Might have been rough

by Randall Beaird
map_florida_keys_r1_c1

I’d always wanted to take a vacation to the Florida Keys. This past summer it happened. After taking a week long cruise on the SS Norway out of Miami I hopped a bus to Key Largo. Famous for its fabulous scuba diving and sunsets, I eased into a dive resort for a few days.

Close to where the dive boats were strapped tight lay a roped off swimming area. Eager to test the water I checked the shoreline.  My first several trips in were without a tank; I just paddled around learning who the new fish were.

grunts

grunts

There were mangrove snapper, grunts and a sprinkling of lonely barracudas. The grunts looked like fancy piggy perch, or dressed up croakers. Visibility may have been only fifteen feet, but when you grow up on the banks of the muddy Brazos river, fifteen feet is a dream.

 

Mangrove Snapper

Mangrove Snapper

I was paying particular attention to the snapper, even stalking them. I just bought a spear gun, and though I couldn’t use it in Key Largo, I was taking notes for further south.

I learned that the grunts are caught frequently with rod and reel and make worthy table fare, but it was taboo to spear them (they have pretty blue and yellow stripes.)

I noticed quite a bit of litter from 8 feet at the pier out to about 20 feet deep. I told the dive operator that for a free tank of air I’d gather trash. Diving is like flying–who cares if you’re picking up a little trash.

horseshoe crab

horseshoe crab

Of the more interesting observations, the huge tarpon skeleton pasted on the sandy bottom, the bizarre looking horseshoe crab and the eerie barracudas. They were always alone, always staring me down, looking dangerous.

barracuda

barracuda

One day I figured out where the JOHN PENNEKAMP CORAL REEF STATE PARK was and took a hike. It was a healthy twenty minute sweat, especially when I walked by some trees. Mosquitoes lay in wait; I slipped into the standard helicopter polka, until I bought some repellant.

Once at the park, it was swimming in an aquarium.  My old spot, the Freeport jetty and my trusty flounder hole were shades of gray; I was swimming with the pretty dogs now.

lobster

lobster

Then, some waving tentacles caught my eye ten feet below. After swooping down for a look I was surpised to find a whole family of lobsters.  Seeing them reminded me of the upcoming two day season in Key West. For now, it was just a show.

When the sun goes down in the Florida Keys people gather and stare. There’s something about a fiery ball sinking into a watery grave. I think they’re thinking….the day is over, it might have been rough, but this sure is pretty.

Catch of the day

by Randall Beaird

I love to swim. On Lake Livingston, at Westwood Shores, on the tip of White Rock Creek, I wear my surfer shirt. It’s blue, kind of sparkly, and makes me look like a big minnow.

In Florida, I felt compelled to buy it; I grew tired asking strangers to reach the parts I couldn’t with sunscreen. It was too much to ask and the surfer shirt blocked the sun and jellyfish attacks.

Friends warn me about swimming with the alligators in White Rock Creek. There’s a tenalligator footer in there and dogs have been eaten. I believe them. That’s when I tell them there have been two alligator attacks on humans the last twenty-five years in Texas. There’s been about 240 alligator attacks in the South the last 40 years or so–seven fatalities, all in Florida except one in Georgia. The fatality rate for alligator attacks is 3.4%; maybe a toothy indentation but I’ll make it back to shore. (shark fatality rate is 2%–for every 100 bitten, two die).

I don’t push it though. I try not to swim near unpopulated shorelines (nesting gators) and maybe I’ll wear a knife strapped to my calf. Or maybe I’ll wait until I’m the third person chomped on in Texas–hopefully not the first to be eaten completely. I’ve only seen a four footer where I swim.

Update:  A few months after writing this I was swimming in the afternoons of July, but the shallow water of the creek made the water almost unbearably hot.  So I started swimming before work, when the gators are still on patrol for snacks.  I swam about 1/4 mile along the shoreline and turned around where they were building a house on the water.  When I made it back home and had showered, while getting dressed, I was startled to see a 12 foot gator floating on top of the water about ten feet from the spot I got out.  It was obvious that it had been stalking me, following me home.  Later, the guys who were building the house confirmed they saw it over by them first, and they worried for me, but they didn’t see it following me.  I put swimming on the back burner for a month or two after that.

Probably posing a bigger danger than gators is the bacteria resting in such a lethargic body of water. And then there’s the heat stroke problem as the surface temps soared past what I’m guessing was 90 degrees in the shallow water. All I do is put a little alcohol/vinegar cocktail in my ears afterwards and try to swim near the bottom when I’m about to faint from the heat.

