October 26, 2022
By Rick Ryals
You know, Halloween just ain’t what it used to be. I can remember dozens of kids in their latest Superman costume walking the neighborhood. If the older kids had come up with a way to scare us, it was always successful. I guess I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for things that go bump in the night. Particularly offshore.
Captain Fred Morrow ran a lot of trips for a lot of years out of Mayport in Northeast Florida. He was my mentor, and he was the coolest, most clear-headed captain I ever knew. From the day in 1979 that I got my captain’s license he pounded into my head, “Everybody’s okay offshore until somebody panics. You’re the captain and you, especially, you, can never panic.”
Fred was certainly not superstitious, and he could care less if you took bananas along on every trip you fished with him. He was every bit as brave as Popeye, but one Halloween night shook him for the rest of his days. It was a slick calm, full moon night, and the Lady Yvonne had had a fine day of commercial snapper fishing. Halloween was probably the last thing on the crew’s mind, that October 31. Captain Fred dozed off until about 3 a.m. when he awoke wondering if the snapper had started biting again. Not wanting to wake his crew, Fred made his way back to his commercial bandit reel and saw what he thought was a slab of bonito lying on the fishbox. Imagine how high he jumped when the “slab of bonito” suddenly moved when he poked a knife at it.
For once, Captain Fred was scared to death. He turned on the deck lights, only to spot a bat, probably still unhappy from getting poked with a knife, staring at him from the fish box. He was so shook, he slumped into his helm chair to try and collect his thoughts. I have to think it must have occurred to him that it was Halloween when he looked out the window, and there stood a great horned owl looking back at him.
A scream erupted, followed by a whole party of fishermen running astern... George couldn't imagine what could be going on...
Captain George Strate was not your typical partyboat captain. He fished as if his life depended on it, and his customers loved him for it. The day he’ll never be able to explain happened 28 miles offshore Jacksonville. Captain George and his crew were busy gaffing fish and untangling lines near the transom when a scream erupted from the bow that was followed by the whole party of fishermen that had assigned fishing spots on the bow, running astern. George couldn’t imagine what could be going on up front, but when he made his way through the madness he was greeted by a swarm of bees bigger than a basketball in the anchor chute. The crew yelled at it, and poked it with a gaff, and tried everything they knew, all to no avail. Then 15 minutes later, just as fast as they arrived, one lone bee rose from the swarm, and took off toward land. Then, en masse the whole swarm rose as one, and followed him toward land. I’m thinking wherever that swarm came from, they need a new navigator.
Florida Sportsman Podcaster Captain David Borries was fishing a creek with a buddy one typical summer afternoon. The weather for the immediate future looked okay, but the typical summer thunderstorms were building to the west. David reached out and touched his braided line, and received a jolt. He thought he had lost his mind, until his buddy Brent let out a yell. They were literally getting shocked every time they touched their braid. Next, their hair started standing on end. David said they couldn’t get out of the creek fast enough, and 15 minutes later they were back at the dock watching the lightning show. It’s not unusual to feel static electricity before a lightning strike, but getting shocked through your braided line 15 minutes before the storm? To this day every fisherman in Jacksonville calls that place “Sizzle Creek.”
They were getting shocked every time they touched their line. Next, their hair started standing on end... David said they couldn't get out fast enough.
Captain Robert Johnson has spent his life on the ocean, and he has had some very spooky happenings. He spent almost a whole day trolling with a bat hanging upside down from his outrigger brace. He’s had octopuses climb over the gunnel in the middle of the night, and he’s swatted at a rat trying to get on board his skiff. He missed the rat which immediately dove and never resurfaced. None of that would really scare me. I mean who’s afraid of an octopus? What would send me to the dock in a minute would be what happened to Robert while anchored up 22 miles off the beach. Here he came, swimming across the surface as only they can. Nothing, and I mean nothing, would scare me as much swimming toward my boat as a fully grown eastern diamondback rattlesnake. Biting flies have terrorized all of us more than once, up to 20 miles offshore, but Captain Robert was battling them one day 22 miles off, when over 100 chimney swifts descended on the area, and gobbled them up, down to the last fly.
