The weather this time of year can be very unpredictable, warm, even hot, one day, and cold the next. This particular day and the days that followed were not the best. A high scuddy sky and wind threatened that kind of slow drizzle that makes for miserable fishing. But, off we went anyway for the 26-mile trip, trying to stay dry both from the rain and from the bow spray.
Marquesas Key is the only true atoll in the Atlantic, sort of a doughnut of mangroves perched on a shallow coral reef. The hole in the doughnut is probably a quarter mile in diameter with several meandering channels cutting across the 2-foot deep water from one side to the other. Our plan was to anchor up in one of these small channels at night under the protection of the mangroves. That first morning was spent trying to locate some fish. Our sister boat headed for the Gulf of Mexico side while we trolled the edge of the reef line on the Atlantic side. It was a little too early in the year for dolphin and a little too late for kingfish, so we located and anchored up from a school of yellowtail snapper on the edge of the reef holding on a hump in 90 feet of water.
About 30 minutes of chumming with sand balls (ground up fish mixed with beach sand) was all it took to get things started. Weightless chunks of bait on 3/0 hooks drifting back into the chum line would hook up a yellowtail almost every time.
By now we were hungry and had caught quite a number of yellowtail. We shared a couple of boxes of frozen fried chicken that we had allowed to thaw in the mid-morning air. The chicken was cold, but good. We continued fishing and eating, and throwing the chicken bones over the side, still catching fish.
It was at about that point we began catching fish with bulging stomachs (the fish's, not ours!). They really looked distorted, so much so, that we had to cut one open to see what was going on. There, inside the stomach of a 15-inch yellowtail, was a six-inch long leg bone from a chicken! He had swallowed the whole thing (or is it the thing whole?)! Neither of us could believe our eyes!
We continued to catch fish there until our chum and chicken ran out and then ran back to the island to set up for the night and the next morning we made a run to Ellis Rock on the Gulf side with our sister boat. But the swells had gotten larger and neither of our stomachs fair well in rough water, so we came back. At the island we tried to idle across the doughnut, but the tide was too low and we were kicking up mud everywhere. My partner, Sam, from North Carolina had no idea what was going on in that shallow water, but I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
We got out of the boat to lighten the load and float it a little higher. Then we pushed and pulled the boat across the hole in the doughnut toward the lee side mangroves. As I had suspected, about 10 yards from the edge of the mangrove limbs, the water dropped off from 1 foot to about 8 or 10 feet deep, going back under the trees. Sam did not see what I saw and could not figure why we were in 2 feet of water next to the mangroves.
I told Sam to follow my lead and tied on a 2-inch nylon jig, white with red wrapping(one of my grandfather's hand made jigs), tipped with a small strip of mullet. I told Sam to throw carefully at a dead branch on one of the trees and work the jig slowly. He did and a mangrove snapper with fire in his eyes came from under the mangroves and took Sam's jig back under the tree with him. Sam could not believe it! Pound for pound, these things fight better than any fish you will ever catch! They weren't huge, but they were plentiful, and we fished until we literally ran out of bait and jigs.
Back at Stock Island late that afternoon, preparing for the drive back, we kept what fish we wanted to eat and sold the remainder of our catch. Fish houses always had a truck there in the afternoon to buy fish.
To this day, no one really believes the yellowtail and chicken bones, or at least they accept it with a wink. I haven't been back to the Key West area in quite a number of years, but my guess is that those mangrove snapper are still there under the mangroves. I would also guess that the yellowtail still school over the deep humps. But given our situation today, we probably could not catch them. See, after all these years and at my age, my chicken is grilled with no bones!