The Day of the Dolphin

By: Capt. Tim Ramsey

Life is full of little ironies. Take for instance, Flipper, the eponymous movie star of the sixties (I got to use the word “eponymous,” but not really). You see, Flipper was actually five dolphins, with one, named Mitzie, the lead “actor. She is buried at the Dolphin Research Center in Marathon with a full-sized dolphin replica as a headstone. This might make her the second most famous aquatic mammal celebrity behind Duke Kahanamoku. Oddly, researchers say she died of a heart attack and would have lived far longer than her 13 years if she was not held captive. Kind of like my Aunt Sadie. Went in the nursing home and boom, gone, but what sort of digression is this?

I’ve never been a huge fan of fishing alone. Not sure exactly why, but I’ve always considered it a social or team activity. Taking people fishing is what I’ve always done, but with my son off working on his career and my wife in Panama caring for her mother (we could fix that situation. Think “Aunt Sadie”), I had occasion to hit the water alone.

Cathartic is not a word I would use for the experience. I’m not one to cry or prone to outbursts of rage (blurting problem notwithstanding), nor was it purifying, cleansing, or enlightening. Truth be told, it may have been a bit regressing, if not outright frustrating. And now, some context.

The movie “Day of the Dolphin” came out back in 1973. It featured George C. Scott as a scientist who taught two dolphins some basic words, only to have those animals taken by bad people and used in an attempt to plant explosives under the presidential yacht. Cool, right? Maybe not. Here’s why.

Right out of the gate, dolphins near the marina and close to the channel. Quick stop by the FWC to once again tell me to wait until fully between the markers to get on a plane because simpletons have been running into dolphins in the area. In the back country, more dolphins. One surfaced so close when he blew out, it was so pronounced thought he might be calling me a “poof,” as the Brits might say. Then came the group that kicked a big muddy “U” shaped arc around a school of mullet near a mangrove island and took turns zooming in to pick them off one by one. Then I heard one of them say “Fa.” Yep, just like in the movie, where the one named “Alfa” learned to speak, sort of. Well, maybe I heard it. The day was so hot, humid, and bright I expected the African Queen to come around the corner at any moment (Amazon jungle reference), and I contemplated the possibility of wearing my Costas on top of my Smiths. Since my rising body temperature was making my heart pound, it was time to stop throwing a bucktail under the trees and get out in the open.

Out front I went down the beach and threw the cast net for the first time in about two years. I regressed to the point where my third biggest pet-peeve (re-learning something you already knew) popped up. I kept my shirt, watch, wedding ring, and trolling motor remote on, didn’t just go to my GPS numbers and throw but went down the beach, didn’t raise the engine, and tried to throw over the top of the deployed trolling motor. It wasn’t pretty. During this Chinese fire drill, I heard someone say my name in a creaking, high pitch. I looked over and there was a dolphin looking at me. It was the first time since topwater bluefishing outside Big Marco years ago that one had just sat near the boat waiting for something. However, in my regressive, overheated mental state I said, “shut up,” then ignored it. I eventually abandoned thoughts of live bait fishing and took off.

A short while later, my regression hit an ironic new level. After going old school with my Bomber Long-A out at the mud hole, I locked into a tarpon of about fifty pounds. There I was, standing on the bow of the Skeeter, fighting the fish, oddly not getting the customary cheers from other anglers when it jumped. I figured they must be newbies or skunked guides with the eyes of irritable customers on them. Little did I know I was once-again the newbie.

I get the fish alongside then realize my lack of preparation. Worst time for it. Tarpon gloves in the bag inside the hatch. Fish gripper inside the leaning post. Long handle de-hooker in the rod holder on the other side of the console. Pliers too. Nobody to hold the rod. After a scramble to assemble these items, I get the bright idea to take a picture, all while still holding the rod. While punching in my stupid passcode, the phone squirted out of my sweaty mitts and miraculously didn’t go overboard but landed on the deck with a thud. I managed to get the gloves on, but then grabbed the tarpon’s lower lip, thumb inside, rookie mistake. The fish rolled and thrashed, my thumb made an audible “pop,” and a searing jolt of pain shot up my arm. At that exact moment, besides thinking people nearby were quite entertained by the novice before them, my urge to blurt an expletive was met by the sight of a dolphin jumping out of the water some distance away. For some reason, I said “I know,” out loud. I knew what to set out, how to prepare, and how to land fish, but I forgot it all and just skipped to step ten. My mistake. Plus, who tarpon fishes alone?

I packed it up after that and decided to run back in. On the way, I got stopped again by the FWC, this time for the third time in three days by the same guy who was surprised I used his first name greeting him. He claimed I was “coming in from offshore” and wanted to see if I had any fish on board. Just like the two days prior, I invited him to come aboard and take a look, but he declined, only wanting me to open the big livewell in the stern I rarely use. As I held the hatch open, “poof,” a dolphin surfaced nearby. I said to myself “yeah, three in a row” like my powers of telepathy were working with Mr. Bottlenose.

On the way in, there were people on jet skis harassing dolphins, the tours with their Carolina Skiffs purposely pushing wakes to get them to jump, and the resident dolphins doing their thing. Close to the marina the boat pushed forward at about 1200 rpms. I thought I heard someone creak my name again and spun around to see a dolphin just past the apex of his jump in my little wake, head turning down toward the water. It was like saying “now off with you.” Or maybe it saw my regression and was making sure I got in okay? Flipper and Alfa need not worry, my “Day of the Dolphin” was over. Understanding both Murphy and irony, although I’ve done all this all before, will probably do it all again, aching thumb and all. I’ll still go out alone but do things a bit differently. See you out there.