Tommy Joe and Jail Bait
By Ralph "Gonzo" Crosby
I scattered out the Quaker Oats cereal across the edge of the water close to the bank. TJ poled the boat along without so much as a ripple on the water's surface.
We repeated this maneuver all along the riverbank. Tommy pushed us out to the center of the canal and started up the ancient 9.9 horsepower outboard motor. We putted along towards the Road 84 bridge so we could duck under it out of the morning breeze. I opened my backpack and tossed TJ a lukewarm RC Cola and a can of Vienna sausages.
Raising pocket money seemed to take up a good percentage of our recreation time, so we decided to make our leisure time make us money. Walt Disney would steal this idea from us pretty soon and build Disney World in the middle of some orange groves right up the state a ways.
Tommy, Sammy Morgan, and I could catch more big bass in an hour than Roland Martin could lie about in a week. We caught our bass on plugs we made from cutting broom handles off at a 45 degree angle about 5 inches long. We would paint some black and some green and yellow, one we painted Richard Petty Blue because it looked cool. We added eyehooks and big treble hooks to the small torpedoes. The lures were locally known as "Sammy The Slide Rule's Can't Miss Top Waters." The official name was " Sammy The Slide Rule's Can't Miss Unless A Jerk In Another Boat Runs Over Them," which is how we lost ninety percent of the priceless lures.
We could catch big bass with our plugs or long plastic worms anytime. It came to our attention that people from other states couldn't catch big bass in a five-gallon bucket with a scoop net. South Florida bass love a baitfish called wild shiners. Wild shiners are about as easy to catch as five lottery numbers, so most people bought farm-raised shiners from the fish camp. Farm raised shiners are about as lively as a Century Village shuffle board tournament. Wild shiners could just about kick
a bass's ass that was trying to eat it. We would get out to the everglades about two hours before sun up which was always about two hours after my mom laid her head on the pillow. She would get up, pack us some snacks, and haul us out into no man's land. We always thought that one day she wouldn't come back.
We had a live well with fresh water circulating through it. We kept our
sodas and most of the big shiners in there. As the sun would come up, we would bait tiny balls of fresh oatmeal on invisible hooks tied on line about as thick as eyelashes. We tossed this up where the shiners were devouring the Quaker Oats. We would catch about four dozen real quick and motor down to the boat ramp.
The anglers in the know would crowd along the ramp and bid on the shiners. It would take us about ten minutes to sell out.
We could always get someone to help yank our jon boat out of the canal and up onto the bank for a shiner or two. We would head over to the fish camp cafe and order two big cheeseburgers, fries, dill pickles, and RC Colas. It was about 6:30 A M and this was the breakfast of champion wild shiner fishermen.
One day while out fishing the unthinkable happened! The twenty-year-old outboard motor belched out its last plume of black smoke and seized up. I looked at TJ and he patted the old motor's cover. Tommy said he thought burial at sea was in order. Neither one of us liked hauling the old motor back and forth to the glades so dumping it overboard was no great loss. Tommy emptied all the gas, oil, and other fluids out into the bottom of the jon boat and unceremoniously tossed the motor over the side. We justified dumping it into the canal by saying it would make good cover for small fish. It would also snag about a twenty hooks a weekend until everyone realized it was under there.
Left without a motor to propel the infamous "Bream Reaper," we were losing valuable income.
We went to the one man who always had just what we needed. Uncle Thurmon said he had a tricked up motor down at the port we could buy on time from him.
The Bream Reaper was a 10-foot jon boat rated for a 9-horse motor. Uncle Thurmon had a Mark 55 Mercury race motor off a hydroplane in his pickup truck bed. He said the guys at the port had put extra race
everything parts in her. He told us we would have to reinforce the transom a little to make it hold the 55 horse motor. Tommy Joe cut a marine plywood transom stiffener and we bolted it in. We put a little dot between the two 5s on the motor cover. We hoped my mom would think we traded down to a 5.5 horse motor.
