It's a wonderful experience to fish the Keys. You toss a plug across that swirling eddy at the tip of the bridge ramp. With a pistol-shot explosion, a barracuda who has been lurking there in the feed drift slashes across the surface, twisting into the air. Five or 10 minutes of looping runs and the sharp characteristic bulldog yankings, and the first fish of the day comes to gaff.
Out of the corner of your eye you've been aware that some large fish, too far distant to identify, was being hauled up over the bridge railing. A few unproductive casts, and curiosity gets the better of you—you move a mile out on the bridge with half a dozen other fishermen. The fish you couldn't identify turns out to be a 30-pound grouper, a tough tussle in water coursing 15 feet below the railing.
The "catch-all" bait of the Keys is cut and whole mullet, except for such crustacean-feeding species as the sheepshead and pompano. You've switched now to the heavy rod, a light sinker, No. 4 or 5 hook and a slice of ocean mullet.
What's going to hit? It's not a bad bet that before you can go through the long roster of possibles you'll have your first strike. You've forgotten that cobia stray in from the reefs, but there is one of them surfacing, fighting head down in an all-out charge that makes you glad you switched tackle.
It's late afternoon now. You've landed half a dozen good fish and you begin to look around. Off toward the tiny mangrove island tall white herons walk their methodical patrol. Two bonefishermen are making their last casts of the day in the shelving shallow to the right, and a charterboat has pulled in to the lee of the bridge, releasing floats over live bait to drift in toward the pilings for tarpon.
THE NIGHT FISHERMEN
With the coming of evening, a new batch of fishermen move to their places. These are mostly the smart locals who know that quite a few of the best fish are primarily night feeders and they don't mind braving a few mosquito waves to get them. The school of snappers that teased and moved away all day from the most tempting bait will break up now and start a fast steady feeding. Great slug-jawed tarpon begin to stir, slapping the water's surface.
At the docksides, in the neon splashes of bars that dot the dark wilderness of the Keys, in town restaurants, the talk everywhere is of the day's fishing, the plans for tomorrow.
If you've taken up your place with the night watch to jump a tarpon, you have one of fishing's greatest moments ahead of you—a huge, gill-distended slab-sided fish lunging skyward, a silver blaze in the moonlight. No motor to tire him, no guide to play your position. Just a lone, personalized battle with the most versatile of all big-game fighters charging off across the water, barrel-rolling, reversing to shoot straight at the bridge pilings from which you must keep him at all costs. You'll watch incredible jump after jump until he tires, and then walk him to the ramp. There, with a silent salute, you may release him for some future fray.
At Key West they're fishing at the end of Duval Street, the main thoroughfare, and boxfish, moonfish and a big jewfish will probably be on the dock behind the night club before it closes. It's all around the clock on the world's longest fishing pier.