Hunting and Fishing in the Keys
By Patricia Abbott
We met up at Detroit Metro. An hour apart, Jimmy and I never saw each other the rest of the year. It was that ritual that kept us friends. Hadn't there been four or five guys back in college? When had it just become the two of us hunting and fishing on Spring Break?
“Where you guys headed?” The guy behind us popped up when the seatbelt sign went off. He was tall and burly, had one of those tans that looked permanent.
“I think the plane just makes the one stop,” Jimmy said, trying for a laugh.
A quick hoarse snort “ Miami , but then what?”
Jimmy emptied his glass, shaking the cubes vigorously. “The Keys.”
“Me, too.” The guy leaned down and put his toned right arm across the back of my seat. “We live in Key West .” He straightened up for a minute, stepping back into his row as a woman squeezed past him on the way to the restroom. “Why Key West for you? You guys fruits?”
Hadn't he just confessed to living there? I picked up my magazine but Jimmy was eager to talk. “We go somewhere different every year. Spread the love around. Play a little golf. Maybe try some deep-sea fishing.”
“Love, huh? You look a little…well, never mind. I can probably help you with the fishing part though.” He put two fingers in his pocket and pulled out a postcard.
Jimmy took it. “Russ Houghton, huh?” He shook the guy's hand. “Looks like a sweet little craft you've got there, Russ.”
“Custom-made 39-footer. ‘Do You Feel Lucky?'” He laughed at our puzzled faces. “That's her name.”
Jimmy flicked the postcard with his finger. “Bet you get pretty good fees. Take out about six men?”
Russ nodded. “About $250 per. Sounds like a bundle, but it's not cheap running this kind of operation. Gas—well, you know. And I have it equipped with pricey radar, electronic and safety equipment. Did it before the economy went belly-up. Plus we kick in the bait, tackle, licenses.”
“We'll have to look you up,” Jimmy told Houghton as the seat belt sign came on.
“Give me a call if it's gonna work out. Boat fills up pretty quick this time of year.”
“Name's Jim Dunderro. He's Sean Morrison.” Jimmy jabbed a thumb in my direction.
“Call me when you get in—just in case. Hate to disappoint you, but…. You guys leave your wives at home?”
“No wives, thank God,” Jimmy said.
“Just two lone wolves on the prowl, huh?” Russ Houghton said, shutting his eyes.
MM 99.5 was a bar, half a mile down a sandy road, tucked in a grove of swampy-looking trees and on the bay. We found a spot at the bar. Jimmy made a face. Nearly all the clientele looked like they'd just surfaced from a diving expedition: slicked-back wet hair, no makeup and dressed in marine wear, including webbed, rubber feet. One or two had full wet suits on. “Holy shit. Where are the sorority girls?”
“Sorority girls?” the bartender said, his tattoos flexing as he showed up with the drinks. A thick gold cross hung from both ears. “Not that kind of place, fellows.” He pointed out the back window. “See divers surface right on our dock. Not that I'd mind seeing a sorority girl.”
“A freakin' black lagoon,” Jimmy whispered. “Let's get the hell out of here.”
“Try the Channel Marker,” the bartender said, pocketing the tip. “Next to the Ramada.”
Within fifteen minutes, Jimmy was pouring gin down the throat of tiny redhead at the Channel Marker.
“Hey, how old are you?” the girl with me asked. She was a bit overweight but had nice tits. “You look like you're already in graduate school. Sean, wasn't it?”
“ Law School ,” I nodded.
“First year's a bitch. Right?”
“Not for me.” Girls like her would hardly waste their time on a middle-school teacher.
“I'm barely getting through my program,” she confided. “Thought it'd be easy with my father in the business.”
“What business?” Had we called it a program when I was in college?
“Criminal Justice. Gonna be a cop.”
A cop, but I slept with her anyway. She was gone in the morning; they always were. In daylight I looked my age.
The ocean and bay hugged the road in Islamorada and the chain restaurants gave way to classier spots. We were on the course by eleven, more than a little hung over.
“Are we getting too old for this shit?” Jimmy asked, looking through his golf bag. Finally he chose an iron and took a tentative swing, shook his head, and put it back in the bag. Someone groaned loudly and I turned around to give him the finger. Big guy. I swiveled back.
“We're gonna have to let ‘em play through if you don't get moving,”
Jim grunted and swung. Neither of us broke ninety.
“I remember when we could be out all night and on the course by eight,” Jimmy said, taking a bite out of the biggest crab I'd ever seen.
We were in Key West by seven. “This is more like it,” Jimmy said. College girls hung like wisteria from second floor balconies. “Guess what?”
“Girl last night—turned out to be a pro. I gave her the back of my hand without thinking when she asked for some dough.”
“That's a first.” I tried to remember her, feeling a bit sick to my stomach as I weeded through faces at that bar. I knew Jimmy was rough but couldn't remember him hitting a girl before.
“She was still in my room when I went back upstairs later, lying on the bed. So, I had to give her some money or she threatened to make a fuss. Not that I think she really would've.”
“I gave her five hundred.” He looked up. “Did she look like a hooker to you?”
I tried again to remember her. “Looked about twenty.”
