Storm in the Keys

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The Florida Keys and the Key West area was always a magical place for me during my Navy career. As a kid growing up in the Midwest, never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined some of the fun times I had in the Florida Keys while in the Navy. Back before, during the Reagan years and beyond there was a need for aircraft to patrol our southern borders in order to combat drug smuggling and at times our squadron was tasked with helping the feds with drug smuggler detection, interception and interdiction. Basically our squadron was tasked with finding the smugglers and the feds were tasked with apprehension. The squadron would spend a few weeks at a time down on a little known key just north of Key West called “Boca Chica”. The Navy had a small air base there and we would operate out of the airbase during our stay. The Navy also had a resort type area on Boca Chica complete with a private beach, marina, bar, restaurant and other amenities’ to make our stay more comfortable and private while we operated in the area. Unless we went into Key West which was about 10 miles from the air base, you’d never know we were there as just about everything we needed was on the base including a laid back night life at the beachside bar and restaurant after a hot day of working on the tarmac. 

       Once the feds got a little more technical with their surveillance tactics using satellites and radar, the need for our services dropped off but the base at Boca Chica was tasked with a new roll which was providing fleet adversary training (ACM) or “dog fighting” training to the fleet. Basically, Navy pilots have to stay proficient in different aspects of their job, one of those being “air to air” combat. The central hub for that training became the base at Boca Chica for the east coast air bases and sometimes the west coast bases as well. It made sense because the area in which the pilots operated was way out over the gulf and the Florida Keys was the perfect location to operate from. As a maintenance man, I wasn’t complaining as I loved to fish so when I wasn’t working on the jets I was probably going to be either fishing or trying to find a way to fish. 

                     As my Navy career was winding down I was transferring from a F-18 Hornet squadron in southern Louisiana and I chose to take a I-level job which basically meant that I would not be working on the jets anymore but I would be working on the electronic gear that goes into the jet at a small airbase just north of Atlanta, Ga. called Dobbin Air Reserve Base. I would be in a repair outfit testing and repairing anything from computers to hydraulic actuators. If it used electricity and went to a Navy or Marine Corps aircraft they probably fixed it at one time or another. By that time in my career I was in a supervisory position and was the leading Petty Officer of our division. I managed about 50-75 sailors and Marines in my position and I basically sat behind a desk all day working on paperwork, doing training which included death by Power Point and managing personnel that were half my age. After 2 years of that desk job I was about to lose my mind so I cancelled my my orders and requested to go back to lacing up my boots and working on jets for one last 2 year Hooray before my plan to retire. I was able to finagle my way into a F-18 Hornet squadron right there at the base just down the road from where I currently worked. I had about 12 years of experience on F-18 Hornets so I quickly regained all my old qualifications and started my new job as a Avionics QA rep. I traveled with the squadron when they would be tasked with different aspects of the job and the squadron usually made 3-4 trips to Key West every year for fleet adversary training. On this particular trip I was less than a year from retirement and I had already “dropped my papers” for retirement.

      The squadron had scheduled a early fall trip to Key West for another ACM training detachment which was scheduled to last 2 weeks. Just enough time for me to enjoy a little laid back lifestyle in the Keys and squeeze in a fishing trip before getting back to the grind in Atlanta. I knew this was going to be one of my last trips with the Navy to Key West so I really wanted to get some fishing in while I was there. When we were getting ready to spend a few weeks in Key West we always sent an advanced party of about a dozen personnel to make sure all of the logistics are taken care of before the main body of aircraft and personnel arrive. The advanced party would set up our birthing assignments in the barracks at Boca Chica. One nice thing about being a senior first class petty officer is that I rated my own private room so I didn’t have a roommate like most of the squadron personnel. That comes in handy when in Key West because sometimes a roommate could be problematic if they like the night life and you didn’t. On this particular trip my fishing buddy Chris was going with the advanced party and he was tasked with finding us a fishing charter during our stay in the Keys. We were going to work a 24 on and 24 off shift which would give us the opportunity to get in a trip or two. Chris was a great saltwater fisherman and many times Chris and I had rented fish boats from the Navy marina and fished for Mai Mai or other predatory fish around the drifting offshore weed beds and floating structure. We also fished the reefs for bottom feeding grouper and snapper at times. We dove for lobsters during the summer lobster season and fished on our own a lot but we wanted to let someone else do the guiding so we could focus on fishing on this trip. Generally the squadron would have a big beach party during our stay at Boca Chica so in addition to steaks and lobster on the grill Chris and I were going to try and provide some fresh fish for the beach party grill. In the past we had brought Mai Mai for the grill but it was late in the season and that kind of seafood wasn’t really anticipated to be on the menu for this trip. 

