The Florida Jewfish
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
" In gulfs enchanted where the siren sings, And coral reefs lie bare."
It requires more than ordinary temerity to include the huge Florida jewfish among the game fishes, as the average individual is the type of all that is indifferent, a lazy, heavy " beastie, a finny Falstaff, the colossus of the nooks and corners of the reef. Yet several jewfishes which I have met have made a game struggle, and all afforded sport. On the coasts of Texas and Florida the fish is occasionally taken with rod and reel in true sportsmanlike fashion.
My first experience with the jewfish was in the vicinity of Marquesas, on the edge of a deep blue channel which blazed its way through the reef like a rope of turquoise. We had seen several so-called tiger-sharks with dark bars athwart their tawny flanks, and Paublo, the dusky boatman, had aroused my curiosity in this tiger of the sea by various incidents more or less racy, dragged, I fear, from the deep, unfathomable recesses of his imagination. One story apparently was true. A tiger-shark had leaped after a swimmer climbing aboard a yacht and had carried him down. The shark was plainly seen moving about, eight or ten feet away, doubtless awaiting the rejectamenta of the culinary department. I baited with a live yellowtail, as dainty and alluring a three-pound fish as could be found on the reef, and almost before it had reached the bottom, the line stiffened out in a steady strain—in my experience the typical strike of the shark. I waited for the line to run out, but the shark evidently was peacefully swallowing the bait; then I saw it rising out of the depths dimly against the blue, and thinking that it was coming to the surface, struck with all my strength. No shark, nearly every kind of which I have caught, ever hurled back so sturdy a defiance. It was irresistible, and the line tore through the water with the peculiar hissing sound which carries a fascination with it. Fifty yards clear away the fish dashed, before it could be stopped, and all this time the tiger-shark was slowly rising, plainly not a party to the proceedings. I was in a light dinghy, my man castoff and at once we were rushing away, bow under, in a manner so sharklike that I was convinced that the tiger-shark had a mate and we had hooked it ; but this conclusion was dispelled by the sudden slacking of the line.
" Ole jewfish, sa', an' he done tuck to his hole ! " cried Paublo, as the little boat came to a standstill.
Paublo was a true prophet, and investigation showed that the fish, in all probability, had run beneath a deep ledge of branch coral, and any attempts to lift it would result in chafing off the line; so we decided to "kedge off " the game. The dinghy was rowed into the channel three hundred feet or so, and while Paublo rowed vigorously, I hauled, with the result that the fish was forced from beneath its shelter, and after taking it in two hundred feet, it made a gamy rush around the dinghy. Owing to the length of line I was able to hold the fish, while Paublo pulled for deep water, where we held it before it sounded. Despite a piece of canvas as an improvised brake, I could not stop the fish ; and only finally succeeded by lying flat back in the bottom and bearing on with the big line in the scull, hole ; I thought for a moment that the fish would take the dinghy under, so forcible were its downward lunges. For several minutes it plunged and sounded, then I passed the slack to Paublo, who, as I hauled, coiled the line, making everything shipshape for a big rush which might be expected. But the hand-line tactics were too much for the game, and I steadily gained, not without punishment, as the fish would ever and anon literally shake its head, giving such sturdy, dislocating blows that my arms ached again. Finally it neared the surface and Paublo leaned to wind-ward that I might glance over and see the game that was putting up so desperate a fight. As I looked down, not twenty feet in the clear water, I saw my first jewfish, apparently as large as the dinghy, a colossus in black, with here and there a flash of a lighter tawny tint as it rolled and essayed to plunge. It must have seen me, as. It made an upward rush, then around, whirling the dinghy as though on a pivot, so that she careened viciously. This was the last. I gave Paublo the word, and as he backed water rapidly, I soon had the big game at short quarters, and its mighty head triced up at the surface astern, while a short distance away the tiger-shark swam lazily about, its tall dorsal cutting the water. As the jewfish rolled from side to side, occasionally pounding the water with its powerful tail, it was a remarkable spectacle. Its length, as near as I could judge, was over six feet ; its color a brownish olive with lighter spots, lighter upon the belly. The head seemed enormous, the eyes small and perched high up, and far down near the nostrils ; the lower jaw projected slightly ; the gill-covers were large. Perhaps the most noticeable feature was the rounded tail, which is the antipodes of that of the huge Stereolepis of the Pacific coast, with which it is often confused by anglers who apply the name jewfish to both. The bulk of the fish was overpowering, and what it weighed was a matter of conjecture. Those who saw it, estimated its weight at between five and six hundred pounds, Paublo being ready to make affidavit that it was an eight-hundred-pounder ; but while there seemed to be no limit to its vastness, I think. it would be safe to place it at three hundred pounds. Later I saw a jewfish on the beach at Conchtown, Key West, which, it was said, weighed six hundred and forty-two pounds. The fish attains a weight of over one thousand pounds and fully meets the estimates placed upon it by boatmen, whose imaginations are limited by no slavish bonds.
Our struggle with the jewfish attracted the attention of the skipper of a smack, and as I was about to cast off the fish, he hailed and asked for it. We towed it alongside while he ran up in the wind, then a barbless hook was inserted in its jaw, the crew manned the halyard, and the jewfish was hauled aboard. The skipper, who hailed from Mystic, quickly took a few stitches in its mouth to prevent it from eating the rest of his catch, then the fish was lowered into the well and later carried to Havana, where jewfish steaks were highly esteemed.
