Silver Kings at the Burger King
Bob McNally 05.20.14
There is a unique Burger King Restaurant on – of all places – Grand Cayman Island in the azure-blue and beautifully-tropical Caribbean Sea. Although not far south of Castro’s socialist Cuba nor far north of impoverished Honduras, Grand Cayman is a clear-water gem, truly one of the garden spots of the Western Atlantic.
Famed for its liberal banking policies (like Switzerland), Grand Cayman is mega-money spot. So the beaches are perfect, resorts posh, swank restaurants abound, and the natives are friendly.
The fishing and diving also are outstanding, which is why a group of anglers from the U.S. were there for most of a week trolling the deep, ultra-clear water. Undersea mountains and near-bottomless canyons near the shore around Grand Cayman make for world class fishing, much of it for blue marlin. And they were the targets for about two dozen of us in open Mako center-console boats.
Our marlin fishing was remarkable, with each of about 10 boats at least hooking a marlin daily. Some days, some boats caught several billfish. But it’s what happened behind a waterfront, two-story high Burger King Restaurant (no kidding) that will forever bring a smile to my face.
Jan Fogt, Walt Jennings, and I were getting fuel for Walt’s 25-foot Mako after a morning of marlin trolling where we’d raised three blues and lost a 150-pounder. Exciting stuff, and we were relishing the day as we pulled to a dockside marina. The afternoon was winding down, and Pina Coladas would soon beckon.
About 200 yards across a clear-water harbor was a small local boat ramp. Beside it a giant two story Burger King with open-air balconies full of people enjoying food and watching the quiet harbor below. I was amazed there even was a Burger King on Cayman, yet a two-story one with a waterfront view. About that time something in the water near the restaurant caught my eye, and a 100-pound tarpon rolled in that flashy, crescent-shaped, head-to-tail way they so often do. Then another heavyweight tarpon welled up head-to-tail, shining gaudy silver in the late-day sun.
Jan and Walt saw the fish, too, which though rare in the Caribbean Islands, are in good supply in some places, Grand Cayman being one of them. We’d happened across a mother lode of oversize silver kings. The harbor had a dozen or more tarpon, all big fish, and they were clearly visible as they cruised in lazy circles within a short cast of the Burger King.
In seconds we were a whirl of activity, digging for jigs and heavy spinning rods we had on board for offshore dolphin and grouper. I had just fired a long cast toward a trio of cruising tarpon, when the harbor master who was standing on a dock behind me said, “Mon, there’s no fishin’ here, only place on de island off-limits to da fishin’. You stay, da write you big dolla’ ticket.”
He said it was a closed fishing zone for 300 yards around the boat ramp beside the Burger King. That explained why while the tarpon were there: fishermen were not.
Undeterred, we finished fueling and Walt moved his boat just outside the closed fishing area, which we could clearly see once we recognized the signs for what they were near the marina bay.
We fired jigs, then jigs tipped with ballyhoo, but try as we might, we couldn’t quite reach the area where the tarpon were circling. It was just beyond the limit of our farthest casts from outside the closed fishing zone.
Dejected but not defeated, I quickly donned a face mask, dive fins, and a snorkel and slipped overboard. I wanted to watch the tarpon underwater to learn if they circled within range of our casts.
I kicked quickly and quietly toward the fish, stopping 100 feet away to watch their effortless circling through air-clear water, bright tropical sun shining overhead. The fish followed a pretty defined pattern around the little harbor, but never approached where our casts could reach them. But there was a large patch of slick rock that little clusters of tarpon consistently passed over, and I figured that was the spot to try for a fish.
I swam back to our Mako, and Walt rigged a whole ballyhoo on a 1-ounce jig to a 20-pound fishing outfit. He put the reel in free spool, gave me the jig, and I silently kicked back toward the tarpon, diving down and laying the jig-and-ballyhoo on the slick rock.
I timed it so none of the tarpon were nearby when I placed the jig on bottom in about 10 feet of water. I also told Walt and Jan that I’d watch the rock from 100 feet, and when I saw tarpon approaching the jig-and-bait I’d raise my hand above water, signaling them to be ready for a take so they could strike the fish.
I hovered, snorkeling at the surface, watching clusters of tarpon swim around. It didn’t take long for a trio of them to work toward the rock where the jig-with-ballyhoo waited. The fish swam just a couple feet off bottom, and they were on a collision course with our lure. I raised my hand, knowing Walt and Jan would be ready. Then I watched excitedly as the fish closed on the bait.
A few feet from the jig, the lead tarpon turned directly toward it, and without missing a tail beat, dipped its nose to the jig-and-ballyhoo. When its massive head was inches from the lure, the 100-pound tarpon’s gills flared, and it inhaled the whole jig-and-bait like a largemouth bass vacuuming in a big plastic worm off bottom.
I remember being so excited when the tarpon took the lure that I gasped, hyperventilating through my snorkel.
The fish reaction was immediate and violent when Walt set the hook a moment later. The line drew tight, and the 6-foot long fish’s head rocked side-to-side. Instantly it powered down, spooking the other two tarpon that jetted by me within touching distance one to each side. Then the hooked tarpon switched ends fast, and in an instant went vertical, then airborne.
Never before nor since have I been underwater to watch a 100-pound fish jump from only 50 feet away. It left the clear depths as fast and as impressively as a Polaris missile fired from a nuclear submarine. Walt said it came out 10 feet high, and it landed with an hydro explosion, bubbles and foam flying everywhere. Then it leaped again, this time throwing the jig, crashing back into the clear water, then rushing around me and out of the harbor to open-water freedom.
The entire event – from fish taking the jig, jumping, to leaving the harbor – couldn’t have taken 15 seconds.
I was giddy and laughing when I popped my head above water to check with Jan and Walt. That’s when I heard the cheering.
Dozens of people who’d been eating at the Burger King had witnessed the entire episode and were going bonkers, clapping and yelling. It was a full-blown standing ovation – from both decks of diners.
“They’re more excited than we are,” Jan bubbled as I got into the Mako.
“I don’t think that’s possible,” I replied, grinning widely.