An excerpt from Grey’s Tales of Fishes, published in 1919.
Strange, wild adventures fall to the lot of a fisherman as well as to that of a hunter. On board the Monterey, from Havana to Progreso, Yucatan, I happened to fall into conversation with an English globetrotter who had just come from the Mount Pelée eruption. Like all those wandering Englishmen, this one was exceedingly interesting. We exchanged experiences, and I felt that I had indeed much to see and learn of the romantic Old World.
In Merida, that wonderful tropic city of white towers and white streets and white-gowned women, I ran into this Englishman again. I wanted to see the magnificent ruins of Uxmal and Ake and Labna. So did he. I knew it would be a hard trip from Muna to the ruins, and so I explained. He smiled in a way to make me half-ashamed of my doubts. We went together, and I found him to be a splendid fellow. We parted without knowing each other’s names. I had no idea what he thought of me, but I thought he must have been somebody.
While traveling around the coast of Yucatan I had heard of the wild and lonely Alacranes Reef, where lighthouse keepers went insane from solitude and where wonderful fishes inhabited the lagoons. That was enough for me. Forthwith I meant to go to Alacranes.
Further inquiry brought me meager but fascinating news of an island on that lonely coral reef, called Isla de la Muerte (the Island of the Dead). Here was the haunt of a strange bird, called by Indians rabihorcado, and it was said to live off the booby, another strange seabird. The natives of the coast solemnly averred that when the rabihorcado could not steal fish from the booby he killed himself by hanging in the brush. I did not believe such talk. The Spanish appeared to be rabi, meaning rabies, and horcar, to hang.
I set about to charter a boat, and found the great difficulty in procuring one to be with the Yucatecan government. No traveler had ever before done such a thing. It excited suspicion. The officials thought the United States was looking for a coaling station. Finally, through the help of the Ward line agent and the consul, I prevailed upon them to give me such papers as appeared necessary. Then my Indian boatmen interested a crew of six, and I chartered a two-masted canoe-shaped bark called the Xpit.
The crew of the Hispaniola, with the never-to-be-forgotten John Silver and the rest of the pirates of Treasure Island, could not have been a more villainous and piratical gang than this of the bark Xpit. I was advised not to take the trip alone, but it appeared impossible to find anyone to accompany me. I grew worried, yet determined not to miss the opportunity.
Strange to relate, as I was conversing on the dock with a ship captain and the agent of the Ward line, lamenting the necessity of sailing for Alacranes alone, someone nearby spoke up.
In surprise I wheeled to see my English acquaintance who had visited the interior of Yucatan with me. I greeted him, thanked him, but of course did not take him seriously, and I proceeded to expound the nature of my venture. To my further surprise, he not only wanted to go, but he was enthusiastic.
“But it’s a hard, wild trip!” I protested. “Why, that crew of barefooted, red-shirted Canary Islanders have got me scared! Besides, you don’t know me!”
“Well, you don’t know me, either,” he replied with his winning smile.
Then I awoke to my own obtuseness and to the fact that here was a real man, in spite of the significance of a crest upon his linen.
“If you’ll take a chance on me, I’ll certainly take one on you,” I replied, and told him who I was and that the Ward line agent and American consul would vouch for me.
He offered his hand with the simple reply, “My name is C——.”
If before I had imagined he was somebody, I now knew it. And that was how I met the kindest man, the finest philosopher, the most unselfish comrade, the greatest example and influence that it has ever been my good fortune to know upon my trips by land or sea. I learned this during our wonderful trip to the Island of the Dead. He never thought of himself. Hardship to him was nothing. He had no fear of the sea, nor of men, nor of death. It seemed he never rested, never slept, never let anybody do what he could do instead.
That night we sailed for Alacranes. It was a white night of the tropics, with a million stars blinking in the blue dome overhead and the Caribbean Sea like a shadowed opal, calm and rippling and shimmering. The Xpit was not a bark of comfort; it had a bare deck and an empty hold. I could not stay below in that gloomy, ill-smelling pit, so I tried to sleep on deck. I lay on a hatch under the great boom, and what with its creaking, and the hollow roar of the sail, and the wash of the waves, and the dazzling starlight, I could not sleep. C. sat on a coil of rope, smoked, and watched in silence. I wondered about him then.
Sunrise on the Caribbean was glorious to behold—a vast burst of silver and gold over a level and wrinkling blue sea. By day we sailed, tacking here and there, like lost mariners standing for some far-off, unknown shore. That night a haze of clouds obscured the stars, and it developed that our red-shirted skipper steered by them. We indeed became lost mariners. They sounded with a greased lead and determined our latitude by the color and character of the coral or sand that came up on the lead. Sometimes they knew where we were, and at others they did not have any more idea than had I.
