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The Kingfish

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

" By the way, old Cotton's instructions, by which I hoped to qualify myself for the gentle society of anglers, are not worth a farthing for this meridian." Redgauntlet.

The deadly monotony of a "dead calm in the tropics can be appreciated only by those who have sailed the seas south of the tropic of Cancer where the sun's humor is fierce and uncompromising, and the wind god passes his summer days in a long siesta. Our trim craft, that could show her heels to any vessel on the reef, had literally been caught napping. The wind had gradually dropped until we floated on a sea of glass, the only motion on its surface being the long swell, the remnant of some recent gale, which served to swing the booms from side to side, their jaws uttering weird moans, shrieks, and wailings, as they gripped the dry masts, which did not add to the pleasantness of the situation. The heat was pitiless, and the water pouring over the decks out through the scuppers did not even harden the tar which oozed up from every seam.

For twenty-four hours we drifted, the clear rich blue of the Gulf Stream offering every invitation ; but the dusky shapes of a number of " man-eaters " barred even this solace. It was while thus adrift, thirty miles east of East Key, that Paublo bethought him of a wind-raiser, and forth-with taking a belaying-pin, hammered vigorously on the foremast. I learned later that this was generally infallible ; this day it failed, failed to raise the wind, but as the captain of the galley and clever boatman replaced the pin, the smooth water of the Gulf broke into foam not two hundred yards away ; he had " conjured " up the king-fish. The dinghy was drifting astern, and it took but a moment to grasp rod and tumble in. Under Paublo's strong strokes we were presently in the heart of the school from which I took my first kingfish. The rod was so well fitted for the work that I can but commend it. It was of green heart, eight feet in length, of two joints, and weighed about twenty ounces. The line was a fine linen, number twelve cuttyhunk a mere thread to be broken at the slightest mistake ; the hook, a 6/o Limerick, with a long copper wire leader of home make. The bait was a sliver" of the belly of a salt kingfish, about four inches long; and as I over reeled and paid out, this ancient dainty was seized not fifteen feet from the boat, and about one hundred feet of line taken with a single rush. How the steel click told the story in metallic shrieks ! finally settling down into a spasmodic zip-zip-zip ./ as the fish was checked by the brake. Like the bonito it played upon the surface not five feet under ; now on the top, making side rushes ; now circling the boat, bearing off until the rod bent to the danger point and the delicate line hummed a music of its own ; and anon going into the air in splendid leaps. For five or six minutes, due perhaps to the exigencies of the situation, the lightness of the tackle, the kingfish played me, jerked my arms down, to release them as suddenly, shook its powerful tail at me in derision, plunging through a fleet of Portuguese men-of-war or cutting through the chalice-like form of some dainty jellyfish deeper down, but almost always on the surface, and moving so rapidly that the boatman was ever on the alert to keep the light boat stern to the game. The water was alive with fish of the largest size feeding on a vagrant school of small fry, and there was constant fear that the taut line would be cut by the dorsal fin of some fish.

Two hundred feet of line was forced, coaxed, torn from the reel, before I really stopped this roistering plunger, and then it was give and take, a long battle in which the banner changed sides more than once ; the fish making a splendid display of its game and fighting qualities, which, to me at least, are utterly lost when the fish is taken with a hand-line after a fast-sailing boat, the typical method, due, perhaps to the fact that the king-fish is found in the open sea or where the water is more likely to be rough. Slowly it came in, leaving silvery flashes against the deep blue of the Gulf, fighting every inch until the gaff struck it and Paublo lifted it, quivering, upward, his eyes standing out in amazement at the size of the fish and the mysterious power of the rod and thread-like line.

" Why, mawster," he said, " while you workin' datcher wheel I could wif a cast-line [hand] ketch fo' or five kingfish."

It was our first day's fishing, and I suspect that Paublo thought that I did not have all that belonged to my upper works," as the Conchs expressed it ; but I lived to see him a derisive mocker of his compatriots, who " jerked in" game fish with a rope like line, or did not give the game a more than fighting chance for its life.

