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By John Geary

Wham! The line jerked in my hand, harder than I thought it could.

I'd only had it baited and in the water for a few minutes, and I already had a bite. To paraphrase a certain beverage commercial, deep-sea fishing does not get much better than this. Here I was, a first-timer, and I'd hooked a sailfish, just minutes into the trip.

Ernest Hemingway, eat your heart out.

On reflection, I should probably be kinder to the man known affectionately (or in some instances, not-so affectionately) as "Papa." After all, that classic American writer served as the inspiration for this particular leg of my trip in Key West, Florida. After visiting the Hemingway House Museum earlier, and eating lunch at Ernest's Café next door, it only seemed fitting I should pursue one of his favourite pastimes and at try my hand at deep-sea fishing.

So here I was, sitting on the ocean in a boat named Linda D under the guidance of Captain Daryl, trying to haul in a fish that, tail to sword tip, was longer than I am tall, and a much better swimmer, on top of that.

"Pull back - slow! Ease down … now reel! Reel hard! Reel-reel-reel!" yelled Dan the mate. "Now give it some slack! Let it run! Okay, start reeling!"

The fish jumped out of the water once, then twice. The guide continued to repeat those same mantras for the next 20 minutes.

I began to understand the love Hemingway-or anyone, for that matter-developed for deep-sea fishing. There is a real thrill, a total rush when a big fish hits your line and you're battling to bring it in. It was something the Pulitzer prize-winning writer of The Old Man and the Sea never tired of, although I was getting tired already, just taking on this one fish.

Although Hemingway lived, worked and played in Key West, his presence is not restricted to that island; you'll find his influences all over south Florida. My first night's dinner in Florida, at Shula's Steakhouse in Naples, I had the pleasure of imbibing something called "Hemingway's Escape" (featuring lots of rum and lime). On Key Largo, at The Fish House - unpretentious-looking, but serving up great food - I ate grouper prepared "Hemingway" style.

I also enjoyed a grilled seafood platter at the Everglades City Rod and Gun Club, a classic old Florida institution Hemingway used to frequent. Still serving clients as an inn, it emanates character and atmosphere. The polished old wooden interior walls, covered with mounted fish, trophy mammals and even an entire alligator took me back to an era long before catch-and-release became the standard practice, to a time before people worried about the vanishing wildlife species on our planet, before overzealous political correctness reared its sometimes sanctimonious head.

The Blue Heaven Restaurant is another establishment that serves up a good portion of Hemingway nostalgia along with its breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Formerly known as the Blue Heaven Bordello, Hemingway-trained fighters used to engage in Friday night prize fights here. There were also cock fights and gambling.

Nowadays, you can't watch fights there, but you can get some good grub. As for the ladies of the evening … the only ladies there now serve you food and drink.

Unlike the trophy critters on the walls at the Everglades City Rod and Gun Club, the animals at Hemingway's house in Key West are all still very much alive. The place crawled with close to 50 of the six-toed cats that Hemingway loved. All current residents trace their lineage from Snowball, one of his favourite feline pals.

The fish pulling on my line in Captain Darryl's boat could probably have fed all of them, and still left enough to make a decent fish chowder. Providing I could land it, of course.

Eventually, I did get it close enough that we could pronounce it "Caught!" and the guide released it, sending it back to the ocean depths.

In these days of dwindling aquatic resources, that is obviously the right thing to do. Still, I wonder what Papa would have thought, standing there, watching us let a fish go after battling it for 30 minutes … .


To plan a trip to Key West or any of the Florida Keys, a good place to start is

Want to deep-sea fish?

Other sites: The Hemingway Home National Historic Site:
Sloppy Joe's:
Blue Heaven:
Everglades City Rod and Gun Club:
Shula's Steakhouses:

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PHOTOS by John Geary:

1. The Everglades City Rod and Gun Club is steeped in atmosphere.
2. Captain Daryl and mate Dan round up some bait for the big fish.
3. Ernest's Café, Key West
4. Earnest Hemingway's Desk in Key West
5. Hemingway's House, Key West


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