Within thirty miles of this place I caught a number of jewfishes, several giving me exciting contests before subdued. One taken in shallow water fought in a lagoon for three-quarters of an hour before it was landed. The tackle employed for this fish was an ordinary halibut line with a doubled leader six feet long, and a very large hook; the bait was hooked through the fish just under the dorsal fin, near the tail, so that it was practically uninjured ; a small sinker was used to carry it down.
There are two genera called jewfish by the habitues of the reef : the black grouper, when of large size, and the " Warsaw, Promicrops itaiara.
Not a few anglers profess to believe the two fishes identical, the huge Warsaw being the adult black grouper; but the consensus of opinion is against this, and the two adult fishes side by side certainly could not be confused. The jewfish proper, Promicrops, is found from Brazil to Georgia, possibly rarely straying farther north, and in the Gulf of California. I was assured that the fish was common at the mouth of the St. Johns River, Florida, but in three months' fishing there and at Fernandina I saw none, though it is fair to say that sharks were so plentiful at the time that they seriously interfered in the quest. The fish is fairly common at Garden Key; also on the Gulf coast of Florida, —in fact, the entire Gulf coast, where it appears to haunt the bayous, preferring "holes " and localities affected by the grouper, in comparatively shallow water. At Aransas Pass, Texas, and vicinity, the fishes of the largest size are taken by sportsmen with rod and reel.
Some exciting fishing for jewfish may be had at the town of Tarpon, Aransas Pass, where the fish attains an enormous size, and at certain times is found in what are apparently schools. In November they come in, or "run," for several days, by the Point of Rocks, and are fished for from the beach or near it. In 1902 the anglers at Tarpon had some remarkable fishing. Six huge fishes were taken in a day, and sixteen in two days, one of which, caught by Mr. J. A. L. Waddell, with Robert Farley as boatman, weighed four hundred and fifty pounds, and was claimed by the angler as the record jewfish of the world with rod and reel. This does not conflict with the Pacific coast record of Dr. H. T. Kendall, as the two fishes are generically different. Mr. Wad-dell's fish was a jewfish (Promicrops), that of Dr. Kendall, a black sea-bass (Stereolepis). The Texas record fish made a most gamy fight and redeemed the tribe. It measured seven feet three inches in length, its girth being five feet nine inches — a veritable colossus. According to the old fishing formula given elsewhere the fish weighed five hundred and eighteen pounds, sixty-eight pounds more than the actual scale weight of the fish, two days later. The largest jewfish landed in these waters was taken by some seiners at Corpus Christi Pass, Texas, several years ago. It weighed one thousand and fifteen pounds, suggestive that there is a field for the lover of such big game in these haunts of the tarpon. When in comparatively shallow water the great fish can be counted on to make a gallant play.
The equipment for this strenuous sport is a rod not over seven feet in length and of sufficient stiffness to lift the heaviest fish. The noibwood tuna rod described is equal to the task by using a heavy tip. The line should be number twenty-four, the only difficulty being that the fish when taken in shallow water has a sorry habit of plunging into the equivalent of the " dark, unfathomed caves," where the best of lines often fails to dislodge it. Every sportsman fond of big game has a keen desire to kill an elephant. So, too, the big fish angler will be tempted to take a jewfish; and should it chance that they are all hard fighters, he may become enamoured of the sport. I rarely caught young jewfish and do not recall seeing one less than two hundred pounds in weight. They spawn in May, June, and July, and are found in the localities mentioned at all seasons of the year, but more frequently in spring and summer. It is believed that they retreat into deeper water in winter. It was not uncommon to take jewfishes from June to October on the edges of the lagoons or off the outer reef in water not over twenty feet in depth. They fed in the shallow lagoon at night; but in the so-called winter months we sought them in the outer channels, hence the belief grew that they were slightly migratory.
On the mainland coast of Florida the jewfish can be found at Captiva, Palma, Sola, Charlotte Harbor, the Biscayne Bay country ; and all along-shore, where there are sheltered nooks, where a channel runs in, and mangrove roots have rolled down the bank, forming a cheveaux de frise, are haunts to its fancy ; but among the outer keys the fish is found along the base of deep coral groves. Such a home I well recall on the southern end of the great Tortugas lagoon so frequently changed by hurricane and storm. I had been in quest of the queen conch, — a rarity even in this prolific hunting-ground,—and was slowly drifting over the lagoon, eying the bottom through a glass observation box, when I suddenly came to the edge of the reef, where the coral began. The water was from twenty-five to thirty feet deep, now paved with luxuriant, long-pronged branch coral that, under the influence of the abundant food-supply, had developed to an amazing extent. It appeared to be five or more feet in height, surrounded by masses of lavender-tinted gorgonias and plume-like forms in rich browns, while dotting the bottom were great heads of coral, their surfaces sprinkled with the brilliant breathing organs of worms of all colors.
Poised in this garden were dainty yellowtails, parrot-fishes of lovely colors, angel-fishes, sea-porcupines, and an endless train, — all courtiers of a huge jewfish which crouched or poised in a little bay, an enclosure of coral just large enough for it to enter and turn easily, the entrance being small and narrow. In this veritable bower, with aesthetic objects of the sea on every side, the jewfish rested, only darting out as my boatman plunged over and swam downward, to rob the sea-fans of the yellow "fan " shells which clung to their reticulated sides.
The angler who does not care to go to the outer reef beyond Key West or to Texas, will find the fish all alongshore on the Indian River, the towns of Titusville, Cocoa, Eau Gallie, Fort Pierce, and others being centres for professional fishermen, now easily reached, while the west coast abounds in resorts from Cedar Keys south. Indeed, the entire region from Cedar Keys on one side and St. Augustine on the east coast to Loggerhead is an angler's paradise, winter or summer, abounding in the greatest variety of fishes.