Back to spear fishing in Florida.speargun
I didn’t eat breakfast and vowed nothing would touch my lips unless and until provided by the sea. I could tell my shots were consistently high–the problem was getting close enough to worthy and legal species.

warsaw grouper

warsaw grouper

 

 

 

 

 

I had been warned not to shoot the Warsaw Grouper.  It was a protected fish and very expensive fines waited for the shooter. I stayed up late memorizing the fish not to nail. I was already in the hole $31.50 for my fishing license and $10.00 for the little Styrofoam dive flag floatie sign that I had to pull around with me. Add my mask, snorkel and fins–we’re talking about an expensive fish dinner, or so I hoped.

I eased into the Gulf of Mexico about five miles north of Key West. I could tell right away the tide was going out and I was in the Atlantic Ocean in about 45 seconds. It was a deadly current if you fought it; I rode it like I was at Astroworld.

There was a fisherman near the bridge on the Atlantic side so I paddled like an angry penguin to stay at least 100 feet away. The law requires spear gunners to stay that far from the hook chunkers. Plus, whenever I saw a fisherman, and they saw me swimming with their dinner, there was always the evil eye staring me down. 100 feet was too close–I didn’t want to be the catch of the day.

Key West

by Randall Beaird

After spending three days in Key Largo I took the bus to the southernmost point in the United States, Key West. It’s two miles wide, four miles long, 150 miles south of Miami, 90 miles north of Cuba, and two miles from a parking place.

Most everyone rents a bicycle or moped. As I scouted out the island for places to snorkel, lobster hunt and spear fish, my forty dollar bike was leaving my stomach empty and something else sore. I say forty but that was “as is.” During the test ride I noticed the front wheel had a worrisome wobble. The mechanic swapped tires and I was up to $50, but I couldn’t use the lowest 3 gears. It’s a good thing I gave it a paint job to make it look worth $60. It was cheaper than renting one for two weeks.

Pedaling to the beach was easy enough. The problem was I ran out of beaches to explore. The snorkeling was good, especially at Higgs Beach on the Atlantic Ocean side. Half of the wooden pier was washed away, but the rusty iron supports provided shelter for thousands of fish.

Spear fishing was not available from shore on Key West. I kept staring at the map. The islands farther north were almost blinking–remote enough to avoid stray swimmers, and my JBL 20 spear gun with an extra band was ready to put the mangrove snapper on the table!

After a week of pedaling, I took the bus to the airport, rented a car, and headed north. Of particular interest to me were the old train trestle supports. The train’s first historic trip from Miami to Key West was in 1912. A devastating hurricane in 1935 killed hundreds, washed away small islands and part of the track; the railroad to Key West was dead. It was replaced in 1938 with a two lane highway on top of the old track.

This two lane highway has since been replaced with a new four-lane sister next door; now it provides shelter for the lobsters and sharks–at least that’s what one fellow said at the dive shop. “There’s a lot of big sharks under that old bridge.” Breathing hard and not sure which was flared wider, my eyes or nostrils, I drifted in and out of the relic’s shadow. All I saw was a lot of big lobsters.

I play the percentages when it comes to sharks and gators. They’ve had about 200 shark attacks the last 40 years in Florida, about 6 fatalities. I thought they might get a bite or two, but that’s about it. Sometimes I didn’t have much of a choice about being under the old bridge. Depending on the tide, I would start on the gulf side and get a free ride to the Atlantic side. When the tide was slack I found plenty of fish and lobster under tangled concrete and iron shrubbery.

My first trip with the spear gun was like the first time I played golf. It’s a lot harder than it looks. Those snappers like to swim just out of range and the pig fish (one of the grunt species, but not the pretty ones) were quick. First, they had to be big enough, then close enough; I went home empty handed.

The next day I decided I wouldn’t eat anything that wasn’t on the tip of my spear. Nothing makes a better hunter than a hungry hunter.

Wrinkled and starving

by Randall Beaird

Key West was built for the tourist. Everyone likes to make a buck–at Key West they are quite good at it. There is a lot to see, a lot to do.

In the 1800’s the wrecking industry made Key West the richest city in the United States. Ships loaded with goods crashed onto the reefs a few miles off the beach. Wreckers from lookout towers yelled, “Wreck Ashore!” and the race was on. The first boat to reach the floundering vessel got the largest portion of cargo. They saved lives, but there was a price to pay.

ernest-hemmingway1I found a small efficiency room for $50/night. It was only a few hundred yards from Ernest Hemingway’s Estate. Born in 1899, he lived in Key West during the 1930’s and wrote many of his novels there. Considered by some to be the greatest American writer ever, I enjoyed seeing where he wrote. It was a small second floor room behind the house. To discourage interruptions he had a ropebridge walkway leading to his hide-out.

One day the writer returned from overseas to find that his wife spent $20,000 to build a swimming pool, the only one between Havana and Miami at the time. As the story goes, in a fit of anger, Hemingway took a penny from his pocket and threw it in the wet cement near the pool and yelled, “Here, why don‘t you take my last penny!” I saw that penny.

