Off the Hook

Caught between depletion and regulation, Dade's commercial fishermen are becoming the latest endangered species

After half an hour, he's still looking for a good spot. "It's got to be just right. If it's not right, it's no good. You got to be sitting on the right spot on the wreck." He hustles from bow to stern, back and forth, pausing at the console to check the sonar, then he stops on the bow, feet planted shoulder-length apart. "Bullshit," he spits, throwing down his cigarette. Still not right. He hustles east. Then south. "Ah, hell, we'll try it here for a little while." He cuts the engine. The sun drifts in and out of the clouds.

"Now we're sitting pretty," he continues. "Now we're sitting pretty." He tosses a net bag of chum overboard. "Stand back!" He wraps his index fingers and middle fingers with medical tape to protect from line burns and cuts, then grabs a hand-line spool wound with 150-test monofilament. Before baiting the line, he chomps a Rice Krispy marshmallow treat and chugs from a gallon of water. "I drink two gallons a day," he explains. "It's good for you."

Ellak sits on the transom studying the water for some sign of fish. He holds the spool in his left hand, the line extending across his right palm and then through his thumb and forefinger. Marveling at his spot over the reef, on the outer edge of the current, he exclaims, "Ah! So beautiful! Now we have a chance."

The view to the horizon is dotted with several tankers and freighters; a few pleasure craft are also in the area, but no fishing boats in sight. The radio crackles again:

"I like that blondie."
"She's a big, uh, buxom blonde. They call her the grouper lady."
A little after 5:00 Ellak pulls out his first catch -- a barracuda, not a popular food fish. "But the Jamaicans like it, and I eat it up," he says. "It tastes good." Fifteen pounds at two dollars a pound on the dock.

Ten minutes later he yanks up another gnarly barracuda. He swings the silver fish over his shoulder and slams it against the deck. "If it sells, I'll catch it," he sings. (One result of catch restrictions has been that less-exalted species, which might have been discarded several years ago, are now selling in lieu of more traditionally popular fish.) He baits and throws out a second hand line, securing it to an aluminum cleat on the gunwale.

In less than a minute, line two goes haywire. Pulling hard, raising each arm alternately over his head, Ellak lands a ten-pound mutton snapper. At four bucks a pound, he's pleased. "I'd like it better if it was twenty pounds -- we're all greedy! Ten more like that and I'll be happy. This is the highest-quality fish. Go to Publix and get a Costa Rican snapper that has been sitting on ice for who the hell knows how long for four dollars and ninety cents a pound -- there's no comparison."

After a few quiet minutes without a bite, Ellak grows introspective. "This is dangerous out here," he says. "I could die out here, you know. Fall off the bridge. Get hit by lightning. I almost got cut in half by the anchor rope one day. I've hit channel markers. I've knocked my fingers out of joint." He may not be superstitious, he adds, "but if you do bad deeds, you're going to have some bad luck. I try not to be a bad guy so Neptune is good to me."

Suddenly a line slants. A five-pound mutton snapper is calling. The mutton measures sixteen and one-quarter inches on a flat ruler. Barely legal. "Just makes it," he announces.

Ellak raises a four-pound lesser amberjack and slams it to the deck. Two dollars a pound. "Thank you, God!" he shouts. "See, he's taking care of me today. It doesn't take much to make some money. It all adds up, but it's hard work. Sometimes you come out here and there's nothing going on and you start talking to the birds: 'Get the hell out of here, this is my spot!'" He's thrilled about this location and will keep it a secret, he says. "I'm going to have a frenzy here tomorrow. Hell, yeah!" Line one slants again in the water. He pulls up the hook: a hit but no catch.

The sun melds into the haze above the Hallandale water tower. Leaning over the side of his boat, pulling and pulling a hand line, Ellak lifts a fifteen-pound mutton snapper. The grayish-orange fish shudders on the deck, its gills gasping until Ellak kicks it in the head. "Good night!" he howls.

Minutes later: yellowjack, five pounds. The flat fish with a thin yellow lateral stripe will go to a sushi restaurant for three dollars a pound.

A minute later -- boom! He lands a twenty-pound grouper. "Ching, ching, barra, bing, bing, bing!" he sings in imitation of a cash register. Four bucks a pound. The sluggish grouper, whispering its last breaths, goes gently into the ice cooler without a head slam.

Shirt sweaty and pants bloodied, Ellak grabs another Rice Krispy treat and gulps from the water jug. Between swallows he talks about a fisherman's skill, how some really experienced fishermen can smell the iodine that dolphin and sailfish emit in the water. He breaks out a rod and reel to fish for blue runners, speedos, and scad mackerels, skinny fish less than a foot long used for bait or for a cheap meal that he sells at two to three dollars each. Rapidly he dangles the line a foot deep and yanks. On the deck, the fish squirm, tails slapping the deck like a drum roll. "I love that sound," he says with a smile.

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