At 7 a.m. walloon clouds to the east and south signaled more rough weather. It was also the signal for the end of our trip.
That night, at Vick's apartment, Ralph finally made his crab gumbo, and it may be the best in the world. After everyone had about 11 helpings Vick spoke of his career's inauspicious beginning. He'd never considered going to college and during high school cut enough classes to major in fishing. Two days before his June 1948 graduation he and a friend loaded up an old station wagon with tackle and camping equipment and headed for Alaska. They took an occasional odd job when money ran low, caught hundreds of big trout and wound up north of Fairbanks in October, before heading back. "I was afraid it was gonna snow on me," Vick recalls, a fear that still has him in awe of anyone who has lived through a winter north of the Mason-Dixon Line. He returned to Texas, where he might be a shrimp seiner today but for an old employer who provided funds to get him started at Sam Houston State College. "He thought I could read and write," Vick recalls, "and where I lived that was an unusual asset." Nine months into college, though, the draft threatening, he signed up for a 3�-year hitch in the Marines, fished in Puerto Rico and Mexico's Sea of Cort�s and grew up. When he returned to college he had decided on his life's work.
Vick's primary concern today is the large migratory ocean fishes, but no one has yet complained when he comes inshore to do something that might make a lot of Floridians richer and happier.
Four times in the past two years he has transported two- to nine-inch striped bass from the North and helped plant them in nearby Choctawhatchee Bay and River, where a sea trout population had been failing. Vick had studied the environment, concluding that stripers might fill the gap and create a fishery so economically successful that no one would allow industry to move in. Sixteen months after stocking, excited natives were catching 13-inch stripers. "Those ole folks go out with their cane poles," Vick says grinning, "an" when one of 'em gets his butt torn off by a six- or seven-pounder we're gonna have some fine fishin'. Finally the people are benefiting from something the Government did."
Two days after the unsuccessful swordfish trip Vick got out again—this time for amberjack—to a Navy research platform 13 miles offshore. His work with amberjack is fishing insurance, plain and simple. Commercial net-boat captains have built an industry with kingfish, but some Commercial men are hauling in 30,000 pounds a day, and Vick says there may not be any left in 10 years. Since 1966 he has been catching and lagging amberjack, studying their movements to see if he can establish a fishery for them by building artificial reefs.
"There's gonna be a day when the amberjack is our main game fish," Vick says. "He's the man. Most fishermen in the U.S. have never been completely overpowered by a fish Well, an amberjack can accommodate them. If you want your damn pole bent and your string stretched the amberjack is the man to talk to."
On the way offshore Vick and Ralph trolled jigs on light rods and caught two dozen blue runners, the best amberjack bait. At the platform they trolled close to the legs, but time after time the blue runners were either shredded or brought back inside three- or four-foot barracuda, good lighters but not jacks.
Finally a reel screeched with a higher pitch. "Amberjack," Vick said. Against a tight drag with 60-pound line, the jack shot under the platform and broke off. "A little one," Vick said, "maybe 20 pounds." It happened three more times with the last of the blue runners, and that was it. Vick was right about amberjack. It might take years to hook one you get to see, but a lot of people would pay to try.
On the way back Vick relaxed in his chair on the Rachel Carson's flying bridge. "One of my secret desires," he said, "is to take some of those ole tankers in Mobile Bay an' sink 'em offshore. We already fish one 600-footer, but it's too far off for most boats. It's fantastic fishin': amberjacks, black grouper, warsaws as big as they grow, red snapper, kings, dolphins, an' the most thrilling thing is one of Ralph's black snappers. They don't occur very often in the Gulf. If you had that ship nearby it'd be worth millions in recreational fishing." Ecstatic at the prospect, he leaned back and closed his eyes. Finally he stretched and shook his head. "You know," he said, "it's a tough business being a man. But to be one you've gotta produce. You've just gotta turn something out. I don't care if it's chickens."