We went out to the canal along Road 84 Saturday morning for a couple shakedown runs. Uncle Thurmon suggested we wear our life preservers
for the first couple passes. The motor fired up and it sounded like a dozen really angry wood chippers running. I looked at TJ and he winked. We knew we were about to leave our mark on the sport of extreme fishing.
Tommy eased on the gas and the jon boat shot straight up and the planed off. We were passing cars on road 84 at half throttle! We shot down to the lock on the canal and turned around. TJ stepped to the bow and said, "Gonz take it easy out of the hole, she's a bit nasty!" I grabbed the wheel and eased her into gear. TJ laid down on the bow and grabbed the bowline. I punched it all out!
The whole boat shot out of the water and in seconds, fishing rods, coolers, and tackle boxes came rolling down the hull towards me. We were shooting a ten-foot rooster tail up in the air and the dragonflies felt like bullets as they splattered on our faces and
chests. I eased the throttle back and we glided to a stop. Tommy peeled a dragonfly off his cheek and allowed as how I might have misunderstood him when he said take it easy. He grabbed a life preserver and put it on. He looked over at me and said "What? I'm feelin' a little chilly, that's all." I braced my feet against the little metal bench and rolled on the gas. The motor wound up and we could feel every "extra race" part in the engine flailing away.
We could cover so much water on Saturdays with the jon boat that we added another marina to our shiner sales. The old folks
who sat on the banks fishing with cane poles would skitter back up the grass at the sound of the approaching banshee. You didn't steer the little jon boat; you aimed it. You picked out a landmark and just hung on.
Sammy Morgan came by the house one afternoon while TJ and I were cleaning up the boat. Tommy Joe had his little paintbrush and some red paint; he was getting ready to paint her new name on the hull. The Bream Reaper was as cool name for a nine-horse power jon boat, but we needed something a little scarier for the shiner boat. We decided on
"Jail Bait" and TJ lettered it on with his always steady hand.
Sammy asked us if we had heard about the outboard open races at Port Everglades. The rich kids from across town would show up in their
dads' Boston Whalers and race across the port to a buoy and then back. Tommy and I didn't even look up until Sammy mentioned Mercury outboards paid a hundred dollars to each boat that won running one of their motors.
We called uncle Thurmon to see what he thought. He told us to bring the motor down to the port and the guys in the shop would tune it up for us. They strapped the fifty five horse outboard to the dyno to see how much power she was putting out at the prop. They told us they had built the motor "pretty stout," which down here meant balls-out-no-holds-barred-little boys-need-not-apply type engines.
Jeffery Harmon built the motor and told us to watch the gauge on the dyno as he wound her up. The motor did
its usual ear wax melting wail and the needle on the dynamometer began to
climb: 45, 50, 60, 65, 67, 71 horses! Mr. Harmon fitted her with racing megaphone exhaust
stacks and a new prop for our assault on Port Everglades. We loaded the motor back into uncle
Thurmon's pickup and rode home. We both looked straight out the windshield and never spoke a word about how our hearts were pounding.
All the neighborhood gang went down to the port on Saturday. Whenever they sensed a chance to see me and Tommy Joe shed a little blood, they jumped at the chance. We looked at the bone white Boston Whalers with the Black Max Mercury motors clamped on the sterns. All the rich beach girls from school were there and they gave TJ and me the usual "Look what the Bubonic plague researchers drug
in" stare. I tipped my ketchup encrusted Crane Cams hat to them and wiped
off the jon boat's hull. We could hear them giggle and talk to each other about how we were finally gonna get creamed in a race.
We went through tech and the Ft. Lauderdale Power Boat Squadron scratched their heads and asked what the hell kind of rig our boat was. We told them it was a custom job that Chris Craft wanted us to test for them. They made a note to have the rescue boats move a little closer to the course for our heat.
