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As an aspiring young writer who grew up on the shores of Alabama's Mobile Bay and for a long period of my life worshipped at the altar of football, publishing a story in ' SPORTS ILLUSTRATED would have been damn near as meaningful as playing for Bear Bryant at Alabama or dating an LSU cheerleader. So, yes, I read this magazine long before I saw the Swimsuit Issue.
Even when I left Alabama and took up residence on the infamous island of Key West, where forearm curls with full "go cups" is considered heavy lifting, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED followed me. By then I was way past the point of hoping to make an appearance in the magazine as either an athlete or a journalist and had settled on an alternate route in search of fortune and fame—I was a lounge singer in the Chart Room Bar.
One of my regular customers back in 1972 was the legendary SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, writer Martin Kane, who wrote for the magazine's first issue, in August 1954. Marty was old by then (and retired) but still cool. There'were enough successful and fledgling writers living at the end of U.S. 1 to fill that bar as we all listened to his stories about tangling With famous athletes and drunken editors." All Of us wanted to be famous—or, failing that, at least successful—but he had actually done it—he had been a writer for a great magazine and then retired to paradise. Most of the rest of us had skipped the job part and gone directly to retired to paradise. I never would have admitted it then, but I envied Marty and his real job.
My alternate route to success was music, which worked out pretty well. However, I still love to write, so I can't tell you how happy I was when SI's managing editor asked me to do a piece for the magazine. When told I could write about anything I wanted to—from fishing to football—the first words that came out of my mouth were, "I want to write for the Swimsuit Issue." (My friend Carl Hiaasen had written for the issue last year, and I was envious.)
The next day, though, reality ran down my fantasy, and I panicked. What did I have to say about swimsuits? That's fashion, something I know almost nothing about because I have been fortunate enough to live on or near a beach for most of my life.
Once I had thought about it, though, I realized I am kind of a bathing suit expert, because I spend half my life in one. In fact, I was wearing a bathing suit as I banged this article out on my computer while sitting on a beach in the British Virgin Islands in January. So sure, I could blow a lot of sweet-smelling smoke about the social significance of bikinis, but what I really like to do is fish.
A LATITUDE ADJUSTMENT
Back when I was taught how to fish the flats of Key West, I would rarely see another boat. There was enough water for everybody, and maybe just a dozen full-time guides. Today there are more than 100 guides in Key West and at least a half-dozen TV-fishing-show hosts in an armada of state-of-the-art skiffs. Fishing in the outposts has become a big business—there are high-dollar fishing lodges in Patagonia and helicopter drops to chase salmon in the far corners of Russia.
The fish do not appreciate all this attention. Tarpon in the Keys, which used to be so aggressive that they would leave their mating circles—known as daisy chains—to snap at a fly, are now totally unpredictable in their eating habits. I have seen them rise on my fly, then turn toward the boat and look at me as if to say, Where's the mullet, you dumb-ass? Bonefish and permit, both naturally neurotic, are now twice as hyper; I don't know if they are having a reaction to all the cocaine dumped overboard into the Straits of Florida over the last 20 years or if they are changing their behavior because of all the fishermen. Whatever the reason, though, the fish in the fabulous Florida Keys are getting smarter.
A few years ago I was fishing a favorite flat of mine just north of Cottrell Key. I was standing on the bow, casting and reeling and doing that wonderful thing that fishing is all about: not thinking about a damn tiling other than fishing. All of a sudden I spotted a fish out by the reef—the sunlight had marked it with a split-second flash on the dark tail of what looked like a permit. At first I thought it too big to be a permit and that a small black-tip shark had tricked me, but when the tail came up again, I knew that it was attached to the biggest permit I had ever seen. This monster was meandering along the reef, looking for his mid-morning protein fix of baby blue crabs.