Red Sky at Night with JB Cornwell | The Day of the Square Grouper
In the early ‘80s I was often in the Gulf Stream off of Ft. Lauderdale on weekends trolling for mahi mahi., blackfin tuna, bonito or any billfish that happened along. My primary target was mahi mahi, one of the best table treats that the ocean offers and the easiest to swap for lobster and shrimp at the local market when I had a surplus. This required a Commercial Fishing license which in those days was $25 a year. I never sold fish, but I ate like a bazillionaire.
My trusty vessel was Sunshine, a 1966 Boston Whaler Sakonnet 16 (now a rare and valuable classic) that I had bought new and then repowered in ’79 with a sweet Johnny 70. One and a half 6 gallon tanks of premix could keep us trolling for a full day and bring us home to Treasure Cove, on the Dania Cutoff Canal, in the gloaming.
Anything unpleasant in my life faded away as we idled down the canal in the morning toward the ICW. There was one house that had a big sign out by the canal asking passing boaters to reveal their chests. I never understood why they were not pleased when I did so. Go figure. (snicker).
It was almost a ritual to pass the port of Dania, where rested in decaying glory a wooden schooner of great age and enchanting grace that always had me daydreaming of sailing her on a golden day and a blue sea. She was named Orion. I suppose there could have been a better name, but I never thought of one.
About a mile of mangrove swamp down the canal from the port we arrived at the ICW and the end of the no wake zone. Turn 90 degrees to port to 000 degrees and ¾ throttle for a couple more miles and pass through Port Everglades. Turn to starboard to 090 degrees and pass out the cut into the Atlantic Ocean.
Seas were usually somewhere between flat calm and 3-4 feet. The Boston Whaler 16 hull is famous (infamous?) for requiring concentration and skill of the helmsman to get a reasonably comfortable ride while standing if there is any chop. Sitting wasn’t a good option in a chop. This day was close to a flat calm. . .just enough ripple to allow Sunshine to cruise at about 30 knots.
Channel 13 on the CB. “Captain Mark, this is Sunshine, over.” “Good morning Sunshine. We are on a weedline about 3 miles out. Some jacks and a bonito, but that is all. Happy Fisherman is up north a way and is finding some schoolies. Over.”
“Sunshine, this is Happy Fisherman. We have some schoolies and one big bull. We are off Lighthouse Point. Come on up.”
Captain Mark and Happy Fisherman were small scale, small boat commercial fishermen who earned enough to keep on fishing, which suited them both just fine. We three often kept constant track of one another, trading news and tips.
I ran east until I hit the color line, where the cool, green inshore water met the warm, bright blue Gulf Stream. I set out 4 lines with surface skipping lures and turned North, trolling along and looking for any sort of flotsam that might shelter some mahi mahi.
I soon found a mat of sargassum weed and dragged my lures close to it. Very quickly I had a strike and brought a 4-5lb “schoolie” mahi mahi to boatside, where I tied her off and left her in the water. As expected, several others joined her. I threw Sunshine into Neutral.
I grabbed my casting rod, with a 1 oz. Krocodile spoon, and cast it alongside the mat. I pretty quickly had four nice schoolies in the cooler. Then I got hung up on something that was floating among the sargassum.
After a few minutes of careful strain on the rod I brought a package alongside, wrapped in white plastic and carefully taped. It was about the size of four shoeboxes packed together. AHA!! I had found a “square grouper”, a lost package of smuggled marijuana that didn’t make it to the pickup boat in the night. There was a lot of talk about square groupers at the marinas.
Switch the CB to channel 9. “Coast Guard, this is Sunshine, over.” No response. Tried again. Still no response. “Coast Guard, this is Sunshine. I have found contraband. Request instructions.”
“Sunshine, this is Port Everglades Coast Guard station. Give us a fix and identify your vessel. We will come to you.”
About half an hour later the USCG rescue boat came alongside and took custody of the package and had me fill out more paperwork than it took to get my sixpack license.
I have often wondered about my options on that day, but never doubted my decision.
(JB Cornwell writes from “The Hideout” in Whitt, TX, and is also an expert moderator, instructor, and fountain-of-knowledge in the iboats.com Boating Forums, where he may occasionally share a yarn of his own.)