Keith Arthur: It's yet another trip to Paradise

It’s not that easy to fit breaks into my work schedule, so I take advantage of any chances I get. This week I’m away on my ‘Wife Duty Holiday’ to Florida ¬ the one where I (hardly) fish and she hardly leaves any credit on the card.

I do cheat, though, and have one day on the water with my friend and regular Key West captain Damon Santelli on his boat ‘Outcast’.

Damon now fishes quite rarely, having hired Captain Jay Miller to run his boat while he concentrates on working in another business venture ¬ Eaton Street Fish Market.

We left early, as Damon had to work in the fish market from lunchtime, so we went along with Jay for reasons soon to be made clear. The weather was perfect: 10mph winds from the NNE and cloudless. At 6.45am it was 24ºC.

Damon took us to a spot on the reef for some yellowtail snapper action and the fish were soon up in the chum, but spooky. It took best part of two hours to really get them going, then it was 2lb-3lb fish ¬ and the odd bigger one ¬ every throw.

Damon suggested that I may like to try for a black grouper, so I dropped down the big rod with a live goggle-eye (scad to us ¬ and $100 a dozen to buy!) and less than a minute later I was playing tug-of-war. I won that one and a 25lb ‘black’ was soon joining his yellow-tailed mates in a winter wonderland of their own ¬ Damon’s fish well, loaded with ice.

Another smaller black followed, undersized and returned, then two big mutton snappers. Then it was time to go ¬ for Damon at least. He drove us back to the dock and waved goodbye as Jay took me back out.

This time we thought we’d have a look for a sailfish just off Sand Key, a shallow area of reef about five miles offshore. There were several captains fishing, all moaning, although one had released a small sailfish in the morning.

First drop on a drifted threadfin I had a hit, and 7ft of silver with a long, pointy nose took off. Only three circumnavigations of the boat later ¬well, maybe four ¬ we had him by the nose, then on my lap for a picture.

We set up another drift and Jay suggested, as we were quite close to a little wreck, that I might like to drop a bait down to the bottom to see if any mutton snappers were around. There were, and I got two ¬ around 10lb apiece.

Next drop I lost a fish, probably a shark, to a clean cut in the line, so I dropped down again and had another hit. This was in 185ft of water and the fish made some very ‘jaggy’ runs, with spells of me struggling to wind in between. I thought I had either the king of mutton snapperland or a very dogged amberjack.

The fish came into view a long way down, but the colour had come back into the sea with a nice ‘change’ on the reef, so we both called it as an AJ.

When it got closer we knew we were both wrong and I first thought it might be a permit ¬ madness for that kind of fishing. Then it became fully visible.

It was an African pompano, a fish I’ve not caught for many years. Roy Marlow and I had a couple in the Gulf with Captain Jack Kelly, probably 12 years ago, up to maybe 10lb. They were the only fish I’ve ever seen ‘smoke’ a reel: Roy’s multiplier went a very funny shape after one set off for Cuba.

This was in a different category. Just as a 2lb chub can be wound in unceremoniously, I tried to pull this fish up as soon as possible but once it hit the top ¬ as if that 2lb chub had suddenly become a 2lb roach ¬ Jay shouted: “Take it easy Keith, this is a real big fish.”

He was right, it was! He chin-gaffed it into the boat and once again I got slimed all over my ‘Old Guys Rule’ T-shirt.

We were both astonished ¬ and Jay has caught a lot of fish over the years. It eventually weighed in at 32lb, but it looked much bigger than that!

We then moved to a bottom mark and dropped a livebait down that another two muttons nailed. Jay was fishing a jig and asked if I’d like to swap, so I did and had two red groupers ¬ one big enough at 12lb ¬ on that, while Jay had another mutton on the livebait.

When a shark took the jig, I called time! Not a bad day in Paradise ¬ and only 22 weeks before we suffer it all again. Roll on!