In a lifelong quest for fish, many a sportsman will gradually change from an angler to what I call a fish watcher. Of course, most fishermen die in harness—no figure of speech where deep-sea angling is concerned; but some become more interested in fish themselves than in catching fish. Just the other day, for example, I learned that a current research expedition will spend five years off the South and Central American coasts under the aegis of an eastern oil executive who, until lately, was a big-game angler, pure and simple, Now he is a fish watcher.
Fresh-water anglers, especially those who seek trout, have long had a concern for the life cycle and habitat of their favorite fish. But an interest in fish that is motivated by the hope of a loaded creel does not describe the true "fish watcher"; he is likely to find his reels stored away in grease from one year to the next. It is more exhilarating to him to find out about the submarine world than to catch samples with a hook.
What's the spell?
I know the day it began for me. We were trolling over the big reef outside the middle Florida Keys—in the open sea, some miles offshore. The morning was fair and the fishing fine—until the breeze died away entirely. We trolled after that in a sea as slick as blue enamel, so smooth you could see the wake of the outrigger baits, let alone of the boat, for a thousand yards astern. Then the engine conked out and we drifted. We were impatient until somebody happened to look over the side—and down.
There, 50 feet below, was the bottom, the reef—vivid in the clean Gulf Stream water—and there were the fish that had stopped biting in the calm: amberjacks, grouper, 'cudas, big snappers and the rest. There, too, were smaller fish by the thousands, the tens of thousands, fish as brightly colored as Christmas tree ornaments. All around them was the unearthly landscape of living coral, the many colored miniature Cordilleras, with sand "deserts" between. On the sand, rays dozed, half buried; sharks swam above. Under a natural bridge of coral a huge jewfish lay. All that afternoon, until an onshore breeze riffled the surface and spoiled our fun, we leaned over the gunwales and just looked. Nobody even thought of lowering a bait to see if the fish would bite down there: nobody wanted to ruin the view by bringing a splashing fish to boat.
What bemused me afterward, as I meditated a spectacle I knew I could never forget, was my ignorance. I'd just seen corals (I supposed they were) of a hundred forms and as many colors: the reef looked as if a boatload of dye had foundered upon it. and I had seen 50 varieties of fish and other animal life to which I could give no
name. Yet—for years and years—I'd been trolling over just such spots as that!
It was easy to find books which helped with fish identification; it was much harder to learn the names of the madrepores and millepores, the corals, anemones and sponges which gave the reef its lunar aspect. At about that time, however, I built a house on Biscayne Bay and discovered my sea wall supported a miniature cross section of reef life. After that, on almost any calm day I might be seen lying on my lawn on my belly, my head projecting over the wall, watching; and on any calm night I might also be found in the same place—with a powerful flashlight.
In my case, the next step came with the glass-bottomed bucket. I'd taken my family to Bimini in the Bahamas with a view to marlin fishing. But I developed a secondary sport which I herewith commend to any fish-interested swimmer. The beach at Bimini is sandy but a few yards offshore lie patches of coral only a yard or two under mean tide. Simply by hooking my chin over the rim of the bucket (which I padded soon, when my chin wore out), by grasping the opposite rim with both hands, and by kicking my feet, I turned myself into a glass-bottomed boat.
The little inshore reefs are the habitat of many of the young of deep-water species. They are also a dwelling place of great numbers of the most gorgeous fishes that live: beaugregories and other demoiselles, butterflyfish, wrasses and so on.
Skin-diving equipment, of course, has enabled bold swimmers to do their watching at the fish's level; but "bucket fishing," as we called my sport, is highly recommended for all who can swim and care to see sights that are beautiful, astonishing—and sometimes startling, like wrasses persistently trying to nibble your legs, or finding yourself face to face with a barracuda five feet long!