Night time Tarpon fishing at Rocky Bluff
It was mid-afternoon at the Mainsail Marina as I finished filleting my clients catch. They had kept two kingfish in the 20-pound range and wished to make smoked fish dip to share with their friends and family. It was fall, and the cooler nights had dropped the water temps into the mid 70s. The kingfish had shown up in abundance which made for some excellent action for anglers wishing to hook into some hard fighting fish without having to venture way offshore.
As they left carrying two one-gallon Ziploc bags full of king fish fillets, I thanked them for coming out and wished them a good evening.
“Yeah, we’ll be drinking beer and smoking fish all night,” they replied as they headed to their car.
I unraveled the hose and spread it the length of the boat in preparation to start washing. I filled a bucket with water and added a good dose of Dawn soap. As I did this, I scanned the boat only to see blood stains in the gelcoat that hadn’t been tended to quick enough. “Better add a little bleach to this batch,” I thought. Catching kingfish can be a bloody affair. And today was just that. So, I grab the deck brush and started scrubbing. I managed to get the gunnels scrubbed down when I noticed someone standing at the dock behind me. It was Luther Susser. Luther is a local commercial fisherman. He was well known and well liked on Anna Maria Island. “Looks like somebody’s been mackerel fishing,” he chuckled as he watched me scrub blood stains from the boat.
“Yeah, we did good on the Kings today,” I replied. “Spanish, too.”
“There sure were all a lot of boats out there today,” said Luther. He had seen where I and numerous other captains had found the king fish bite. “Did you hook any of those Tarpon that are in there?” Luther asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “We jumped two on the kingfish rods, but they were short-lived.” Luther paused for a second and then spoke.
“You know, Danny, if you like catching tarpon there’s a bunch of them up in the Manatee River around the north side of the I-75 bridge.”
“No kidding,” I replied, intrigued.
“Yeah, I was up there looking for sand perch a couple of nights ago and they were everywhere.
We talked for a while longer and the conversation drifted until finally Luther had to go. I stayed alone and finish cleaning the boat and thinking about those tarpon.
It was dinner time and I found myself at Danny’s Pizzeria in Beachway Plaza waiting on a couple of pizzas to take home for my family. “Danny’s” was super busy as usual. The girl behind the counter quoted me at least 30 minutes for my food. That was fine. I ordered a beer and stepped outside to enjoy the cool evening air. Once again I was thinking about those tarpon. I wanted to go give them a try but didn’t want to go by myself, especially at night. I tried to think of who I would ask to go and one name came to mind. My buddy, Aaron Lowman. Aaron was a local captain in the area who started chartering around the same time I did. We had come up together and became good friends over the years. I picked up my cell phone and dialed and without much convincing, Aaron said he would go. We decided to plan it for the next night as neither of us had charters the following day.
After dinner, I decided to do some research on where we were going to be fishing. I was familiar with the waters of the Manatee River but traveling that far up river at night could prove challenging. Even with GPS and an understanding of the water you can still get turned around out there at night if you’re not careful. Upon further inspection of my nautical chart I noticed numerous sandbars and oyster bars all throughout the areas we were going to fish. These obstructions are usually hidden at night, so navigation would be a serious matter. I also noticed that there was a particular landmark in the vicinity called, “Rocky Bluff.” Seeing this preempted me to do what most of us do these days when we want some information about something. Upon doing a Google search I discovered a number of old stories or “folklore” —if you will — about “Rocky Bluff.”
The main characteristic of Rocky Bluff was that report of an eerie humming sound much like that from electrical wires had been reported by numerous people. As early as the 1800s folks claimed they heard singing that would emanate from the flat rocks around Rocky Bluff.
One story made reference to a Colusa Indian maiden who had lived on the south side of the Manatee River. She had fallen in love with a Timucuan prince who lived on the north bank. But being from different tribes their love was forbidden. This led them to meet in secrecy. As a signal of safety, the maiden would sit along the south bank and saying if it was safe for them to meet. When the Timucuan prince heard her song, he would paddle his “dugout” across the river to meet her. Another such reference to the sounds was attributed to a young Spanish girl who by chance was kidnapped by the notorious pirate Pascual Miguel. Miguel was also known as “El Carnicero,” or The Butcher. Pascual was a small-time pirate who during the late 1700s had taken up residence in Manatee county. Had three bases in the area. One on Bean Point, which was a great lookout point for potential victims. Another existed at the entrance to Terra Ceia Bay on Rattlesnake Key. And the last, the main base was at Rocky Bluff on the north shore of the Manatee River. The story goes that a young Spanish girl, Carlotta, had been on a distressed vessel just off of Egmont Key when she was introduced to the viscous Pascual Miguel. Upon seizing the vessel during rough seas, Pascual and his crew towed the schooner up the Manatee River to calmer waters. Once there “El Carnicero” and his mates robbed the schooner and murdered its crew — all except Carlotta. Pascual wanted her for himself. He had just slit the throat of his last female captive for denying his advances toward her and was hungry for fresh blood.
