( Originally Published Early 1900's )
"But why, good fisherman, Am I thought meet for you, that never yet Had angling rod cast towards me ?
—Moll Cutpurse (1611).
LONG JOhN, Bob Rand, Paublo, and Chief, the Seminole, all clever with the grains at long range, and with the cast-line, were the authorities at Garden Key, on the Florida reef, and as I unfolded a rod one evening in their rangy quarters, and announced that I was going to fish ,with it, they looked at me in such undisguised amazement that I assumed that a piece of machinery" of the kind had never before been seen on the key of the gulf. In the summer months particularly, the various channels of the reef. were the favorite haunts of the jack (Caranx hippos), one of the gamiest fishes that swims the Southern seas.
The keys dotted the blue gulf like emeralds ; masses of green bay cedar encircled with white coral beaches, apparently floating on the waters, possessing a charm peculiarly their own. The air was as soft as velvet to the cheek, the days clear and beautiful, and the atmosphere had a strange resonance as though the blue vault of the heavens was a sounding-board which made every sound bell-like and distinct. The distant roar of the surf on the outer reef, the grinding of the dead coral rocks as they were tossed hither and yon by the waves, the faraway ha-ha " of the laughing gull, the crash of the big ray as its winglike fins struck the water, all were heard with extraordinary distinctness by the angler drifting in lagoon or channel. This explains why the jacks invariably summoned me to the sport, which for excitement and novelty it would be difficult to exceed.
In my initial experience I was a fourth of a mile away when a sound like the pattering of rain came softly down the wind. Louder it grew, changing into a ringing, rushing noise, then into a roar.
" Don' yo' hear it, sah ? " whispered Chief, resting on his oars, allowing the dinghy to drift.
I turned in the direction of the sound and became witness to my first " jack beat." The lagoon was a sheet of glass, a dead calm having taken possession of the gulf, as far as the eye could see. Here and there the knifelike fin of some vagrant shark cut the water, or a billfish went ricochetting along, the only disturbing elements; yet near the shore-line of a long attenuated key of white sand, the waters were beaten into foam, amid which scores of bodies were leaping. It was the jack, or cavally, the horse crevalle, as it is known from Cuba to the Carolinas and beyond, and the roar was made by a large school fiercely charging the ranks of a school of sardines, to capture which they sprang into the air, surged along the surface, all the while beating the water with their tails, creating a loud and peculiar sound called by my boatmen " beating "—a term which well applied. With lusty strokes, Chief now sent the dinghy flying ahead, and in a few moments forced her into the midst of the wildest and most remarkable commotion I had ever witnessed. The fishes had moved inshore, and for two or three acres changed the water into a foaming sea. They were in the air by hundreds, their silvery sides glistening in the sunlight, their fins flashing golden yellow — a most exhilarating spectacle. I had reeled in my line, but as I lifted it from the water a jack seized the bait, and broke it. As the bow of the dinghy ran up on to the sandy beach I saw scores of fishes, ranging from ten to twenty-five pounds, leap from the water out upon the shore. I sprang overboard knee-deep into the throng, and found that the sardines formed an almost solid mass two feet or more wide directly along-shore, with stragglers forming a dark streak for five feet out. Into this helpless cordon the jacks were plunging, maddened with excitement, long ago satiated, and now killing in wanton sport, for the mere lust of killing, filling the water with silvery bodies and their parts until a line of blood marked the melee.
The jacks paid no attention to us, and my Seminole boatman, himself seized with the desire to catch the fishes, carried away with the excitement of the scene, plunged his hands into the teeming mass and grasping the jacks by the tail tossed them upon the beach, where scores were leaping and beating their way down the sands into the water again. I was repeatedly nearly overthrown by being struck by them, and finally made my way to the beach to watch is remarkable scene of carnage, to revel in which, gulls, pelicans, and man-of-war birds were now gathering from all over the reef. For ten or fifteen minutes the extraordinary spectacle was continued, until the low beach was lined with jacks, dead and dying ; then the school drew off as suddenly as it had appeared, leaving the long, sinuous red stain to tell the story.
This, I learned, was the method of feeding most in vogue among jacks in this region. The school, composed of thousands, would sweep in from the gulf, follow up the narrow blue channels, the veins of the reef, and when a school of sardines was sighted, drive it bodily inshore, losing all sense of danger or fear in the wild excitement of the "beating." The remarkable leaps of the jacks, their quickness, evident strength, and agility, suggested a new field for the rod, nor was I disappointed. The school had left the lagoon, turned the point of the key, and was evidently now in the channel, where I found it the following day, and enjoyed sport that comes rarely in the experience of the angler, which even here could not always be counted upon, as the schools were constantly moving. Chief notified me that the jacks were in the channel, which ran so near the key that one could almost dive into the blue water. From the sandy beach I cast, having baited with a three-inch sardine, dropping the line, a number twelve, with its slender copper-wire leader, seventy or eighty feet from shore, then reeling quickly in. Hardly had the reel gained ten feet of the line when a jack shot along the surface taking it deftly, then rushed away throwing the water bravely, seemingly in search of others of the school ; then it felt the line, and a reserve fifty feet went spinning off so rapidly that I was nearly forced into the water in my efforts to save something. I had not ten feet of line left on the reel when I stopped the rush of the valiant fish. No sulker he, but a constant fair fighter, a rush directly away, asking no favors, giving none ; now up partly into the air with vigorous shake, now surging along the surface, to turn with a lateral rush, a very volley of tricks and stratagems hurled at the angler with a rapidity that could not fail to confuse the most phlegmatic veteran of the rod. The angler's poet, the late Isaac McLellan, writes: ___
"Swift speed crevalle over that watery plain, Swift over Indian River's broad expanse. Swift where the ripples boil with finny hosts, Bright glittering they glance ; And when the angler's spoon is over them cast, How fierce, how vigorous the fight for life ! Now in the deeps they plunge, now leap in air Till ends the unequal strife."