      Chris called me a few days after he arrived with the advanced party and he had found us a charter captain for a night fishing trip to the reefs for grouper and snapper. It seemed Chris had run into a commercial fishing captain who made his living catching reef fish and selling them to the local restaurants and markets as well as exporting a few up the state. Chris told me that they hit it off and the captain agreed to take Chris and I out on an all night trip to the reefs located about an hour offshore. He said that we would probably catch enough fish for our upcoming squadron party and if we would just kick in 100 bucks total for gas and bait that would pay for a night of fishing. It was mostly going to be snapper, grunts and grouper but that sounded like something we could put on the grill along with about 50-60 ribeye steaks, lobster, baked potatoes and vegetables to feed the squadron. Our plan was to leave the docks at sunset and fish most of the night. When we felt like we had enough for our party and the captain had a good amount of fish for his business we would come back in. That was the plan. 

I arrived in Key West with the main body of our squadron on a Saturday and I immediately had to go to work. There was a lot of things to set up and we needed to get everything ready to start flight operations early on Monday morning. Chris and I were working as squadron QA reps and we worked the same shift which was from noon on one day till noon on the next day. Our squadron just rotated 2 separate shifts around the clock so we were flying and performing maintenance almost non-stop for 2 weeks. We made our plans to leave on a Thursday evening, fish all night and procure the fish we needed overnight then coming in on Friday morning, clean and refrigerating our catch for the beach party and cookout on Saturday afternoon. 

Work went pretty smooth during the week and Thursday finally arrived. We got off work at noon and went back to our rooms for a little 4 hour power nap before preparing for our night trip. Chris and I grabbed a bite to eat, headed to the pier and found the captain just before sunset . We were joined at the dock by 2 other Navy guys from another squadron that the captain had met a few days earlier and wanted to join us. The captains boat was an older wooden fishing boat, maybe 35-40 feet in length with an open stern area and a coffin type box right in the middle of the open deck at the stern. When we boarded the younger captain introduced himself as Rob and I could tell he was of either Cuban or Puerto Rican decent. He showed us around the boat and got us familiar with his vessel. Rob was younger than me but I could tell he was seasoned and knew his stuff. He explained about the function of the box in the back. The box itself was open at the top and about 4 feet high, a good 7-8 feet long and 3 feet wide. There was a wire about the diameter size of a clothes hanger wire that ran right down the middle of the opening and the length of the box. The idea was that once you caught a fish you could drop the hooked fish in the box and pull the fish and hook into the wire and give a quick jerk and the fish would be released from the hook and fall down into the box. The box was actually the storage area for our catch and the idea keep the fish iced as we caught them overnight and to fill the box by morning. If it was anticipated that we were going to fill the box overnight that meant that we were going to be catching a heck of a lot of fish but that was fine by me. The more fish catching, the better the trip as far as I was concerned. Once we got the tour of the boat and everyone knew where the safety equipment was we were off. There was a small pilot house and Rob jumped in the captains chair and pulled the boat away from the dock right at sunset. We were heading east away from the island once we cleared the navigation channel and headed for one of the many reefs that surrounded Key West. As we pulled out into the open water the sky to the west was a mixture of orange and gray colors where the sun was last seen before setting. Off to the east in the direction that we were traveling was a far off thunderstorm and we could barely make out the lightning inside the high reaching anvil cloud of the storm. Storms offshore in the keys at night aren’t uncommon and most times provide a little bit of a light show after dark and off in the far distance.  Myself, Chris and the other 2 guests got familiar while we were on our way to the reefs.

It was a beautiful early fall evening and the temperatures were very mild at the time. We were dressed for mild weather and I think we all had shorts and a long sleeve fishing shirt for attire and we only brought light snacks and drinks with us. Chris found a cast net that Rob had stored in the pilot house so about 30 minutes into our trip we stopped and fired up a portable generator and put out a large sodium light along the starboard side where there was a small winch. We anchored over a shallow area and ballyhoo started gathering around the glow of the light. Rob asked if any of us wanted a beer from a cooler he had brought and I took him up on it. Nobody else in the group wanted a beer so myself and the captain cracked a natty lite while we watched more ballyhoo gather under the light. We drank and waited as the baitfish group got bigger and Chris readied the cast net for a throw over the side on top of the circling ballyhoo. I looked out to the east and the storm over the Atlantic was growing bigger and moving slowly towards us. At the time I wasn’t really concerned because captain Rob was at the helm and working on his 2nd natty while Chris let the net fly and drop over a couple dozen nice big ballyhoo to use for bait. After we threw the net a few more times for a few more baitfish over the course of the next 30 minutes we pulled anchor to find the fishing grounds. Once again we were heading right for the storm but it was still far off in the distance. We finally found the reef and there was just a small chop on the water when we dropped anchor and back the big boat into place.  Captain Rob turned on the stern lighting and deck lights which lite up the whole back of the boat. He brought out some conventional fishing gear which was just some old Penn Squider baitcasters and heavier mono on a stiff rod with a circle hook tied to the line and a small weight at the bottom. The idea was to drop a small piece of squid on the hook down about 30-40 feet, wait till you feel and jerk and then reel the fish up. Most of the fish were smaller type grunts, yellowtail and a few grouper but since Rob was a commercial fisherman he was allowed limits of fish in the hundreds of pounds vice the smaller recreational creel limits imposed by the state. Once you got the fish in you just take it to the box, drop it down, release it and bait up again. Rob, on the other hand was old school, he was a hand line fisherman. He basically had the same set up we had with the hook, bait and line but his line was wrapped around his hand vice using a fishing rod and reel. I’d experienced folks that hand lined in the past so it wasn’t anything new to me but I preferred the rod and reel method.

