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Once upon a time in the Florida Keys there was a horrible monkey-infested island called Lois Key. A pharmaceutical company had released a bunch of rhesus monkeys there and left them to breed, thereby supplying research labs around the country with a fresh supply of experimental test subjects. The monkeys hated their new home. They were miserable there, howling and screeching and polluting the pristine waters with their feces. But as terrible as this place was, it harbored a far darker secret. For over time a sport evolved among the local fisherman that they called monkeyfishing, and it was cruel.
I joined a friend for a monkeyfishing expedition back in 1996 because I did not believe this kind of thing actually happened. We left Summerland Key in a small skiff one sunny afternoon and motored out down Lois' way. We knew we were getting close to the island when the normally pellucid emerald waters of the lower keys gave way to a filthy brown, and the smell of monkey waste spoiling under the tropical sun rolled over us like a storm.
These were not the lovable anthropomorphic orangs of Dunston Checks In fame. These were wild, evil-looking, pissed-off screeching beasts. They glared at us from the shore, pacing. Their incessant yammering filled the air. The island itself was a blasted moonscape fringed by dying trees. The monkeys had eaten away most of the mangroves, and the only ones that remained were shielded by steel cages. Mangroves protect such islands from erosion, but there weren't enough of them to protect this island anymore. As the monkeys reproduced their habitat shrank, and their situation became even more awful. If a zoo is a white-collar prison, this was Oz.
Once we found a nice spot, we prepared to fish. Sturdy deep-sea poles were the preferred tackle. I've never heard of anyone landing a monkey on lightweight fly rods, but I suppose it is possible. I have friends who have landed tarpon on them, and tarpon are much bigger than monkeys. A fully-grown rhesus monkey tips the scale at around 30 pounds, while a tarpon can easily break 200. However, monkeys have hands as well as the ability to use primitive tools, an advantage the fish do not possess. In any case, nobody keeps records about this sort of thing. There is no Saltwater Monkeyfishing magazine to lay out proper monkeyfishing etiquette. You can't look up the all-tackle record for a rhesus monkey in the Florida Saltwater Fishing Guide. It's more of the kind of thing that is weepingly confessed around 4 a.m. underneath the bar at El Loro Verde on Whitehead Street in Key West.
Fruits were the bait of choice. Apples were good because they stayed on the hook well. Red Delicious were chosen over Granny Smith for the advantage in contrast. Other baits included kiwis, which were more deceptive, but trickier to cast due to their mushy flesh. Oranges worked well; their rinds combined with their bright coloring made them a natural choice. And after a long day of eating its own feces, what monkey could resist a tasty orange?
Now came the cruel part. Once the bait was on the hook, I watched as the monkeyfisherman cast it onto the island, then waited. Not for long. The monkeys swarmed round the treat, and when the fisherman felt a strong tug he jerked the pole. I knew he had hooked one by the shriek it made—a primal yowl that set my hair on end. The monkey came flying from the trees, a juicy apple stapled to its palm.
He didn't actually land the monkey on the boat, since having a pissed-off, screeching monkey on the end of a hook running around a small skiff trying to bite you is the stuff of nightmares. He practiced a form of "catch and release." Monkeys can't really swim, but the water round the island was shallow. The line was cut and the monkey floundered back to await medical testing.
This was an awful thing to watch. I did not actually hook a monkey, but simply being there made me an accessory to the crime. I was not the kind of kid who tortured animals. Quite the opposite, actually. So what was I doing here watching grown men snatch monkeys from trees with quality tackle? A fascination with the bizarre. But still it made me sick.
I have a friend in Baltimore who told me about a similar sport involving rats. A local bar, upset about a vermin problem the city was doing nothing to correct, found a unique way to bring attention to the issue. They established a rat-fishing league, complete with uniforms and teams. Hot dogs were the preferred bait. The plan worked—they got plenty of attention—but how it affected the actual issue I am not sure.