Six miles from land in 8- to 10-foot swells is usually no place to have an argument over a 4-inch fish. But here we are, seven experienced fishermen, heatedly discussing the identity of a little brown-barred creature as the charter boat heaves and yaws, knocking everyone off balance.
“Might be some kind of grunt,” says mate K.J. Zeher, grabbing a rod rack to keep steady.
“I don’t know.” Photographer Ron Modra takes four quick steps sideways as the boat rocks. “Looks like a young grouper.”
“You’re both wrong,” comes the voice from above, not God but one of several apparent close relations I will meet on this trip. This one is Alex Adler, captain of the 48-foot Kalex, looking down from the bridge. Adler has put me onto 15 different species of fish so far today and it’s not even lunchtime. “It’s a bass. Mike, check your books.”
He’s right. The fish is a saddle bass, found in 250- to 500-foot depths here off the Florida Keys. There’s a scar halfway down its flank—a souvenir from some larger fish beneath us, and there are plenty down there—but the mark didn’t throw off Adler, the expert fisherman and, I’m learning, amateur fish taxonomist.
Adler is 50, a milestone age I will reach this year. Like many men of my hairline, I have a family, a job, and a house, all of which demand most of my time and attention. So it might seem that I have better things to do than attempt to remain upright on a rocking boat about 90 miles from Cuba, some of the greatest gamefish in the world swimming in waters around me, preoccupied with a tiny fish wriggling in my hand.
But that is precisely why I am here.