“Yeah, a college student,” Jimmy said. “Maybe co-eds finance their spring trips with a little hooking these days.' I noticed that his knuckles were slightly bruised.
We sashayed into a bar called the Hog's Breath. Someone had told us it was the place to go.
“So this is ‘Do You Feel Lucky',” Russ Houghton said, standing on the dock. “Custom made in 2006, so it's hardly broken in. Right, Dave?” He looked at his mate. “Look, if you boys wanna try something special, we could do a little night fishing later on the reefs. If you've never done it….Well, you'd be missing something special.”
“Can you see anything at night?” I asked.
“Don't need to. The radar sees for you,” Russ said. He rubbed his stomach reflectively. “You'll get some interesting fish out there.”
“We usually hit the bars at night,” Jimmy said.
“So hit ‘em now,” Russ said. “Daytime sex is as good as nighttime fishing. I got a good group lined up. Experienced fishermen who'll teach you a thing or two.”
“What d'ya think?” Jimmy asked me once he'd walked away.
I shrugged. Last night hadn't been so hot. I'd overheard the girl I picked up talking about me on her cell in my bathroom, saying it was pathetic when old guys turned up in Florida over Spring Break.
“Okay,” I told Russ. “We'll try it. Same prices?”
“I usually charge more at night, but for two Michiganders, why not? Turn up around eight and we'll head out.”
“So what should we do in the meantime?” I asked Jim.
“We could check out the crowd at that Cuban place?”
“Mojitos, huh?” We headed for Felipe's. We had no luck with the girls. It was daytime.
The first orangey-pink glimmers of dusk were in the sky as we retraced our steps. The boat looked empty until a guy wearing a wet suit appeared.
“You must be the newbies,” he said, waving us onboard. “Gonna be a nice night for it.” Another guy wearing a wetsuit climbed out of the cabin.
“Look, I don't know about us diving,” Jimmy said worriedly. “I've never used scuba equipment and I'm not the strongest swimmer.”
“Sure, sure,” the guy said. “Different strokes, right?” He slapped me on the back, adding. “Once you dive for your dinner, there's no turning back. You guys take your Dramamine?”
“They won't need Dramamine. It's a calm night.”
We turned around and found Russ Houghton. “I have just the right equipment for you two. Some people prefer bottom fishing but I recommend flatlining. You'll get some fine snapper on the reef we're heading for.” Two more guys appeared in wetsuits.
“Everyone else diving?” Jimmy asked.
“These guys got hooked on it.” The last guy to arrive held a spear gun.
“What the hell?” Jimmy said, eyeing the gun. “That doesn't seem very sportsmanlike.”
“You guys always play fair? Should I sit on a shipwrecked boat or a coral reef with a line in my hand?”
“Hey, give the newbies a break,” Russ said. “They usually just hunt women down here. And you only need the spear a man carries between his legs for that.”
Something about the evening had soured but I couldn't say what.
“So this is where you two can throw in your lines,” Russ said as the boat slowed fifteen minutes later. He motioned to a spot where two rods were propped. “I've put out a 15 lb spinning outfit with a 20lb line. You should get something pretty tasty with that. If not grouper at least mutton or mangrove.”
I listened to the faint splash on the other side of the boat as each of the divers slipped over the side, yellow fin-like things on their feet, small tanks on their backs. “With crystal-clear visibility tonight, they all chose the same gun,” Russ said. “It's a hybrid, perfect for reefs. You can't hear it fire and it's deadly accurate.”
“Nice,” Jimmy said, not really listening.
“Of course, the Florida Freeshafter is fast and easy to load,” Russ continued. “I might have tried that one myself.”
“Maybe next year we'll get in the water,” Jimmy said. “We can take a class on scuba-diving beforehand.”
“Or maybe you'll go into the water right now,” Russ said quietly.
“It's a little late to be getting that wetsuit on.” I was feeling anxious.
“Oh, you two don't need wetsuits or scuba gear.”
“Do you have one of those diving booths, Russ?” Jimmy said. “Or bells, is it?”
He sounded like a middle school student to my ears . Shut up, you fucker , I thought. Something nasty's going on here.
“No, no, Jim,” Russ explained. “What I mean is that being the “fish” you won't require that sort of gear. Kind of ironic,” Russ continued, “that two men who came down here to hunt and fish would turn out to be the hunted and the fished. How many years have you two turned up here?” He turned around. “Look over the side of the boat, guys.”
In the water, the four men, masked now, spear guns in hand, tread lightly, the boat lights easily picking them up. “Now this is how it works. You two go over the side and the guys down there will give you a 120 seconds lead time. That's the rule. After that. Well, you know.”
“A joke right?” Jimmy was still frozen. “You're gonna toss us over with no tank or a weapon?”
“That's what these guys paid the big money for,” Russ said. “To have a little fun, to test their skills, to get some revenge for the girls you've hunted down here.”
“How far could we get in two minutes?”
“Not too far probably,” Russ said. “But it's important to have an air of fairness about it.”
I started to make a move, but the mate came out of nowhere and seized me. I hit the water hard and instinctively started swimming. I heard Jimmy's splash a second later. He suddenly came to life and then we both began counting as we swam for our lives. One Mississippi . Two Mississippi .