We all baited up and Rob dropped a couple of chum boxes down to the bottom in a wire basket to get the fish stirred up and eating. Just as soon as we dropped our bait down we had a fish on. Most of the fish were 10-20 inches in size and for the first hour or so it was fun to be catching fish that quick. I kept watching the storm to the east and after about an hour of catching fish we all knew the storm was moving towards us and we were probably going to get wet. Captain Rob told us that it wasn’t unusual and they generally passed through rather quickly without and problems but by this time Rob was working through the last of his first 12 pack of natties and I could tell he was getting a little jacked up with liquid courage. I had quit drinking earlier when I realized that the storm was going to hit us and that little breeze we had turned into a moderate blowing wind with a beefy chop on the water. It wasn’t long till we could hear the thunder and we could see lightning inside the giant thunderhead, some of the lightning bolts slammed down onto the waters surface lighting up the night sky under the storm cloud.  The boat was starting to rock as the waves got a little more pronounced but we were still catching fish and having a good time. The box was getting filled fast and we had a variety of fish for the party. Rob wanted to take advantage of the good fishing and said that if it got rough we would ride it out in the pilot house till the worst had passed and we could go right back to fishing. There were a couple long bunks inside the pilot house along the wall and you could lie down and rest or sleep if need when out fishing on overnight trips. Soon the sky darkened and the waves came in with more of a rolling action. There was a beefy chop on the surface from the wind but there were also some big rolling swells which tossed the boat back and forth. The rain started and the wooden deck became slick to walk on with the pitching and rolling deck. It was still fairly warm out but the rain and the wind had definitely cooled us down and none of us brought any proper rain gear nor did Rob carry any on the boat. As the storm came in the the thunder and lightning is what made me nervous. Not so much the thunder but the lightning is something we could have done without. Chris and the other 2 fellows in our group finally broke down and put away their gear, heading for the pilot house. By this time the storm was in full swing and Captain Rob was definitely hitting the natty hard. It was blowing rain with occasional lightning and reminded me of some of the storms I endured back in the Louisiana marsh during a hot summer afternoon. The boat was old but very seaworthy and I felt the anchor release and re-seat on a few different occasions. The old boat slammed back and forth with the waves and I figured that if the big boat was going to come apart in the storm I’d rather be outside than inside so I rode it out with Rob and fished right through it. I was either holding on to the gunnel rails or clinging to the fish box most of the time but I kept right on fishing. There was a point during the height of the storm that it was nearly impossible to walk on the deck to get back and forth from the side of the boat to the fish box with a fish. It was a scary situation to fish with the boat rolling, tossing, turning and all the lightning but I figured that if  this was the way I was going out I might as well be fishing when I bite it. I gotta tell you that it was rough, even in a big boat it was rough. There was a time during the storm when I was completely soaked and chilled, sliding around the deck of the boat and I said a quick prayer asking for a little help from the big guy upstairs. I wondered if all that natty light that Rob was drinking gave him the courage to stay out in the storm rather than run back to the safety of the dock but I also figured that the man had to make a living and he had 4 able bodied deck hands that actually paid to help him. He probably didn’t run across a mentally challenged labor force like us Navy guys that often and he had recruited 4 of us top notch sailors on this trip.   

Finally, I could tell the storm was loosing it’s punch on us and the rain started to subside. The wind calmed and the waves turned to a small chop again. Chris and the other guys came out from the pilot house and we all went back to fishing. We continued to catch fish and laughed about the storm and everyone sliding around the deck with the fish we were catching. It was around 4 am when we finally filled the box with fish and we were all whipped and ready to call it a night so we pulled anchor, started the big diesel motors and headed west toward the dock at Key West. We chatted about our night of fishing and Rob told us about his fishing adventures up and down the east coast over the years. When we finally reached our dock at the pier I could see the sun rising off to the east in the same area I saw the approaching storm the night before. I was beat when I stepped off the boat and I had a good case of sea legs from all the rocking and rolling. Rob told us that he would dress out and half shell some bigger fish filets for us and we could pick them up Saturday morning before our squadron beach party. It worked out perfectly and we had enough fish to add to our grilled table fare at the party for everyone to get a taste of grouper and snapper from the keys. I’ve probably visited the Keys a dozen times since that trip but fishing the reefs through a storm in the middle of the night is a trip I’ll never forget.      

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