Off the Hook

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

A lesser amberjack comes aboard. "Man, before the sun goes down out here is when it really turns on," he says. He's moving in all directions now, switching from hand line to rod, skipping across the deck, drawing tight knots with his teeth, cutting bait. He's manic: unhooking a speedo, baiting another line, biting off the tail of a blue runner before swinging the hand line and one-pound sinker, hammer-throw style, behind the boat. "It's a massacre!" he shouts.

The sun descends behind a wall of condos. The full moon has yet to appear.
"All right. We're done," he announces a little after 8:00. But a few minutes later he throws out another line. Waiting. He's musing now, winding down. He pictures what it's like to be a fish taking his bait. "It's like if you're in your back yard and a cheeseburger -- the best, juiciest cheeseburger you ever saw -- comes down from the sky. Then you eat it and when you're finished, you're pulled up to the sky." He lights another cigarette.

He draws in the last line. "Nothing's ever certain," he muses. "But as long as you're consistent, go out when you're supposed to, keep up your boat and don't be a bad boy, everything will be all right."

The Baby New Moon drones southward about 100 yards off the beach, then cuts the Haulover jetty terribly close, only a few body-lengths from the rocks. Cruising comfortably atop the fly bridge, relieved and glowing from the day's primal exercise, Ellak lets loose a few raunchy jokes. Like the one about the fisherman who married a woman because she had worms.

He arrives back at the marina just after nine o'clock and adds ice to the day's catch in the cooler. Tomorrow, instead of going out, he'll sell what he can on the dock; what's left over he'll drive to restaurants and a seafood market he does business with.

A good day, he says, but still -- the big money is in charter fishing, taking out tourists. It is the successful lobbying from that sport-fishing industry, Ellak asserts, that is really behind the commercial restrictions -- not the ballyhooed ecological concerns. "Let's face it," he says, "the state makes more money off tourism than commercial fishing. We fish for all the people who live inland, who don't have a boat. We feed people, but that's not important, I guess. The commercial fishermen in places like North Carolina and the Keys are revered. Here we're the lowlifes of the community and they want to trash us. It's just hard to make a living."

Cats scratch around the quiet marina. The lone person, a well-dressed retired man who enjoys the comings and goings of the marina, eagerly questions Ellak about his catch. The gent nods at the list of fish Ellak recites and says, "The only one who brings in good fish is you, Jack.

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