A few weeks ago, while meeting with our Representatives in Tallahassee, I noticed a photo of a group of fishermen next to a large shark hanging in the hallway on the way to the Senate offices. I stopped in the crowded hallway, looked closely at the picture and then down at the legislative agenda I was carrying. The picture had reminded me of something I learned years ago when my friends and I would go “fishing” from the top of the New Pass and San Carlos Pass bridges.
I said “fishing” and not fishing because we didn’t actually expect to catch anything. Late in the summer night at the top of the bridge the tropical breeze was wonderful. There were no cars, no bugs, no noise and the moonlit view was spectacular. The tackle we fished with was only meant for extremely large fish, so the quiet of the evening was rarely interrupted. Yes, everything was great… until the night that we actually caught something.
That evening, my friend Billy and I were sitting on our coolers at the top of the San Carlos Bridge, our fishing rods leaning up against the railing, when to our surprise my reel start clicking rapidly. The line was spooling off fast, so I picked it up, checked the drag and set the hook. Luckily I was braced against the concrete railing because whatever it was on the other end of the line was big and fast and it slammed me right up against the rail. “WHOA… WE GOT ONE!” yelled an amazed Billy. Then, in the distant moonlight we saw something jump from the water. It was a large shark and for the next 10 minutes, as Billy shouted encouragement, I attempted to stop its run for the ocean. When I finally did start making progress and retrieving line, Billy suddenly got quiet and looked over the railing to the water, far below us. “Hey Nelson! How are you supposed to get him up here?” I glanced over at him. “How am I? What happened to we?” I looked around. Nothing but a lot of bridge both ways, with light poles and other obstacles mounted on the railing every thirty feet or so. I shook my head. We were prepared for “fishing”… just not for catching.
So we began to walk to the west, periodically handing the rod and reel to each other around the light poles and other obstacles while the powerful shark tried to pull us into the water. Once on the Fort Myers Beach side, we planned to drag our catch onto the shore and cut the leader near its mouth, letting it go. Our chaotic journey down the bridge took thirty minutes. The “R rated” version is much better, but here’s just a sample of what it sounded like. “Get over on that side… NO! THAT SIDE!” “OK, OK…GEEZ!” “Now put your foot there.” “WHAT?? Oh, I don’t think so!” “OH FOR… Look… Reach around the sign. Now take it… TAKE IT!” “OK, OK, I’ve got it, I’ve got it! Let go. Let go! LET GO!!” “ARRGGH…I CAN’T! YOU’VE GOT MY FINGER!”
By the time the shark was near the beach, we were worn out and by the time we got the fish onshore it was dead. Billy and I stood there looking at the seven foot, 200 lb. black tip shark. “It’s dead? What are we going to do with it?” Billy asked quietly, obviously feeling as guilty as I was. I looked around at the beach. “Well, we can’t leave it here and it wouldn’t be right to just shove it into the water.” Then I saw my truck. “I know where to take it!”
Five hours later it was daylight and I was in front of the Everglades Wonder Garden with a stinking dead shark in the back of my truck. I knocked on the side gate and Lester Piper came out wearing a butcher’s apron covered in blood. “Yeah?” he growled. I showed him the shark and asked him if he was interested. “Naaah… I ain’t interested in buyin’ stuff like this. It ain’t worth it to…” “No, No!” I interrupted. “I wanna give it to you.” He immediately became a happier person. “OH! Sure, bring it on in here Ben Jr.!” On the way home, I decided that despite the adventure, my bridge fishing shark-catching days were over.
Apparently some lessons remain long hidden until needed, because before my next meeting in Tallahassee, I went over our project notes a few more times. I wanted to be sure that we were prepared for catching… not just fishing.