A sea captain gave Hemingway a six-toed cat. His estate now has about fifty of these critters slinking around, about half with six toes. Listening to the stories from the tour guide and seeing that penny was worth the $9.00 admission. In the last years of his life, his physical and mental health deteriorated, and he received electroshock treatment to combat anxiety, depression, and paranoid delusions. In 1961 he took his own life. He was quite a fisherman, an incredible writer.

Meanwhile, five miles north, I found the best spear fishing to be over the sea grass. Paddling around, hovering above the shimmering life below, usually no more than twelve feet deep, I felt my effective shooting range was about ten feet.

At this depth, I was about forty feet from the traffic on Highway 1. I couldn’t see the cars becausethe road was lined with mangrove trees, trees that appeared to be standing on their tippy toes. Their roots spread like crusty arthritic fingers over the water before stabbing themselves into the silty marsh mud.

There was nothing big enough to eat swimming in the mangrove trees, but swimming through their roots produced some of the most vivid memories of my trip. Just for fun, I would tie my dive float sign to a tree and weave in and out of the trees barely skimming above the murky bottom.

Juvenile fish from every family seemed to be hanging out in the roots. Seeing such a traffic jam of fish with a jungle of branches overhead was impressive but not for swimmers against claustrophobia. I could hardly squeeze through the roots and jellyfish left little welts on my arms. They were either baby jellyfish or ones half dead and tangled in the roots–they were either learning how to sting or giving me a good one for the road.

Once in twelve feet of water, over the sea grass, I was stalking a four pound mangrove snapper when it swam right over a five foot sand shark on the bottom. My gaze went from shark to snapper more than once; I pondered the implications of a direct hit and a possible bloody buffet. It could start as a fondue appetizer for the shark if he grabbed the speared snapper, but end as a drive-thru take-out order on my knees. I wasn’t too sad when I missed that one.

Once while snorkeling at the Higgs Beach pier, I came face to face with a six foot shark. It’s the first time I swam backwards for twenty feet, only because I couldn’t see where it went. I think it was a sand shark but a shark is a shark when you‘re from Texas.

After five hours of looking for dinner, I noticed my fingers were looking like prunes. I was wrinkled and starving when a small school of spanish mackerel surrounded me. There was about fifteen three pounders, a curious one four feet away. When you land a fish it flounces, when you spear one it crashes. It wasn’t pretty, but sure looked good on the grill. It tasted even better.

Deadlines

by Randall Beaird

The “Inspirational Writers Alive” meet the first Thursday every month in different places around Jacksonville. In the market for column inspiration, I was there taking notes. My sister Jennifer was on the agenda to read from her new Christian romance novel. She always was high in the drama department.

A family vacation was especially memorable when she broke her tailbone water-skiing. A doughnut shaped pillow and elaborate moans were constant companions. Sorry, there was more laughter than comfort.

Jennifer is also convincing. Their family went fishing off the old Galveston bridge when Brian was in medical school. Brian hooked what they considered a monster fish; kids were bouncing as the water boiled below. Finally the fish was landed with the help of an old salt as Jennifer belted out the praise.jenniferbrian

On the way home she begged Brian to stop at a baitshop for a weigh-in. Reluctantly, Brian pulled in and Jennifer raced in to say, “You would not believe the fish my husband just caught! It must be fifteen pounds! Do you have a scale?” Four men jumped up and charged out to the car, eager to share in the excitement. They took one look, shrugged and chuckled. It was a black drum tipping the scales at 3 1/2 pounds. One was embarrassed, one was sheepish. Jennifer was used to catching freshwater perch.

Coyote Grove (original newspaper column) grew out of six short farm sagas in the “Wolfe City Mirror” near Caddo Mills.  Since then, finding interesting material is like wrestling invisible grizzlies.

Avoiding boredom while teaching school is easy; avoiding it in my column is a struggle. I try not to bore you to pieces. Famous columnist Leon Hale of Houston shares recipes with his readers. If you want recipes, I’ll find them. I never knew deadlines could be so punctual/brutal. Fingers were pounding the keyboard the last few Monday evenings, way past my Saturday deadline.

Back at the writer’s meeting, I was surrounded with writing giants. I tried not to stare as I scribbled down observations. There was a huge diamond, a triple book lady, a blind genius, powerful prose and some nice baldness–the kind that made me think I hope I look that good when it all goes.

I went to the restroom almost hoping my observations were discovered. There could be shouts of anger and wrestling. It never came; we took turns reading aloud with insightful comments and laughter. Someone said they don’t write anything unless they feel inspired. I was jealous remembering that luxury.