A small flatbed boat bobs in the marina when I arrive with my party. The air is hot, even at 10 a.m. The suntanned man on the dock beckons to us, fishing gear in hand.
The waters that surround Marathon in the Florida Keys are flat and warm, and clear straight down to the bottom. The shallows extend miles out to sea; five miles out, the shore disappears and you have the odd sensation of floating in the middle of a giant bathtub.
Capt. Mike Haines has been leading private fishing tours up and down the Keys since he graduated from college some two decades ago. “Who here has been fishing before?” he asks. Everyone raises a hand except me.
Capt. Mike is reassuring. His company, Bluetail Charters, takes out people of all levels of experience, he says, from novice to expert. The kinds of trips vary, too; inshore or offshore, half-day or full-day, small parties or big parties. Today, our small group will stay inshore, and we’ll be out for just a few hours. The sky is clear and the water is nice and calm — a good day for fishing. And not to worry: Capt. Mike supplies all the equipment.
The captain steers our boat out to sea, picking up speed. We slow down only once, to watch a giant sea turtle glide past. Other days, Capt. Mike says, porpoises trail the boat. Four miles later, we stop and Capt. Mike shows me how to cast. No one is skewered.
Soon enough, I‘ve hooked something and I begin reeling in my line like a madwoman. “Stop!” Mike says. We need to tucker the fish out. The next five minutes go like this: I keep the rod horizontal, the line spinning out wildly as my fish leads it out to sea. Then I jam the line taut before easing the rod close against my chest and reeling. I do this several times. Slowly, my catch comes to me. When it reaches the boat, I see it’s silver blue with greenish-gold speckles. A Spanish mackerel.
Altogether, my party catches 15 of them. The daily limit for catch in the Keys is 10 fish a person, but we keep only four. The rest are released unharmed.
Back on the dock, Capt. Mike guts and cleans our fish. We’ll want to eat it soon — Spanish mackerel can turn fishy if left to sit more than a few hours.
Nearly every restaurant in the Keys offers to cook up the day’s catch, Mike says. At Lazy Days in nearby Islamorada, $14.99 gets your fish grilled, fried, blackened or broiled plus a feast of sides. I prefer mine grilled simply, dressed with a squirt of lemon. The fish’s white flesh is moist and sweet, and, I conclude, tastes like no supermarket mackerel I’ve ever sampled.
Rachel Tepper is a New York City-based food writer. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, Serious Eats, The Forward, Washington City Paper and many other publications.