The fish which Paublo held up in the sunlight for my inspection was one of the two or three fishes which the wreckers and fishermen along the outer reef called " king." It was between five and six feet long ; as it was held up its tail rested on the boat and its head was even with Paublo's eyes, a splendid creature which we "guessed " at forty pounds, a long, slender barracuda-like fish of the mackerel type, a privateer, rakish, gamy in appearance, fitted for swift rushes and strenuous work among the small fry. The dorsals were two in number, the first low and extending from the base of the pectoral to nearly opposite the front fin of the anal, the upper portion colored almost black. The second dorsal was higher, with a jaunty effect; then followed eight finlets resembling those of the tuna ; the tail was large, forked, and powerful. The sides of the fish gleamed like burnished silver ; its back was dark blue, while across its sides pronounced black longitudinal stripes extended, represented above and below by dark spots, giving the fish a peculiarly attractive appearance. The eye was large, bright, and beautiful. Such was the kingfish, or spotted cero, Scomberomorus regalis, which later it was my good luck to catch all along the reef from Key West westward.

The fish attains a much larger size than generally supposed, and I am confident that I hooked specimens on the borders of the reef to the east of Garden Key which would have tipped the scales at over seventy pounds ; yet it is well to bear in mind that it is the largest fish that invariably escapes. At all sizes this fish is a gamy catch, the small specimens making excellent play, while the large ones are game, always hard fighters. The fish is fairly common on the extreme outer Florida reef, increasing in numbers as one goes to the south toward Cuba.

The second kingfish, and the best known in our own waters, especially in the region between Key West and Biscayne Bay, is the cero, Scomberomorus cavalla. It has a striking resemblance to the former, but can be recognized by the angler at once by the absence of the spots or bands, its gray color, and by the lateral line which takes a sudden dip just below the second dorsal fin. This species is the fish of the people, the common catch offshore, ranging from Brazil to Massachusetts, but most plentiful in the region from Key West to Cape Florida. I have seen the water ploughed into foam by it in the open Gulf, and it is as gamy as its cousin. I never heard the name cero used by any men on the outer reef in connection with either of these fishes ; all called them " kingfish." To the professional fisherman it is exceedingly valuable, and is caught in great numbers in the vicinity of Key West. In all the Gulf states about 400,000 pounds are taken annually, valued at $6000. I often took it down the reef, off Sand, East, and Bird keys, where it came in near the great fringing reef that was sub-merged at high tide. The water here was perhaps fifteen or twenty feet deep, with a bottom of coral heads, plumes, and sponges, washed by the grand swell, and being on the edge of the Gulf Stream or in its very midst, seemed to offer the exhilarating conditions demanded by this active creature, which by trolling could almost always be taken here. The adults ran from fifteen to thirty or forty pounds, and there were legends of colossi which weighed up to one hundred pounds, but I never saw them. The young, from six to twelve pounds, were very gamy with light rods, calling to mind bonito, which in my experience is a surface fighter. I baited usually with young mullet, but the king-fish stands not upon the order of bait, but takes what is offered with a rush. I have caught them with rags white, rags red, and rags yellow ; with a bone jig, with a piece of elongated conch, and a home-made spoon cut and filed from the tip of the big Strombus gigas, this by casting and reeling quickly. For a fish so extremely common very little is known regarding its habits. Specimens which I caught in the open water near Key West in December contained spawn, but I never saw a very small or young fish in the outer bays or reef. Smack fishermen state that they spawn in the shallow waters around Biscayne Bay. The professional fishermen of Key West have a hearty appreciation of the kingfish, which they follow in large and small boats, trolling for them in deep water, or on shallow grounds offshore, as the case may be, often literally filling the boat with the ceros which rank high as table fish.

A feast of the kingfish which I often attended is an experience long to be remembered. It would often be announced by the laughing gulls, whose loud and resonant " ha-ha " would come over the glasslike waters as the bird rapidly increased its speed. Others, recognizing the summons, joined it, and out from all portions of the reef came birds the lumbering pelican, and last the man-of-war bird. What had been at first a few splashes was now a mass of foam, which, surrounded by smooth water in the heart of a dead calm, presented a strange appearance. The ocean seemed to be boiling, the patch of several acres moving slowly along. Once in this magic area, countless fishes were seen dashing along the surface, chasing a school of small fry. Long ago mere hunger had been appeased, and the kingfishes were slaughtering their subjects for the mere pleasure of killing. The foam was tinged with red, and from it, sinking into the sea, would be seen a shower of silver, the severed bodies of the victims attracting sharks and other prey.

