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There were eight of us altogether, including Billy Joe Curtis (the idea man) and the two-man crew of the 48-foot, twin-engine charter boat Queen B. The Queen B is a broad-beamed, well-turned-out vessel that charters out of Key Biscayne; it was completed last October for $100,000 by its blond, crew-cut captain, Jim O'Neill, and outfitted with four trolling chairs and rod sockets on the bridge for two more lines. O'Neill is a conscientious young fisherman with an agreeable manner and a reputation for excellence as a sports-fishing guide, though he is only 31. His mate, 21-year-old J. C. Dobson, is a college dropout who figures to learn enough under O'Neill to qualify for a boat of his own some day.
O'Neill believes strongly in big-game fishing—blue marlin, sailfish, dolphin—and does not bother his head with the lesser quarry of shallow water. His antithesis, therefore, is Curtis, the light-tackle specialist—a one-eyed man with a russet complexion and skin the texture of a hatch cover. Curtis' sharply-angled nose and rakish overseer's straw hat give him a damn-the-torpedoes look when he is in action on the flats. He usually fishes around Miami and the Florida Keys, but he is now broadening out to learn what he can about the Bahamas.
We were ready to go at 7 on a Saturday morning in mid-January. The wind was up and the weather cool but not uncomfortable. O'Neill took the Queen B out Bear Cut south of Miami and into the wind toward Cat Cay. Curtis' Boston Whaler rode the wake from a tow-line. There were no secrets among us. One had never caught a bonefish. None had ever caught a marlin. Frank Mullins, a redhaired artist with a sensitive stomach, had never caught a fish of any kind.
The crossing to the British customs station at Cat Cay is 48 miles and takes roughly three and a half hours. We watched the Miami Beach hotels dissolve into the tangerine sky until they acquired the white, uneven silhouette of headstones. A tireless solitary gull beat its wings in our wake for what seemed an interminably long while, watching for garbage or something our prop might chew up and leave him, but then he turned off to follow the fat, plug-along freighters that pass in the Gulf Stream. They are surer providers.
At Cat Cay there was time, while O'Neill checked us in, for Frank to eat his third orange (he had brought two huge bags of apples and oranges to keep him healthy for the week) and for me to run out on the dock with my spinning rod to make a few unsuccessful casts alongside three natives who were fishing successfully for bonefish with handlines. They wanted to know if I thought I would catch anything with that little yellow sprig of hair caught on the tip of my line. I was advised to try crab meat.
From Cat Cay we went another 63 miles almost due east across the Great Bahama Bank to Chub Cay on the southernmost tip of the Berrys. Where before we had been in water more than a mile deep, on this huge shelf of sand and coral it was less than 15 feet, and the bottom rode with you all the way. The first day, predictably, had been consumed in preparation and travel, and at dusk we put into the American-owned Crown Colony Club. The mooring at Chub Cay is sheltered and the facilities are excellent, but long stays are not encouraged or recommended. (Captain O'Neill once got a towel laundered there for a dollar; his last—forevermore—laundry bill came to $48.)
The strategy was to divide up the party each day to make full use of our time. Two or three would stay on the big boat and troll for big fish. Curtis would take the others on the Whaler onto the flats and shallows for bonefish, tarpon and permit, or on a hunt for duck or wild boar. O'Neill's trolling area, one he knew, is a natural fish trap, where the deep waters—as deep as 1,000 fathoms—of what is called the Tongue of the Ocean jut up into the Great Bahama Bank between the Berrys and Andros. It is a natural 15-mile triangle beginning at Mamma Rhoda Cay at the tip of the Berrys, out to Northwest Channel Light, then down along the Joulters Cays (north of Andros) and back to Chub Cay.
Five minutes out of Chub Cay that first morning I had an 18-pound wahoo on the line, and, simultaneously, another in the party had a large barracuda. Before the day was over I also derricked up close enough for J. C. Dobson's gaff a 15-pound dolphin that, with the wahoo, would make our supper. The dolphin is a great fighter; it can stiffen your arms with its resistance and fascinate you with its brilliantly changing colors: first yellow and green, then aqua, chartreuse, azure, verdigris and, when it is dying in the well of the boat, streaks of brown. But it is even greater food, like breast of chicken.
The action thereafter was sporadic and the time taken up lazing on the bunk seats on the bridge, watching the bait skip along behind or listening to Coast Guard reports for possible intrigue: an 18-foot runabout was two days overdue at Nassau, an American sea captain could not spell the name of a Russian vessel he had spotted. The long periods spent hunched over the trolling reel as if it were a telephone about to ring seemed diminished just by being in the Bahamas, but appetites were on the increase. Frank made regular trips to his fruit sacks, which, he said in a desperate voice, would be empty before morning.
We had fared reasonably well on the big boat, but those out all day with Curtis in the Whaler came back unrewarded. The closest they had come to fish was when they pulled up their chairs to hoist bowls of conch chowder at Frazer's Hog Cay. They were also soaked to their adventurous skins and unnerved by the pummeling they had taken, as Curtis, valiant in effort, had plowed from island to island, flat to flat, in the pursuit of the elusive bonefish. He said he thought he had spotted a few muds where fish were feeding and almost fell out of the boat trying to get to them, but the water was too rough to be certain.