Weeks passed and word finally reached Carlotta’s father, a commandant in the Spanish army stationed in Pensacola. He immediately gave chase along with several other vessels to rescue his daughter. Upon seeing the arrival of the search party, Pascual Miguel fled up river to hide at Rocky Bluff. After days of being along on the small schooner, Pascual noticed Carlotta becoming frantic and illogical with hopes of being rescued. To ease her mind, he create a harp-like set up of wire strings which he strung vertically across the pothole of the cabin on the schooner where she was held captive. When the wind blew through the strings, it created a harmonical sound much like the hum of a harpsicord.
So, the sound of the harpsicord is yet another rendering of what the mysterious sound emanating over the river at Rocky Bluff are attributed to.
As for Carlotta, for fear of never being rescued, she managed to chisel numerous holes in the bottom of Pascual’s shallow-draft schooner which caused it to scuttle and sink to the bottom. Pascual and his crew managed to escape and swim to shore never to be seen again. Unfortunately, the door to Carlotta’s cabin was locked and she went down with the schooner to a watery grave.
Fascinated by the history of Manatee County I was intrigued to go fishing in such an interesting area. Although now all of the rocks that made up Rocky Bluff are long gone and the I-75 bridge begins where they should be, I was still excited to be able to go fish those waters.
The next evening, Aaron and I loaded up my 23-foot C Hawk tower boat with ice and drinks. Aaron Red Bull so we could stay awake. I brought a six pack of Coors light and some Pepsi’s. For tackle we each brought a couple 20-pound outfits as we expected to tango with tarpon in the 10-40-pound range. For bait, we brought a variety of artificial lures ranging from MirrOlures to Yo-Zuri’s and even some soft plastics like the “Hogy,” which was Loman’s favorite bait for small tarpon. He swears by it. We also brought a handheld GPS — just in case. You never know when your electronics could fail, and we didn’t want to be stuck up river with no idea where we were, in the dark.
We pulled out of the Mainsail Marina around 9 p.m. Upon exiting the marina, a light breeze from the south passed against us. It was cloudy out that night and even though we were only a few days away from the full moon it was very dark. We would definitely be relying on the electronics to navigate our way up the long winding Manatee River. As we neared the end of the “no wake zone” I eased the throttle up til we leveled out at 20 mph. We followed the Intracoastal Waterway north until we just past the Bulk Head. I then steered the boat east toward the mouth of the Manatee River.
The water was calm and we were making good time. Before we knew it, we were passing Blenker’s Marina and DeSoto Point. We pushed on further past 59th Street boat ramp and aimed for the lights of the Green Bridge. As we approached the fixed span humpback bridge we could see the Twin Dolphin Marina to our south and the Riverside Grill to the north. I slowed down to half speed as we went under the green bridge. The lights of downtown Bradenton, the bridges and the Manatee Memorial Hospital lit up this section of the river which put a golden hue upon the surface of the water. We welcomed it as most of the ride to this point was pitch black except for the nav. lights and the light of my GPS/depth finder. We cleared the train bridge and then went under the Desoto Bridge and the darkness settled back in around us. Aside from the small yellow lights of homes and the lights of Tarpon Pointe it was dark.
While watching the GPS to make sure I was following the channel I told Aaron about “Rocky Bluff” and the history behind it. I especially went into detail about the legend of Pascual Miguel.
“So they called him ‘The Butcher,’ huh,” asked Aaron. “Great.”
I chuckled and commenced to navigate the boat farther and farther up the calm black waters of the Manatee River.
Finally, we sat the lights of the I-75 bridge. This was good because the channel marking on my GPS had gradually been becoming harder to define. It was as it they never bothered to plot the channels this far up the rover like they had for the areas closer to the coast. We were close so I laid the boat down to idle speed. It was quiet, except for the hum of the cars travelling over the bridge at 70 mph. You could simultaneously hear the thump, thump, thump as the tires hit the joints of the bridge along with a constant shhhh sound.
It was time to start looking for fish. My heart rate accelerated as I tuned my eyes to watch the surface of the water for rolling tarpon. We idled around for a good 45 minutes and saw nothing. Navigating out of the channel was nothing short of nerve racking. There were shoals and sand bars and oyster bars everywhere. In one moment, we would be in 8 feet of water in the next only 2 feet. Although we had travelled all the way here I could tell after an hour or so we were both considering turning back. And then we saw a fish roll. And then another. And another.
“Well, I think we found them,” I whispered to Aaron.