On the second morning out we reached Alacranes lighthouse, and when I saw the flat strip of sand, without a tree or bush to lend it grace and color, the bleak lighthouse, and the long, lonely reaches of barren reefs from which there came incessant moaning, I did not wonder that two former lighthouse keepers had gone insane. The present keeper received me with the welcome always accorded a visitor to out-of-the-world places. He corroborated all that my Indian sailors had claimed for the rabihorcado and added the interesting information that lighthouse keepers desired the extinction of the birds because the guano, deposited by them on the roofs of the keepers’ houses, poisoned the rain water—all they had to drink.
I climbed the narrow, spiral stair to the lighthouse tower, and there, apparently lifted into the cloud-navigated sky, I awakened to the real wonder of coral reefs. Ridges of white and brown showed their teeth against the crawling, tireless, insatiate sea. Islets of dead coral gleamed like bleached bone, and beds of live coral, amber as wine, lay wreathed in restless surf. From near to far extended the rollers, the curving channels, and the shoals—all colorful, all quivering with the light of jewels. Golden sand sloped into the gray-green of shallow water, and this shaded again into darker green, which in turn merged into purple, reaching away to the far barrier reef, a white wall against the blue, heaving ocean.
The crew had rowed us ashore with my boatmen Manuel and Augustine. Then the red-shirted captain stated he would like to go back to Progreso and return for us at our convenience. Hesitating over this, I finally gave permission, on the promise that he would bring back the Xpit in one week.
So they sailed away and left us soon to find out that we were marooned on a desert island. When I saw how C. took it, I was glad of our enforced stay. Solitude and loneliness pervaded Alacranes. Of all the places I had visited, this island was the most hauntingly lonely.
It must have struck C. the same way, and even more powerfully than it had me. He was a much older man, and, though so unfailingly cheerful and helpful, he seemed to me to desire loneliness. He did not fish or shoot. His pleasure appeared to be walking the strand, around and around the little island, gathering bits of coral and shells and seaweeds and strange things cast up by the tides. For hours he would sit high on the lighthouse stairway and gaze out over the variegated mosaic of colored reefs.
My bed was a hammock in the loft of the keeper’s house, and it hung close to an open door. At night I woke often, and I would look out upon the lonely beach and sea. When the light flashed its long, wheeling gleam out into the pale obscurity of the night, it always showed C.’s dark figure on the lonely beach. I got into the habit of watching for him, and never, at any time I happened to awake, did I fail to see him out there. How strange he looms to me now! But I thought it was natural then. The loneliness of that coral reef haunted me. The sound of the sea, eternally slow and sad and moaning, haunted me like a passion. Men are the better for solitude.
Our bark, the Xpit, did not come back for us. Day by day we scanned the heaving sea, far out beyond the barrier reef, until I began to feel like Crusoe upon his lonely isle. We had no way to know then that our crew had sailed twice from Progreso, getting lost the first time and getting drunk the second, eventually returning to the home port. Some misfortunes turn out to be blessings.
What adventures I had at Alacranes! But, alas! I cannot relate a single story about really catching a fish. There were many and ferocious fish that would rush any bait I tried, only I could not hold them. My tackle was not equal to what it is now. Perhaps, however, if it had been it would have been smashed just the same.
In front of the lighthouse there had been built a little plank dock, running out 20 yards or so. The water was about six feet deep, and a channel of varying width meandered between the coral reefs out to the deep blue sea. This must have been a lane for big fish to come inside the barrier. Almost always there were great shadows drifting around in the water.
I tried artificial baits first. Someone, hoping to convert me, had given me a whole box of those ugly, murderous plug-baits made famous by Robert H. Davis. Whenever I made a cast with one of these, a big fish would hit it and either strip the hooks off or break my tackle. Some of these fish leaped clear. They looked like barracuda to me, only they were almost as silvery as a tarpon. One looked ten feet long and as big around as a telegraph pole. When this one smashed the water white and leaped, Manuel yelled, “Pecuda!” I tried hard to catch a specimen, and had a good many hooked, but they always broke away. I did not know then, as I know now, that barracuda grow to 12 feet in the Caribbean. That fact is mentioned in records and natural histories.
Out in the deeper lagoons I hooked huge fish that swam off ponderously, dragging the skiff until my line parted. Once I was fortunate enough to see one, which fact dispelled any possibility of its being a shark. Manuel called it “Cherna!” It looked like a giant sea bass and would have weighed at least 800 pounds. The color was lighter than any sea bass I ever studied. My Indian boatmen claimed this fish was a man-eater, and that he and his crew had once fought one all day before it broke away. The fish I saw was huge enough to swallow a man, that was certain. I think this species must have been the great June-fish of the Gulf. I hooked one once at the mouth of the Panuco River in Mexico, and it nearly swamped the boat.
