My name is Captain Rick Ryals, and I have recently entered my 50th year of offshore fishing. Most of my fishing has been off Northeast Florida, but I’ve spent plenty of time off Ft. Pierce, Palm Beach, and throughout the Abacos. I’m 40-19 years old (The adults among us call this 59), and I’ve gradually become aware, I was born at the perfect time for an offshore fisherman. I have seen migrations of fish that today’s youngsters can only dream about, and I have gotten to play with technology my dad could have never imagined. In fact my dad only fished a few days a year. We had a worn out 17 foot wooden cabin cruiser, that was powered by a pull start Johnson 50. I can remember it taking dozens of pulls on the starter rope, and I can remember never leaving without a couple coffee cans to bail with during the day. Loading the boat back on a single axle non galvanized trailer meant we were going home, unless of course we burned out the clutch in the Nash trying to get back up the ramp. In short, I’ve long suspected my dad didn’t fish often, because it was a hundred times more difficult than it is today. What I’d give to have him be able to touch off the two big diesels I run today, and punch Marsh Harbor into his autopilot, knowing he wouldn’t have to even touch the wheel until he was pulling into the harbor.
I can remember my first fishing trip so clearly. We were guests on another 17-foot wooden cabin cruiser, but this was one was an advanced fishing machine capable of carrying us an unbelievable 7 miles offshore. That’s where I witnessed a king mackerel that I thought must weigh 600 pounds cutting one of our baits in two. Forget the fact we missed the fish. Forget the fact we never had another bite. I was going to grow up to be a deep sea fisherman. For the next several years my parents would never tell me when I was going to get to fish the next day, because I wouldn’t get a minute’s sleep the night before. Now I’m 40-19 years old. If I ever start sleeping the night before a trip, I’ll let you know.
A lot has changed in 50 years, but an awful lot hasn’t. Back then it was drone spoons, Creek Chubs, and bonito strips, or chumming with shrimp boat by catch. King mackerel were the target species and a sailfish held all the dreams that are now reserved for blue marlin.
Unlike what today’s greenies would have you believe, we did not catch pick up truck loads of fish every day. I was 16 when I became a partyboat mate, and there were plenty of days I weighed one three-pound sea bass against another three-pound sea bass to see who took the big fish pot for the day. Sure we had great days, but we had just as many tough ones as we do today. Interestingly enough Capt. Fred Morrow took me under his wing when he was a commercial snapper fisherman in the very early sixties. He had a 45-foot commercial boat, and he specialized in red snapper. Those bent on keeping snapper closed for 35 years don’t want to hear this, but he will tell you today his average size fish was eight pounds. I can also tell you that there were no records of how many snapper, of what size Capt Fred sold, other than a few scribbled notes in his log. When the SAFMC tells you their records show how many 30-pound snapper were caught in the fifties, all I can tell you is, the records did NOT come from Northeast Florida.
At sixteen I was invited on a three-day trip to another galaxy. A mystical far away place called the Gulf Stream. It would take a day to get there, and a day to get home. We would troll out and back and fish for giant grouper along the continental shelf. We caught dolphin, wahoo, snapper and grouper. My parents last, best hope to see me become a doctor vanished when the first dolphin charged out from under a weed line and ate my bonito strip.
I was really hooked then, and it’s just not gotten any easier to stay off the water. Fifty years of questions has led to nothing but more questions. It seems every time I find an answer the questions change. Just like in most phases of my life, the most successful people I know in offshore fishing don’t have lots of great answers; they have loads of great questions. Week to week, I’ll try to bring you some of the ones that haunt me the worst.