"Something's gonna die today," Captain Rob Hammer exclaims from the stern. I glance over to see a slightly disgusted look on Nikki's face. She'd come to the Dry Tortugas more to lounge in the sun than to slaughter fish, and Captain Rob seemed a little too focused on blood.
Captain Rob Hammer is a 36-year Miami native who earned his U.S. Coast Guard charterboat captain's license three years ago and now guides fishing charters in the waters around Florida's Dry Tortugas islands.
If I were to judge from Nikki's initial reaction to Captain Rob, I'd think this trip was going to be a disaster but, shortly after pulling away from Key West, Nikki and Rob are palling around. All around us flying fish and cero are darting across the bow of Rob's 400-horsepower 28-foot boat dubbed Katmandu.
"What kind of fish will we find out here?" I ask Rob.
"All kinds," he says as he flips through buttons on his GPS, "but first let's choose a nice spot to drop our lines."
"It's so beautiful around here," Nikki says with a smile.
I'm relieved to see she's finally in better spirits. Rob shoots us both a grin, obviously pleased with his station in life.
"When I say 'all-inclusive,'" he says, "the beautiful scenery is included--and I usually throw in some in nice weather too."
It takes a half-hour for the crystal blue-green waters that illuminate the immense coral reefs around this area to subside, and we enter deeper waters. The Katmandu slows to trawling speed, and we drop our lines.
As we sit sipping beers waiting for the first bite, I notice the storm clouds on the horizon have drifted closer but don't seem to threaten our glorious sunshine. A couple of white sailboats dotting the endless turquoise horizon appear to be taking advantage of the winds from the distant storm.
Cruising around on the back of the Katmandu, drink in hand, feeling totally relaxed, I can understand what Hemmingway must have felt during his time around these waters in the 1930s.
"Ahhhhhhhhh!" Nikki yelps out. The rod jolts to life in her hands. Dozens of torpedo-shaped fish explode from the water. "What do I do now?" She shouts to Ron.
"Hold 'im on the line, child, feel the fight," he says with a chuckle.
"I got 'im! I got 'im! He's all mine!" Nikki shouts, clenching her teeth.
She looks a little like Captain Ahab without the pipe. I start to scream something to her, but stop in mid-sentence when my pole bends to the side of the boat with a bite.
Hammer seems to be enjoying our painful delight. Just when I think I have the barracuda near enough to bring onto the boat, my rod loses its bounce.
"Don't worry, Joe, he'll be back. That's why we use circle hooks," Ron tries to console me. "Even though you pulled the bait out of the 'cuda's mouth, it doesn't hurt him, so he may try for it again."
Nikki still had a good fight going, but I could tell that her arms and back were getting tired. With a little help from Ron, she managed to pull in a barracuda almost as long as she is tall. Scaly muscles glisten in the sun as the monstrous fish thrashes on the boat's floor.
"Stay away from its head," Ron warns us. "Those teeth can still rip your hand off."
Nikki's elated look gives way to exhaustion and then to concern for the creature she just captured.
"Can we put it back?" she asks.