We flipped a coin. TJ won driver and I was stuck with throttle man. All the other teams had practiced the art of one guy driving and the other guy metering out the power. Tommy Joe and I had never driven the jon boat in open water with four foot waves before. The starting crew told us to take Jail Bait down to the boat ramp and try not to hit any of the real boats when we put her in. All the boats in the race had little power squadron emblems on the stern. You could pick ours out real easy; we were the one with the skull and crossbones.
We were in the second novice class 55 horse power heat. We were to use a standing start and race out to a buoy a mile off shore in the Atlantic ocean, then race back and continue for five laps.
Uncle Thurmon gave us our "special" racing gas can, and took the standard
can and put it in his truck. He handed me one of those little perfume atomizers. I said, "What's this for?" He said when we got out to the buoy to spray some into the carburetors. He said it was a little fuel additive from a P51 fighter plane. I stuck it in my pocket and we got ready to make believers out of the salt water crowd.
A Miami Hurricane cheerleader in a bikini raised a pistol into the air and got ready to start the race. Later in life, most Miami Hurricane girls with guns would just point them straight at TJ and me. The starter's gun fired and I rolled the throttle open. We shot up out of the water like usual and in about five seconds, we were twenty lengths ahead of all the other boats. We ran out around the buoy at about one third throttle and won our heat going away.
We won the 55 horse class and this qualified us for the Feature race. We would race heads up with the 110 horse stock boats and have a ten second head start on the 150 horse hydroplanes. We basked in the glory of being heat champions for an hour or so and offered to sign autographs for all our friends
who showed up solely to see us get humiliated.
Mr. Harmon and Uncle Thurmon cleaned the plugs and did a little fine tuning on the motor and Jail Bait was ready to rumble! We took off with the 110 horse boats and stayed even about half way to the first buoy. I just kept the motor about three quarter throttle and realized we could beat any of these guys. Tommy Joe thought I had the motor pegged and he was driving like a man on a mission. A few second later, we heard what sounded like a tornado comin' up from behind!
"Dang! Hydroplanes, TJ," I shouted. TJ couldn't look back. So I turned around and shouted which way to steer to block them from behind. We zigzagged along, keeping the faster boats at bay and running away from all the rest. It's one thing to stand facing backwards in a boat going 75 mph in very calm canal water. Standing backwards controlling a throttle at 90 mph in four foot ocean waves was tricky even for me.
Tommy cut the buoy as sharp as he could and about half the rivets in Jail Bait's hull spat out into the ocean. The Wayward Sun hydro was right on us now and TJ was rubbing fenders with him, except we didn't have any fenders. We hit a pretty good wave and I pulled back on the throttle a little to keep the motor from going into orbit. The hydro stayed even with us. The people on the beach were amazed to see us still neck and neck with them. We were about two hundred yards from the finish and the hydro pulled a little ahead. We hit a wave and I tumbled back into the stern. Tommy had the wheel in one hand and the throttle in the
other; Casey Jones came to mind. I looked at TJ and just hated we were gonna lose the race; he was really givin' everything he had!
I felt the little perfume bottle in my pocket and said what the hell, I opened it and poured it all into one of the carburetors. The motor wound up about triple what it was running and we were just skimming the tops off the waves now! I lifted my head up enough to make eye contact with the startled hydroplane driver as we flew past. He clenched his teeth and tried to catch us but we were going under the finish line and savoring the victory.
Tommy hit the kill switch and nothing happened. Then everything did! I guess we hit the dock at about 90 or so, we slid right down it and picked a few motors off the back of the rental boats sitting on the sides. Jail Bait seemed to realize this was her last ride and was going out in style. We bounced over a few zodiac inflatable boats, sending them flying around the dock as the air gushed out of the gashes. TJ clipped the wheels off the hot dog cart and sent it teetering over the side.
People were running and hollering and hitting the deck all around us. I could hear glass breaking and smell electric wires burning. Next time you watch The Blues Brothers and you get to the part with the car chase through the mall, you'll
have a pretty decent picture of what it was like on the dock.
It was a scene TJ and I seemed destined to be the center of our entire lives.
For a lot more Tommy Joe and the boys, visit www.maxnana.com