After our last trip, I had made some adjustments to the design of our long line but needed a special kind of rope. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic-related shipping delays, it took quite a while for the line to arrive, and we had it diverted to the field. We spent a day measuring out and prepping the new line, as well as repairing other equipment. With almost 1000 feet of mainline constructed and over two dozen hooks, we were ready to test it. My partner would drive the boat and I would work the line; however, I had a hard time keeping pace, pulling in the line, and managing the branching hook lines. By this point, having lost a year due to COVID-19 pandemic travel shut-downs, I had built up this season so much in my head that not having any sharks after two weeks at the shark bite capital of the world. How could I not catch sharks here, of all places? Luckily, I had my best friend and partner to remind me to breathe. This is how fieldwork goes and it’s important for everyone to remember that; everything can go wrong sometimes.
We had an incoming master’s degree student with experience on boats. I called and asked Joe to join our team. After an almost four-hour round trip to pick up our new field hand, we got settled and prepared for a short outreach event at the New Smyrna Marine Discovery summer camp about our research, but we couldn’t stay long as we had a head back out with our new deckhand in tow.
Boat traffic is extremely high at NSB and not everyone driving those boats should be. Even though we were fishing out of the main channel our drumlines seemed to attract the attention of inebriated tourists. On one occasion we saw a fishing boat swerving all over and hit one of our lines. Once a two-story luxury boat was swerving wildly back and forth across the channel with so much speed its gear was flying off into the water. Most of it was trash we disposed of, but we got an important upgrade for our own craft. The “Big Joe” lounger! This seawater-soaked bean bag would go on to make many long nights of fishing into a relaxing experience. On another occasion, we finished setting one drum line only to look back and see the previous line missing. Having lost essential gear, I had no choice but to rebuild the lines. I brought equipment to do this, however, I did need to pour cement in the driveway of our Airbnb. I’ve never owned an Airbnb property, but I’m pretty sure I’d be horrified to find out that the tenant was pouring cement in the driveway. However, after the washing machine incident, the termites, and the general lack of air conditioning, I figured we were even.
Several days after Joe’s arrival we caught more than we bargained for. No not a shark, a wild, shall we say, overly concerned citizen. We were setting our new long line out several hundred feet away from a low-traffic beach. I know what you’re thinking, “Why would you put your long line there?”, remember I’m trying to catch sharks that are biting people at the beach. We were about halfway through setting the line when a couple started screaming at us. “Gill nets are illegal”. At first, I didn’t even realize they were talking to us, they were far away and we were minding our own business with no gill nets in sight. I shouted back who we were (which is also on the boat) but they couldn’t hear over the wind and waves. Then they started yelling that they were calling the cops and tried to recruit other people to call the cops too. After we finished setting the line, we moved closer to shore. I had to raise my voice over the waves and wind so the tone was not ideal, but as calmly as I could I stated again who we were, what we were doing, and that we had the permits to be out there.
The man started to approach the boat with his dog in tow. I held out my hand and told him to stop as he was acting like he was going to climb into our boat. Luckily, he decided to stay on the beach. They then continued to scream that they were calling the cops and that gill nets were illegal, and that they wanted to remove it. So, I politely reminded them that it was illegal to tamper with research equipment, but they were welcome to call the police if they thought it was necessary. While we waited for the coppers, we went back out in the channel and anchored next to the line. Between the soak time and retrieval, we were there another hour, but the cops never showed up to arrest us. Why did they think we had a gillnet? Well, my best guess is they saw the many floats and assumed, but we were still putting out the line when they started yelling so they could have seen there was no net. Some folks just like to yell for a hobby, I guess. Having only caught catfish and the number of boats steadily increasing we headed in. I told the coast guard officer working the desk about this incident and he just laughed. In fact, he didn’t stop laughing he just got up and went to tell his buddy about it. I’m glad we could make someone’s day.
Two days later we finally got some good luck. The coast guard patrol had found our missing drum line. They had even taken the time to clean it up and coil all the lines. Excited for the equipment’s return I was sure today was the day we got our sharks. We had so many setbacks already I could feel it was the day. Instead, we just got more thunderstorms and an early ride home. This is why I don’t buy lottery tickets. Tomorrow would be a new day, and that day would be on fire.
I woke up before the rest of the house, and I smelled something different. The tropical flowers outside had riled my allergies the whole trip, so I wasn’t sure what I was smelling, just that something was off. I opened the front door and was greeted by what appeared to be snow. The ground, truck, and equipment, all of it had a dusting of whitish powder. I reached down and touch the patio bricks, wiping off some of the powder. Ash. Ash was still falling all around us. The next thing I heard was my partner waking up, “Why do I smell smoke?” Venturing outside with a bandana over my mouth I looked for flames but couldn’t see any. Since we were not in immediate danger I took to the internet. The scrub marsh across the inlet was ablaze, and firefighters had been working through the night to extinguish it. The channel near our house was filled with boats, close to the amount you’d see on the weekend. I assumed people felt safe from the fire there. We needed supplies and between the low visibility of the smoke and high boat, traffic decided to wait to go fishing. My partner and I headed to the hardware store, I made sure to avoid the fire’s path on our route, but the wind shifted and blew the smoke to the highway. Our visibility went from a mile to under 10 feet in seconds. I could see taillights glowing in the smoke ahead swerving. Cars sped by doing 60mph hoping to evade the smoke. What could I do?! I turned my flashers on, pull to the side, and crawled at a safe 10mph that’s what. What you wanted me to go off-roading, run into the fire, or another car with dramatic music in the background. Have I not established my bad luck on this trip???