Wiggins Pass Adventure

By Tom Watson

In March of 1970 a little while after my first wife, Flora, died Heather (11), Sally (9), Bruce (7), Karen (5), and I drove to Naples, FL to see Flora’s mother “Gammer” in this story. We took the Shearwater (sailboat) with us, and one day decided to try sailing from Wiggins Pass, just north of Naples.

We launched the boat at a small fish camp on a creek about a mile from the pass. At about 10:00 AM the weather was nice, but the wind was quite strong, probably about 20 mph. While we rigged the Shearwater, power boaters started coming back to the fish camp saying it was too rough to get through the pass, but I decided to go down to the small bayou and have a look at the pass and the Gulf outside. We had borrowed a three horse-power Evinrude from a friend in Perry, so we motored to the bayou. I saw the waves and the whitecaps, but I thought we could handle it, so we motored through Wiggins Pass into the Gulf with our sails down. We anchored about 200 yards outside the breaker line and Heather and I put up the sails. It was a little wild lurching from one wave to the next, but it didn’t bother the kids. Gammer was about 70 years old, and on her first sailing trip. I think she held up surprisingly well.

When the sails were up Heather weighed anchor, and we got under way. The ride was smoother. Sally and Karen moved to the foredeck to spot bait-fish, and Heather and Bruce put out lines. Powerboats with fishing parties would pass us on their way out to deeper water, and people would point at us and laugh. As we went farther out the wind began to drop off a little, probably to about 12 mph, and we had ideal trolling speed. We began to catch Spanish mackerel, and Gammer said she wanted to try fishing. I taught her how to use the reel, and how to keep a thumb on the spool when she was letting the line out. I showed her how to set the “brake” when the line was out, and she was ready to fish.

She caught two or three small Spanish mackerel, and somebody caught a king. The party boats now were watching us with binoculars, and when we caught a fish, they would come nearer to us trying to get into our school of fish. Gammer had just caught a fish and was putting her line back out. The lure may have been 10 yards behind the boat when a 15-pound king mackerel struck it. In her excitement Gammer forgot to set the brake before trying to reel in her fish. What a tangle we had in that reel! The fish was very close to the boat, very fresh and because of the tangle, we had no “drag” on the line. Gammer almost went overboard trying to handle that fish. I had to take the rod, and keep the sails full, so we could drag him along and tire him out. Because the reel was so fouled, I had to pull the fish in by hand. It was too long for the icebox, so I cut it in two to get it in.

We started in toward Wiggins Pass around 2:00 PM with fish still biting. The fish box got so full we could put no more in, and so we quit fishing. With the diminished winds we easily entered the pass and sailed to the creek where the fish camp was located. We dropped the sails, cranked the Evinrude, and motored to the camp. When we had the boat put together and back on the trailer, I asked the man at the fish camp if he had a place for me to clean our fish. He said he did and told me to wait while he finished with a customer.

It was now late in the afternoon, and I was impatient as I waited for him to finish, but at long last he did. He grabbed a big knife and our fish box that probably weighed 40 or 50 pounds and told me to follow him. When we got to the cleaning station he said, “Hand me a fish.” I gave him a fish, and within 30 seconds there were two perfect fillets. “Hand me another,” he said. He told me that he had spent years as a commercial mackerel fisherman off Key West, and that when you had 2,000 pounds of fish to clean before you could go to bed, you learned to clean them fast. As he cleaned fish after fish, I began to wonder what this was going to cost. I did not have much money with me, but he would not let me clean any fish. As we walked back to the fish camp with an icebox full of filets; I asked him how much I owed him. “Not a thing,” he said, “Anybody who will take an old lady and four kids fishing deserves to have his fish cleaned.”

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