Ask Dr. Salvo
May 9, 1995
Since I learned of your recent safari to Bogart country -- I mean, Key Largo; my thoughts have been full of scientific questions stirred up by your debriefing when you reached home. For instance, if you can recognize a manatee by sight, can you still be sure it is not a dugong? What is a dugong and how many Seminole, or seminal, warriors will it transport? Ever since I heard of that bad cheeseburger sold to you by The Mickisukee Indians I've been very careful; I've even heard they eat fat little dogs, which I take personally.
And what about the roseate spoonbill? Is any purpose served by that Durante- like expansion at the end of his beak? Ditto for the curlew with his bill turned down at the end. Finally, is it true that your party caught a bonefish, and what were they like? Did sharks pursue you? Did you catch a tarpon by mistake?
As you can see, the possession of scientific curiosity is not a bed of roses. Please, may I have some answers?
Your faithful research associate,
Yes, yes, and yes to these and other questions! The first surprise was to make it from Fairhope to Key Largo in 13 hours, arriving on time for the Key West sunset ceremony. This pleasant ritual has spread all the way up the keys. The Hemingway influence seems to have faded, but yesterday I learned from a recent visitor to Venice, Italy that Papa's ghost is alive and thriving at Harry's Bar. (And I had foolishly believed that bar to be in Paris, Casa Blanca, or both.)
In the backyard of our host's cool shady apartment was a small, convenient marina. This pleasant collection of boats and pilings was being carefully but relaxedly vacuumed by a team of manatees. There were two cows each with a half grown calf, and one old bull with many scars on his back, and the face of Adolph Menjou. They must have collectively weighed about 5,000 lbs, and they moved about softly with never a colision among themselves or the pilings. The old bull liked his back to be scratched with a brush, and the cows and calves liked to be gently squirted with a hose. Very quiet, polite, and left promptly when they had eaten all the algae in sight. They had been told not to fraternize, as it causes the bipeds to lose their healthy fear of manatees.
Now you take your dugong, that's a different question entirely: They are made of huge cypress logs, will carry from four to twenty sexually mature Seminole warriors, and are called "dugong canoes." The razor teeth and powerful suction of the sexually mature dugong is enlisted to chew up and spit out the interior of the log. The workers are lured on by daily deposits of ochre and red algae, and will continue until forcibly restrained or until the log resembles the lid of a butter dish -- whichever comes first. Then the entire work crew shouts, "Dugong aweigh!" and then retire to the shade for red beans, skunk cabbage, and 'gator tail.
The only spoonbill we saw was in the Bird Haven or hospital shelter down a ways below us, say Isla Morada -- go ahead, say it, "Isla Morada." No explanation was given for his bizarre appendage -- I prefer to think it spoons up mud and screens out tiny creatures. It is said to be modeled after an original soup spoon designed by Paul Revere. I mean the silver-smith, not the newsboy.
The reasons for the melancholy dip at the end of the curlew's beak are known to very few. They are supposed to suggest a tropical melancholy, like the mood of Ichabod Crane trapped in New Orleans with a huge unpaid hotel bill. They do, too.
Well, everybody in our party caught a bonefish, including a ten year old equestrienne named Parker who turned out to be strong and dauntless. She immediately caught on to the bonefish principle: When he takes off with your bait, don't do some thing -- just stand there (Like a bonehead). He will casually strip off about 120 yards of backing, causing your reel to sing and hum melodiously and emit little clouds of acrid smoke. This is why we never (we boneheads) use castor oil to grease our reels. It is, however, an excellent lubricant for your Mazerotti.
When the bonefish has run as far as he pleases, or finds amusing, you carefully and slowly reel him in, remembering he is probably around 10 pounds and all muscle. He is also swift, and I noted that he was just quite enough faster than a barracuda. These shiny badfish were all over the flats, trying to eat up the fresh crab chum we threw out to attract bonefish, and not spook him. For the lordly bonefish is eminently spookable. He will run from a pinfish if it lands too loudly. After about 10 to 15 minutes of "turning" the bonefish, i.e., forcing him to swim in circles while drawing closer, he is tired and can be netted and released.
As our genial host, captain, and guide explained about fighting a fish, "It's dominate or be dominated right from the start. If you can't turn his head you'll have to follow him around all afternoon."
This turned out to be a good prediction the very next day when we hooked a six-foot, one hundred fifty pound tarpon (estimated). The rod and line were about 17 lbs, and we probably needed at least 30 lbs for this old lunker. Our Tom, bold fisherman, fought him standing up for two hours. Wise Reuben, our captain, said "it is getting dark and we have to get off the flats. I'll touch the leader if you can get him that close, and that will be an official catch by our rules." All voted "Ay" except for lively Parker, who well represented the feminist vote. She wanted to take over the rig and bring that tarpon in!
Just as Reuben said, that fish could neither be turned nor dominated. Instead, he took us over for a couple of hours and pulled our 18 foot skiff in and out of creeks, cuts, ditches and mangrove swamps we'd never seen before. (It looked that way, but actually the captain was following the fish to prevent him snapping the leader.)
It was a real feat of balance and strength to fight that fish standing up for two hours. I privately decided I would insist on a fighting chair and a heavy rig, on my next tarpon!
As you can sense, the tarpon is now a glamourous fish -- nobody would dream of killing one -- but I can recall seeing people trolling for them under the Cochrane Bridge, and catching them too! The great pleasure is in seeing him roll a few times, then watching his aerial ballet when he is hooked. He will take a live mullet on top or a dead one on the bottom.
Almost forgot to mention the sharks. On the second day Tom hooked a large bonefish and had to fight him a good while. Finally he was turning and was drawn in to about 30 yards when his slow movements attracted attention -- that of a 6 foot nurse shark. This monster sliced in and bit the bonefish in two. Blood and foam everywhere, then three or four bull sharks swarmed in to do the dishes. None of them was bashful, and all of this took place in water 3 feet deep and clear as tea, at about twenty yards. No time to fall over board. We didn't even bring in the head of that bonefish.
Well, Tim, that's about it for the scientific expedition to Key Largo. Meanwhile, back on the Bay life goes on: I just learned yesterday of a nesting pair of bald eagles that live 3-4 miles up Bay Minette Creek. And there was not much wind for the Dauphin Island race.
Next time you write me, Tim, how about a few answers and not so many questions. You see what happens when I have to give answers!
P.S. This time of year two fishermen in chest waders fish off the south side of the Causeway. For trout? Redfish? Do they score? Write in and tell me.
-- May 9, 1995