In Recess

The Beauty and Brutality of the Sea

Tyler attorney Melanie Reyes-Rawls talks aggressive tuna and the most thrilling places to fish in America

Interview by Eric Quitugua

Melanie Reyes-Rawls checks the spinner shark off her list. Photo courtesy of Melanie Reyes-Rawls.

From the dusty landscapes of west Texas a fisher was born. In her youth, Tyler-based property law attorney Melanie Reyes-Rawls traveled the state with her father, casting into lakes for big mouth bass from Lake Buchanan to Possum Kingdom and even Big Bend. But after a rewarding boating trip post-law school, her venue of choice quickly changed. In recent years, one could catch Reyes-Rawls in the bar—that sweet spot where river meets ocean and her hooks meet salmon.

Alright, so let's just jump right into it. Can you walk me through the process? How does one deep sea fish?
I grew up with three different styles of fishing—casting, trolling, and bottom—and enjoy all of them, but it was the year I graduated from law school, 2002, when I went to South Padre for vacation to celebrate and there was a party boat/fishing boat for about 50 people and you pay for your time. It was $30 to get on and $15 for your license, plus tip. I mean it was a big boat. It had a restaurant inside of it and bathrooms and it was kind of luxurious for fishing compared to some of the things I would later do. The deckhands come and put the bait on your hook and give you your pole and tell everybody at the same time to drop the bait, which were little squid. I mean the minute people dropped, they started getting hit with bites. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. We caught red snapper and “triggerfish.” They’re kind of top water, deep-sea fish. Some people caught sharks. Some people caught stingrays. It’s a real immediate gratification/rewarding process, which I fell in love with.

My second deep-sea fishing trip after Padre was in St. Augustine, Florida, with my son. It was a party boat too and we caught grouper, sea bass, snapper, and flounder. We had squid with our bait and just dropped down with two hooks on each line. At one point I thought I caught the biggest fish in the ocean. I reeled it in for about 45 minutes until it came to the surface. It was a sea bass and a grouper, one on each hook. Two nice-sized fish but not quite the monster I was thinking. But it was a more private experience and it’s more work. You still have a captain of the ship and you have deckhands, but in this instance, you go out in a much smaller boat and you’re fishing for bigger, targeted fish. And I really enjoyed that.

My third deep-sea fishing trip was a private charter out of Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico. This is where I caught a spinner shark, and it was a much different experience from fishing off a party boat because the boat was much smaller and we were the only ones fishing.

Melanie Reyes-Rawls’ mahi-mahi on the hooks. Photo courtesy of Melanie Reyes-Rawls.

Well, how big was it?
Spinner sharks aren’t huge. They look like little baby Great Whites, but they’re not near as big. He was about three-feet long. But oh my gosh it was a struggle. The deckhand had to help me. My arms were so tired.

What are the conditions that you need for a successful trip?
I mean there’s different fish around in different seasons. The Gulf and the Atlantic around Florida—those are always good waters because they’re pretty warm so there’s always some kind of good fish. I’ve never had a bad fishing trip in the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean. If you’re fishing for salmon, you’ve got to be there at the right time because they spend a lot of time in the rivers and when they come out into the ocean, you might get lucky catching some. In Aruba, years ago, I fished for tuna. They hit so hard that the deckhands strap you into a fishing chair that has a seat belt contraption with a holder to secure both your body and your rod and reel. The tuna swim so fast and when they take your bait, they are going in the opposite direction. It’s a big jerk on your body.

Have conditions switched up on you when you're already out in the water?
Yeah, I mean if you’re planning a trip in Florida, for example, you have to be willing to forego your trip if a hurricane happens to come. I plan vacations off sometimes six months to a year. Some of the worst conditions I ever fished in were outside of San Francisco, actually. It was in August, so we thought it would be a really good time but it was really cold and really choppy. We had to leave the dock at 4:30 a.m. It was rainy and choppy and the waves were terrible against this smaller boat. A lot of people got sick. They tell you if you’re in a boat with other people and you get sick, you have to tough it out until it’s time to go back in. There was a little boy who got sick. I had some Dramamine that we tried to give to him, but he was already too sick he couldn’t hold it down so that’s pretty traumatizing. I’ll take the Dramamine the night before, and I get the patches for seasickness. The first time I went fishing out of Oregon, we accessed the Pacific Ocean from the Columbia River, which is about three miles wide. Apparently that’s the most dangerous water in the continental United States. We got out there and the captain at one point said, “Everybody needs to come to the center of the boat in the hull and sit down—we’re about to cross the bar.” That’s where the river meets the ocean. It is such a rush; such strong waters that it creates this very dangerous environment. And there have been more shipwrecks there than anywhere else in the continental U.S. So that was kind of scary, but we made it through without any problems.

What do you get out of deep-sea fishing?
To me, it’s a therapeutic process. I love being out on the water. I’ve always loved the ocean. You get to see nature at both sides—the beauty of nature and the brutality of nature—and just the whole balance of that. One of the coolest things about being out on the ocean on these fishing trips is that you’ll run into whales and you get to see them put on a show. Dolphins chase the ships. Outside of Aruba, they have a fish locals call a flying fish that jump up out of the water in big schools. It looks like they have wings and they move in a bird migration pattern. So you’ll be out there and get to see them jumping in these beautiful patterns; probably hundreds of fish. I enjoy being out there with nature, and there’s that adrenaline rush when you’ve caught the fish. There’s something about the process and the wait and then the payoff.TBJ

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