Planning of the trip….
Every trip the Foundation plans takes a lot of coordination. Sometimes this works seamlessly, sometimes not so much. For the veterans trip in December some of the dates got mixed up between Captain Mike Weinhoffer (who was originally going to do the trip) our vets, and myself. Needless to say Mike had double booked himself. He called me and said he would figure something out. In the meantime I was calling around as well. AJ Halley is a born and raised Keys kid, who has helped out with the Foundation on multiple trips. I called him to see if he had any suggestions for captains? AJ was booked, so he couldn’t do it. He reached out to a good friend Ryan Shapero to see if he could help out, and he said yes. Ten minutes later I got a call from Mike saying that he had a captain for us, a gentleman named Skip Ragsdale. Then AJ calls me back telling me that he moved his trip to another day so he could come too. We went from have no captains to having three!
At first I was a little worried. Fishing methods and spots are sometimes trade secrets, and after all they are captains…meaning they are running the show…and we had three.
I met the vets at Joe and Diane Messer’s second home in the keys. They have donated their home 4 times for foundation trips, and Joe even took our second group of veterans out. The vets arrived at the house with generous gifts from Costa, Shimano, and Spanish Fly. My husband David and I brought over some fishing gear so they could fish off the dock. David knows how eager the vets are to start fishing and this is a fun way to begin.
We had dinner at the Wharf, and I could already tell who the crazy guy was in the group. Oh Jason…loud, energetic, hilarious…when he would tell a story it would end with “That s–t was reckless bro!” Jason spent 4 years in the infantry with 2 tours in Iraq. Hipilito or “beard man” was very calm and collected. He refers to himself as a “combat hippie”. That was a new expression for me, but if it works for him, good! He was military for 4 years with 2 deployments to Iraq. Andrew…very quiet at first…AT FIRST. He was a radio operator, vehicle driver, gunner and an embassy guard. He was in the military for 5 years 3 months, and 1 day some of that time in Iraq. I have often been struck by how most of the vets I have met can tell you exactly how long they were in. To me that fact speaks volumes. Jeremy was the only one who had done a lot of fishing before. He spent 12 years in the Air Force as an intelligence analyst stationed all over the world. Jeremy had one deployment to Iraq.
Fishing with AJ, Ryan, and Skip. The captains talked to fellow guides, and they said fishing was really slow. All three guides have grown up in the Keys. They reached out to legendary keys captain Robert Trosset and asked for a little help. RT hooked us up with a spot, that him and my dad fished, but it is a spot that’s kept very hush hush. We went out west of the Marquesas’ and found the spot.
Hipilito got the skunk off the boat with his first AJ (amberjack, not AJ the guide…if you ever meet AJ ask him what it stands for. It might surprise you). Jason caught a cuda and captain Skip was showing him how to hold it. Skip told him to be careful because cudas are the only animal that can transmit a certain disease that could be contracted by touching their skin. The expression on Jason’s face was priceless until he realized Skip was kidding. Jason said “How would I explain that to my wife?” I have learned to expect anything on these trips, inappropriate comments included!
Andrew catches his first fish, a bonita, which a shark got a taste of, and shortly after Andrew starts to get seasick. Thank goodness for E-Searider marine bags. Sitting on them helped him for a long while. At this point, however, I told Andrew that one thing that works is to jump in the water. It helps your equilibrium come back. We drove away from the spot where we had seen the sharks. Andrew jumped in and Jason joined him. They held a throwable tied to a rope. We gave them a minute, and then started messing with them about the sharks. They stayed in long enough for Andrew to feel better, and for us to run out of shark jokes.
We returned back to the spot we were fishing. Jeremy catches a big jack and Andrew catches a kitty hawk grouper. The guides on the boat all grew up fishing locally and this fish is something that they have only seen a few times. Its always cool to see something I have never seen before. Several more fish are caught and Jeremy hooks up 2 monster muttons, and a black grouper in a row. Hipilito hooks a nice AJ, and it beat him up. He needed a break after that fight. Jeremy was catching the most of fish. Jason catches a skip jack. Andrew gets part of a mutton. I guess the shark and us would share that fish. Since we had no desire to keep catching partial fish, we headed back to Key West Harbor. While we were riding back we attracted unexpected company. I have only seen spotted dolphins a handful of times, and while we were riding back they came and rode the bow wave of the boat for a while. What a treat to watch. We slow cruised back to the yacht club, watched the sunset as we anticipated cooking our catch at the yacht club.
Next day the group wanted to go spearfishing with AJ, and Captain Nick Cyr. AJ and Nick are great friends, and grew up together. Nicks’ family moved to South Carolina for a short time years ago. One morning they were watching the “Spanish Fly” on TV. His dad asked him and his brother Jared if they wanted to move back home? Nick told me that my dad’s show was the inspiration they needed to move back to Key West. He was honored to be driving the boat, and be to able to be part of the foundation. I love hearing how many lives my dad’s show touched. The Guys loved the idea of spearfishing. “You mean we get to shoot stuff, and eat it?!” AJ covered the basics, and let them know what they could spear, and how big they needed to be. Once they got the hang of it AJ came to the boat got the underwater camera and took some amazing shots. Nick and I stayed on the boat to watch out for the guys. They got some nice hogs, and some great pictures thanks to AJ. Finished up the day with some fun drive- by shots with AJ in the water. We returned to the harbor for another wonderful cook your catch at the Key West Harbour Yacht Club.
Flats fishing with Captain David Moloney, and Captain Shane Smith. Oh the banter!!!! There is never a dull moment with my husband…now you add Shane….prepare for some quality entertainment,…plus Jason…OMG this guy is hilarious! Andrew, Jeremy, Hipilito, and myself just watched. Fishing was slow, however Shane was hooking up far more than we were. Dave kept asking him what he was doing wrong? Shane insisted that everything was set up the same on his boat, he was just more good looking and attracted more fish. Hip, Jason, and Shane did hook up more, and it was driving Dave crazy. The sharks would come up to our bait look at it, and turn around and head to Shane’s. Legendary Captain RT (Robert Trosset Sr) had mentioned to me some time ago that in certain conditions sharks can sense the wire leaders better, so if the shark keeps turning on your bait, trim the leader and see what happens. Dave did this, casted to a shark, and boom we were on. Shane looks at Dave and said “Oh ya I was going to mention that. Sometimes you’ve got to learn on your own.” Biggest shark of the day. As we headed back to the marina we came upon a pod of dolphins. They weren’t bow riding so we slowed down and watched the sunset with them. My stomach was killing me from laughing so much! But dinner at the Square Grouper is what we needed to soak up this amazing pain. All of our groups are special, but there was something about these guys that we bonded like you wouldn’t believe. They tried to call me “mom”, but considering I am only in my 30s, and could not have age 20 something sons, they changed it to “sis.”
We still talk all the time (which I do with a bunch of our families and vets). I almost cried the day they left. They shared how honored they felt to be a part of the foundation, and how awesome my dad must have been. The personal connection, the sense of fun and adventure through fishing, all while being surrounded by the beauty of the ocean. Constantly I experience moments where my dad is still “guiding” me in the right directions. Yeah dad, I get it, this is what fishing is all about.