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Fact or Fishin’

The writer has to judge the winner of a fish-off between two friends who commit some inexcusable gaffes in pursuit of victory

Call me a procrastinator. I wrote this story a good while back but it was never published. I found it recently on an old computer that I had decommissioned after years of hard use. It made me smile because it involves the loss of an old friend who died well before his time. 

This story chronicles a series of outings that began in 2005 when I invited Larry Kahn, the editor of the now-defunct Keynoter newspaper, to fish for dolphin aboard my 23-foot Aquasport off the middle Florida Keys. This was Larry’s first trip offshore; the farthest on the Atlantic he had previously been was the length of his big toe at Sombrero Beach in Marathon, Florida. Larry died in July at age 56.

Cal Sutphin (left) and Larry Kahn with a pair of blackfin.

Cal Sutphin (left) and Larry Kahn with a pair of blackfin.

The day was spectacular, especially for a neophyte. Seas were calm, and we caught dolphin after dolphin. Larry’s luck improved after he discovered that the spinning reel should be under the rod when fishing, not above.

Despite his refusal to bait a hook or fillet the catch, Larry wrote of his newfound angling prowess in Keynoter, declaring, “I was born to fish,” and that angling is “the thing I do.” He actually compared himself to a few top offshore captains in the Keys, as well as Ernest Hemingway and Zane Grey.

Larry’s story was titled “Fact or Fishin’,” and my own factual report was published next to his “fiction” to provide balance and accuracy. (I’ve administrated media relations for the Florida Keys Tourism Council for 40 years.)

The next year, we decided a mini-tournament was in order. Larry against me. Hack against flack. Our friend Cal Sutphin, who at the time was host of the television show “Reelin’ in the Keys,” would be the judge. Although my biggest dolphin was some 20 pounds heavier than Larry’s largest fish, and that Cal scored me 7 points to Larry’s 1 point, the one-time Keys fishing “Mouth of the South” declared Larry the winner in “Fact or Fishin’, Part II.”

I should note that, in addition to hosting the television show, Cal also wrote for the Keynoter’s monthly fishing magazine, which Larry oversaw. How naïve of me to think Cal would judge fairly.

But I’ll give credit where credit is due: During this outing, newly anointed “Capt. Kahn on the Conn” baited a hook, filleted fish and even cleaned my boat’s deck.

In August 2007, we decided it was time for the final chapter of this trilogy. I proposed a contest between Larry the print journalist and Cal the broadcaster. I would judge the outcome.

"I was born to fish with the best of 'em," wrote Kahn in his column. 

"I was born to fish with the best of 'em," wrote Kahn in his column. 

Among the required provisions Larry brought was a dozen balao halfbeaks. Two years earlier, the only shrimp he would have touched was dipped in cocktail sauce, and now he’s transporting bait. Perhaps fishing is, indeed, the thing he does.

We headed out to the 409 Hump, a seamount about 20 miles south of Islamorada and a hotspot for blackfin tuna and other species. As we began to troll, we looked for frigate birds. Find a frigate low on the water, and you can bet the boat there are gamefish below.

“Frigate bird,” Larry declared, pointing.

“That’s not a frigate bird,” I countered. Strike one for Larry.

“You’re making this too easy, Larry,” Cal chortled.

As the day wore on, we caught a few small blackfins and a few bonitos, but the dolphin were uncooperative. Finally, the line snapped out of the starboard outrigger and peeled off the Penn International. Cal grabbed the rod to set the hook, but Larry managed to wrestle the rod away and reeled in a blackfin that weighed about 15 pounds, the largest of the day.

Back at the dock, we shot a few photos and tied up. As Cal unloaded the catch, one of our blackfins slipped out of his hands and into the harbor.

“Cripes, Cal, we’ve spent too much time and effort for you to be feeding sushi to the dock fish,” I ribbed.

“Cal, if you wanted to release the fish, why didn’t you do it when it was alive?” Larry quipped.

The lost fish was a strike against Cal.

In the ensuing months, Larry and Cal each declared himself the winner. Of course, the decision was mine to make — a determination made difficult not only because of some bonehead moves on both of their parts, but because of a serious fishing infraction, as well.

Although Larry reeled in the largest fish, Cal was first to touch the rod. According to International Game Fish Association rules, only one angler can handle the rod when fishing for a record.

After months of pondering — and a small food bribe from Larry — I finally made my decision. Larry ended the day with a 17-to-9 score over Cal (garnering 2 points for the bribe) because Cal lost 10 points for dropping the tuna overboard at the dock.

However, Larry cannot be crowned the winner because of the rod snafu with the 15-pounder. The largest blackfin, therefore, is awarded to Larry and Cal.

And I declare myself the victor of “Fact or Fishin’, Part III.” The justification? First, I had to deal with these comedians and their antics for an entire day on the water. Second, I should have won “Fact or Fishin’, Part II.”

Good anglers never forget a good fish story.

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