“Y’all, drop your lines!” barked Blaine, the seasick first mate.
Loaded with 14-inch Spanish mackerel bait fish and lead sinkers nearly the size of hand grenades, the 100-pound lines plunged 200 feet toward the ocean floor. The reels hummed as we pressed our thumbs on the coiled line to keep it from unleashing wildly and nesting up.
We were 30-some miles out in the Gulf of Mexico from Destin, Florida. The sandy shores, piers and beachfront condos had melted into the blue an hour into our trip aboard Pescador III. I counted the 1968 wooden craft’s modest 51-foot length as the largest fishing boat I’d ever boarded.
The boat’s moniker suggested a Hispanic influence, but Captain Mike greeted us with a lazy Southern drawl. A 6-foot blue Trump flag rippled crisply behind the bridge.
Captain Mike earned his stripes steering boats through treacherous waters in Vietnam, transporting weapons and men, alive and dead. Twenty years later, he began putting fishermen onto marlin, amberjack, wahoo, tuna and other big fish in the Gulf.
Captain Mike’s entire crew was comprised of Blaine, who complained of food poisoning and thrice during our six-hour tour staggered to the stern to deposit his stomach’s contents into the sea.
The six of us — my wife, my oldest daughter, her husband, his parents and I — suspected he’d been up drinking the night before, as 19-year-olds sometimes do.
Hungover or not, Blaine followed Captain Mike’s shouted instructions from the bridge and put us onto orange-pink fish dubbed “mingo” by locals but more formally known as vermilion snapper.
We also hooked a long, lean, razor-toothed king mackerel trolling at 15 knots, and caught two other varieties of snapper and a bonito tuna with brilliant yellow and blue patterns along its dorsal surface.
Bringing our lines up from the bottom to raise a fish or check our bait required about 125 hard cranks on the reel. Sweat beaded on our faces and dried on our straining arms as the sun bore down.
Captain Mike jockeyed the boat into position again over a prime spot for grouper.
“Y’all, drop your lines!” Blaine called out again.
I’d had a cold spell, no fish in almost an hour. So I let my rig sink to the very bottom and tried something new, leaving it there instead of bringing it up several feet.
Ninety seconds later, my rod grew heavy, the tip arching toward the ocean floor.
This was no pretty little mingo.
“Reel! Reel!” Blaine implored. “He’s got a big grouper, Captain!”
Whatever it was on the end of my line had the strength of a bull and stubbornness of a donkey.
For what seemed like an hour but was only 15 minutes, I wrestled the fish, desperately trying to keep the rod tip high and crank the reel handle.
Grudgingly, the beast came up from the bottom and swung around toward the stern.
Panting and straining, I surrendered the rod to my son-in-law, Luke, and leaned in exhaustion against the side of the boat. A former college football player, Luke applied his burly might to crank harder, and the rod curled more earnestly toward the water.
Then, just like that, the line snapped.
“Look! It’s a shark!” Blaine cried. “A big one!”
He and Luke saw the creature turn and dive away from the boat.
They estimated the shark at a stout 7 feet; it likely weighed about 250 pounds.
Blaine speculated it had turned sideways, slicing the fishing line along the sharp scales on its flank.
Still exhausted and beginning to feel a little seasick myself, I napped fitfully in the air-conditioned boat cabin as the Pescador III lurched two hours back toward shore.
As I write this column eight days later, the soreness of the battle still lingers in my forearms and the backs of my legs.
The beast, meanwhile, swims free in the Gulf of Mexico.
Shark 1, Scott 0.
I do not want a rematch.