From knee-high to a tadpole, we all learned how to fish from a young age and most of us grew to love the solitude and satisfaction enjoyed through the sport of fishing. Our minds were often quieted from childhood trauma and escaped in solitude by the calmness of nature and water as we quietly waited for the fish to bite. But oh, the thrill of victory and satisfaction interrupted the silence with whooping and hollering when something substantial was hooked and reeled in. What fulfillment!
As children and young adults, our parents taught us how to reel in weekend catches like bluegill, catfish, brim, and bass from the fresh waters on canals and Alligator Alley. Did we encounter alligators? Yes, but never any up-close-and-personal interludes of danger; only their ominous eyes peering from the surface of the water. Water moccasins were far more prevalent and threatening than alligators. But in spite of these threats, Ma Ferguson pressed on almost every weekend to “bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan.” She was the phenomenal woman long before Maya elevated the term to national and international epic proportions. My brother Ben vividly remembers this encounter. Ma hada encounter with a television reporter who spotted her one day while she was fishing in a canal. “Ma’am, now you know you can’t eat the fish you’re catching because they’re full of mercury,” said the reporter. As the sacrificial mother and perpetual provider of nine children, Ma politely replied, “I don’t care if these fish are filled with Mercury, Fords, Cadillacs, or Chevrolets! I need to feed my family!” And the rest was history.
Our childhood experiences also took us into the awe-inspiring depths of the Atlantic Ocean. I remember one time we were fishing down in the Florida Keyes when my younger sisters, Louise and Precious, and I were arguing about who was the best swimmer. Our parents were being guided by our boat’s fish finder when they stopped at the perfect spot for snapper, yellowtail, grunts, and grouper. My sisters and I were still boasting about who was the best, when out of nowhere, my father pushed all three of us overboard and proceeded to start the engine and pull off. Only a few yards away, he yelled out across the Atlantic, “Now, let’s see who’s the best swimmer!” We stroked liked Michael Phelps and all made it to the boat without incident. Needless to say, we never had that argument again, at least not while on a boat. I’ll let you guess who made it to the boat first! A few years ago, my family encountered the most extraordinary experience ever. My sister-in-law Lauvlie with her thick Philippine accent shouted to everyone, “Hey! Look at that giant sting ray!” By the time everyone saw it, their eyes glazed over with shock, coupled with speechless, but instant and desperate prayers. The beastly aquatic animal disappeared under the boat and everyone froze in terror fully realizing that a fateful capsize may be imminent. But THANKS BE TO GOD FROM WHOM ALL BLESSINGS FLOW, the 25-30 feet whale shark surfaced far on the other side of the boat and continued on its merry way, apparently in search of food – plankton and small fish – versus the then Fearful Fergusons. In her typical feisty fashion, post-recovery from shock, Ma was reported as having said something like this to her eldest offspring, the captain of the vessel, “Now, that whale shark didn’t even splash! So why are your pants all wet?” I suppose one could say that Henry was the clear winner of the Most Fearful Fishing Ferguson A-ward!
This spirit of competition runs through the Ferguson Family in all that we do, like the blood running though our veins. As children, we competed against each other academically to drive us to excellence. As adults, we competed against each other to be the first one to call Ma to wish her the best on holidays. Fishing is no exception. We always had fun [and still do] with friendly challenges and the hopes of being the one who caught the most fish or the biggest fish. In fact, fishing has become the only area where we continue to compete. Those early days of fishing in the Florida Keyes have become a family tradition, thanks to the values and virtues inspired by our beloved parents, who both now enjoy watching us carry the traditional torch from the windows of Heaven. My siblings have come from as far as Brussels and Anchorage to meet up for our Annual Family Fishing Flock. We continue that legacy today and have taught our children, grandchildren and great grand-children the love and leisure of deep sea fishing. That leads me to our most recent 2017 expedition and the reporter who joined the flock.
Although in prior years, we recorded and tracked our individual catches with markings such as one-cut on the tail, one-cut on the head, two-cuts on the tail, etc. for bragging rights. But our brother Henry from Alaska, also our El Capitan, started a new tradition three years ago by added a huge fish-topped trophy to those bragging rights for the person who caught the biggest fish. The trash-talking started, text messages flew back and forth, laugh-out-loud video vignettes from aquariums showed up in emails, internet research for the best homemade chum flourished, and the contest was underway. My sister Precious channeled our Mom’s spirit and even cleared a space on a credenza in Ma’s house especially for the trophy she was prophesying to win. But it was our niece from Charlotte who talked the most trash. She had won the trophy two years in a row and was claiming a three-peat victory. Truth-be-told, though, Monique stole the trophy from my sister Louise and me the year before. You see, I hooked a bull shark on a second newly bought Penn rod & reel that I had idly in the ocean for the ‘big kahuna’ to eventually hit while actively fishing with another. Well, Louise quickly grabbed the rod when the big kahuna struck. She successfully brought it in after a tough fight. Then all of a sudden the rules of the game changed to the biggest ‘edible’ catch. We bowed out gracefully and allowed Monique to have the trophy with the whopper of a grouper she snagged; but it was nowhere near the size of that shark Louise reeled in. Now let’s fast forward to present day.
