DiMaura, Schroeder team up for a record
From mid-May through October, Paul DiMaura of Chilmark fishes out of Menemsha aboard his 20-foot Jones Brothers skiff. Few fly fishermen know the waters around the west end of the Vineyard and along the south side of the Elizabeth Islands better. A frequent fishing partner is Bob Schroeder, a school administrator from Branford, Conn., who spends the first half of every summer in Menemsha, flinging flies at stripers every chance he gets.
During his school's recent spring break, Bob flew to Florida to fish with Paul, who has a house, and a boat, half way down the Keys in Islamorada, which bills itself as The Sport Fishing Capital of the World.
On Monday, March 19, the wind was blowing a steady 20 knots, with gusts to 30 - much too much "air" for fly fishing for bonefish on the open flats on the Gulf side of Islamorada. So Capt. Paul and Bob decided to head across Florida Bay toward Flamingo where they would hunt for redfish in the mangroves, out of the wind.
Bob Schroeder poses with his huge bonefish, the third largest ever recorded, worldwide. Photos by Paul DiMaura
But when Paul went to lock his house before they headed out, he broke the key in the lock. He called a locksmith who said he could make it over sometime before lunch, which meant they'd have to fish nearby, so they could come back to meet him. With two strikes on them before they left the dock - too much wind and the broken lock - Paul and Bob might have just racked their rods for the day and gone out for lunch. But not these guys. They were there to fish, and their persistence paid off in spades later in the day.
By the time things were squared away with the doorlock, Paul determined that they didn't have time to run to Flamingo, so they decided to break out the spinning gear and toss live shrimp to bonefish closer to home. A couple of miles out, they stopped at the edge of a flat where they had seen tailing bonefish earlier in the day. Paul tilted the engine on his 16-foot flats skiff, and started to pole the boat onto the flat.
Within minutes Paul spotted a big fish coming at them along a bank at the edge of the flat, about 100 yards away.
"I thought it was a shark at first," said Bob. "I thought, no way that's a bonefish." Conditions were perfect, with both the wind and the sun at their backs. The former adds extra yards to a cast and the latter makes it easier to spot fish. Bob waited until the fish was just out of range, and then tossed a live shrimp into its path. This is the critical, breath-stopping moment in sight-casting to specific fish in shallow water - sometimes less than 18 inches. The fish are skittish in such thin water, and the aim and the distance of the cast has to be right on. Too close, and the fish will spook; too far, and it may swim right past the bait.
Capt. Paul DiMaura gently holds the bonefish by its tail so it can regain its energy before being released.
Bob's shrimp landed about 15 feet in front of the fish, which wasn't fazed by the bait's splashdown (one benefit of the heavy wind).
"Bob made a great cast," Paul recounted later. "A perfect cast." The bonefish came right up on the bait and gulped it down. Then the fun began.
Bob felt a slight tug on the line, then nothing for a second, because the fish headed straight for the boat, trailing a big belly of line behind it. It veered off when it sensed the boat and headed off on a long, strong run toward deeper water.
Bob's only option was to hold the rod up and hang on. Line peeled line off his spinning reel at an alarming rate, and the bonefish showed no signs of slowing down. With 200 yards of line already out, Bob thought he might get spooled. Paul got back on his pole and started to chase the fish.
Eventually the fish tired from the long run, turned, and Bob started to play it back toward the boat. It took 15 minutes to bring it in.
When they went to net the fish, they got their first good look at it, and they both knew right away that it was an exceptional fish. It was too big to land in the standard way, with the net positioned under the fish's midsection so it can be sort of folded in. Instead, Paul had to net it head-first.
When he hefted the fish in the net, Paul realized he was dealing with the biggest bonefish he'd ever seen, maybe even a record-breaker. Paul was a full-time guide in the Keys for several years in the 1980s, and he knows bonefish there as well as he knows striped bass in waters around the Vineyard, where he does most of his fishing these days. On Paul's BogaGrip, a handheld scale, the fish appeared to weigh around 15 pounds - way too big just to record with a photo and release on the spot. Many anglers who've been pursuing bonefish for years would be thrilled to catch an 8-pounder, and have only heard about 10-pounders being caught.
Paul immediately put the fish in the boat's live well, a small hold filled with circulating water designed to keep small baitfish and shrimp alive, not big bonefish, but it sufficed. He poled the boat off the flat, fired up the engine, and headed for the dock at World Wide Sportsman, a well-known fishing outfitter in Islamorada, where Paul knew there was a certified scale.
With a canvas sling, Paul and Bob lifted the fish out of the live well and up onto the scale. The verdict: 16 pounds, 3 ounces - 5 ounces heavier than the existing world record for 10-pound test line, which Bob was using. The fish was also measured and photographed.
Within a couple of minutes, the fish was replaced in the live well, and Bob and Paul headed out to release it. They found a small cut where the tide was running strong enough to help resuscitate the fish. The technique is to hold the boat in place with the engine, then hold the fish gently under its belly and let the tide-driven water move through its gills to replenish its air supply. It didn't take long for the fish to show signs that it had plenty of life left, so Paul let it swim off.
Then it was time to head back to World Wide to fill out the forms required for an application for a world record. It was also time to start basking in the glow of a once-in-a-lifetime fishing experience. The word had gotten out quickly that Capt. Paul and some snowbird had brought in a monster bonefish, and since fishermen instinctively gravitate to wherever they think the action is, a crowd of old-timers had gathered, and most likely a few tall tales were exchanged.
But here are the facts. There have been only two other bonefish recorded that were larger than Bob's, both caught in deep water off South Africa.
Before Bob's bonefish is accepted by the International Game Fish Association as a world record for the 10-pound line class, the line he was using must be tested to verify that it is not stronger than its manufacturer's rating.
At the least, it will be certified as the largest bonefish ever caught in Florida - no small feat since the Keys are known for the size of the bonefish that live there, if not the quantity. It will also qualify as the largest recorded bonefish in the Western Hemisphere.
Bob will be thrilled if the fish is recognized as a world record, but it might be hard to beat the excitement that built around him last week. He was on a couple of local Keys radio stations, his picture was in the Miami Herald, and the photo of Bob and his fish will be up there among fishing legends on the wall in World Wide Sportsman. (And someone heard that Letterman's people had approached Bob's publicist, who was only identified by his initials, P. D.)
Capt. Paul, the man who made it all happen, had this to say about his Connecticut Yankee fishing partner: "I think Bob's going to quit his headmaster job, move to the Keys, sell tackle, sign autographs, and fish."
Not likely, but this we can count on: come late June, Bob will be back in Menemsha, talking bass. Crickers being crickers, it's anybody's guess whether the regulars on Squid Row will be impressed by the story of Bob's big bonefish.