Night tarpon hunt at Rocky Bluff goes sideways

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Michael Hein, left, Dominic Rhodes and Madelyn, Chloe and James Hein of Florida and Arizona fished offshore and nearshore Oct. 26 with great results on trout and snapper using shiners. They were guided to the fish by Capt. Warren Girle.

Night fishing has always held a special place in my heart.

When I was single, having fewer responsibilities and obligations, I was an avid night fisherman. Whether targeting snook, trout or tarpon, the tranquility and solitude of night fishing satisfied me.

Now, being a family man and entrepeneur with a busy guide business, I have all but curtailed my nighttime activities. That is, until I recently decided to do some nighttime fishing in the Manatee River.

I had heard a rumor of an abundance of juvenile tarpon at Rocky Bluff near the Interstate-75 bridge — which sounded like a good dose of night fishing. I was joined by my buddy, also a fishing guide, Aaron Lowman. He couldn’t pass up an adventure and the opportunity to catch some tarpon.

I decided to do some research on our destination. I’m somewhat familiar with the Manatee River, but traveling that far up river at night could pose a challenge. Even with GPS, you can get turned around out there at night if you’re not careful.

I noticed sandbars and oyster bars on the nautical chart throughout the areas we were going to fish. These obstructions are usually hidden at night, so navigation would be a serious matter. I noticed a particular landmark in the vicinity called Rocky Bluff, which sent me to Google, where I discovered a number of old “folklore” entries about Rocky Bluff.

The recurring characteristic reported about Rocky Bluff is an eerie humming sound — much like that from electrical wires — reported by numerous people. Stories were handed down from as early as the 1800s from folks claiming they heard singing that would emanate from the flat rocks around Rocky Bluff.

One story made reference to a Calusa Indian maiden from the south side of the Manatee River who had fallen in love with a Timucuan prince who lived on the north bank. Being from different tribes, their love was forbidden. This led them to meet in secrecy. The maiden would sit along the south bank and sing her signal that it was safe to meet. When the Timucuan prince heard her song, he would paddle his “dugout” across the river to meet her.

Another story attributed the sounds to a young Spanish girl who was kidnapped by a notorious pirate, Pascual Miguel, also known as “El Carnicero,” or “the Butcher,” He was a small-time pirate who had taken up residence in the late 1700s in Manatee County. He had three bases — one on Bean Point, which was a great lookout point for potential victims. Another existed at the entrance to Terra Ceia Bay on Rattlesnake Key. And the last — the main base — was at Rocky Bluff on the north shore of the Manatee River.

The story goes that the young Spanish girl Carlotta had been on a distressed vessel just off Egmont Key when she was introduced to the pirate. Upon seizing the vessel during rough seas, Miguel and his crew towed the schooner up the Manatee River to calmer waters. Once there, “El Carnicero” and his mates robbed the schooner and murdered its crew — all but Carlotta.

Miguel wanted her for himself. He had just slit the throat of his last female captive for denying his advances and was hungry for fresh blood.

Weeks passed and word finally reached Carlotta’s father, a commandant in the Spanish navy out of Pensacola. He immediately gave chase along with several other vessels to rescue his daughter.

Upon seeing the arrival of the search party, Miguel fled up river to hide at Rocky Bluff. After days of being alone on the small schooner, Miguel noticed Carlotta becoming frantic about not being rescued. To ease her mind, he created a harp-like set up of wires strung vertically across the porthole of the cabin where she was held captive. When the wind blew through the strings, it created a harmonious sound much like the hum of a harpsicord.

The sound of the harpsicord is yet another attribution to the mysterious sounds emanating over the river at Rocky Bluff.

As for Carlotta, for fear of never being rescued, she managed to chisel numerous holes in the bottom of Miguel’s shallow-draft schooner, causing it to scuttle and sink to the bottom. Miguel and his crew managed to escape and swim to shore never to be seen again. Unfortunately, Carlotta went down with the schooner to a watery grave.

On a cloudy fall evening in October, Aaron and I decided to try our luck with the Manatee River tarpon. We loaded up my 23-foot C-Hawk with the normal provisions of drinks and ice and a wide assortment of artificial lures to tempt the tarpon. We packed a handheld GPS as a backup as well as some headlamps and a spotlight.

We pulled out of the Mainsail Marina in Holmes Beach around 9 p.m. with a light breeze from the south pressing against us. It was cloudy that night and, even though we were only a few days from the full moon, it was very dark. We would definitely be relying on our electronics to navigate our way up the long, winding Manatee River.

As we neared the end of the “no wake zone” I eased the throttle up to level out at 20 mph. We followed the Intracoastal Waterway north until we passed the Bulk Head.

I then steered the boat east toward the mouth of the river.

