Citizen Fishing Geotis

Marc Phelps, shown above, and columnist C.J. Geotis found a floating freezer full of fish in the Gulf Stream in a fabulous 2010 fishing adventure.

This column originally appeared in The Key West Citizen on Oct. 24, 2010. This column is dedicated to the recreational fisherperson who wants to have a good time, get the boat wet, spend time with friends and family, and maybe catch a couple fish.

I was thinking about how big the ocean is. Three fourths of the Earth’s surface is covered with water. In fact, according to the waters of the earth cover 335,258,000 square kilometers, whatever that means. It is difficult to even imagine something of this proportion. So, it would appear a daunting event to challenge such a gargantuan object in a 23-foot boat with any level of success. Look at a satellite photo of Earth and you start to get an idea of the sheer enormity of the whole thing. Even sitting in a boat beyond any sight of land and looking around doesn’t begin to clarify this immense volume of saltwater. It’s big, “really — really — big,” as Ed Sullivan would say.

“How do you eat an elephant?” the question goes. “One bite at a time,” the answer goes. So, how do we approach the oceans in our quest for fish? One piece at a time. And how big is that piece? At first, I thought, “I am probably interested in an area that reaches from 6 to 20 miles offshore and about 20 miles wide; or 280 square miles for you geometry majors out there. 280 square miles? Can I truly be concerned with such a large area? My answer, “No. That’s too big.” Imagine if your best friend lost his hat in the ocean and asked you to find it. If he could get you within 280 square miles of where he lost it, what would your chances be of finding it? Snowball’s chance in hell, comes to mind.

So, I have to narrow my area of concentration. I heard reports of dolphins in 250 to 600 feet of water. Now you’re talking. Now, there’s a small enough area to handle. Right? Well, maybe not, or “maybe knot” as us seafaring weekend warriors prefer to quip. Let’s say it’s three miles from 250 feet of water to 600 feet deep. And let’s say the area I am interested in fishing goes from offshore Key Colony Beach to the west end of the Seven Mile Bridge. That brings me down to approximately 36 square miles. Remember the lost hat? Think you could find it in 36 square miles of ocean?

Still too big, isn’t it? So, I ran the boat out to 250 feet of water, slowed down to trolling speed, set out a spread of baits and started looking around. I was looking for birds, bait or boats. The three Bs. I was also looking for debris, but debris doesn’t fit into the three Bs thing. We trolled for a while with no luck. Suddenly, my buddy Marc exclaimed, “Look, a big piece of debris, just off the port bow.” That’s in front of, and to the left of the boat, for the landlubbers. And there it was. A piece of debris in the middle of the gargantuan ocean. We approached cautiously. The weather was spectacular, a cloudless sky and just a slight chop on crystal clear water.

Heading to the debris, we did a harried run-down in the cockpit. “That floating debris should be holding lots of fish,” we both shrieked. “Check the baits for weeds, bring the left outrigger in a little bit, drop the downrigger to 60 feet, clear the deck and get ready.” “What the heck is that?” Marc asked. “I don’t know, it looks like part of a boat,” I answered. We both thought of Cuban rafts. Visions of desperate refugees winning, or losing, the battle to reach U.S. shore tacitly sped through our minds. We continued to approach the object; the excitement onboard palpable. “I’ll take the wheel, you get ready to catch the first fish,” I told Marc. Marc had never caught a dolphin, and the realization that “this might be it” lit up his face like a Christmas tree being plugged in.

A slight turn of the wheel brought the boat to the perfect heading, close enough, but not too close. Finally, we identified the floating mass. It was a commercial refrigerator/freezer. “What the heck is that doing here? Why is that still floating? How come no one else sees it?” A flurry of questions crossed our minds. “Watch for fish near it as we pass by,” I admonished. Marc had already gone to the side of the boat, his hand shielding his eyes from the bright glint of sunlight reflecting off the water. “Nothing yet,” he reported. We could see cooling coils and frozen fan blades, doors were missing. The bow of the boat was perpendicular to the freezer. “Get ready, the baits are just passing it,” I warned.

The downrigger popped. The reel exploded in a frenzied scream of straining monofilament line. The fish, as most fish are wont to do, headed toward the surface. Just as it broke the surface, two more lines went off. Three fluorescent mahi-mahi pirouetted behind the boat. “Take the biggest fish,” I bellowed. “Here’s your first dolphin and it’s a beauty.” I hit the man-overboard button on the GPS, slowed the boat and pushed the button on the autopilot. I love my autopilot. The EP2 ran a slow straight course and the two of us began the fire drill of two anglers landing three fish. Marc’s fish was definitely the biggest and the only gaffer. We boated him first, got him into the fish box, took barely two seconds for reveling and high fiving, then boated the two other fish. “Wow, that was exciting,” Marc exclaimed.

We trolled past the freezer three more times and didn’t raise a fish. We pulled up close and tossed cut pieces of squid into the water hoping to chum up dolphins or wahoo, but nothing happened. All of a sudden, a dark brown figure swam from the open door of the freezer. It was the largest tripletail I have ever seen. We pitched a small piece of squid to him and he bolted at it. Mark tried to set the hook, but he missed the fish. He tried again, missed again. “Slow down,” I told him. “Let him eat for five seconds then set the hook.” The tripletail inhaled the bait and started skimming away. Marc counted out the longest five seconds in the history of the world then set the hook. After a twenty-minute fight the defeated tripletail came aboard and took his rightful spot in the ice box. We stayed close to that freezer and wound up with three dolphin, the smallest wahoo I have ever seen, which we released, a blackfin tuna, a bonita and that magnificent tripletail.

All that ocean, and we wound up concentrating on a bit of water only 2 feet wide and 3 feet deep. Funny how that goes isn’t it? How’s that for narrowing things down? We went from 335,258,000 square kilometers to 6 square feet. I was reminded to keep my eyes, ears and mind on the prize. The fish are there, all I have to do is find them. And, once I find them, stay on them. And, all the time I’m doing that, I have to remember, life is good in the Florida Keys, life is very good in the Florida Keys.

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 He lives in Marathon with his wife, Loretta, and her Coca-Cola collection. His email is

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