Hooking a Big One Off The Coast Of Destin

Everything I’m about to tell you is, more or less, what I told the police. Some of the details are a bit fuzzy, and I’ll admit to a few holes in my recollection where I was paying attention to the wrong thing at the right time. And, you know, every time I think about that day my memory twists a little – things that were probably normal seem a little less normal. Shadows in the water grow larger, stranger, and darker.

Anyways, what’s important is that it was June 15th.  We were about 19 miles out from shore – I don’t know if those are nautical miles or regular American miles, frankly, I don’t even know what a nautical mile is – on one of those white twenty-ish-foot boats with the blue stripes, a supersized model of the kind you see stacked in marinas like sodas in a vending machine. I had been in town for a week, down from Michigan for a conference on fungicide application on tart cherries, and figured some deep-sea fishing would shake the boredom off for a bit. I booked the cheapest charter around, and anyways, that’s how it got to be June 15th. Time passes regardless of cherry conferences.

So there were five of us on the boat, four tourists and Captain Lem. Captain Lem was one of those folks who thinks he has to act untrue to himself just to be passable at his job, and you could tell it from cheap souvenir-grade captain’s cap, the ratty coat, and his constant sucking at a pipe he couldn’t keep lit. The tourists weren’t much better, three of us guys in Florida-grade Hawaiian shirts and a woman with a white sunhat. I never really understood why, but sometimes it feels like folks need a uniform for relaxation.

Me and a fella named Carl hit it off right away, both being slightly pudgy and already quite drunk by the time we got to the fishing spot. He owns the third largest cattle ranch in Iowa. Nice guy, told him he should come by and see the cherry blocks next spring. They’re quite a sight when the blossom hits. He replied that I should “come see some of those dirty damn holsteins”. I’ve never met a man who hated cows as much as this rancher did. But then, some days I hate my cherries, too.

So me and Carl were fishing off the, the left side, you know, the port side, and when I say ‘fishing’ what I mean is that we cast our lines and helped ourselves to some Jackalope rum I had found on a bottom shelf back on shore. Carl was pouring and, frankly, it was some of the best fishing I ever had. Not a single bite on my line. Might have forgot to bait it, honestly, but with the sun beaming down and the cool water licking at the boat, who needs a fish flopping around and ruining the calm?

Not me, that’s who.

So, Carl and I were having a blast, the Captain was reading a Hustler in the boat’s little cabin, and on the sideboard (sunboard?) of the boat there’s the other two tourists. I didn’t get their names at the time, but the police named them as Patricia Ozeki and Kaito Ozeki. I had guessed they were from Japan, y’know, on account of – well, nevermind – anyway they were from Albuquerque. I don’t think anyone in Florida is actually from Florida. Captain Lem definitely had a bit of an Ohio twang to him, but I digress.

“It’s been an hour and we haven’t had a single bite. Are you sure this is the right place?” Patricia said to the captain.

“Normally this is a real good spot for groupers,”, the Captain said with that little twang, y’know, where for becomes fer. “Might be something scaring ‘em off.”

Now, I’m pale as death’s own horse and it was one of those hard-drinking days, so I squirted on some SPF 100 and started working it in. Didn’t seem likely I was gonna miss a prize catch anyhow. So you combine the heat, maybe a bit too much sun, and then with the drinks, and…well, you understand why things could be a bit fuzzy in my recollection. That was about when it all went down, right when I was smearing a glob of sunblock through my leg hair.

The tall guy, Kaito, started shouting something like, “I’ve got a bite! I think it’s a big one!”

So he’s straining real hard, putting his shoulders into it. He’s one of those real slim guys who look like they eat cigarettes for breakfast, y’know, and I remember seeing this vein on his forearm swelling up more than I would’ve imagined. Like the Appalachians on a topographic map. Anyways, whatever he’s got on the line is real fierce, starts knocking him off balance a bit. I heard a bottle knock over when he shifted, but I dunno what he was drinking. Probably something better than Jackalope.  But then Kaito starts getting pulled down, almost over the railing, bracing his hips against the rail with his torso leaning over the water, trying to haul in a prize catch.

So the Captain runs over and he grabs Kaito, one hand on the reel, and starts pulling him back in. Me and Carl moseyed over to get a better view of the excitement.

“Is that a shark?” Patricia says. Well, I dunno a shark from a grouper, but it was something big down there. A shadow the size of, or I dunno, maybe even bigger than the whole boat. And I don’t think it was a shark, hell, to be honest the thing seemed real sprawling, almost like it had arms and way too wide and deep a body. It didn’t even really seem like anything you’d see in the ocean – but sometimes you see something like that, something half-seen when you’re already half-blind from the drink, and you can really get an appreciation for why old maps say “Here be monsters.”

