Harry Snow Jr. is a justly famous guide as was his father before him. His family came originally from Nantucket to Saint Augustine, and later his father moved to the Keys to work on the railroad; he stuck around because he liked the fishing, ending up guiding such notables as Herbert Hoover. The other guides admit that on bonefish Junior is probably in a class by himself and have stories to illustrate. As an instance, Snow can place a customer on the deck, spinning rod in hand, and tell him to cast. Snow invariably can get a cast off first though he has to reach in the rod holder for his equipment. He also has the ability to find fish in the vilest of weather. One morning, sitting over breakfast at the Half and Half up on Big Pine with Woody Sexton and Steve Huff, Harry Snow Jr. looked particularly happy. Though he is booked much of the year he had received a paid cancellation and he and Woody were going to spend the day fishing for pleasure. You look closely into his sun-weathered face for traces of madness; how can he guide for maybe 300 days a year in the heat of the Florida Keys only to go fishing on a day off? He excuses his obsession by saying he wants to relax.
A stretch of bad weather translates into unpaid cancellations and a loss of income for the guides. High winds and clouds can pose additional dangers if a customer on a short vacation insists on going out. A Hewes skiff can streak across the fiats at about 45 knots and if bad light hides the configurations of the bottom it is easy to run aground. Sometimes bad weather pays off, though. Permit are less wary and take a fly better. And tarpon, if you can see them, are more prone to strike when it's choppy.
There are problems involving etiquette and secrecy. Many good spots have code names to conceal their locations: Animal Farm, the Eccentrics, Monster Point and others. Some areas are named after guides; Hommel's or Woody's Corner. Some secrecy is understandable; it is a guide's livelihood and he probably spent a great deal of time and gas money doping out the fishery. And though the area is huge, a dozen skiffs can make it appear crowded. But even if a bungling initiate, or a dread spy from Miami or Islamorada, had the chart name of the area, the precise slot the tarpon or permit tend to travel on a certain tide would be difficult to unravel.
But the biggest problem is when a guide cannot find fish during good conditions. Say there is a big tide and a fly-fishing customer wants to take a mutton snapper, a currently fashionable fish. The guide goes out from Key West, across an area called "the lakes," to Woman Key and Boca Grande, expecting to see snappers behind the rays that move up on the flats with the tide. But while in two hours spent poling the very best water he sees many rays, no snappers are feeding behind them. All of the good signs are there, including cormorants feeding behind the rays. Even the flat smells fishy. So what has happened? He decides it might be too bumpy along the reef line—a brisk southeast wind has raised a moderate surf. Maybe the snappers don't like it. There aren't many permit around either, though ordinarily permit aren't disturbed by the weather. He is flatly boggled. The week before under similar conditions he saw 13 snappers. Also the rare sight of five permit, two snappers and a cormorant following a single mudding ray. Maybe the way the waves draw in upon themselves along the reef, the shallow trough, make the fish think there is less water than there really is. If fish think. Or the weather has been cooler and the change in water temperature might have affected the feeding habits. Both guide and client are upset; the guide is perplexed, the client irritated. A guide is forced to think. If he is not prepared to think technically, to become a master strategist, it is unlikely he will survive, since the core of his livelihood is return business.
World War II proved to be very good for the offshore fishing around Key West, though no one realized it at the time. There were German subs in the area and they knocked off a few of our ships. These wrecks provide the prey with shelter from the predator; the wreck is a giant restaurant for a wide spectrum of sea creatures that ranges from the tiny crustaceans that plaster themselves on the steel to huge sharks and 300-pound jewfish. Some of the wrecks are extremely difficult to find and some are too far from Key West for any but the fastest boats. But Bob Montgomery has mastered both the finding of them and the light-tackle approach to fishing their bounty.
Montgomery was a flight engineer for 12 years in the Navy before he decided that the Navy was not "what it used to be." He was raised on Mondongo Island off the west coast of Florida where his father was a fishing guide. He docks two boats at Garrison Bight, Key West, both of which he custom-built: a 19-foot Carey for the flats and a 23-foot Formula for offshore wreck fishing. Montgomery is an aggressive though very pleasant human. He likes the idea of versatility in fishing, and owning two boats gives him a wide range of options.
There is a touch of the blond Ernest Borgnine to Montgomery. He is jovial but with a firm sense of what he is on earth—he smiles a lot but only on his own terms. He is of average height but with massive chest and shoulders, and could easily be mistaken for a bricklayer or a retired jock who has become a beer salesman. And he would not be out of place in a deputy's uniform in one of those movies that highlight the powder-keg versatility for mayhem of the Deep South.
You wonder about a football-coach syndrome you find in the guides, Montgomery included. Everyone in the sporting world has remarked on particular types who are absolutely incapable of abandoning their obsessiveness for any occasion. And guides, whether at breakfast or a social dinner, are going to drill you into a corner about fishing or boats or the threat to business posed by a new guide in town. After a long day on the water it can drive you limp with boredom. You suddenly want to tour geriatrics boutiques with your maiden aunt. It's fun to bring up another subject—farming, or Watergate—and see how fast they can get back to fishing. Only sex competes. A sweet young thing in a bikini can disarm the most insistent sports freak, if only momentarily. "Yum yum wow gurgle. But you know those ole tarpon are stacked in the channel like cordwood." Actually, if you are paying, it is an obsession you learn to appreciate.
Early one morning we left Garrison Bight in the Formula for a destroyer wreck out on the edge of the Gulf Stream. Montgomery's brother Gene, also a guide, was at the dock with a long face and two clients who looked like a guaranteed pain in the neck. Days can be long. We went around the tip of the island, then headed out in a fairly heavy chop. But the Formula has a V hull and is powered by two OMC 165s, so there was no real discomfort. We deep-jigged when the fathometer showed the destroyer and the schools of fish above it, but the wind made it too difficult to stay on target.
Around noon the weather abruptly changed and the water calmed down. We decided to fly-fish for dolphin along the weed lines that had begun to appear. We trolled until we hooked a dolphin, then cut the engine and began to cast. We caught several and they proved to be fine fighters on fly tackle. We noticed several sharks massing themselves under another bed of weeds, almost peering out, the water so clear that you could see them eye the pilchards we were throwing as chum. A large fly was cast and quickly taken but the leader popped. Another fly and a good hookup on the lip. Half an hour later and you have your first shark on fly, 100 pounds or so but a not very dramatic fighter.