Jimmy was a very soft spoken, bespectacled youngster, kind of awkward and gangly in appearance, who came aboard one spring morning a couple years back all excited about going on his first charter fishing trip. He was the featured member of his family of Mom and Dad and two younger brothers that morning, as I was about to find out.
He was a brand new Eagle Scout back home in North Florida and was intensely focused on earning a special Merit Badge, called the Code of Angling Ethics, that involved the sport of recreational fishing. To earn this special award, he would have to demonstrate a working knowledge of all the facets of sportfishing and then acknowledge and pledge to live by and profess the Code of Ethics.
As we settled in on the boat that morning, Jimmy was dead quiet as his dad explained the mission of the Merit Badge. Finally Jimmy spoke up with a simple request: “Would you help me today, Captain?”
“Be glad to, Jimmy, where do we start?”
As we got underway and idled out of the marina, he explained that he had to do all the the activities by himself, from catching bait to cleaning the fish. And along the way, he had to display actions that were consistent with the nine points of the Scouts Code of Angling Ethics. And at day’s end, all that had to be attested to by his parents and the captain.
The Code of Angling Ethics was developed in the late 1990’s by a consortium of both governmental and private organizations to establish a blueprint fostering attitudes and actions for all who engage in sportfishing. The nine principles deal with care and respect for the fishery as well as the marine environment.
I asked Jimmy if he knew all nine principles. Without hesitation, he responded, “Yes, sir. We had to memorize and recite them to qualify for this trip.”
“Wow, that’s great, Jimmy. The Boy Scouts are right on the ball, and congrats to you for your effort. Now let’s get started.”
Our first stop that morning was the Sea Buoy at the west end of Capri Pass. We rigged up some sabiki hooks just off the buoy and Jimmy had at it. He found that hooking up the thread herring bait was not as easy as he thought. We undid a lot of tangles and stuck hooks before we finally closed the lid on the bait bucket.
Our overall plan for the day was to keep a few fish that he needed for the cleaning and filleting part of the challenge, the balance would be carefully released. We were even required to use circle hooks to both do minor damage to the hooked fish, as well as enhancing the safe release.
Jimmy was fascinated with the simplicity of the design and the effectiveness of the special hook.
We started our adventure that morning up in Rookery Bay where Jimmy could hook up his caught thread herring to try for a redfish just off Henderson Creek. He baited up a spinning rod with 12# test line and cast a thread herring tight to the mangrove edges.
Then we waited...and waited...and waited. Nothing. Jimmy learned that nothing is a surety in sportfishing and you live with it. Asked what we should do after a non-productive stop, Jimmy was adamant when he said, "move," and that we did, moving to the docks along Keeywadin Island.
The docks we worked that morning were alive with hungry fish. Jimmy had a good size black drum with his first cast and worked like a devil to land it. As we netted and swung it aboard, Jimmy leaped for his camera and then after a couple of pictures he decided on release.
Excitement reigned as we moved on to Hurricane Pass where we would switch over to shrimp loaded small jigs and try for pompano in the clean incoming water. It didn’t take long before Jimmy hooked into an acrobatic pompano that, when measured, was an inch short of the minimum size of 11 inches. We released with Jimmy asking the question, “Who would know if we kept a smaller fish, Captain?”
“You would, Jimmy, and that’s what important. You need to do what’s right. It’s a matter of honor”
He knew that; you could tell the way he nodded.
Thankfully, we did catch a couple of legal pompano that were put on ice and would allow Jimmy to complete his filleting chore.
We did all kinds of water-oriented chores that morning; we cleared fishing line out of mangrove trees and scooped up floating debris, and we showed courtesy by not waking other boats that were fishing and paid attention to speed rules in protected zones. Jimmy was involved in all those operative decisions.
As we arrived dockside, the most harrowing event lied ahead: the filleting of the catch, Jimmy’s first attempt. To have him reach the cleaning table, we had him stand on a bucket and prayed the knife wouldn’t slip. It didn’t, thankfully, and the family was presented with four pompano filets, albeit a bit ragged, for dinner.
I signed off acknowledging his achievements for the day and he was well on his way for the coveted Merit Badge and our sport was on the way to having a brand new ethical member.
Capt. Bill Walsh owns a charter fishing business and holds a U.S. Coast Guard license. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.