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by Berry C. Williams

(Chapter VI)

Elva Davis Williams (Granny) at Punta Rassa fish camp, 1957

Elva Davis Williams (Granny) at Punta Rassa fish camp, 1957

My mother lives in Tennessee, but visits us each year in Florida. Before we moved to Ft. Myers, I doubt if she had ever wet a fishing hook, but after a few trips out with me, she has become a veritable tiger about catching fish.

How she catches them is a mystery to me. No sooner does she get a strike than she squenches her eyes tightly shut and starts flaying the rod in every direction, usually yelling for help and occasionally gaining a little ground by reeling in.

Berry and mother Elva

Berry and mother Elva

One morning, almost at the crack of dawn, Mother and I were at our favorite spot, the Sanibel ferry slip. On that March day, she was 65 years old and considerably overweight for her height. Dressed in sneakers, a floppy pair of “Baghdad” pants, an old Navy shirt of mine, a blue denim jacket and a pith helmet, she was a sight to see.

We had caught five big black grouper, ranging from 4 to 11 pounds and 7 or 8 small sheepshead. As I was putting the last sheepshead into my fish box, I got to thinking about what would happen if I got a big Jewfish [Goliath Grouper] on and had to depend on “Granny,” as my children call her, to untie the boat and wield the oars. I concluded that, in that event, I’d lose either Granny or the fish, so I decided I’d better use some type of line that wouldn’t give at all, and prepare to use what strength I had in a to-the-death struggle there at the ferry slip.

BCW fishing with Granny (3)

I then broke out the smallest anchor line I had, a 20-foot piece of quarter-inch nylon line with a 1000-pound-test strength. I tied one end of this line to the cleat on the port side of my boat and on the other end, I tied a large cast-net swivel, to which I added 2 strands of 212-pound test steel leader wire. I put a huge egg sinker on this double leader wire, then attached the leader to a 12/0 Sobey hook, to which I hooked a medium-size sheepshead. I told Granny to move to the other side of the boat so she’d be out of harm’s way if all hell broke loose.

As I lowered the bait into the water, some winter visitor in a dark blue suit, waiting on the ramp way for the ferry, yelled down to ask what I was fishing for with that big a bait. I yelled back that I was hoping for a big Jewfish. He shook his head in disbelief. “Hang around a few minutes,” I told him, “and I’ll show you how we catch fish down here.”

When I felt a gentle, but sturdy, tug on the line, I knew it was a big Jewfish trying to suck in my bait. A Jewfish doesn’t lunge and bite at bait; it sucks or slurps it in. At his first attempt, the Jewfish missed my sheepshead, but he slurped again and this time got him halfway down his throat. When the monster realized he was hooked, you’ve never seen such a thrashing of water in all your life. Granny had the living hell scared out of her. She started letting out unintelligible screams and the stranger on the ramp way became quite excited. He kept yelling down, asking what I’d caught, but for the next 15 minutes, I was straining every muscle in my body to keep the Jewfish from going between the pilings from which I’d never be able to extricate him.

Finally, I had Jewfish at the side of the boat and, trying to get my breath, I grabbed the gaff hook with my right hand, gaffed him in the upper corner of his lip and then took both the gaff hook and the anchor line in both hands and began hoisting him out of the water. Granny commenced to screaming that surely I wasn’t going to bring the monster into the boat and the man on the ferry ramp above was yelling all kinds of questions, making a bigger commotion than the fish. I told Granny to get up on the bow and she became more agile than she’d probably been in the last 40 years of her life.

With a pair of pliers, I finally got the hook out of the fish’s mouth and sagged back on the gunnel, raising my left hand to the man still shouting down from the ferry ramp to indicate that I’d talk to him as soon as I could catch my breath. When I explained to him that this was a baby Jewfish that would run only about 100 pounds, he said it was the damndest sight he’d ever witnessed, that he’d traveled all over the world fishing and he’d never seen the equal of it. I told him if he’d just hold his water a few minutes, I’d show it to him all over again.

This time I hooked a larger sheepshead through the back and gently eased him over the side. He hadn’t sunk over six feet when a Jewfish tried to gobble him up. The Jewfish was on his way to making a first down on the other side of the ferry slip when I arched my back and really sat down on it. The fish’s progress came to a sudden halt, and the battle of the century began.

Courtesy FL Memory, FL State Archives

Courtesy FL Memory, FL State Archives

To make it worse, the confounded ferry boat, The Islander, was bearing down on us. I frantically shouted for them to wait until I could get the fish out of the way and Mother started waving her arms, motioning them back. The skipper obliged by throwing the boat into neutral and then into reverse to check its drifting in upon us. That gave me time to snake the Jewfish back across the slip. I used almost superhuman strength in doing so. I knew the ferry wouldn’t wait long to come in on us and that the propeller would break my line. The guy on the ramp was like a jumping jack, making every kind of exclamation known to man.

Each time I got the fish’s head up, I made some progress by lurching him toward me with all my strength, and in less than ten minutes, I had him at the side of the boat.

This one was harder to gaff than the first and I had to make 4 or 5 thrusts before I embedded the gaff hook into the upper part of his mouth. Then I took both anchor line and gaff hook in both hands and heaving for dear life, brought him halfway up the side, tilted him in toward me and he slid in alongside the other Jewfish.

What a sight the two beauties made. As soon as I could get my hook out of the second one’s mouth, I was patting them both on the head with gloating satisfaction. The man on the ferry ramp was jabbering away that he’d just witnessed the most exciting moment of his lifetime. Granny, still perched fearfully on the bow, was so excited I feared she might have a heart attack. She wanted to know how in the name of Ned we were going to get these fish back to Punta Rassa and I told her we’d haul them in the boat. She said that if I thought she was going to get down into the boat with these two monsters, I had another think coming. I told her to stay where she was and started home with Granny squatting on the bow like a heifer.

In due time we arrived at Punta Rassa where we weighed our two sulking Black Sea Bass in—one at 157 pounds and the other at 110 pounds.

Granny at Punta Rassa fish camp, 1957 001

Granny has relived that day many times, telling everyone interested in fishing every detail of how “we” caught two monsters at the Sanibel ferry slip.

Granny at Punta Rassa fish camp, 1957 001 (2)