Each year, about 30-40 of us mobilize at our favorite inn in the Florida Keyes with a few in dockside rooms for ease of access to boat duty: loading, disembarking the day’s catch, cleaning the boat, and preparing it for the next day’s trip. Others occupy much larger rooms to accommodate more family members for enriching and late-night reunion experiences. We all mobilize under the large waterfront tikki hut and around the waterfront for meals. My sister Penny and I usually take on our mother’s role to ensure meals, snacks, beverages, coffee, and cocktails are plentiful. Her husband Jamey collaborates with brothers-in-law Captain Henry and Chummaker Ben to get the boat ready and serve as deckhands when it’s anchor time. The younger children enjoy fishing from the dock or frolicking in the pool with the tutelage and oversight of those adults who remain on shore. We like to reminisce and laugh about the stories of prior years, including the one about the Masterful Millennials [my son Matthew and his friend Ryan Evans] who both had their brand new iPhones swallowed up by the Atlantic. “Nemo phone home,” became a memorable phrase.
Each of our three days of 2017 deep sea fishing yielded a diverse harvest of ‘edible’ fish of all sizes and species. On Day 1, a nice-sized red snapper was the standard to beat. On Day 2, however, the competition became fierce when Ben pulled in his almost 30 inch grouper. Precious showed up that afternoon and boldly asked, “Who do I have to beat?” We told her Ben was at the top of the leader board and she confidently shouted, “He’s going down!” Sure enough, someone later sends a video via text from our second boat, owned by my nephew Derrick. Precious caught a huge snapper that superseded Ben’s catch, toppling him to second on the leader board. I think even Nemo heard Precious’ screams of excitement, shrills of victory and infectious laughter knowing that she now has the biggest catch as the sun was beginning to set and the end of the competition was drawing near. Ben did, however, win the ‘Ugliest Catch” with a Moray eel that jutted sharp fangs as its body coiled around the line once out of the water. What a hideous sight! Congrats, again, Big Brother!
Because several members of our family have to leave the Keyes mid-day Sunday in preparation for work on Monday, the trophy is awarded at dinner on Saturday night, even though we have a full day of fishing on Sunday for those remaining. Our baby sister Precious was presented with the coveted trophy for the Biggest Catch, denying Monique a three-peat. Everyone raised their glasses in a congratulatory toast to Precious for her prophetic win. In her acceptance speech, she proudly proclaimed, “Mama, I told you I was bringing home the trophy just for you.” And she raised her glass in a toast to Ma. Well, let’s circle back to Miss Self-Proclaimed Three-Peat. As fate would have it, on Sunday she caught a monstrosity of a snapper, but AFTER the competition was over. She struggled with all her might to reel in whatever was on the other end of her line and my brother, her dad, insisted that a ‘daddy grouper’ had taken her line under a rock and she was simply hung. “Cut your line and give it up,” was his advice. But she kept insisting, “I’m not hung ; I can feel it!” So, she kept reeling and sweating, sweating and reeling. I begged my brother to help her. So, he eventually started to manually pull in her braided line with brute strength and realized that his eldest daughter was about to out-fish him once again. Monique was not giving up or giving in to this fighting fish and continued to reel feverishly with her dad’s much-needed assistance. We all shouted, cheered and clapped once the snapper was safely onboard. While she only received an honorary three-peat from her dad, Lauvlie, Matthew, Ashlee, and me, she was rewarded with a nice, ice-cold Red Stripe. Next year grasshopper…next year!
Footnote: As a footnote to this Ferguson Family Fishing story, it’s important to mention that we invited publisher of the Westside Gazette and my high school classmate, Bobby Henry, to join us on the 2017 Annual Family Fishing Flock. He and one of his out-of-town friends joined us, while his wife Bertha and her friend enjoyed the diverse on-land excursions, including conducting their own experiment on the best Key Lime pie in the Keyes. Bobby opened the first outing on Friday with prayer for our safety and those prayers were certainly answered. I think they thoroughly enjoyed themselves, in spite of his friend getting sea sick. One of my family members said, “Bobby should’ve also prayed for fish because he sure didn’t catch many.” I reminded them of our mother’s favorite saying to my brother Ben when she was pulling in snapper after each and every cast and he wasn’t even getting a bite. She’d quip, “You aren’t holding your mouth right!” Get your mouth right, Bobby and we’ll see you next year! Captain Henry, our faithful leader and fishing aficionado, can’t wait!
If your family has a fantastic fishing story, please send it to The Westside Gazette for consideration at: email@example.com ATTN: Fishing Families.