Soon my tackle was all used up, and, for want of better, I had to use tiny hooks and thread lines—because I was going to fish, by hook or crook! This method, however, which I learned first of all, is not to be despised. Whenever I get my hand on a thin, light, stiff reed pole and a long, light line of thread with a little hook, then I revert to boyhood days and sunfish and chubs and shiners and bullheads. Could any fisherman desire more joy? Those days are the best.
The child is father of the man
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
In the shallow water near the dock there always floated a dense school of little fish like sardines. They drifted, floated, hovered beside the dock, and when one of the big fish would rush near, they would make a breaking roar on the surface. Of me they evinced no fear whatever, but no bait, natural or artificial, that I could discover, tempted them to bite. This roused my cantankerous spirit to catch some of those little fish or else fall inestimably in my own regard.
I noted that whenever I cast over the school it disintegrated. A circle widened from the center, and where had been a black mass of fish was only sand. But as my hook settled to the bottom, the dark circle narrowed and closed until the school was densely packed as before. Whereupon I tied several of the tiny hooks together with a bit of lead, and, casting that out, I waited till all was black around my line, then I jerked. I snagged one of the little fish and found him to be a beautiful, silvery, flat-sided shiner of unknown species to me. Every cast I made thereafter caught one of them, and they were as good to eat as a sardine and better than a mullet.
My English comrade sometimes went with me, and when he did go, the interest and kindly curiosity and pleasure upon his face were a constant source of delight to me. I knew that I was as new a species to him as the little fish were to me. But C. had become so nearly a perfectly educated man that nothing surprised him, nothing made him wonder. He sympathized, he understood, he could put himself in the place of another. What worried me, however, was the simple fact that he did not care to fish or shoot for the so-called sport of either. I think my education on a higher plane began at Alacranes in the society of that lonely Englishman. Somehow I have gravitated toward the men who have been good for me.
But C. enjoyed action as well as contemplation. Once, when Manuel harpooned a huge hawk-bill turtle out on the shoals—the valuable species from which the amber shell is derived—we had a thrilling and dangerous ride, for the turtle hauled us at a terrific rate through the water. Then C. joined in with the yells of the Indians. He was glad, however, when the turtle left us stranded high upon a coral bed.
On moonlit nights when the tide was low, C. especially enjoyed wading on the shoals and hunting for the langustas, or giant lobsters. This was exciting sport. We used barrel-hoops with nets, and when we saw a lobster shining in the shallow water we waded noiselessly close to swoop down upon him with a great splash. I was always afraid of these huge crayfish, but C. was not. His courage might have been predatory, for he certainly liked to eat lobster, but he had a scare one night when a devilfish or tremendous ray got between him and the shore and made the water fly aloft in a geyser. It was certainly fun for me to see that dignified Englishman make tracks across the shoal.
To conclude about C., when I went on to Mexico City with him I met friends of his there, a lord and a duke traveling incognito. C. himself was a peer of England and a major in the English army, but I never learned this till we got to Tampico, where they went with me for the tarpon fishing. They were rare fine fellows. L., the little Englishman, could do anything under the sun, and it was from him I got my type for Castleton, the Englishman, in The Light of Western Stars. I have been told that never was there an Englishman on earth like the one I portrayed in my novel. But my critics never fished with Lord L.!
These English friends went with me to the station to bid me goodbye and good luck. We were to part there, they to take ship for London, and I to take train for the headwaters of the Panuco River, down which unknown streams I was to find my way through jungle to the Gulf. Here I was told that C. had lost his only son in the Boer War, and since then had never been able to rest or sleep or remain in one place. That stunned me, for I remembered that he had seemed to live only to forget himself, to think of others. It was a great lesson to me. And now, since I have not heard from him during the four years of the world war, I seem to divine that he has “gone west”; he has taken his last restless, helpful journey, along with the best and noblest of England’s blood.
Because this fish story has so little of fish in it does not prove that a man cannot fish for other game than fish. I remember when I was a boy that I went with my brother to fish for bass at Dillon’s Falls in Ohio. Alas for Bill Dilg and Bob Davis, who never saw this blue-blooded home of bronze-back black bass!
In the heat of the day, my brother and I jabbed our poles into the bank and set off to amuse ourselves some other way for a while. When we returned, my pole was pulled down and wobbling so as to make a commotion in the water. Quickly, I grasped it and pulled, while Reddy stared wide-eyed and open-mouthed. Surely a big bass had taken my bait and hooked himself.
Never had I felt so heavy and strong a bass! The line swished back and forth; my pole bent more and more as I lifted. The water boiled and burst in a strange splash. Then a big duck flew, as if by magic, right out from before us! So amazed was I that he nearly pulled the pole out of my hands. Reddy yelled wildly. The duck broke the line and sped away . . . That moment will never be forgotten. It took us so long to realize that the duck had swallowed my minnow, hooked himself, and happened to be under the surface when we returned.
So the point of my main story, like that of the above, is about how I set out to catch fish, and, failing, found for such loss abundant recompense.