By Pat Ford

A short time ago Rhona Chabot, Austin Nye and I  were chasing bonito and black fin tuna behind the shrimp boats north west of Key West with legendary Capt RT Trosset and mate Patrick Cline.  The trick to fishing the shrimpers is to leave the dock as early as possible and run some 50 miles west to meet up with a shrimper that is still cleaning his catch.  The shrimpers drag all night then dump their nets onto the deck and begin separating the shrimp from every other critter that wound up in nets.  They usually start this process at daylight and you need to find them before they shove it all overboard and go to sleep for the day.

As the shrimpers drag their nets across the bottom, they disrupt a lot of sea life that either winds up in the nets or escapes out the sides.  All this commotion attracts bonito, sharks and black fin tuna that  follow the nets thru the night then wait patiently under the boat till all that free food comes back into the water.  When everything comes together, the fishing is amazing.

During our trip, we caught tons of huge bonito, but the black fins were scarce.  It’s hard to pick out a tuna when it’s surrounded by 40 or 50 hungry bonito.  Nevertheless we hooked eight tuna but only Rhona landed one.  After a few hours we ran off to another series a wrecks looking for permit and snapper.  The permit didn’t cooperate but we caught some mangrove snapper that weighed close to eight lbs biggest mangroves I’ve ever seen. 

As the day drew to a close, we packed up for the 2 hour run back to Key West.  Weather was perfect….clear visibility and calm seas.  Patrick hopped up into the tower for the run home for a reason.  The day before they had found a whale shark on the way home and there was a chance that it was still hanging around the same area.  Turns out it was along with 3 friends.  Patrick spotted the first whale shark a good distance away.  Their dorsal fins and tail are usually out of the water as they suck in plankton from the surface making them easy to spot.  As we approached the first on we found three others in the same area.  RT immediately radioed his son, Robert’ who owns FINNS dive Shop in Key West.  Robert had a group out in the Gulf, diving the navy towers and was within radio range.  As soon as he got the word, he collected his divers and headed our way.

Whale sharks are the most gentle creatures imaginable.  They are huge up to 40 feet long and fun to swim with.  Being in the water with a creature of this size is a rush to say the least.  I jumped in with my camera and found that there were three big cobia following the shark.  We caught one of the smaller ones and hooked a huge one several times only to have it spit the hook and return to the whale shark.

Whale sharks appear to swim lazily along the surface with their mouths open, feeding.  Their leisurely pace is deceiving once you jump in the water with them…their cruising speed is just about my top swimming speed.  This means that once the whale shark gets past you, you’re never going to catch it.  Accordingly we HAD TO CLIMB BACK INTO THE BOAT, run up ahead of the whale shark and jump in, so it would swim towards us.  One by one I got photos of everyone swimming next to the sharks.  The cobias never left and we could tell the big one was really huge.

It wasn’t too long till RT’s son found us and got his divers in the water.  For the next half hour we all snorkeled around with those huge critters.  Patrick in particular was so excited he could barely speak.  All his life he’d wanted to swim with a whale shark and on this very special day he had been with four.  We all had a great time.

The FINNS group also had a blast.  Eventually they found the whale shark with the cobia and Robert quickly grabbed his spear gun and nailed the big one…it weighed 69lbs!  What an amazing day only in Key West.