By Michael Venable
Last May, I had the chance to check off a bucket list item: chasing tarpon and redfish with my dad. The trip was definitely more fishing than catching, but it still stands out as the most important foray of my life, so far. Not because we landed a bunch of fish, or even a few really big ones, but because it was the last adventure I got to share with the old man. We lost him in September, and I’ve etched the memories we made on that trip into my soul.
I had carved out a long weekend to get down to Florida before starting a new job, and Dad was adamant that we would be going fishing, despite his touch-and-go health. The outings were planned over the course of three half-days, allowing him to rest in the afternoons, and the first day was rough on us both. I hadn’t been on a real boat on the ocean in years, and the winds and waves were less than ideal. Despite that, we filled the livewell with bait for subsequent days, and had a spit-out from a massive tarpon, less than 6 feet from the gunwale of the boat.
Ultimately, we had to scrap the second day’s outing due to weather—definitely not due to all the tequila we drank after getting back to the house. But the morning of the third day was perfect. The previous day’s rain had cooled off the early summer heat, and the backwater of the river was dead flat and almost gin-clear.
When we pulled up to the ramp on the third morning, Capt. Jeremiah was already there, the boat loaded and ready, casting his net for shrimp by the dock. Dad was hurting, but the tough S.O.B. refused to hear any talk of staying in, and I’ll always be grateful for that.
The first spot we visited was along the docks where the shrimpers came in to offload their catch. We hooked up on a few fish apiece, but the handful of redfish bites we got didn’t seem nearly as exciting once we hooked into a goliath grouper.
This particular dock was home to the previous state record for a goliath caught on rod and reel. In 1961, Lynn Joyner (who reportedly weighed 130 lb) managed to reel in a grouper that weighed in at 680 lb from the exact same spot. Bear in mind, we were there to target reds, but as a joke, we put a slightly heavier-duty rod together with a cut croaker on it for bait.
The laughing stopped when the clicker on the reel started singing. As if snapping out of a trance, my dad looked at me and simply said, “Get his ass.” I scooped up the rod and immediately recognized that my initial confidence was not well-founded.
I proceeded to spend the next 35 minutes feeling like I was trying to pull a tractor with a tricycle. The old salts watching from the shrimp boats were cheering me on, and my back and shoulders were begging me to stop. I fought, cussed, cajoled, and pleaded with that damned fish right up until the leader gave out and the behemoth broke off. After taking a few moments to collect myself, I shook a proudly outstretched hand from my dad and watched a shit-eating grin spread across his face. “That’s a good fight, son,” he said, “but I would’ve had him.”
Even though I landed more fish throughout the rest of the morning, I caught more hell from him in those two hours over that grouper than the cumulative total for every other gaffe I’ve made in all my life before then.
I plan to go back with larger tackle for another crack at that big bastard, and most important of all the equipment I take will be the memory of my old man roasting me for failing to land him the first time.
If you haven’t done so recently, call your dad if he’s still around and let him take you fishing. Enjoy the ball-busting, you’ll miss it when it’s gone.