2000s Archive

Counting Sheep

continued (page 2 of 4)

The only thing to do is go out onto the water.

And that’s where the Keys come alive.

As tacky as the land is in this part of Florida, the water is serene and complex. Because they jut so far out from the mainland, the Keys are something of a maritime lightning rod, whose waters mingle with those of the Gulf of Mexico, the Straits of Florida, the Gulf Stream, the Atlantic, and the Caribbean. Deep ocean currents rise to the surface of this unique confluence, summoning a smorgasbord of phytoplankton and other organisms that a variety of fish live on.

Since the islands are composed of coral limestone, they have few beaches and are wrapped instead with protective layers of sea grasses and plants. To kayak off the ocean side of Marathon, for example, is to wend through mangroves, turtle grass, and manatee grass. The root system traps nutrients, which feed shrimp, crab, and other crustaceans. Anglers stalking bonefish that eat these animals propel their boats with poles so that the fish are not scared away by the motors.

Farther south on the ocean side is the only living coral reef in the continental United States, extending more than 200 miles from Fort Lauderdale past Key West to the Dry Tortugas. Parts of the reef have died from pollution and other abuse by humans (including poaching by locals for tropical fish to stuff aquariums), though federal and state legislation protects the entire area.

The mother lode of the Keys is still fishing, whether it’s recreational; competitive, for tarpon, swordfish, dolphin, shark, and marlin; or commercial, for lobster, grouper, snapper, and, of course, stone crabs.

Back on the boat, Butch Hewlett places the buoy into a hydraulic lift, which quickly retrieves the crab trap from the floor of the bay. The trap is made of black plastic and is about the size and shape of a milk crate. Hewlett opens the top and examines the contents—three crabs. Stone crabs have oval bodies mottled with gray and two large claws tipped in black.

The first one he scoops up is clearly alive, but has no claws. “Butthead!” he cries, using the nickname for clawless crabs, and throws it overboard. The next one has claws that are too small. Overboard. The third is marginal. He grabs the crab with his right hand (covered with a white cotton glove), then raises a metal gauge to measure a claw. Just legal.

He takes a claw in each hand and forces them toward each other until first the right claw, then the left, snaps off. He tosses the claws into a bucket, then returns the crab to the water. The bucket has no ice, because icing the claws makes the meat stick to the shell. Finally, he drops a frozen pig’s foot into the trap as bait and lowers the trap overboard.

Hewlett’s wife, Barbara, advances the boat to the next buoy, and we repeat the process. Now it’s my turn to break off the claws. I grab a crab from the trap and am instantly surprised by its strength. The two claws are clamorous, snapping furiously.

“The cutter is really the more dangerous one,” Hewlett observes dryly. “If it catches hold of your finger it can pretty much cut it off with the bone.”

Mustering more strength than I had anticipated, I begin to force the claws in toward the belly of the crab. I notice I’m straining. A drop of sweat trickles down my cheek. It feels like I’m arm wrestling a football player—but it’s a puny crab. I’m a little humiliated at the thought of losing to an animal roughly 1⁄200 my body weight. I could only imagine how loud this crab would brag in some locker room under the sea.

At last the right claw begins to yield, then suddenly snaps off in my hand. I nearly stumble. The disembodied claw now seems very light.

Relieved, I pitch the claw into the bucket and concentrate on the left claw. It has not given up the fight. Struggling to find a grip, I push the claw inward until I hear a slightly different crackle, accompanied by a gurgle of liquid. I look at the crab and realize the unthinkable. I have pulled out the socket.

I have killed the crab.

I’m sad. I feel as if I’ve let the crab down: All I had to do was break off the claw correctly, and we both could live. Hewlett gestures for me to pull myself out of my funk, and I feebly toss the still-moving body into the water. Over the next half hour we hasten our pace and my performance slowly improves. I send live buttheads overboard with satisfying regularity. My percentage makes me eligible for his crew. Finally, our bucket brimming, we head back to shore.

Beyond fishing, the other great trademark of the Florida Keys is a certain miniature citrus fruit. I stopped by a small shack around MM 95. The sign out front said “Key Lime Trees, Tropical Gifts, Lotion, Free Samples, Nursery.”

The sign only hinted at the hodgepodge inside, with shelf after shelf of fish carvings from Bali, metal frogs from Jamaica, and approximately 150 different food products containing Key lime flavoring: chutney, hot sauce, cookies, mustard, fudge, bundt cake, Caesar salad dressing, marmalade, and pepper jelly. To hear John McCarthy tell it, “A day without Key limes is like a day without sunshine.”

McCarthy himself seems to effortlessly balance the old and new Keys. On the one hand, with his straight silver hair, mustache, and slight limp, he would look at home in that part of the Keys known as a place where hooligans and criminals go to disappear. “I used to play cards every week with a guy until all of a sudden we read in the paper that he’s wanted up north for bank robbery.”

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