We met in the fall of 1996. I was trying to manage the requirements of the church, to enable my daughter’s wedding down here in this tropical paradise and he was the parochial vicar at the church who was the enabler.
His name was Father Dan and I found him, true to his mission, as a very capable facilitator. He, in turn, found me an excellent resource as he was a boater and a novice to the salt.
In the ensuing weeks, he’d help me with the diocesan matters and I’d help him read the charts. Together we got through the wedding and the marked navigational channels.
Over the years, we’d make quite a few fishing trips together. If I had a free day, I’d put together two or three friends and Father Dan and we’d have at an afternoon of fishing.
The good father was more into being on the water and in the sunshine than into fishing. He’d take a rod and plunge a bait into the water but, frankly, his aptitude for fishing was minimal. He’d lose bait; let the line go slack; lose hooked fish etc. ... all those attributes that make you cringe.
Except he’d routinely luck into the biggest fish of the trip and by some accident he’d bring it aboard. But he was always fun to have aboard and quite gracious to his fellow anglers.
Then a few years later he was transferred back to a diocese up north, and like a good soldier, he went compliantly. Then he would make vacation trips back here to his favorite place. He’d phone long before the trips and we’d set up dates for his fishing. He or I would add a few others to these trips to insure we got some fish ... and the reason ... we had to deliver fish.
We always did OK and he’d bring small plastic sandwich bags and ask that I put 4-5 filets in each bag ... then he’d add lemon water and freeze them for the trip home. I thought it odd until on one of his trips, one of his fellow priests from up north accompanied him. As I was going through the sandwich bag routine, the good father piped up with, “Do you know what Father Dan does with those portions”?
“He divvies them out one at a time and tells the priests assembled for dinner that they were his catch down in Florida. They were always a treat at the rectory and Father Dan was their folk hero. He just smiled and thought of the sun and the gorgeous water.”
But to get to the real incident in this story; we have one of our fishing days all set up for the afternoon of a spring day. I’ve invited a friend of mine to join us for some nearshore fishing.
As I ready the boat for the trip, I can’t get the bilge pump to kick in. That’s a fatal flaw! You don’t go anywhere with an inoperable bilge pump.
I put the trip on hold and take the boat back to the mechanics at the marina and cast our trip’s fate into their hands. Father Dan is agitated. He has an appointment at 5 p.m. and we are cutting into his time.
The mechanics find the problem and it is rectified but it’s now a little after 2 p.m. We’ll have to fish fast.
It’s a pleasant afternoon as we head down the river and out onto the first reefs. But with time being of the essence, we had to conserve our time and stay close in to shore.
I must have said something about not having any GPS coordinates in the area when Father Dan piped up with something rather biblical, ”just move the boat over there,” pointing to an area where the water was rippling maybe 50 yards to port. I had nothing to lose and followed the suggestion.
We anchored and I set a small chum bag into the current. I broke out some small gold hooks and baited with shrimp bits that soon delivered us a half dozen nice pinfish.
Now, mind you, I saw zero fish on the fishfinder and thought this was a total bust, but the time constraints were primary as it was now close to 4 p.m.
We put a pinfish on our one big rod and lowered it to the bottom. The offering had just reached the bottom and the rod doubled. We handed the rod to Father Dan and he was truly struggling. We moved the action to my friend and he also struggled but managed to land a nice 24” gag grouper.
We categorized it as Father Dan’s fish and he was all smiles trying to determine how many plastic sandwich bags it would fill.
We did it again. And before the bait got to the bottom we had another great strike. This time Father Dan did it all alone. A second gag grouper in almost exact proportions as the first.
Absolutely amazing. Two keeper gag grouper on a spot without any markable structure within 15 minutes.
I had never fished the spot before but fished it several times after without a single strike.
To me it always has been a very special happening. But it happened to a very special guy who may have had an in with the man in charge.
P.S. For years, Father Dan didn’t want me to publish this article; he thought it was “puffery.” Sadly, he passed away several weeks ago and I’m sure is with the fellow who made his two grouper appear that beautiful afternoon. I thought this special story needed to be told.
Capt. Bill Walsh owns an established Marco Island charter fishing business and holds a current U.S. Coast Guard license. Send comments or questions to email@example.com.