Sunday Classic / Joel vs The Shark

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Max Pressure Photo by Louis Cahill

My good friend Joel Dickey was not raised by wolves, but you might not believe it if you’ve ever seen him angry.

With hair the color of a new penny and bright blue eyes that can be uncomfortably intense at times, the ruddy sun scorched complexion of a Bedouin, the build of a boxer and two gold hoops, one in each ear, Joel looks half Viking, half pirate. Born of a long line of Tennessee moonshiners and snake handlers, he has a great southern brogue that’s so deep you can hear the chicken frying when he talks. He has a heart as big as the Florida sky, and a temper to match. He caught his first rattle snake at age six. Joel has no fear. Fear is an important emotion. As humans, our fight or flight response has served us well, in evolutionary terms. Joel somehow missed out on the flight part of that, as well as the fear. He’s all fight. Any other person finding themselves face to face with a fifteen foot hammerhead shark might back down. Joel on the other hand…

The heat there in the Florida Keys that day had been like penance. So had the fishing. It was a perfect day for tarpon. The weather was hot with just a little wind, not a cloud in sight. It was mid May. The peak of the season. The tarpon that had been everywhere just a few days before had vanished. The few we saw had no interest in a fly. This was exactly what we had been waiting for. There was a huge falling tide in the evening and it had been unseasonably warm. We had been looking at the calendar and the tide apps on our phones for six months thinking that this was the day and now the fish were confirming our theory. All those tarpon that had been high and happy for weeks were lurking reclusively in the deep water. Staging up, preparing, for the worm hatch.

If you’ve been lucky enough to see a palalo worm hatch, you may have pinched yourself to see if you were dreaming. It’s hard to believe that a fish of a hundred pounds or more can get so worked up about a three inch worm, but when there are literally millions of them in the water the tarpon loose all self control. The great Silver King suddenly starts behaving like a fat kid who has found the chocolate shop door unlocked. It’s cool beyond words, even though the Bahia Honda channel looks like a New York traffic jam.

Bruce Chard, Joel and myself have anchored up under the bridge, trying to stay out of the sun while we wait for the hatch. Heat exhaustion has given way to high spirits and we are laughing and cutting up, in spite of a few less than courteous anglers who have decided to low hole us. Bruce is taunting them by casting his fly into their boat when we see the first worms. The fish see them too and in two casts Joel is hooked up. I cut the anchor loose while Bruce gets on the wheel and we’re off. We’re in deep water and the fish is ripping into the backing. Joel’s toes are curled over the edge of the bow, knees bent and shoulders rounded like a power lifter, his whole body straining, his rod bent straight down into the water. Only three guides are still above the waves. It’s a good fish.

Soon Joel is back on his fly line and the UFC cage match starts. I’ve never seen anyone fight a tarpon like Joel Dickey. Like any specialized predator he has adapted, evolved into a tarpon boating machine. The pressure he puts on the fish is unbelievable. He has a gym routine worked out for it. He knows exactly how to handle the rod, putting it right to the breaking point. I’d rather fight a bar full of bikers than be that fish. Today, however, our goal is not to dead boat the big fish and get back to fishing. We have a strategy. We want to get a good hero shot with Joel out of the boat, holding the fish in shallow water but getting a hundred pound fish across the channel and onto the shallow flats where we can wade is no easy job. The water was rough from the strong tide. The bow is wet and slippery from waves breaking across it. I throw down a towel for Joel to stand on. This would be a bad time to go for a swim. Joel has the fish under control on a short line and we are using the motor to tow it to the spot we have picked for the photos. Everything is going according to plan and we have only a couple of hundred yards to go when we see the fin. I have seen some big sharks in the Keys, several of them way too close, but I have never seen a fin standing four feet out of the water, until this.

Even the photo doesn’t do it justice Photo Louis Cahill

The shark is about the same size as the boat. I should say the same length. I’m sure it out weighs the boat by a ton. I’ve heard stories of giant hammerheads in Bahia Honda Channel. There is a fish called Big Mo, short for big mother f¥€ker. A twenty footer that Bruce and Joel have both seen close up. When they tell stories about it I always say, “I want to see that fish” and Bruce always says, “no you don’t!” I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what a shark like that would look like but you just can’t imagine it. The size is more than impressive. This shark’s head is five feet wide. I’d be hard pressed to guess the girth but it was as wide as the boat. You think of it in terms of being as big as a car. No, that doesn’t do it justice. It’s bigger and it’s visceral. There is something that you are not prepared for when you think about it in those terms. It’s fast. Really fast! It’s as agile as a Jack Russell Terrier. It can spin around and bite it’s tail faster than you can swat a horse fly. It can come full out of the water if it wants to. The power of it takes your breath. That fish would have no trouble dispatching a flats boat.

The tarpon goes ballistic but it can’t out run the shark. Not after a tough fight. Joel tries to break it off but before he can, the hammerhead rams it and the tarpon goes limp. Joel’s face is the color of hot sauce. His eyes burning. He turns the air blue with cursing. He knows he’s about to lose this fish. He’s about to lose that hero shot and the tarpon is about to lose it’s life. The shark is pushing the limp tarpon around like a dog pushes an empty food bowl. Joel, never one to accept defeat, starts stripping in line for all he’s worth. Dragging the lifeless tarpon to the boat, the huge shark right behind it. Bruce starts screaming, “what the f¥€k are you doing? Don’t bring that f¥€king thing over here!” Joel keeps stripping. I’ve seen the look on his face before. He knows the tarpon is dead. He’s trying to get that shark to the boat. I don’t know what the hell he thought he was going to do when he got it there but if he had jumped in and bit the shit out of it I would not have been at all surprised. That would be just like him.

The shark was about forty feet from the boat when it swallowed that tarpon whole. There wasn’t even blood in the water. It ate a hundred pound fish like a Chicken McNugget. Joel’s reel sung briefly and it was over. I think Joel said something like, “you’d better run you chicken shit bastard”. He may have called it a Yankee bastard, I’m not sure. We didn’t get our hero shot and a great old tarpon had died because of us. No one was happy about that. Joel was beside himself. Bruce was relieved. I was high on adrenaline. Months of planning, a perfect execution, everything according to plan and out of nowhere a shark bigger than the boat takes it all away. Was it disappointing? Sure. Frustrating? Of course. Exciting? Hell yes! That’s fishing and even though it didn’t go our way, it just doesn’t get any better.

Come fish with us in the Bahamas!

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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