“Thank, Christ,” he replied. “I was beginning to give up.”
At the moment, I killed the engine and let the boat quietly drifted toward the rolling fish. There was no wind so the drift was slow and perfect. Aaron grabbed a rod rigged with a red and white Yo-Zuri crystal minnow and I grabbed my rod coupled with an 84-MR MirrOlure Top Dog and we commenced to casting.
“They look to be about 20-pounders,” I said to Aaron.
“Yeah that sounds about right,” Aaron replied as he retrieved his lure.
And then, bang! Aaron got bit. The fish hit about 30 yards from the boat. It immediately breeched the surface of the water, while airborne the fish erratically shook its head from side to side trying to throw the lure from it boney mouth. The cackle of the gills echoed across the water and bounced off the side of the boat.
“Hell, yeah!” I exclaimed. “We finally got one!”
The fish landed with a loud splash and the sound of drag screaming from the reel cut through the quiet night air. Aaron hopped on the bow of the boat and fought the fish.
Pump and reel. Pump and reel. After 15 minutes the tarpon was boatside. Its head was on the surface. Its black eye reflected an iridescent yellow from the lights of the bridge. I reached down and lipped the fish, cautious not to get of those sharp treble hooks in my hand. With the aid of some needle-nose pliers I popped out the hooks. Aaron took over holding the fish as I snapped a few shots with my cell phone. It was hard to focus as my hands were shaking due to all the excitement. He released the fish and I started the motor to get back to where the school of fish were.
Upon spotting the school again I made the first cast. Needless to say, I had switched my MirrOlure for a red and white Yo-Zuri. On the first cast I got a hit.
“Here’s another one,” I said confidently. But something was wrong. The fish didn’t fight like a tarpon. Another couple of minutes it hadn’t broken water yet and I was beginning to wonder what it was. Eventually, the fish stopped fighting and it was as if I was dragging it in. I knew it was a large fish because it was quite heavy. The fish was now 10 feet from the boat. The leader was visible. Aaron reached out to grab the leader and then the fish showed itself. Its long beak swung side to side as Aaron pulled his hand away just in time to avoid being sliced by a mouth of teeth. It was a gar. And a big one at that.
“Oh crap,” Aaron yelled. “That the biggest gar I’ve ever seen.”
Now nothing what he was dealing with, Aaron grabbed the leader and pulled the huge fish to the boat. It was subdued. Tired. Ready to be de-hooked and let go. The large teeth had scraped the Yo-Zuri so badly it was hardly recognizable. The big eyes looked up at us as Aaron picked the hooks out and let the fish go.
During all of the excitement the weather had changed without our noticing it. A thick fog had enveloped the boat. Upon seeing the fog, I looked up to see the bridge to get a landmark or fixed position.
It was gone.
I couldn’t even hear the cars. I look at the GPS to see where we were. It showed our position to be a few hundred yards from Rocky Bluff. The fog was so thick I couldn’t see shore either. Rather than blindly drifting toward the bridge I decided to drop anchor. At least I knew were in safe water right where we were. Or at least I thought so.
Within minutes after dropping anchor we heard an odd singing sound. It reminded me of wind blowing through the fishing lines on the boat on windy days. It swayed up and down in pitch — sometimes in harmony and other times completely out of tune.
“Is that the fishing lines making that noise?” asked Aaron.
“It should be,” I responded, “but there ain’t no wind. You need to have wind to cause that.”
Then a horrible stench filled the air. Upon inhaling I gagged as it I was going to be sick. Aaron did the same.
“What is that?” he exclaimed. “It smells like rotten flesh and body odor mixed together.”
He was right. It was possibly the worst smell I’ve ever experienced. Again, I hung my head over the boat thinking I was going to throw up. And then I saw it.
We were being approached by an odd-looking vessel from out of the fog. It resembled an old schooner, made of wood with two masts. It must have been 30 or 40 feet long. As it got closer the humming noise got louder. And the stench grew unbearable. I started to yell, “Hey look out!” I flashed my anchor light and shone my Mag-light at the boat so they could see we were there.
The boat slowly drifted toward us until it was along our starboard side. A figure jumped down from the helm and ran alongside the boat gunwale. I heard a loud crash as a large double hook attached to a thin rope landed on the deck of my boat. The rope immediately pulled taught as the hook fastened to my starboard gunwale. It was as if we were going to be boarded. Luckily, Aaron had pulled anchor as we saw the boat approaching with anticipation that we may need to move in a hurry. We started moving with the other boat being drug alongside by the rope and grapple hook.
“Quien eres?” shouted the person. “Quien eres?”
He was asking who we were in Spanish. Although I did know some Spanish the shock of what was happening diminished any chance of me being able to respond except in English.
“What the hell are you doing?” I yelled back.
