Hooked on Death

When clueless tourist meets shameless skipper, it's a good bet there'll be blood on the docks

 But, thank God, they are not as intelligent as we who kill them; although they are more noble and more able.

-- Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

When Dan Miller and Grant Robertson come ashore at Haulover Park Marina, they are pumped with excitement. Less than an hour earlier the two Texas businessmen had been over the deep blue waters of the Gulf Stream, each locked in the battle of a lifetime with a magnificent, leaping sailfish.

Steve Satterwhite
Steve Satterwhite

As they wrestled their fish to the boat, the captain and mate called out encouragement. "That's a great fish," Robertson recalls someone saying of his catch. "You gotta mount that one."

Now the two visitors to Miami are replaying the battle at sea for other tourists in their party when a mate on the sportfishing boat Top Dog hoists the two six-foot sailfish over the transom and slides them onto the dock. The fish have been gutted, and punctures from the gaff show near the heads. The sailfish's colors, so vibrant when alive, have faded to gray. Miller stoops down and, with the mate standing by to take a snapshot, fans open the large, sail-like dorsal fin that gives the fish its name. "That's going up on my wall at home," Miller says of his trophy catch.

A few yards away, at the stern of the charter boat Therapy IV, onlookers encircle the body of a 250-pound hammerhead shark. Blood leaks from the hole in its skull left by the bang-stick shotgun blast, but the glistening fish suddenly heaves and a small boy who had been edging close jumps back in alarm. After a few minutes the shark is still, and the crowd moves down to where Robertson and Miller are lingering over their sailfish while preparing to leave for their hotel.

The people stare at the fish. They walk around the bodies on the dock. Then the curious get curiouser. First a father directs his daughter to crouch down by the dead sailfish, and he takes her picture. Then others with cameras -- tourists, families who have spent the Sunday flying kites in the park, locals who have come to buy fresh fish -- pose their friends and family with the torpedo-like billfish, the official saltwater fish of Florida and an iconic symbol of Miami for 50 years.

Flat on the dock, the fish are no longer magnificent. Their eyes are dull, their sleek bodies collapsing. But still the onlookers seem thrilled to be near them.

For 34-year-old Robertson the thrill of his victory lasted about a week, until he was back home in Houston and showed a picture of his catch to a friend. "He was outraged," says Robertson. "He asked me, Why did you kill that fish?' I was blown away. And I didn't know. It just all happened so fast."

Once there were many fish in the sea. And there was no better place in the world to catch the biggest and most coveted of the saltwater game fish than in Miami. Just a few miles offshore, in the rich, swift current of the northbound Gulf Stream, lurked enormous, thrashing trophies, central to the dreams of vacationing anglers and vital to the thriving tourist economy that promoted deep-sea adventure as well as fun and sun on the sand. The image of a rainbow-hued sailfish, leaping for the heavens in an effort to shake a hook from its mouth, held out to visitors the thrilling promise of a South Florida vacation. In the Saturday Evening Post of the Forties and Fifties, Miami author Philip Wylie published dozens of Crunch & Des stories about a charter-boat captain and his mate, which helped to popularize saltwater game fishing as a romantic and ennobling sport. With the 1952 publication of The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway used the epic struggle between Santiago and the giant marlin to define his version of man's heroic duty to live with nobility and pride even in the face of adversity. And although the old Cuban comes to regret hooking his fish, he does what he has to do. "A man can be destroyed but not defeated," Santiago says.

In the Sixties and Seventies, Miami's charter-boat fleet brought in tens of thousands of billfish, a family of giant fishes known for their prolonged, spearlike upper jaw and prized by anglers for their ferocious fighting spirit when hooked on light tackle. These billfish -- sailfish, marlin, and spearfish -- along with tuna, swordfish, and sharks were brought in daily to the docks at Pier 5 -- since supplanted by Bayside Marketplace -- and to the now-gone Castaways Hotel at Collins Avenue and NE 163rd Street. And there the fish were hung for tens of thousands of visitors who stood beside them and grinned.

In recent years Miami's renown as a saltwater-fishing mecca has receded as other images have taken hold. Thanks to targeted promotional efforts, northerners daydreaming about tying into a deep-sea behemoth that might make it to the wall of the family room are more likely to think Florida Keys or the Palm Beaches these days. But Miami still is home port to a thriving deep-sea charter-boat industry, and there are still a lot of big fish as close as two miles offshore.

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help

Bob Dowling the same BD who was under investigation Colombia for Arms to FARC & his girlfriend a Colombian recently expelled from her own country

Miami Concert Tickets