One of the Rowe family traditions was to let our children take a trip with a parent in celebration of their graduation from high school. Our son, Andy, had listened to me speak of fishing the Florida Keys for bonefish, permit and tarpon for many years. I am sure that all my children could sense their Father’s excited anticipation as the first Monday in November rolled around each year. I have been blessed to fish in Florida for a week each year since 1988 with a group of close friends and guides who became close friends as we shared caught fish, lost fish, stories, adventures, misadventures, and icy cold adult beverages.
Of course, I was thrilled when Andy decided that a trip to the Keys would be his graduation adventure. On our first morning, our guide, Dustin Huff, launched the bonefish skiff from the ramp of the Marathon Yacht Club. He raced to a bridge abutment on the old portion of the Seven Mile Bridge which runs from Knight’s Key (part of the city of Marathon, Florida) in the Middle Keys to Little Duck Key in the Lower Keys. Among the longest bridges in existence when it was built, it is one of the many bridges on US 1 in the Keys where the road is called the Overseas Highway.
There are two bridges in this location. The older bridge was constructed from 1909 to 1912 under the direction of Henry Flagler as part of the Florida East Coast Railways Key West Extension, also known as the Overseas Railroad. After the railroad sustained considerable damage due to the effects of the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, the line was sold to the United States Federal Government, which subsequently refurbished Seven Mile Bridge for automobile use. Dismantled trackage was recycled, painted white, and used as guard rails.
The current road bridge was constructed from 1978 to 1982. The vast majority of the original bridge still exists, used as fishing piers and access to Pigeon Key but the original swing span over the Moser Channel has been removed. The old bridge is an idyllic place for walkers to exercise and gaze at the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other. If you ever get a chance to walk Seven Mile Bridge at sunset take it. You will be awestruck.
We were blessed that morning with gorgeous weather. The sun was bright, the sky was a crushing blue, visibility on the flats was excellent. Dustin shut down the skiff near a bridge abutment on the old portion of the bridge. We were using 7 foot spinning rods and Shimano Stradic 4000 reels loaded with 10 pound test Ande monofilament. Dollar sized blue crabs were the bait. Dustin staked the boat off about 80 feet from the bridge abutment and instructed Andy and I to stand on the bow. Andy was to cast to the right and I to the left. We both loaded the rods and launched the crabs. As the baits landed we left the bails of our spinning reels open permitting the drift of the racing current to take the crabs towards opposite sides of the bridge abutment. Two permit were waiting. Each of us got strikes and set the hooks. Chaos erupted.
Andy’s fish went to the Gulf and my fish went to the Atlantic. Dustin screamed at me to back off my drag. “Rowe, you’ve caught permit before! Let’s get Andy’s fish and then we’ll see if yours is still on.” So here was Andy, taking his first cast at any saltwater fish and hooking up with the determined and wily permit. He fought the fish very well. Dustin, as always, gave great instructions. The permit made several bulldog like runs. After spending substantial energy, the fish began to circle the boat. Since the skiff was staked off, Andy began to walk along the gunnel, across the stern and back up the other gunnel to the bow. The fish continued to circle pulling as if it was a sidways frisbee straining into the current. Dustin was directing traffic from the poling platform. Each time Andy passed around the stern, he had to pass the tip of the spinning rod underneath Dustin’s legs and out the other side. On the third trip around, the taut monofilament brushed the screwhead which fixed the poling platform to the brace. “BING” It was over.
The disappointment settled on Andy’s face, but Dustin and I still had a permit out there somewhere free swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. Dustin got down off the platform, stored the push pole, and fired up the engine. I jumped up on the bow of the boat and tightened down my drag slightly, just enough to be able to slowly gather line as Dustin guided the bonefish skiff in the angle made by my line entering the water. We safely passed close to the old bridge abutment and slowly edgeed across the 300 to 400 yards between the old and new bridges. As we approached the new bridge, it became apparent that our permit, as most do when hooked, had swum at the nearest obstacle in the water. In this fight, our fish had somehow found its way through the H frame bridge abutment supporting the new portion of the Seven Mile Bridge deck. Unfortunately, the skiff would not fit through the uprights of the H.
Dustin slowed the skiff and seemed to be thinking. Silence hung over the boat. He said after a moment, “Rowe, you mind if I touch your rod?” The G. Loomis rod was brand-new. The reel was brand-new. I asked, “Why, what are you going to do?” Dustin’s question was directed to the notion that if a guide assists an angler in any way by touching the rod or reel while a fish is being fought, the fish could not qualify if it happened to be a world record. I wasn’t worried about that. Although a very lucky man, I am not that lucky. Dustin replied, “I’m going to tie your rod and reel to a life jacket, throw all of it overboard and drift it through the other side of the H.” I looked at the water. The tide was ripping from the Gulf to the Atlantic and the current was streaking right through the opening of the H. “Sure, why not?”
Overboard went my rod, reel and the life jacket. The splash left a sinking feeling in my gut. I was out of touch with the fish and my gear. Somehow, the odd misshapen raft drifted just as Dustin predicted under the uprights and out the other side. We picked the floating equipment off the surface of the water and unstrapped the life jacket. Relief shook my wet hands as I grasped the recovered rod and reel.
At this point, no one was certain we had a fish on the the hook. I had never gotten tight on the still unseen permit. But we had been able to follow the line from the old bridge to the new bridge and through the H frame. Unfortunately, as the fish swam through the H, the line had snagged somewhere below the waterline. It was impossible to see where.
“Rowe, can you handle the boat?” “Why, what are you going to do,” I asked. Dustin shouted,”I’m going to dive in, get the line in my hands and follow it down till I find where it is snagged! If I can free it, we’re gonna catch this fish!” I have never owned a boat but regardless of my inexperience, I said, “Of course I can handle the boat!”
I took the steering wheel and put my hand on the throttle as Dustin dove off the bow. By now, the tide was absolutely ripping through the bridge abutment. Nonetheless, Dustin found the line in the water, followed it hand over hand and then suddenly extended his arms towards the bottom and dove out of sight. Moments later he came up with the line in hand. He let go as the ocean bound current swept the line away from more trouble. He quickly swam to the skiff, gripped the bow edge rail with both hands and literally launched himself on board.
Andy had been holding my rod and reel as I was controlling the boat and Dustin swam. Andy handed me the rod and reel. Once again I tightened the drag. This time there were no obstructions and soon I could feel the pulsing shake of the no doubt utterly confused permit at the end of the line. As the fish felt the pressure, he streaked off suddenly recalling the original hookset some thirty minutes earlier. Five uneventful minutes later, we had a 20 pound permit.
I suppose there may be other guides who would jump overboard to provide his angler with an opportunity of having a fish story to tell for the rest of his life. If so I hope you are fortunate enough to fish with such a guide. I have enjoyed such a privilege. Thanks, Dustin!