“Callate la boca!” the man shouted. “Eres mio ahora!”
He told me to shut up and that we were his prisoners now. I reach under the console and hit the rocker switch to turn on my floodlight. Immediately the whole boat lit up and most of the invaders boat, too. I could now clearly see our assailant. He was of Spanish descent with black hair a black beard and dark leathery skin. He had no shirt on which showed his skinny but muscular torso. He looked slightly malnourished yet he was strong and quick. His deep-set bloodshot eyes glared at me. I could see he had a machete in one hand and what looked like a handgun in the other. Upon further inspection, I could see the handgun resembled an old flintlock gun from times long ago. At the moment, the flood light came on he stopped yelling and paused. With a confused and almost fearful look on his face he examined the boat he was trying to capture. It was as if he had never seen anything like it before. He pointed the gun at my face.
“Que es esto?” he grumbled” “What is this?” “Que es esto?” he yelled hysterically.
By this time Aaron has lost his temper. He walked toward the gunwale and reached for the hook to release us.
“We’re outta here buddy. Danny start the engine.”
Aaron grabbed the hook which seemed to be tied to a thin line made of old rope — looked like hemp. At that moment, the man swung his machete at Aaron. It slipped out of his hand and went right into Aarons left leg, piercing through his bright orange Gruden’s slickers. I was on the verge of fainting as I noticed it protruding out of the back of Aaron’s leg. The hook was still attached to the gunwale of our boat. I scanned my brain trying to think of what to do. I had no weapons on the boat except for maybe a couple of fillet knives and the gaff. I reached down and grabbed for the gaff. The Spaniard noticed me and pointed his gun at me.
He pulled the trigger. Click. Nothing happened. Evidently his powder was wet from the thick fog and the gun misfired. He made an effort to climb into my boat to physically take me down. I swung the 4-foot gaff as hard as I could and connected on the right side of his head. The hook was backward so it didn’t penetrate but the sheer force of the blow stunned him as he fell backwards onto his own vessel.
I heard bloodcurdling screaming emanating from the cabin of the boat. I could faintly see a woman’s face peering through the small brown porthole with wire strung on it. One of her eyes was swollen shut and blood stains colored her chin.
“Alejurse!” she screamed. Get away. “El es el carnicero!” He is the butcher!
At this moment, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. She had just referred to Pascual Miguel. But that was impossible. He died 200 years ago. Regardless, I turned the key and fired up my Yamaha 200 hp. It turned with one turn of the key. The Spaniard, or Pascual, was still dazed laying on the deck, stunned by the blow of my gaff. I figured I would just try to take off at full throttle and maybe the line that restrained us would break. I glanced forward to see if Aaron was okay. I noticed he had the machete in his hand. Evidently the machete had pierced through his slickers but only grazed his leg. He was okay. Aaron raised the machete up over his head and brought it down on the line over the gunwale.
We were free.
I slam the boat into gear. I forced the throttle down and we took off so fast the boat almost came out of the water. Aaron rolled down the deck before slamming into the tower. He had the grapple hook in his hand but during the fall, he dropped it and it flew overboard. We were now traveling into the fog at 30 knots. My fight or flight reflex had kicked in, and although I couldn’t see where I was going I didn’t slow down.
We made it at about 400 yards and then bang. I slammed the boat high and dry onto a sand bar. We were stuck. Immediately we both hopped out and on pure adrenaline attempted to push the boat off the bar. This was the scariest moment. We knew he was out there and was coming for us. We were sitting ducks.
It’s almost 10 minutes to finally slide off that bar. As we guided the boat into deeper water it was time to hop back in. Aaron jumped up first and I followed. I rolled on my belly over the gunnel and slipped landing on my back. As I lay on the deck looking upward I noticed the fog was clearing. By the time I was standing it was gone. I could see the lights of the I-75 Bridge again. The familiar sound of cars and semi-trucks filled the air and the clouds had cleared and the light from the almost full moon illuminated the winding River. We could see the river bank on either side. What we didn’t see was the old wooden schooner. In fact, there wasn’t another boat insight.
Needless to say, that concluded our Manatee River tarpon expedition at Rocky Bluff. In fact, I don’t know if I’ll ever fish that river again at night. The vision of Carlotta, the commandant’s daughter pleading with me to escape Pascual Miguel, “the butcher” will never leave my mind. I can’t help feeling that I should have tried to save her. The problem is I don’t even know if it really happened.
So, if you’re ever out on a midnight cruise on the peaceful black waters of the Manatee River at night always keep your ears tuned for the sound of the wind blowing through the wire strings of Carlotta’s porthole. It’s probably just the wind blowing through your fishing lines but do you want to take that chance?
Beware of El Carnicero – Happy Halloween!