Now the salt spray is in your face, the sun has just made its graceful exit, there is a glow in the sky and glory in the heart as the 18-foot skiff makes a final, swooping turn into Key West Oceanside Marina. The boat eases down the channel and then slides gently up to the floating dock. "It sure beats working," says Gene Montgomery.
Then it is time for a beer, to stare off into the winking lights of the town and to make plans for doing the same thing all over again tomorrow. Gene Montgomery is, in fact, working. His boat is his office, the ocean is his territory, and he is president of it all. There is no board of directors. Montgomery, 36, is a fishing guide specializing in light-tackle angling.
"Lots of people tell me I have the best job in the world," he says. "They say, 'You mean you really do this for a living?' They think it's all just fun. Which, of course, I guess it is." And he sloshes some more beer down his contented throat. Montgomery is living a fantasy in a fantasyland, a combination that millions can only dream of. A Key West real estate salesman, Robin Walker, says of the area where the sun shines about 83% of the time, "The real world has passed us by." That is not said with regret.
One of Montgomery's customers is Dr. Lewis Carroll, a Miami Beach dentist. Carroll says, "Gene looks 12 years younger than he is. He has no high blood pressure, drinks no Maalox, always has a tan, rides a bike to work, has no weight problem, no emotional ups and downs, no tranquilizers. His love life is straightforward, everything is in order, he doesn't know what a sleepless night is and his customers bring his lunch to the boat. He has got life absolutely knocked." So how often does Carroll think with envy about Montgomery's job? "Not often. Only twice every day of my life when I'm fighting the traffic on the expressway."
Traditionally, fishing has been considered the ideal leisure activity, the premier luxury at which one can fritter away time with society's approval. The classic sign on a door in this country is, GONE FISHIN'. Lewis Carroll says, "Montgomery is doing for a living what most of the rest of us work like dogs to earn enough money for so we can do it for a few days each year." Montgomery figures that he'll fish about 150 days this year—for pay. On his days off, he goes fishing. "Everybody thinks because it's your job, you want to get away from it," he says. "But if you enjoy it, why try to get away?" Other leisure pursuits—playing golf or tennis or camping or mountain climbing—imply a certain amount of effort; fishing implies no effort. Of course, anyone who has ever fought an amberjack or tarpon or a permit on light (12-, 10-, 6-pound) tackle knows that's not true. Yet, fishing always conjures up an image of dropping bait over the side of a boat and doing nothing.
Montgomery finds joy in his job partly because of his own whimsical mind. On the permit flats, a hook is baited with a live crab, then the line is cast and Montgomery muses, "I wonder what those crabs think the first time they get a ride through the air like that?" That's the kind of thing a man can contemplate while fishing with Montgomery. As the skiff floats lazily across the indescribable world of the flats, he laments that "Too many people do what their parents want rather than what will make them happy. Me? I just wish that I could freeze my life right now so that it would last forever."
How does one fall into such idyllic work? For Montgomery, it just happened. He was born in inland Arcadia, Fla., moving when he was 10 to Miami, where the fishing improved. He enrolled at the University of Miami, to become an electrical engineer, but quit after one semester. What did Montgomery want with such a degree? "I didn't have the slightest idea. That's why I quit."
Then came eight years in the Navy with duty in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and the Pacific and in Bermuda and Alaska ("That was great. Nobody had their wives or kids there to mess things up") and Key West. But Montgomery tired of "going where somebody else wanted me to go." He joined Eastern Airlines in Miami as a mechanic. "It was just a job," he says. "I put in eight hours. What I didn't like was starting a job, then the shift would end, and somebody else would finish it." He was offered the choice of being transferred to New York or Chicago, "if you can call that a choice." For years he had been fishing on weekends and vacation, fishing hard, often with his older brother Bob, one of the pioneer light-tackle fishing guides in Key West. So now he decided to let himself be furloughed and he went fishing. Fulltime. Four months later, he received a letter from Eastern informing him he was being rehired. He returned but was still not hooked on changing tires and brakes on jets. "Why should I do something that I don't care about? Around Eastern, the big word was 'security.' Which seems to mean you work all your life for good retirement benefits, at which time you die."
So Montgomery called his brother, and asked if he thought there would be enough business for him, too. Although Bob was dubious, that was somehow enough encouragement for Gene. He admits that if he had had a wife and family, he might have stayed with Eastern, but a friend, Oma Hoffman of Miami, thinks Gene would be miserable doing anything else. "He wants his customers to catch fish," she says, "but he doesn't have a schedule where he must catch a bonefish between 9 and 11 a.m. That's nice."
Montgomery charges $125 a day to take one or two people fishing for tarpon, bonefish, permit and barracuda in the 18-foot shallow-draft skiff. For his larger boat, a high-performance deep-V 25-footer that he custom-built during a slack fall fishing season a couple of years ago, the fee is now $150. The big boat is used for offshore work, in the nearby Gulf Stream or on the wrecks and reefs that dot the waters around Key West, and the quarry can be anything from sailfish, wahoo and tuna to grouper, snapper, kingfish and amberjack.