Florida Sportsman Big Bend Podcaster Captain William Toney is a fourth generation Homosassa fishing guide. He has a treasure trove of great stories, but his favorite involved his grandfather and great grandfather. They were out fishing one night when they ended up deciding to spend the night on a place called Ghost Island. Now Ghost Island already had a spooky reputation, but old timers like those two weren’t about to be scared of any ghost. They had just settled down in the total darkness when they heard the unmistakable sound of a commercial mullet fisherman setting his net. A little investigation revealed their nephew, young Ken Toney dropping the end of his net at the edge of the island. Oh! This was going to be too good. They hid in silence while Ken returned to where he had started his set, and then grabbed the end of the net. When Ken first started pulling his net, their tugs on the other end must have made him think he had a net full of mullet. The closer he came, the harder the old men pulled back against him until Ken must have suddenly believed the stories of Ghost Island were true. Overboard went the net, catch and all, and to this day I don’t know if William’s Uncle Ken has gone anywhere near Ghost Island.
I guess I’ve got a somewhat similar collection of weird stories, but there are two that I know I’ll never forget.
The first one happened at night (everything is scarier offshore at night) while on a commercial trip. There was a gentle rain falling that was welcome to combat the oppressive heat. I was snoozing with my head covered from the rain by the boat’s hardtop, while most of me was getting misted, and I was as comfortable as I’ve ever been, sleeping offshore. Suddenly I felt a thump on my chest, which I was sure was the captain waking me up, so we could move to another spot. When my eyes finally opened there was no one around, so I immediately decided I had dreamed about “the thump.” I stood up, shook the water off my sleeping bag and immediately laid back down.
Suddenly, I felt a thump on my chest, which I was sure was the captain waking me up, so we could move to another spot...
I had never, nor will I ever, jump as high as I did when my sleeping bag suddenly came alive with a thrashing animal inside. The whack of my head hitting the boat’s hard top awakened the captain. As I screamed, “Help there’s something in my sleeping bag!” I was sure it was either a rattlesnake, or a stowaway rat. No, nothing that exotic. A fullgrown flying fish was obviously stunned when he “thumped” into my chest on landing. Once I shook him down into my sleeping bag, I’m not sure who was more scared. Come to think of it, yes I am. It was me.
The next story will never leave me for a day. It literally changed my life, and everything I believe.
Captain Dent Magee of the Shu-Mac was a great mentor to me. He had a custom Mabry Edwards boat that I was so proud to be the mate on. We were having an excellent summer in the late ’60s when all navigation was all done by compass. The Jacksonville Offshore Sportfishing Club kept flags that stood at least 10 feet tall in the center of each reef area, to help us find our spots. That summer we were having great success fishing the “Pablo Ground” and “Middle Ground” areas. We had the spots around those two flags memorized, and we were riding herd on the kingfish every week. The Pablo Ground flag was 9 miles from the tip of the south jetty, and the Middle Ground flag was 4.5 miles past it on the same 116-degree course. The day was perfectly clear and the captain and I were both shocked when our running time told us we should be at Pablo Ground, but there was no flag. We felt even stranger when we arrived where Middle Ground should be, and there was again no flag to be seen. After debating what to do, we decided to hold our course and run another 5 miles to another flagged location on the same course. Not long after we had started running, the flag on “Main 14” reef was clearly visible. Thanking our lucky stars we put the baits out, started looking for the structure around the flag. We were late now, and I was hating every minute it was taking us to find the fish. Finally, we found the ledge we needed, and started filling our box, much to the relief of us, and our guests.
Sure enough, even though we were 2 hours late heading home, we had once again put together a fine catch, and I was grinning ear to ear when after running maybe 2 miles in the direction of home, Capt. Magee yelled “Rickles! Get up here!” A quick look off the bow shocked me. There was the Middle Ground Flag right where it should have been. A few more miles brought the Pablo Ground Flag into clear view. The captain and I looked at each other with the same “hair raised, little bit spooked” look in our eyes. We knew we couldn’t have been off course or we would have never found the Main 14. I couldn’t help but think there was absolutely no reason I would end up cleaning fish in the dark, a full 2 hours later than we should have been. I had promised my girlfriend I’d be at church on time that night, and that was now shot.
As we approached the inlet a strong outgoing tide thankfully had the waves stacked up enough to have everybody holding on to something, because the boat suddenly made a full-speed 65-degree turn, throwing gear everywhere.
Sure enough, there it was. The reason we hadn’t seen the flags. The reason we had to be 2 hours behind all the other boats coming home. It was the smallest piece of the bow of a 15-foot boat you can imagine. Two guys were struggling to hold a third guy, who was unconscious, on top of the wood, with his head out of the water. They had been running along the south jetty when their steering cable snapped, and the boat plowed into the rocks. The hard falling tide had them at least a mile offshore, and nobody was coming home behind us. Believe what you will, but the moment I wrapped my arms around that unconscious guy, and pulled him over the gunnel was a moment of clarity I haven’t experienced before or since. We were late, because we had to be. FS
Florida Sportsman Magazine October 2022
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