The crazy days begin sometime in early September, when great schools of mullet, on their annual spawning run down Florida's southeast coast, pour into the Palm Beach inlet. There, along the jetty, schools of voracious snook tear into the mullet, thus providing anglers—most notably members of a motley group who call themselves the Jetty Conchs—with the wildest fishing imaginable. When a school of mullet is "gettin' hit," the Jetty Conchs race to the scene (right), cast mullet baits into the maelstrom and then try to horse big snook out of the jumble of rocks, without getting entangled in each others' lines or slipping off the slick crown of the jetty. Artist Tom Allen, a fanatical Jetty Conch himself, is responsible for these impressions of the mad, mad scene.
When the snook are off the jetty, the confusion that ensues is an angler's nightmare. Three Jetty Conch regulars are The Mighty Paty, with mullet in his pockets, Inlet Anne, manager of Palm Beach Inlet Dock, and Clean Eugene, with his day's catch
No matter what it may look like on paper, the word snook does not rhyme with hook in Florida. The correct pronunciation is snuke, rhyming with duke; and a duke the snook is. Its very appearance—the long, slender body with only a trace of a paunch, a protruding lower jaw and deeply forked tail—is that of a powerful fighter. When it is in the mood the snook will strike savagely at plugs, jigs, spoons, flies, cut bait, live bait and just about anything else it can get its big mouth around. When it is not in the mood, forget it.
But when the mullet leave the protected inshore waters to spawn in the inlets and along the beaches on Florida's southeast coast, the snook crosses everything else off its menu. Driving up from the bottom, snook slash through the schools of mullet, often exploding out of the water and churning up a froth.
The anglers on the jetty at Palm Beach react accordingly. Mullet baits whiz through the air and are quickly engulfed by thrashing snook. The fishermen, straining mightily to keep their snook out of the rocks, stumble back and forth along the jetty, passing their rods over or under those of their companions.
Of the hundreds of fishermen who get in on the act every September none have as much fun, or nearly as much success, as an elite bunch of fanatics who call themselves the Jetty Conchs. "Actually, our origin is not traceable to any one historical event," says Jim Branch, a Palm Beach real-estate appraiser who is one of the original Jetty Conchs. "We've been fishing the jetty during the mullet run for a long time. The same characters kept coming back year after year, and finally about 1952 we decided that we were just a whole lot better fishermen than the rest, and crazier, too. So we got together and started wearing these distinctive yellow softball-league T shirts with the words JETTY CONCH emblazoned on the back. I like to think that they symbolize our dedication to one ideal. Nothing can keep us off the jetty during the mullet run—not work, not wives, not wind nor waves."
Fatuous as this may sound, it is also quite accurate. Jim Branch really did cut short his honeymoon so he could get back to Palm Beach in time to fish the mullet run. Then there was that Sunday afternoon in September a few years ago when he was on his way to Miami with his wife to attend a savings-and-loan convention. "The run was supposed to be over," Branch recalls, "but I eased over to the inlet anyway for a last look and, by God, the snook were busting all over the place. Well, I raced home, grabbed my rod, canceled the Miami trip and went fishing. I believe three of us Jetty Conchs caught and released about 40 good snook that afternoon."
Although he does not take credit for conceiving the group's gaudy T shirts, Jim Branch does admit to having named several of the leading Jetty Conch characters (he was at least partly inspired by Al Capp's L'il Abner comic strip). The first to be labeled was Fred (Frayed Fred) Mewborne, a traveling carpet-and-tile man who came by his name because, as Branch says, he was "a frayed guy who always wore a fatigue hat decorated with the gang hooks that we used in the old days to snag mullet." Because Frayed Fred was "scroungy and ornery and one of the best jetty fishermen," he automatically became the first King Konk, president without portfolio or duties, of the club. Branch became Jimmy Endrock after he was washed off the end of the jetty one rough day. Joe Kern, Branch's business partner, is known as Completely Equipped, because his boat, full of extra tackle and bait, is always moored near the jetty during the mullet run.
Then there is B. F. (The Mighty Paty) Paty Jr., a Palm Beach lawyer; Eugene (Clean Eugene) Howell, a house painter ("It's not that Clean is so clean, it's just that his brothers are so dirty"); Joel (No Snag 'Em) Daves and Billy R. (Billy Backlash) Jackson, both lawyers. There are also several out-of-town members who show up at the jetty every year. Last September, Artist Tom (New York Tommy) Allen flew down from New York; Justin (Chicago Wage) Wager, a commercial artist, came in from the Windy City; and Roger (Roger the Codger) Bealem jetted across the Atlantic from Paris.
To do battle with the snook, the Jetty Conchs use very specialized tackle. The rod is a stiff, seven-foot fiber-glass job available only from George DeBay's Tackle Shop in West Palm Beach. The reel is the old Shakespeare Service model that does not free-spool. The line is either linen or monofilament, testing out at anywhere from 36 to 50 pounds. The terminal tackle consists of a six-foot wire leader attached to an 8/0 hook that is weighted with a quarter-ounce sinker.
The accepted method of getting a mullet bait is to snag it, and trying to make a 30-or 40-foot cast with only a quarter-ounce weight on the end of such heavy tackle is roughly equivalent to throwing a Ping-Pong ball into a high wind. Once a mullet is snagged it is rehooked through the lower jaw and out the top of the head and then cast out again.
When the Jetty Conchs are not on location they get up-to-the minute progress reports from Anne (Inlet Anne) Eggleston, the perennial Queen Conch, who runs the Palm Beach Inlet Dock, just a long cast from the jetty. "The mullet pass right by my door on their way out the inlet," says Anne, "and these nuts, these grown-up kooks, expect me to telephone them the minute it happens. The only reason I do is so we can get enough snook in the freezer for our annual conk-out."
The conk-out—a fish fry that quickly deteriorates into a beer bust—signifies the end of the mullet run. The snook go back to being ordinary snook and the Jetty Conchs become human again, go back to work, finish honeymoons and things like that.