My friend Marc Phelps and his lovely wife, Maria, came into town last week. Marc and I have been friends since 2005, and he is the person who got me started in the newspaper columnist world back in 2007. He and Maria have two young boys and make for terrific family photos. It’s been too long time since I’ve seen them, and Marc was ready to do some fishing, and so was I. Strangely enough, each time Marc visits, the marine forecasts are perfect, and the fishing is great … every time. Every time since 2007. So, I was happy to see him pull into my driveway early last Monday morning.
The EP-2 was fueled and loaded, ready to go. As we headed for open water, we talked about the plan for the day. We were hunting mahi mahi, so we decided to troll a set of lines across the reef and continue trolling until we reached 250 feet. If nothing happened, we’d pull the lines and head deeper, 700 feet deep or so, a little less than 20 miles offshore. I’ve had some good luck out there lately.
As soon as we passed the deep side of the reef, the first line got hit and the reel started screeching. The fish never jumped, I assumed we had a blackfin tuna, skipjack or bonita. Sure enough, we pulled in a bonita. For a fish we didn’t keep, he sure put up a heck of a fight, but we weren’t looking for bonita, we were looking for mahi mahi. Wham, another line got hit. A much smaller fish — we quickly subdued a 3-foot barracuda and released him.
We hooked a small mahi, maybe 18 inches to the fork of the tail. He was released safe and sound. Marc and I joked that by the next time he was in town, this fish would be much bigger than legal. We continued south toward deeper water. When we passed the 300-foot mark, we pulled the lines, leaving the artificial lures hanging from the outriggers just above the surface of the Atlantic Ocean.
Up on plane, we traveled quickly in calm waters. “I love it out here,” I told Marc. “I always love it out here.” He agreed.
We settled into a comfortable cruising speed; our heads swiveled back and forth unceasingly while we scoured the horizon and the surrounding waters in search of flotsam or cartwheeling birds indicating where feeding, or migrating, mahi mahi might be. We slowed down a couple of times to fish areas with bird activity. Nothing was happening. As we decided to move on, one of the lines got hit. It was a quick fight and another undersized mahi mahi was released to Mother Ocean.
“Let’s pull the lines and let’s get outta here,” I said. “We can watch for birds while we run out to deeper water.”
“Sounds good to me,” Marc answered.
As we closed in on the area where I wanted to be, the water become churned up with currents, rips and wispy winding weedlines. Birds were circling close to the surface, and we could see fish breaking the surface here and there. “This is where we want to be,” I called out. “Let’s get some lines in the water.”
The whole area was what I like to call “fishy.” I felt hot humid air on my forehead. We were in the Gulf Stream. The small waves had become unruly, going in the opposite direction of the wind, their tops were beginning to curl and froth. Anticipation built, then we spotted birds low to the surface. We dragged baits under the birds; an outrigger popped under the strain of a frantic mahi mahi, dancing on the water. Marc grabbed the rod and started reeling him in.
Other mahis were following our captured fish. I grabbed a spinning outfit and put a piece of ballyhoo on a circle hook, then cast it behind the boat. Marc kept reeling. It didn’t take long, and I had a lively mahi splashing and jumping at the end of my line. We boated the two fish while casting cut bait to attract more mahi mahi. We were surprised not to see anymore mahi, so we got back on the troll.
We brought a big ‘cuda to the side of the boat and released him. Then we caught a couple of extremely small mahi mahi that we released. It was time to move on. We got back on the troll but this time we were heading toward shore. We stopped several times, at fishy waters, and caught two more undersized and safely released mahi and another barracuda.
Back on plane, we relaxed and enjoyed the ride. It was late afternoon by now, and we were talking about calling it a day as we got back to 300 feet of water. Out of nowhere, a flock of cartwheeling birds came into view. We couldn’t pass this up, so we set out four trolling lines and approached the birds. The next thing we knew, we were double-hooked-up with jumping mahi mahi.
Marc boated his fish. I kept mine in the water to attract other mahi and that’s exactly what happened. Marc grabbed a spinning rod, cast out a chunk of cut bait and hooked another fish. Even though we were in the shallowest water of the day, 250 feet, these were the biggest fish of the day; not huge, but big for schoolies. With more fish circling the boat hoping for free meals, we agreed we had more than enough fish in the box.
By the time we got back to the dock, rinsed the EP-2, put the gear away and cleaned the fish it was after 7 p.m. We’d spent eleven hours on the water. “We always have great weather and catch lots of fish when you’re here,” I told Marc. “You should move back here.”
“Who knows?” he answered. “Maybe when we retire.”
As he walked to his car, Marc and I agreed, life is good in the Florida Keys; life is very good in the Florida Keys.
Award-winning columnist C.J. Geotis is a life-long fisherman who followed his dream 20 years ago to live in the Florida Keys. His book, “Florida Keys Fish Stories,” is available at Amazon.com. He lives in Marathon with his wife, Loretta, and her Coca-Cola collection. His email is email@example.com.