle box that would show us all what it was we were dealing with.
From down in the bottom of the tackle box my uncle grabbed a piece of wood with what looked like string wrapped around it. He called it mason chord. It was what bricklayers used in order to maintain a straight line while laying brick or block. It was very strong and on the boat would be used to tie a buoy onto a harpoon line incase we were to see a sea turtle, which at that time was legal to hunt and among the most delicious of delicacies. Uncle Chesley was known to sometimes chase a turtle for hours in order to bring him to the point of exhaustion and capture, so the line tied to a buoy, which lead to a harpoon head which had been thrown into the back of a turtle, piercing the shell, had to be strong.
Once the turtle’s shell had been pierced there was no other option but to follow it until capture. If not the turtle would most likely die a slow and inhumane death. It is not a pretty picture, the capture of a sea turtle, but I have to remind myself that this was a food source and that once you made the commitment to harvest one of those beautiful creatures in such a way, you had earned the right to taste the fruits of your endeavor and to share those fruits with family and friends. Growing up turtle meat was probably one of the most prized groceries you could put on the table. I never heard anyone; especially in the Keys say no thank you. To the end of the mason chord Uncle Chesley used double hooks each larger than the #6 hooks we had been using to catch yellowtail.
He sank the two hooks deep into the back of one of the now stiff yellowtail from the tub we had been using to keep our catch on ice. This was all new territory for Billy and I but were attentive students taking instruction from an expert. Uncle Chesley said, “Boys drop your heads”. Our heads dropped but our eyes stayed glued to his every move. With that he started to swing the baited fish in ever increasing circles around his head until he let the line release from his fingers and fly maybe forty feet from the boat. As the line released our heads popped back up to see just in time the small splash made by the hooked yellowtail. As the bait began to settle after the splash we watched as from across the reef a flash of light that we were now familiar with as our new fishing companion made a straight line to it. I have no idea what the others were thinking but I was sure that the barracuda was in for a big surprise. It was a surprise all right but not on the fish.
The surprise was on us. The “cuda” as we affectionately call them took the yellowtail and keep going, snapping the mason chord like, well like nothing I had ever seen. We all had blank expressions on our faces. Uncle Chesleys best effort had been thwarted by a force of nature and a mouth full of razor sharp teeth that I had never experienced until that time of my life. Not to be outdone by the “fish” Uncle Chesley pulled in the frayed mason chord retrieved two more hooks from the tackle box and began to repeat the same process. Now it was what we call game on. Tackle is something that old fishermen take seriously. It usually consisted of hooks, leader wire swivels, and sinkers made of lead.
We would spend hours making up our own tackle in order to have plenty on hand so as not to lose valuable fishing time. This was before the days when you could go down to the sports store and load up. Making my own is still a simple pleasure I enjoy today. If you lose good tackle it needs to be for a good reason. It was not to be squandered. Many times I retrieved, by diving during the day tackle that would get hung on the bottom in rocks or logs during night fishing from the dock that stretched out into the Atlantic from in back of the home and property on Tavernier. I didn’t mind, it was fun and served a practical purpose. Uncle Chesley would admonish me by saying don’t worry about the sharks and barracuda they’re hungry but they’re small. Up until this time I always thought that was funny!
So here we go round two. Heads down, around goes the yellowtail with double hooks out about forty feet, splash, flash, and this time the monster seems to be hooked. Instead of the chord breaking, the fish is pulling it taught and is really hooked. Up until this point no one has thought about what we are going to do with a large barracuda once he’s subdued. Actually there was never really a chance of that happening. What Uncle Chesley neglected to do by design was to tie a leader wire between the hooks and mason chord thus making it possible for the “Cuda” to easily cut through the strong cotton line, giving the “Cuda” a free meal and us a fine show. They are mostly mouth and teeth and not something that you would want to share a small skiff with. Before that thought could be completed the Cuda comes completely out of the water straight up into the air like an underwater missile and for the first time we really get to see our nemesis. I had never seen a barracuda this size. Usually big ones are three to four feet.
Even Uncle Chesley was surprised at its length and girth. It had to be six plus feet in length and as big around as a telephone pole at its thickest part. I know what you’re thinking, that fishermen are prone to exaggeration. I myself have described them and myself as magnificent liars, but this story is told according to the thinking that truth is stranger than fiction. As it jumped I had the feeling that it was looking directly at us and in a sense was playing a game with us. It made a second jump as if to say just incase you didn’t believe the first time here’s something to remember me for. Then as quickly has it had appeared, it disappeared. Taking the bait hooks and a bit of mason chord with it.
It was magnificent. It was easily the ruler of the reef. Its grace, speed and power unlike anything I’d had ever seen. We were all stunned by what we had just witnessed. Uncle Chesley was sure that it was a mated pair. When young they many times travel in schools for protection. As they grow they become more solitary and give each other plenty of room. It was not by coincidence that these two giants were hunting the same reef. Side by side they would have been bookends, and formidable hunters. The air was electric. How could you top that? Billy and I didn’t even bother to ask if we could continue fishing. It was apparent that even if we did it would be to no avail. Everything on that reef had taken the opportunity to disappear and we would have to be satisfied with what was already in the tub on ice, which was aplenty. Uncle Chesley said “Gene, pull the anchor, we might as well go home”
With that he cranked the engine, put her in gear, brought the bow around and headed back toward the late afternoon sun, west toward Tavernier Key.
As we rode the waves back, I thought to myself I’m sure glad we kept our hands inside the boat and that my dad didn’t have to go overboard for the anchor.
Post Script: Approximately thirty years after this experience I found myself living on a trawler in Bear Cut Marina on Key Biscayne, Fl.. It was around dusk and I was leaving the boat on my way to work as singer at the famous Steafano’s restaurant on the Key. The lights had just appeared on the docks illuminating the water, which was relatively clear. When I’m around water the first thing I do is to look and see what sea life if any, there is to be seen. To my surprise a pinfish about five inches long began to make its way across one of the slips just below the surface of the water. All of a sudden that old familiar flash and the pinfish began to swim in circles. A small barracuda maybe eighteen inches in length had taken the tail of the pinfish rendering it helpless to maneuver.
With the precision of a surgeon the cuda took the pinfish one strike at a time until only the head and forward fins still moving were left and began to sink. As it sank out of sight I could just make out the last flash and the skill with which the barracuda dispatched its prey. The experience brought back to me that day with my Dad, Uncle Chesley, and Billy, and of course those monster barracuda. What a day!