Photos by Jake Oliver
I have been a self proclaimed “fly-only guy” for many years. Not because of some egocentric gratification, but in the name of pursuing the highest level of angling thrill (in my humble opinion). A sight-casted fish that willingly eats a fly created by my own hand is a rush that has only grown with time. However, there are equal lows to such highs. A dry spell can leave feelings of torment, provoked by others catching fish, or a lack of pelagic table fare.
Distant daydreams still include leaping tarpon from one of the fabled $50K skiffs, feet atop flawless non-skid and keel floating safely above any danger to virgin gelcoat. But something primal awakens in a man when he sees the weathered old salt at the ramp. Dragging crusty traps across old fiberglass. Walking stern to bow in battered deck boots. Work. Tools. Nothing is unnecessary. Nothing is any cleaner than it has to be.
With age, I find it harder to be a fly-only guy, despite stubborn laurels. I have many friends who fish, but fewer who fly-fish. Fewer than that will make any sacrifice to go fishing. Hunting weighs heavily on my arbitrary creed, as well. Much in the way of the commercial fisherman, everything has its purpose. I have a rifle, some camouflage, and if I see a deer, I shoot it and eat it.
Outside of hunting season, I have a skiff, a fly rod and an overpriced cooler. If I see a fish, I am going to cast to it, then hope to God I can convince it to eat this clump of rubber legs, fight it with “just enough” drag and let it go. Some days I wish I’d brought my .270 instead of my 8-weight.
My son is five months old. I figure it will be at least a couple of years before he can pole me around. I also figure if I play my cards right, I may be able to bring him up in such a way that he may enjoy watching a comrade from the back of a skiff. Just as I do. If I pursue this line of thinking further, I must play the long game. Introduce him to fishing slowly, make it fun.
With Christmas comes the inevitable gift card for the sportsman’s store, this year from some kind soul in the gracious amount of $100. I never know what to waste it on, even as I glide through the turnstile into a subtly overpriced redneck dream. New sandals? Beef jerky? An antler lamp? The possibilities are endless.
This year I thought about it. A lot. A C-note is just enough for a small cast net, bait aerator and some circle hooks. Feeling strangely guilty, I stuff the receipt in the bag and scurry past domestic pigs and Tracker boats, avoiding the judging gaze of a taxidermy bobcat and formaldehyde alligator heads.
I dig up a spinning reel from another life and a seaworthy five-gallon bucket. I give the new net a few throws in the yard. Teeth squeeze polypropylene, St. Augustine scratches ankles, and childhood memories rush in. I load up the skiff and head to the ramp. It’s Monday night, and I’m going it alone. Catching bait was more difficult than I’d anticipated, and doing so solo exacerbated the effort. I managed one pair of wet jeans, 16 scaled sardines, two finger mullet and a muddy skeg.
I stow gear and rig rods during a lengthy idle to the spot. I am after snook, I suppose. I anchor up-current of a modest bridge, haunted years ago by buddies and me. I feel the anchor catch as sunlight recedes into the tree line. Erratic mangroves merge into perfect concrete. Natural light fades, and street lamps brighten. Water flows, and pilings stand tall. I grab a bait from the humming froth; 2/0 steel pierces scales and skin.
The first finger mullet hits the water like a galvanized trash can hits a flight of stairs. It sounds like a cannonball compared with the heaviest clouser. I sit. I feel the small, frantic life at the end of braided line. Toes scratch no-see-ums from ankles. A predator smacked the second mullet, seemingly out of playful malice, no hookup. Hours pass as I drain life from each morsel on my hook. It’s getting late. I spare the rest of the baits in my bucket, dead or alive, to Mother Lagoon. All but two. The first is sacrificed immediately, to something. The second is frantically strung up and cast, meeting the same demise, I suspect.
Whiff of Nostalgia
The Walmart rod goes from a sensitive flick of life to pounds of pulsing meat. Distant sounds of braid, drag and aluminum-oxide once again echo in my ears. I lower the tip to water level, feather the spool and rip active flesh from under mangrove hideaways. Thirty-pound braid and a specific agenda has the fish whipped in short order. This is not the slot snook I target, but a sizable cubera snapper. That works for me. I open my cooler and deposit seafood in exchange for a beer.
Pungent slime caked under the tab of my Busch Light lulls thoughts into the past. The seedy nature of a downtown boat ramp on a late Monday night becomes familiar once again. Summers spent here manicuring lawns under the sun and fishing under the moon. The nostalgia smells as sweet as the Copenhagen of younger years.
I could get back into this. I enjoy cooking and fresh seafood more than ever. I clean the skiff and fish carefully, not to wake the slumbering family. The quest for wild-caught, natural protein ironically ends with a late-night can of tuna and some pickled okra. All or nothing. Fly for fun or live bait for food. The things we do for our kids.