My light rod bent almost double and was tested in every fibre, as the long deep surges came thrilling up the line. Now my game had me fairly in the water, then I gained and backed, up the sands, reeling when I could, giving, taking, drinking in the music of the reel, and anon catching a glimpse of the stolid countenance of the Indian boatman, who followed my every movement with amazement at the mysterious power of what seemed to him a whip, to control so powerful a fish. Gradually I worked the game up the beach into shallow water, that my sport might not be interrupted by the sharks, and for perhaps fifteen minutes played and was played and nearly outgeneralled by the fish ; then waist-deep in the water, where it had forced me to, save the delicate line, I finally reeled it within reach.
Every day in June, July, and August the roar of a jack beat could be heard, sometimes a dozen times' from the reef, and so exciting was the incident that generally some one would pull off and join the gulls, pelicans, and other curious ones. - At this time the fish would bite at any-thing. A handkerchief dashed through the water, a piece of coral thrown in, — indeed, any object would be seized ; and I have seen several fisher-men cast their lines into the throng, and become so excited that an inextricable tangle was the result.
The jack, like many other fishes, changes its name with the locality. On the reef where I caught it winter and summer, around Long, Sand, Bush, Garden, Loggerhead, and other keys, it was the jack pure and simple. On the Cuban coast it is toro. At Porto Rico it is jack, and jiguagua, but up the coast at Indian River it becomes cavally, while the South Carolinians call it horse crevalle. It ranges the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and vicinity, on the Pacific side of the isthmus, and is common in the region of Panama ; but for some reason the fish does not range north on this coast, despite the warm water. In the Atlantic, specimens have been seen as far north as Cape Cod, but this is exceptional. The northern range of. the fish, so far as the American angler is concerned, may be considered St. Augustine. I have fished for it unsuccessfully at Fernandina and from there alongshore as far south as New Smyrna, where it is caught. On the outer reef the jacks appeared in numbers and began the " beating" about the middle of April, sometimes a month earlier, the schools frequently being of large size. They apparently broke up into small bands and were caught until November in goodly numbers, the first norther ending what may be called the season, though some jacks were to be had every month in the year. They ranged in weight from ten to thirty pounds, but I am positive that I have seen jacks in a school off East Key which must have weighed much more. The smaller fishes, say of fifteen pounds, predominated. They spawned on the reef in June or July, nearly all fishes taken in May and April containing spawn, and a few weeks later young were found on the surface, every jellyfish being preempted by the young of some species
The best-known and the most available fishing-ground for the jack, or cavally, is from Cape Florida north on the West Florida coast, at Aransas Pass and other points on the Texan coast, and in the Indian River region. At the latter locality they afford excellent sport and can almost always be found from May to November, and few anglers in Florida but have tried conclusions with this fish. The jack is a convivial fellow, bold, daring, sociable, with a penchant for displaying its attractions around wharves and docks, darting along near the surface, a vision of silver, gold, and green, its " Roman nose," large head, and prominent eyes making it a conspicuous object, while the variety in size renders it game for the smallest rods. I have taken small jacks with a trout-rod with good results, and one can grade them up with rods adapted to their size, which is an essential in all fair fishing. In taking the large jacks I used a jointed greenheart rod eight and a half feet long, not over twelve ounces in weight ; the reel held about three hundred feet of line corresponding to what is known as number twelve cuttyhunk ; and for jacks weighing from ten to fifteen pounds, even a number nine line, providing three hundred feet was at hand, was sufficiently strong to enable me to land the game.
The jack is not an epicure; any lure is game for it. I have caught a fish trolling with a white rag, with crayfish, conch, cut to resemble a sardine, or mullet, and with a hand-line after a sail boat it affords all the sport of the bluefish when taken in the same manner ; but for true sport the rod should be employed, casting or trolling with sardine or young mullet bait impaled on a 3/0 O'Shaughnessy hook.
The jack, Caranx hippos, is a member of the family Carangidae, a near relative of the mackerels and pompanoes ; on the Atlantic coast alone there are twenty-five or more species, many of which afford prime sport with the rod. The only criticism one can make concerning it is that it is not a table fish of the first rank, though in the hands of an expert chef the dark meat is excellent. The hard-tailed jack, or jurel, Caranx pisquetus, though not attaining the size of the former, is of very similar habit and very gamy, its swift movements making its capture rare sport with a light rod. Once while turning green turtles on Loggerhead Key, a school of these fishes began to beat alongshore. I waded among them and threw out upon the sands as many as my men required by catching them by the tail, as they dashed into the almost solid mass of sardines.
When seized they wriggled, or quivered, so convulsively that they imparted a series of seeming electric shocks felt as high as my elbows, and curiously enough some of the boatmen believed that this jack was an electric fish. I have noticed the same effect when holding a bonito firmly by the tail, and a dying tuna will sometimes impart a tremulous quivering motion to a small boat.
The jacks add greatly to the pleasure of anglers along the coast of Florida, especially in the Indian River country, down by Biscayne Bay and up the west coast, where they are easily caught, and at Aransas Pass, Texas, though I failed to take them at this interesting fishing ground. It is one of the highly esteemed game fishes; and at other localities in the Gulf states, its valiant habit commends itself to the man with the rod.