So Kaito was pulling as hard as he can, I’m squinting into the water and trying to figure out what the hell I’m seeing, and the Captain is just trying to keep this tourist from getting pulled over and drowning. The way the light was striking and filtering over everyone, well, it looked like some kinda half-assed Renaissance painting. Lotta good reds and golds.

The next thing you know there’s a hell of a TWANG! That’s where things get fuzzy.

I remember seeing something sailing up from the water. At first I thought it was whatever Kaito was using for bait, but now I’m thinking it was a piece of jaw or a scale, y’know, something organic, maybe a shiny, curved tooth. It spun through the air, catching the sun with brilliant glints the whole way through its arc, then plopped into the water with a little splash. It’s weird the things that stick with you, but I remember smiling when I saw the little ripples.

Then everyone started screaming.

So I look back to the four standing around the rail. Patricia is hollering like a banshee, Carl’s got his hands on his mouth and vomit spilling out between the fingers. I don’t know what the captain was doing, actually, but I heard him shouting “Hold still! Don’t panic!”

Kaito was whirling around with his left hand covering his face and his right hand flinging out like he was trying to grab the air. It was all really baffling, up until I saw that wisp of silk-thin fishing line wrapping around him as he twirled, coiling tighter and pulling taut right up to-

And then his hand came away from his face for a moment, and I caught sight of that barbed hook jammed full-ways through the man’s eyeball. The shaft through the dark iris and the barb tipped jutting out from the white.

Good god, was it leaking.

Good god, and the line was pulling tighter. I think I saw the man’s eye start to bulge out right there.

Then he clapped his hand back over his face, still flailing like he was being swarmed by wasps. Carl had fully passed out at the helm of the boat, covered in his own sick. The captain was back inside his little cabin, digging through all the little cabinets. I think he was looking for a first aid kit.

People do dumb things when they’re drunk, and people do strange things when they’re scared. Me, personally, I get scared and I turn stock-still, y’know, picture myself like a camera recording the event. The cameraman never dies in a horror movie, otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie, and that’s how I see it. Anyways, Patricia, she did something strange and dumb.  She grabbed hold of the fishing rod, and threw it into the water. I suppose it makes sense, in a weird way.

“You’re safe now! It’s gone! It’s gone!” she screamed.

Yeah. She was wrong.

She had thrown the rod towards the back of the boat, and right away it jammed into the propeller. Line must have wrapped around the axle, or something, I’m more of a tractor guy than a boat guy, but anyhow the whole motor starts sparking and smoking right away. On top of that, the line got pulled tight. Real tight.

Look, maybe I saw the man’s eye get pulled out by that hook. Maybe I did. All I want to say is that he  held on real tight to his face as he went overboard. I saw the vein in his arm bulge like it was about to pop, and I remember Patricia screaming and the smell of smoke, and good god, that…juice running through his fingers. But I don’t want to remember most of that.


He went over real quietly, like he was done screaming and decided that it would be preferable to be drowned than to survive this. And I remember the little ripples and bubbles in the water.

Patricia kept screaming, and then she jumped in after him.

Me, I stayed put. Just looking. The sea was blue and slipping over the horizon. The clouds did their wispy dance, y’know, and I thought about how the clouds down south seem so much more elegant than the clouds in Michigan. How back home we don’t have clouds that drip and puddle like fluid leaking from an eye.

Carl was still passed out. The motor was fully aflame at that point, and the Captain abandoned his search for a first-aid kit to deal with the fire. I don’t really know what happened from then on, it all slips away from me like a dream. I remember the hiss of a fire extinguisher, and Captain Lem screaming. I remember Carl waking up, and us sitting in silence with the sea while the Captain called in for help. The smell of Carl’s vomit, which you can probably imagine without much elaboration.  A few hours later the Coast Guard picked us up.

They couldn’t find the bodies. They said they figured out that the line got chewed up by the motor until it cut loose. They couldn’t really say why Kaito and Patricia would have sank, though. Maybe they were so tangled in the line they couldn’t move their arms…Or maybe Kaito decided he’d have enough and let himself sink, dragging Patricia down with him. Me, personally, I think whatever he had on the line was the first fish that ever figured how to hook a man. And a good fisher eats what he catches, y’know?

Anyways, one piece of advice before I head on out. Next time you go out fishing, try not to think about getting a hook in your eye. Try not to think about trying to blink with that little barb jutting out of your pupil, and try not to think about the clear liquid running out and through your clenched fingers. Trust me. It really spoils the whole sport.