The water was calm and we were making good time, keeping watch on the GPS. I was telling Aaron about Rocky Bluff and the legend behind it, adding detail about the legend of Pascual Miguel.

“So they called him ‘The Butcher,’ huh?” asked Aaron. “Great.”

I chuckled as we navigated on the calm black waters.

Finally, we saw the lights of the I-75 bridge, although the channel markings on my GPS had gradually become harder to define. It was as if the channels this far up the river weren’t plotted as well as the coast.

I laid the boat down to idle speed. It was quiet, except for the hum of the cars on the bridge.

It was time to start looking for fish and we adjusted our eyes to watch the surface of the water for rolling tarpon. We idled for about 45 minutes and saw nothing.

Navigating out of the channel was nothing short of nerve racking. There were shoals, sand bars and oyster bars everywhere. In one instant, we were in 8 feet of water and the next only 2 feet.

After an hour or so we were both considering turning back. Then we saw a fish roll. And then another. And another.

“Well, I think we found them,” I whispered to Aaron.

“Thank, Christ,” he replied. “I was beginning to give up.”

I killed the engine and let the boat quietly drift toward the fish. There was no wind so the drift was slow and perfect. Aaron grabbed a rod rigged with a red-and-white

Yo-Zuri crystal minnow and I grabbed mine with an 84-MR MirrOlure Top Dog.

“They look to be about 20-pounders,” I said to Aaron.

“Yeah that sounds about right,” Aaron replied, retrieving his lure.

And then, bang! Aaron got bit. The fish hit about 30 yards from the boat. It immediately breeched the surface of the water, erratically shaking its head, trying to throw the lure from its boney mouth. The cackle of the gills echoed across the water and bounced off the side of the boat.

“Hell, yeah!” I exclaimed. “We finally got one!”

The fish landed with a loud splash and the sound of drag screaming from the reel cut through the quiet night air. Aaron hopped on the bow of the boat to fight the fish.

After 15 minutes, the tarpon was boat side. It’s head on the surface, it’s black eye reflecting an iridescent yellow from the lights of the bridge. I lipped the fish and used needle-nose pliers to pop out the hooks.

Aaron took hold as I snapped a few shots with my cellphone. It was hard to focus — my hands were shaking with excitement. As he released his catch, we motored back to the school of fish.

I switched my MirrOlure for a red and white Yo-Zuri and made the first cast. Boom, I got a hit.

“Here’s another one,” I said confidently. But this fish didn’t fight like a tarpon. Another couple of minutes passed and it hadn’t broken the surface, and I began to wonder what was on my hook. The fish stopped fighting and I reeled and dragged it to the boat.

I knew it was large — it was quite heavy. About 10 feet from the boat with the leader visible, Aaron reached out to grab the leader as the fish showed itself. Its long beak swung side to side as Aaron jerked his hand back just in time to avoid being sliced by a mouth of teeth. It was a gar — a big one.

“Oh crap,” Aaron yelled. “That the biggest gar I’ve ever seen.”

Aaron grabbed the leader and pulled the huge fish to the boat. It was subdued. Tired. Ready to be de-hooked and let go. The large teeth had scraped the Yo-Zuri so badly it was hardly recognizable. The big eyes looked up at us and Aaron picked the hooks out and released the fish.

During all of the excitement, the weather had changed without our noticing it. A thick fog had enveloped the boat and I looked up to see the bridge to fix our position.

It was gone.

I also couldn’t hear traffic noises.

The GPS showed our position to be a few hundred yards from Rocky Bluff. The fog was so thick, we couldn’t see shore. So rather than blindly drifting toward the bridge, we dropped anchor. At least I knew were in safe water. At least, I thought so.

Within minutes we heard an odd singing sound. It reminded me of the sound of the wind whistling through the fishing lines on windy days. It swayed up and down in pitch — sometimes in harmony and other times out of tune.

“Is that the fishing lines making that noise?” asked Aaron.

“It should be,” I responded, “but there ain’t no wind. You need wind to cause that sound.”

Then a horrible stench filled the air. I gagged. Aaron did the same.

“What is that?” he exclaimed. “It smells like rotten flesh and body odor mixed together.”

He was right. It was possibly the worst smell I’ve ever experienced. I hung my head over the boat, ready to throw up.

Then I saw an odd-looking vessel approaching in the fog. It appeared to be an old wooden schooner with two masts — 30-40 feet long. As it got closer, the humming got louder, the stench unbearable.

I yelled, “Hey look out!” I flashed my anchor light and shined my Mag-light as a warning.

The boat came toward us until it was along our starboard side. A figure jumped down from the helm and ran alongside the gunwale. I heard a loud crash. A large double hook attached to a thin rope had landed on the deck of my boat. The rope immediately pulled taught as the hook fastened to my starboard gunwale. It appeared we were going to be boarded.

