When the piece of cut bait hit the water, followed quickly by and then rapidly passed by a 6-ounce weight, I started counting down as line peeled off the reel.
At 34-Mississippi, the line went slack.
The big piece of lead had made it all the way to the bottom, 90 feet deep next to an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in mid May. Six quick turns of the reel was enough to take the weight off the bottom and just enough to keep the bait suspended a few inches off the floor in the strike range.
The same way it had been on my two previous drops when I had bites but missed the fish. No need to move the bait; the boat did that on the 3- to 4-foot waves that rolled by underneath. Five minutes passed before I finally felt a peck. Then another and another and …
I set the hook, felt the weight of a fish and then felt it let go.
“Missed another one captain,” I hollered at Capt. Earl, a.k.a. Robert Earl McDaniel, captain of the Whipasnapa.
He said it was small fish, or what he calls bait-stealers.
“We need to move,” said Capt. Earl, quite matter-of-factly while reeling up his line to get ready to crank his engine.
“Not until I see one,” I said right back. “Rig my bass rod (a 7-foot medium heavy G.Loomis, 14-pound mono on an Ambassaduer 5500C) with one of those big weights, leave that 4/0 bass hook on it and pass it up here, please.”
Capt. Earl laughed at the idea but being a good guy, he rigged it and handed it to me. Using a smaller piece of bait on the smaller hook, I dropped it down and, boy, did that light line spin off that spool as it raced down at a faster speed.
The reel almost backlashed when it reached bottom.
Three quick turns of the spool and the weight began rising again, only this time with a rod nearly bent double by the pull of six ounces of lead. It didn’t take long. Maybe three seconds passed before…
I set the hook repeatedly, three, four, five and six times, hoping the backbone of the bass rod would be enough to drive the hook into the fish’s jaw deep below the rolling surface.
It was — the fish was on.
I cranked and cranked, and then I cranked some more, and was barely gaining ground. Finally, it started coming up.
“Feels weird,” I told Capt. Earl, who came over to enjoy the show. About two minutes later, we saw the lead but couldn’t see a fish in the dark waters, even though it had to be within a few feet of the surface. Earl leaned over, looked down and came up with a strange look.
“It’s a flounder,” he said.
“You’re kidding,” I said.
“No man, it’s a flat fish,” he said. “I swear.”
“But … We’re in 90 feet of water,” I said.
“I have caught a thousand flounder in my life, some on hook and some on a gig, and the deepest I’ve ever caught one was about two feet,” I added. “Most of them were in, like, 6 inches.”
“Nonetheless,” Capt. Earl said, “that’s what you’ve got.”
When I pulled the fish up out of the Gulf, it was indeed a flounder. A right nice one at that.
“Four pounds at least,” Capt. Earl said. “Probably five.”
I was still too stunned to talk.
“Got one,” came the cry from the other side of the boat, from writer Brian Broom, who had missed a few bites, too. “I don’t know what it is, but it’s hooked.”
Using some of the bigger salt-water gear, Broom winched the fish straight up without much fuss.
“It’s another flounder!” Capt. Earl said.
I suddenly had visions of an icebox full of flounder, which is my favorite Gulf fish to eat. Capt. Earl, who lives in D’Iberville and fishes all the time as a charter captain, apparently eats a lot of fresh flounder.
Unimpressed, he was busy cranking the engine to run to another oil rig and look for snapper and big cobia. Turns out, I was told later by a marine biologist, that while flounder catches are considered rare in 90 feet of water, it does happen.
“Just goes to show you,” Capt. Earl said, “when you drop a piece of bait in the Gulf of Mexico, you never know what you’re going to get.”