We used to go to the little tackle shop on Roosevelt Boulevard next to the culvert in Garrison Bite and buy a “shiner rig”. A shiner rig consisted of about 20 yards of what looked a lot like sewing thread with a hair hook and a split shot, wound figure eight onto a matchstick. For a dime, you could get a shiner rig and one whole shrimp for bait. We would sit on the culvert and catch shiners and take them across the road to the charter boats. An occasional mullet was sold to the tackle shop for a nickel. All this to say that fishing was the major activity back then - no television (only those people with enough money to afford a very high antenna could pick up a very snowy channel 4 from Miami some 150 miles away), and no tourists. Back then in Key West you were either Navy or Conch, and you never really saw anyone else.
Our neighbor back then, Mr. Knowles, was a carpenter by trade during the week. It was his son that I fished and fought with most of the time. On the weekends Mr. Knowles turned into a commercial fisherman. He had a 15 foot wooden skiff that he had built (fiberglass had not arrived on the scene except as a covering for wooden boats) and he would fish the inside shoals for jewfish.
Jewfish are members of the grouper family that grow to 700-pounds or more. The shoals are those shallow (8-16 ft) kind of reefy areas full of holes for fish to call home. Mr. Knowles had a gig of sorts - actually more of a flying harpoon, one where the head would detach from the handle when it struck home. That head was attached to half-inch Manila hemp rope. With a glass bottom bucket he would locate the fish in a hole and gig him. The head detached from the pole and Mr. Knowles would handline the fish to the boat.
On most Saturday and Sunday afternoons you could find Mr. Knowles in his back yard, small as it was, cleaning one or more fish weighing anywhere from 50 to 300 pounds. I think he got about 30 cents a pound cleaned. I want you to know that a fish two to four times larger than yourself leaves an impression on a 10 year old boy. It also left an impression on my Dad, an impression that quickly became an obsession.
The leaky skiff we kept at Eddie’s Fish Basket on Big Pine Key never left the dock without the requisite “jewfish” bucket with handline (rope), heavy wire leader and 12/0 hook. Everywhere we stopped to fish, that handline went into the water with some type of live bait. It was during that time that my Dad’s obsession began. It would be many years before he caught his first jewfish, and the obsession would never leave him.
In Florida Bay, on the north side of the Florida Keys, Jewfish are very common. Shoals, cuts, and inside reefs can hold a number of fish. My Dad and I fished Florida Bay almost exclusively from the late 50’s until his death in October of 1995. Florida Bay is fed on the north side from the Florida mainland by numerous salt-water creeks and rivers. These tidal bodies flow into and out of estuaries, some as large and famous as Shark River or Lostman’s River, but most just small creeks going only a mile or so into the mangroves.
These rivers and creeks are the breeding grounds and nursery for any variety of fish, including the Jewfish. Curiously, Jewfish are among several species of fish which are born female and change sex as they grow. Some remain female and some change to male. One study says the number of fish that change is dependent on the surrounding population and changes will occur as required to insure survival of the species.
We caught our share of Jewfish over the years in Florida Bay. The first was 80lbs in 1959. The heaviest was 347lbs in 1966. The last one was 40lbs in 1990. The ones in between those years are what my memories are made of. Most of the small to medium size fish we caught were caught in the rivers and creeks. The most memorable ones were not the big ones; the most memorable ones were the ones we caught on cane poles in the creeks - no, not shellcracker cane poles, but Calcutta cane poles about 2 inches in diameter at the butt.
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