The reel’s drag screamed as line poured out of the rod into the wake of a streaming “V” that, in the shallows around the Marquesas Keys, could mean only one thing: shark. Captain Tony Murphy leaned away from the force and let the Shimano gear do its work, line continuing to pour away. After a 200-yard dash, the run stopped and Murphy cranked the reel and regained some ground, then the next run took all the line he’d recovered and a little more before pausing again. This one wasn’t going to end quickly.
Once upon a time, fishing kept the lights on and the wolf from the door for Murphy. Today, it still fires the lights in his eyes. Aboard the Key Limey, a 31-foot Contender plying the waters around North America’s southernmost point, Murphy now lives to fish rather than the other way around. He applies skills learned through years of working the big waters for a living, and today his clients are the chief beneficiaries.
Murphy came to Florida from his native London, England in 1986 and soon found a home in Key West and in the small island’s surrounding waters. His passion for fishing could have hardly found a better place for expression. Hands-on experience gained from years of commercial fishing efforts, time that saw him work his way up from greenhorn mate to contract captain to an independent captaincy of his own, inform a body of knowledge indispensable for any guide.
“When you have to catch fish to pay the light bill, you learn how to simply catch fish in any conditions,” he said. “When the wind is blowing hard and the seas are high and the tide is against you, someone who’s fished to keep the wolf from the door will know what to do.”
Many long minutes after its initial strike and run, when the blacktip shark was finally brought boatside, photographed, and released to fight again, it made the ninth different species we’d caught on rod and reel since leaving Murray Marina that morning at 7 o’clock. A glance showed the time as only half past two. Things had been happening quickly, but in one of the most fertile fisheries in the world, things often do.
Some of us may never be confident we’ve found the place we were meant to be, but when Murphy got to Florida in 1986, he knew he’d found a home. He quickly set about turning his dreams into reality.
He found work at The Rusty Anchor, a now-famous fish market and restaurant on Stock Island that had been in business only a few years at the time. The Rusty Anchor buys from commercial fishermen for resale locally and around the country, and also operates a restaurant on the same site, preparing wild bounty caught the same day. Murphy worked both sides of the operation and eventually transitioned to a berth as a mate on one of the commercial vessels. There he began climbing the nautical ladder to become captain of his own boat.
When fishing 240 days a year grew old, he purchased The Saltwater Angler, a sport fishing equipment and apparel store on Key West’s Front Street looking out onto the Straits of Florida. He manages a staff of 20 there, and treats his continuing drive to fish by taking clients onboard the Key Limey, a craft ideally suited for sport fishing both the shallow waters and the deep blue around the region’s living reef, an ecosystem teeming with hundreds of species of fish and with access points lying as close as five miles south of Key West’s shores. As the last significantly-inhabited island in the Keys, a westbound run from there passes only one more house before reaching the Dry Tortugas 70 miles away.
Key West is a convenient jump-off point to a frontier of waves unmarred by another boat’s wake. It’s also a very tightly knit community. Tourism is the driver of the vast majority of the economy, so visitors come and go, but the people who live year-round on the island three miles by five come to know one another well.
“We really have the feel of a small community here,” Murphy said. He and his wife have raised two children on the island.
“It was a good place for them to grow up,” he said. “It’s a good place to be.”
Riding the waves onboard the Key Limey, with a warm breeze blowing and pastel clouds framing the sunrise, it’s impossible not to agree.
Pros like Murphy perform in any conditions but, on this day, as with most in the Keys, the conditions were anything but forbidding. A short run from port along a calm coastline brought us to our first stop: a good location for collecting bait by way of cast net. Murphy’s eyes found pelicans gulping through schools of pilchards, three-inch examples of the sardine and an ideal live bait to present along the area’s living reef—our primary destination for the day. Two skillful throws of the weighted 12-foot circle and he’d hauled in more than we’d be able to use.
Minutes after hauling aboard our fresh catch of bait, we were positioned above the high reef where the green water meets the blue, hooks fluttering pilchards above egg sinkers when lightning struck for the first time that day. The rod in my hand, a Shimano Terez, was snatched into a question mark and 50-pound braid streamed out and down, the reel’s drag set precisely in advance by Murphy’s hand, holding and giving in just the right measure. Seconds became a minute, then a minute became five, holding against runs and reeling in between until, finally, more than four feet of long, silver side glinted in the clear water below.
“Barracuda,” Murphy said. “That’s a pretty good one. We’ll keep him for the sharks later on.”
With the toothy critter gaffed and hauled aboard, I let my right arm hang to bring blood back down into bicep, forearm, and fingers while I caught my breath. It was not nearly the last time I did so that day. In short order we reeled in amberjack, almacojack, red grouper, black grouper, yellowtail snapper, mangrove snapper, mackerel, and blacktip shark in addition to the lead-off barracuda.
“Not a lot of places can touch that after running the boat for 10 minutes, although today was good but not outstanding,” Murphy said in summary on our way back to port.
The tides hadn’t cooperated, he said, and the wind could have been better. I couldn’t have imagined any improvement, though, thanks to a captain who knew what to do.
Images by Kevin Tate