Luckily, Aaron had pulled anchor as the boat approached, anticipating the need to move quickly. We were moving all right — being dragged by the rope and grapple hook.

“Quien eres?” shouted the person. “Quien eres?”

He was asking who we were in Spanish. The shock of what was happening diminished a polite response.

“What the hell are you doing?” I yelled back.

“Callate la boca!” the man shouted. “Eres mio ahora!”

He told me to shut up and that we were his prisoners. I reached under the console and hit the rocker switch for my floodlight. Immediately, the boat lit up and most of the invader’s boat, too.

I could clearly see our assailant. He had black hair, a black beard and dark leathery skin. He had no shirt, showing a skinny but muscular torso. He looked slightly malnourished, yet he was strong and quick. His deep-set bloodshot eyes glared at me. I could see he had a machete in one hand and what looked like a handgun in the other. Upon further inspection, I could see the handgun resembled an old flintlock gun from times long ago.

At the moment the flood light came on, he stopped yelling and paused. With a confused and almost fearful look on his face, he examined our boat. It was as if he had never seen anything like it before.

He pointed the gun at my face.

“Que es esto?” he grumbled. What is this? “Que es esto?” he yelled.

By this time Aaron was losing his temper. He walked toward the gunwale and reached for the hook to release us.

“We’re outta here, buddy. Danny, start the engine,” he shouted.

Aaron grabbed the hook and in the same instance the man swung his machete. It flew from his hand into Aarons left leg, piercing his bright orange Grunden slickers.

I was on the verge of fainting as I saw the machete protruding from of the back of Aaron’s leg.

And the hook was still attached to the gunwale of our boat.

I scanned my brain trying to think of what to do next. We had no weapons on the boat except for maybe a couple of fillet knives and a gaff. As I reached for the gaff, the invader pointed his gun at me.

He pulled the trigger. Click.

Nothing happened.

Maybe the thick fog had dampened his powder but, lucky for me, the gun misfired.

He was trying to climb into our boat and I could see he was aiming to tackle me and so I swung the 4-foot gaff as hard as I could. It connected on the right side of his head. The hook was backward so it didn’t penetrate, but the sheer force of the blow stunned him and he fell back onto his own vessel.

Then I heard a bloodcurdling scream emanating from the cabin of his boat. I could faintly see a woman’s face peering through a small porthole that appeared to be wired shut. One of her eyes was swollen shut and blood colored her chin.

“Alejarse!” she screamed. Get away. “El es El Carnicero!”

He is the butcher!

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Was it Pascual Miguel? This was impossible. He died 200 years ago.

The invader, still dazed and laying on the deck, was stunned by the blow of my gaff.

I turned the key and fired up my Yamaha 200 hp, figuring I would try to take off at full throttle and maybe the line that tethered us would break.

I glanced forward to see if Aaron was holding the machete that had pierced his slickers, but only grazed his leg. He was OK. Aaron raised the machete over his head and brought it down on the line over the gunwale.

We were free.

I slammed the boat into gear, forced the throttle down and we took off so fast the boat almost came out of the water. Aaron rolled across the deck before slamming into the tower. The machete flew overboard.

We were now traveling into the fog at 30 knots. My fight or flight reflex had kicked in and, although I couldn’t see where I was going, I didn’t slow down.

We made it at about 400 yards and then bang. The boat slammed onto a sand bar. We were stuck. Immediately we hopped out and, running on pure adrenaline, we started pushing the boat. This was the scariest moment. We knew he was out there, coming for us. We were sitting ducks.

It took us almost 5 minute, but we got it done. We guided the boat to deeper water and Aaron jumped up first. As I followed, I rolled on my belly over the gunnel and slipped, landing on my back. As I lay on the deck looking upward I noticed the fog was clearing. By the time I stood, it was gone. I could see the lights of the I-75 bridge.

The familiar sound of cars and trucks filled the air, the clouds had cleared and the light from the almost full moon illuminated the winding river. We could see the river bank on either side.

What we didn’t see was the old wooden schooner. In fact, there wasn’t another boat in sight.

That concluded our tarpon expedition at Rocky Bluff. In fact, I don’t know if I’ll ever fish that river again at night. Hearing Carlotta pleading with us to escape Pascual Miguel, “the butcher,” will never leave my mind. I can’t help feeling I should have tried to save her.

But I don’t even know if it really happened.

So, if you’re ever on a midnight cruise on the peaceful black waters of the Manatee River, keep your ears tuned for the sound of the wind blowing through the wire strings of Carlotta’s porthole.

It’s probably just the wind singing through your fishing lines, but do you want to take that chance?

Beware of El Carnicero. And happy Halloween from your local guides.

Send high-resolution photos and fishing reports to fish@islander.org.

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