Resembling the kingfish in many respects is the Spanish mackerel, Scomberomorus maculatus, a game fish in every sense, coming from southern and unknown seas in spring in vast numbers in search of food menhaden and other small fry and to spawn. I have taken large specimens trolling to the east of Fortress Monroe near the capes, where large schools come in, and once ran through a school in the Florida Straits, which seemed to cover the ocean as far as the eye could reach. In the Gulf they were common, a few individuals being seen at all times in deep water around Garden Key in the Tortugas group. Here they frequently made splendid displays, beating the water much like the jack, only in deep water, never running in upon the beach. The sound of their feeding was like the roar of a heavy tide-rip, caused by the fishes dashing hither and yon into the air and back. At such a time I have run through a school with a sail-boat, the sport being comparable to bluefishing, a white rag being used. But the most satisfactory sport was to cast into the school from the outer edge. The fish played like the bonito, making no effort to sound, dashing around a fish of ten or fifteen pounds, towing a dinghy about as though on a pivot. If the Spanish mackerel could always be found, it would soon take its place as a fine game fish and be eagerly sought by the angler ; but its movements are erratic, and often, when located, it will not bite. Such, however, is the masterly play of the fish that the angler who takes it once will return invariably to the often elusive search.

I found the Spanish mackerel fishing excellent at Aransas Pass, and every morning in August during my visit a small fleet of boats would gather in the narrow pass and fish. Those who fished as a business had long bamboo poles which they kept moving up and down, landing a mackerel of small size every few- minutes. I used a light black-bass rod, and baiting with shrimp, caught by a boy with a cast-net, enjoyed the sport, taking fishes from three to seven pounds; but the man with the fifteen-foot bamboo, with a short line tied to it, beat me ten to one, and gazed at my light tackle as the armament of a tenderfoot. While fishing here several skipjacks and a three-pound " ten-pounder" jumped into my boat at intervals of ten minutes ; then an alligator gar rose alongside apparently anxious to emulate the small fry, while a speckled sting-ray hovered for a moment in the air like a bird, astern. These and schools of mullets, constantly leaping in silvery waves on all sides in the shallows, gave the impression that all the fishes in this peaceful region were jumpers ; and there was consolation in the thought that if the fish did not bite, they might at least jump aboard, which was much the same thing if dinner, as well as sport, was to be considered. I have seen the Spanish mackerel in many waters, but these Texas fishes, with their black and vivid yellow or golden spots, seemed more beautiful than any I had previously caught ; and when my professional companion came ashore with sixty to salt down, the homely boat fairly glowed with the golden glint reflected from the brilliant throng.

The Spanish mackerel has a wide range from Brazil to Gloucester and on the Pacific Coast of America, everywhere held in high esteem as the finest of table fishes. It is usually caught by trolling, and is essentially a surface fish. Its schedule of migration may be considered as follows : It arrives off the western Florida coast in March and reaches North Carolina about the same time. In May I have taken them off the rip-raps, at the entrance to the Chesapeake, and large quantities are taken on the Eastern shores. The movement is northward, and by July they appear in the waters about New York, moving slowly up the coast, everywhere in demand. Mr. Earll states in his exhaustive monograph on this fish that it spawns near Sandy Hook, in Chesapeake Bay, and in Pamlico Sound, beginning in April in the latter and ending in August in the former. The eggs of a six-pound fish he estimates equal 1,500,000. As soon as cool weather approaches in the fall the Spanish mackerel moves, and by October it has disappeared from the North, probably seeking warmer waters farther south.

