A fish out of water

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The anxiety welled up in my lungs as we drove across alligator alley, filling my chest cavity with nervous and increasingly toxic ionized air. My earlobes were sweating -- an entirely new and startling development -- and I fumbled with the car radio in a desperate attempt to find some unnatural force to distract me from my minor panic attack. In the end, the only station that came in clearly was broadcasting the elevator sounds of a pre-Gwyneth Paltrow Coldplay block that, unsurprisingly, did not do the job. I wondered aloud, "If I vomit on the side of the road, will the smell of it attract a gator?"

Mind you, it wasn't the gators I was afraid of. It was fishing. And, ordinarily, while the prospect of a day on the ocean off the coast of Miami in the middle of winter would make any New Yorker giddy with excitement, I found myself nearly paralyzed with fear as my father and I drove from Marco Island to meet our companions on the other side of the panhandle.

It was all my fault. My dad was turning 60 and had just retired, so on a recent escape from the frigid Northeast to balmy Florida I decided I'd treat him to a fishing adventure on Captain Gavet Tuttle's charter boat with my friend DougGiles, a Miami local.

During the planning stages, all was just swell -- I hadn't been deep-sea fishing in ages, and knew my dad would be thrilled. And I'd get to hang out with Doug, an author and host of Clash Radio, whose big game fishing and hunting resume might have made Teddy Roosevelt a little envious. Aoudad sheep, wild boar, sharks, antelope, impala, bison, oryx, lion, kudu, eland, Corsican ram, sable, Cape buffalo, nyala -- he's battled wits with them all. And won.

But during the few weeks between booking the trip and the trip itself, Doug and I traded what should have been innocuous e-mails designed to rev me up for the outing -- e-mails that would eventually turn on me. Bad.

"Have you ever caught a tarpon?" he wrote. "If you hook a tarpon, you are in for a ride. They're brutal. Pound-for-pound one of the hardest-fighting fish."

And a few days later: "I'm praying that God will bless you with much pain from massive fish."

And next: "You don't get sea sick, right? Massive swells out there."

And: "Is your dad in good shape?"

And finally, just before I would hop on a south-bound plane: "The cool thing about tarpon fishing is the hammerheads and the giant bull sharks eat the tarpon. We've had massive tarpon get eaten by bulls and hammers right at the side of our boat."

I had always imagined myself a strong, capable, up-for-anything adventurer. I've fished in the remote and bear-infested wilds of Alaska , and off the coast of Brazil . I camp. I hunt. And I brave the New York City subways daily. But for whatever reason, Doug's words, meant to excite me, had taken on a life of their own. What started out as a fun, mid-winter getaway had become a looming test of endurance, strength, skill and mental fortitude -- totally self-imposed, but serious nonetheless. Would I make it? Could I do it? I was now picturing the whole, sad, pathetic scene aboard Captain Gavet's boat that would memorialize me in Miami as "that girl" forever.

One scenario featured me hunched over the rail and green with nausea. Another involved my flimsy, bicep-less arms and their embarrassing inability to hold onto the rod, which I would eventually forfeit to the sea, much to the chagrin of my captain, the rod's unhappy owner.

And yet another version ended with my shark-serrated flesh chumming the waters off Bal Harbour , a gift to fishermen who weren't the clumsy, ill-equipped wimp that I was.

"Stop stressing and just have a good time," my newly-retired father implored as we approached Haulover Marina, where Doug greeted us shirtless and with a half-chewed cigar protruding from his mouth.

As we left the cushioned shoreline of Miami Beach, the smiling manatees and inquisitive pelicans I'd seen in postcards were not enough to calm my nerves. And we did not get off to a good start.

First, there was the poisonous Portuguese Man-O'-War I managed to run my finger through. Then, while I awaiting a slow death, Captain Gavet cheerfully told me the story of dead bodies he'd come upon during his years as one of Southern Florida 's only fulltime guides.

And while Doug and Gavet regaled me with violent stories of Miami's fabled cocaine years, I noticed there were no fishing seats aboard our small vessel, nothing on which to brace against in the case that I caught a big one. It would just be me against the fish. As the guys traded turns relieving themselves off the side of the boat, I began to wonder what the hell I was doing there.

Doug has millions of readers at Townhall.com, and is author of a number of intimidating titles like How to Keep Jackasses Away From Daddy's Girl. The five things he always brings fishing are "cigars, cold beer, camera, food, and attitude." And when I asked him what he thinks of allowing prissy girls on the boat, he says, "My screening process would never allow that to happen. However, should one get through, I would tell 'Mariah' that you haven't fished 'til you smell like a fish. Go home smelly and with scars." He is machismo incarnate.

I love this about Doug, and it's what makes him a very successful and engaging voice of rebellion over the airwaves. But I had already decided I wasn't up for the challenge and would crumble under the pressure -- not pressure from Doug, but from myself. I was fish food.

Nearly five hours into the day, we hadn't caught a thing. The strength of the midday Miami sun managed to calm me down a little, but the test I knew I might have to face was still heavy on my mind. As the sun began to set, I thought maybe I'd get off easy.

And then, suddenly, the line spun out loudly, whirring maniacally behind us, and Gavet ran across the deck to grab the rod. The next thing I knew it was in my hands and I was now attached to something huge on the other end, something that wanted to get away from me as fast as it possibly could.

I thrust the butt of the rod into my hip and clenched my abdominals into a compact warrior pose, and steadied my legs underneath me as the tarpon ran out to sea. I bent over to grind the reel a mere turn and a half -- all I could manage with my diminutive hands -- and then pulled the whole contraption up so it bent like a bow, gradually inching the fish closer to the boat with every set.

Doug, Gavet and my father watched excitedly, coaching and yelling out commands, snapping wobbly photos as the boat pitched back and forth under my frantic footwork. As I screamed in pain from the shredding of my triceps, Gavet offered to take the rod, but I knew in that moment that this fish was mine, and I would have to fight it alone. I asked the fish politely to "stop fighting please," and then directed loud and foreboding profanities at it, neither of which seemed to have any effect. But eventually, after 40 minutes, I managed to get the 130-pound, 7-foot monster up to the side of the boat, where we cut the line and let it go, as mandated by law.

I slumped onto the bench at the front of the boat and dizzily tried to compute what had just happened. The congratulatory hoots and hollers around me were inaudible echoes competing with the sound of my own thumping heart. Doug cracked open a beer for me and stuck a cigar into my hand and we toasted to a mighty battle.

A few minutes later my dad also caught a tarpon, but his was only 60 pounds. We both left Miami with sore arms, huge grins and a giant fish tale to tell. A week later I e-mailed Doug to tell him how much fun our trip had been, and how much it meant to my father and I. He confessed, "I was sweating bullets for you guys. I want my guests to catch fish, and I was freaking out those first four-and-a-half hours."

Indeed, fishing is a thrilling and emotional roller coaster. Looks like we were both worried for nothing.