cj and marc with tuna 102210

Marc Phelps, formerly of the Florida Keys Free Press, catches tuna with columnist C.J. Geotis on the Marathon Hump in 2010.

I had a great day fishing this past Saturday. And, I’m more grateful for that day than usual, because, it could have very easily — turned — bad — quickly. I was fishing with my friend, the editor of the Marathon Free Press newspaper, Marc Phelps. Marc is a terrific guy and just recently became a father. I can’t think of a man I would consider more committed to provide a good life to his child than Marc. We discussed babies and families for a short while, but this Saturday morning we had fish on my mind, so our attention quickly focused on the task at hand.

We left the dock and started idle-speeding through Sister’s Creek. The wind was non-existent and the water was greasy flat. Although we were both excited about the fishing ahead of us, the conversation was light and pleasant. We asked each other, “Hey, do you know who lives in that house?” and, “Wow, look at the addition they put on that one.”

We came to a fork in Sister’s Creek. One way led to the open water and the other to Boot Key Harbor. “Marc, I’m planning to run the 26 miles to the Hump. We’ll troll and deep jig for blackfin tuna out there,” I told him, and then made a confession. “I didn’t buy fuel this week because I didn’t think the bite on the Hump would be very good.” There, I said it out loud. I had been mulling this little piece of information in my own mind for a while now. “I think we have plenty of fuel to run out and back, but I would feel a lot better if we stop and get some gas.”— “You’re the captain,” he replied. So, as much as I hated spending valuable fishing time driving to the fuel dock, I turned west at the outer marker and ran at high speed to the Marathon Marina and fueled up. I was pretty pleased with myself for making the prudent decision.

As I pulled up to the fuel dock, there was no wind and a minimal current, so I let my mind wander for one minute and bumped right into the piling. Pete, the affable dock-man looked at me and said, “Perhaps you should stick to writing, C.J.” I reminded him that his wife likes me and I would tell her he was being mean to me. “Feel the love,” I chided. We put fuel in the boat, added the Mercury Quickleen product I have come to call “magic juice for outboard motors,” stashed the free basket of ice in the fish box, cast off, and headed to the Marathon Hump with no worries or cares. Life is good. I looked at the clock on my cell phone and the whole fueling thing had taken just under 30 minutes. Not bad for an action which may have averted tow-boats, hours wasted, a canceled trip and worst-case scenario drifting around in the Atlantic Ocean with only a dozen soft drinks and two sub sandwiches.

The trip to the Hump was uneventful; and with only the slightest hint of a breeze, we ran the entire distance at 36 mph. As we approached the Hump we could see the flocks of birds that follow feeding schools of tunas. Some of the birds were cartwheeling on the surface of the ocean and picking up small pieces of food scraps left by the carnivorous tuna as they sped hungrily through clouds of baitfish and frenzied ballyhoo. Among the birds were half-a-dozen frigate birds. Their wingspans were six to eight feet and they soared majestically above the smaller birds. The frigates started swooping toward the water and timed it perfectly to pick off airborne ballyhoo and flying fish as they raced across the surface of the water. I have always marveled at the ability of flying fish to come out of the water and actually fly past a fast-moving boat. This morning, the life and death race between flying fish and frigate birds was playing out right in front of us.

The frigates flew in low to the water surface and made continuous adjustments to their flight path bringing them in line with their sky-bound prey. Then, they would pluck a fish from midair with their beaks as they rocketed along, just inches above the water, at speeds over 30 miles per hour. The timing had to be flawless or the fish would escape unharmed. The birds seldom missed. I thought about the cameramen for the Discovery Channel and realized this was one of the days they would spend hours upon hours filming such an event to wind up with 60 seconds of spectacular footage to be used in shows like the Blue Planet, or one of their incredible documentaries. I had never seen anything quite like this before. Marc and I watched, mesmerized, as nature played out just yards to either side of the boat.

We had two trolling lines out with small black-and-red feathers running 200 feet behind the boat. We were jolted from a trance-like concentration by the high-pitched scream of both reels as the fishing line peeled away and rod tips bent beneath the strain of 8-pound drag settings. I love that sound and the charge of adrenalin it evokes. I set the boat to idle speed and we both grabbed a rod and started short-stroking the struggling tunas to the boat. After their blistering initial runs, these fish were close to 200 yards from the boat. We fought them to the side of the boat and hoisted them aboard. These were larger fish than usual for trolled up tuna. We quickly did the obligatory high fives and got back on the troll. We continued to catch tuna under the flocks of birds until we became physically tired. Marc joked that he had blisters on his hands from turning the reel handle. I was pleased to have us on such a great cache of big blackfin tuna.

We fished until we had enough tuna to feed family and friends. I never like to catch more than I am going to eat, and was happy that Marc felt the same way. We stopped fishing for a while and drifted near the flocks of birds. We made sure the landed tunas were properly buried in ice cubes to keep them fresh, cold, and tasty. We rinsed the boat and restored order to the cockpit. Then we broke out the sub sandwiches. It doesn’t get any better than this. It was a great trip — and a safe trip. We made the run back to shore with lots of fuel left in the tank and lots of fish in the cooler. I’m glad I took the time to avoid problems. I’m glad I had the opportunity to fish with a good friend. And, I was easily reminded that life is good in the Florida Keys, in fact, 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 Amazon.com. He lives in Marathon with his wife, Loretta, and her Coca-Cola collection. His email is fishstoriescj@comcast.net.