In appearance the Spanish mackerel is very beautiful, especially when taken from the water. The upper portion is a deep, steely blue, the lower, silver, while over all is a sheen of delicate pinkish iridescence. On the sides are orange-colored spots. The dorsal fins are tinted black, white, and yellow, seemingly blended to increase its beauties. So far as its economic value is concerned, it ranks second to none, the fisheries being extremely valuable, amounting annually to about 2,000,000 pounds, valued at about $75,000. The largest number are taken in pound and gill-nets.

The bonito, Salvia chiliensis, is, in my estimation, one of the gamiest fishes taken with a light rod on the California coast. It is the humming-bird of the sea, no description or word-painting being adequate to describe its beauties. An eight-or ten-ounce split bamboo, with very light line baited with a two-inch sardine or smelt, or several anchovies, is the lure most telling at Santa Catalina. I anchored one day in a little bay not far from the isthmus and went ashore, giving instructions to the boatman to " chum " while we were at lunch. Half an hour later a signal came telling that the game had arrived. When I reached the launch the water appeared to be alive with forms dashing about with great velocity. When a handful of sardines was tossed over they charged them from the channel a few feet away, picking them up with great rapidity, then disappearing. Almost the moment a cast was made, almost before the bait was set in motion by the reel, the strike came, and a blaze of color dashed along the surface to the music of the click. Always on the surface, no sulking here, darting this way and that, in and out around the launch, this bonito, the skipjack of the sailors, was the peer of any trout in the world, and only after a struggle was it brought in ; and then one could but regret the capture of so beautiful a fish. It was robed in silver satin below, merging into vivid blue above, with dusky stripes, and over all, flashing and scintillating; an iridescence in pink, blue, and yellow, which made it one of the most charming of the finny dwellers of the Californian sea. The bonito is short and very plump, and when lifted by the gaff or net (the latter is to be preferred, as the fish bleeds badly) it quivers so violently as to impart a disagreeable sensation to one who attempts to hold it by the tail.

The season for bonitos, on the California coast, is from May until December, the midsummer months being the best. The largest fish I have seen weighed twenty pounds, and was so powerful that it repeatedly towed the heavy boat around and around, making a more desperate fight than some fishes I have taken, of twice the size. The average size of the bonito in these waters is twelve pounds. The range of this species is very wide, covering all the Pacific from San Francisco to Chili, beyond and west to the shores of Japan. It doubtless spawns in the open Santa Catalina channel and in the vicinity of the islands; but extremely young fishes have never been observed here by me, though I have dredged and watched the hauling of seines and nets, surface and other-wise. This region is a spawning-ground for many genera. The flying-fish spawns here in July, yet I have never been able to secure a young one, though I confess to have chased them, about the size of grasshoppers, for hours with a scoop-net. The little creatures, about an inch in length, could " fly " or soar about a foot, and attempted to take to the air as I struck at them with the net. They well illustrated the ease with which the young of common fishes can escape observation. The bonito is eaten on the California coast, but the flesh is coarse and very different from that of the delicious Spanish mackerel. It is well to remember, however, that there is only one cook in a thousand who understands how to cook a fish. In point of fact, every fish is a gastronomic study by itself ; some should be eaten immediately after the catch, and this is particularly true of the mackerel tribe, always excepting the salt mackerel of Marc Antony, which, we are assured by Plutarch, constitutes the theme for his true fish story, involving the caprice of Cleopatra. How many anglers have played this same joke on an unsuspecting friend ! And lest there be some son of Ananias who claims it as new, the story may be recalled. It seems that Antony and Cleopatra, according to veracious Plutarch, were fishing, probably in the Nile; and wishing to make the noble Antony a victim to her wit, she instructed a slave to slip over and dive down and fasten upon his hook a dried salt fish, supposed to be a mackerel. The slave obeyed, and when the act was accomplished, gave the line a vigorous jerk, holding on while Antony tugged and played, until the slave lost his breath, then landed the salted and ancient fish. At this point the victim, at least to-day, is the butt of gibes and laughter; but not so with Marc Antony. He held up his catch proudly that his mistress might look upon its charms, then said to an attendant : " Unhook it. True, it is not so large as I conceived by the play it made, but it is by far the oldest fish taken today."

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