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First fish of the day!
First fish of the day!

I love getting to fish with a partner on days like that - sharing the moments of what I would describe as fishing bliss. The day that came before the day when you 'shoulda been here'. THE right spot at THE right time.

Austin carefully cradled his fish for a couple quick hero shots, and then eased it back into the water. We watched it swim off and traded high fives.

Splitting up again, we slowly shuffled our way across the flat, staying roughly even with each other as we went. Stingrays dotted the muddy patches between eel grass like landmines. Fortunately when they buried down in the silt they left a tell-tale blackened area, so they were easy to spot. Still a little nerve wracking though, especially when you're focused on a tail in the middle distance and glance down to see one right in your path.

Tricky tricky. I see you...
Tricky tricky. I see you...

 

Austin spotted a pod of tailing fish, and then I sighted another one; the closer we got to them, the more stingrays we saw. Picking our way to the schools of fish, we suddenly had a problem - we were surrounded! In front of us, a marauding pack of reds was slashing through small baitfish. Behind us, a school was moving up through the silt cloud we left behind as we moved. We thought quickly and overcame our tactical disadvantage as best we could; back to back, we cast at opposite schools and hoped for a double. Forgoing finesse, I plopped a fly into the heart of the school I faced; half a dozen strips and my fly was headed swiftly in the opposite direction, locked firmly in a fish's jaw. Austin quickly came tight as well, but that red managed to toss the hook in short order.

I managed to pull this little piggy out of the middle of a cruising school Photo cred Austin N.
I managed to pull this little piggy out of the middle of the cruising school
Photo cred Austin N.

 

As we walked off the flat later that day, I reflected that it had been one of the most unexpectedly successful trips I had had in a long time. I guess after you fish water for a while you start to feel like you know it, and grow a little complacent. You start fishing spots you know instead of breaking out and fishing new water, taking the chance that you'll catch nothing but a day well spent. What had led us to that shallow backwater? I couldn't tell you exactly, but it stemmed from our innate desire to explore, to see what lay beyond the mangroves. So, take that journey - go around that river bend, just because it's there. The best way to go is with friends who feel the same way, sharing the adventure and increasing the safety for everyone.

 

The next time you head out, I hope you experience the fishing bliss that can be found in serendipity. That's what it's all about my friends.

 

Great fish caught by Austin. Photo cred Austin N.
Great fish caught by Austin.
Photo cred Austin N.

 

When the alarm went off he quickly snagged his phone from the bedside table and silenced the trilling tone. Mental note to self – get better alarm tone. A reel screaming or something. Anything.

Outside the wind is still howling when he pokes his head out for the local weather report. The palm tree silhouettes lash wildly, and the the wind speaks with a low moan where it pushes between the buildings. Pushing 35, and he has a friend in from out of town.   Them’s the breaks – time fall back on the contingency plans.

A string of grumbled swearing announces the fishing partner waking up. Best not to speak until the first cup of coffee is consumed.

While the coffee maker gurgles softly in the background, the soft blue glow of the laptop screen illuminates the fisherman’s face.  Weatherman says it’s gonna blow out there. Nah, really? By the way, tide is slack til almost noon. Great. Well, the good thing about that much wind is it'll create its own tidal movement. He clicked over to a satellite map to consult.

Quickly going over his mental list of fallback options, he picks out a couple likely candidates. Both offer secluded pockets of water that are wadeable, within walking range of a parking area so no boat is needed. To fight the wind sometimes you gotta keep feet on the ground.

The truck loaded, fishing partner with large coffee mug in hand, tunes cranked up; they’re off, heading towards the eastern horizon just catching a hint of grey from the day to come. The partner doesn’t say much – he knows today is going to be tough. The fisherman had been warning him all week the weather looked like crap, but he was by golly here to fish and fish he would. Wind be damned.

They pull off the blacktop and wind down a rutted sand track, crawling the truck though holes with the confidence of experience. The vehicle knows the road just as well as the driver, and together they get through as they have so many other times. The fisherman takes time for an affectionate pat on the dusty dashboard. Thatta baby. Good job old girl.

The man knows his partner wants to see tailing redfish, and they came to this spot for that reason. Sometimes reds would get up on this particular patch and tail or cruise. Most of the time there weren’t many but usually they were larger fish, singles and doubles. Large sand dunes and the bulk of the barrier island created somewhat of a wind break for the area – it was the best he could think of.

The sun had snuck up over the rim of the horizon while they bounced down the sand road and now it hung poised, golden-orange and welcoming. Even the grumpy partner smiled.

“If the clouds stay away we have a chance.”

“Yep.”

They flowed through the ritual – sliding rod pieces together, spinning reel seats tight, stringing up, putting on a fresh leader of stiff fluro to help fight wind knots. The gusting wind was there with them every step of the way. The fisherman got ready, then watched his partner finish readying. It had been a couple years since they had last gotten to fish together.

"Glad you haven't forgotten everything up there in landlocked country. Still remember how to cast?"

"Ha. This guy. He's got jokes. The crap I have to put up with just to catch fish around here..."

When it came time to choose a fly, the partner just held out his box.

“Pick a good one.”

“So you can blame me later if you get skunked?”

“Ha, yes. Exactly. Now pick me a good one, Mr. Guide.”

“No, your flies smell like you – no self-respecting fish will eat them. Start with this. That way you won’t only catch hardheads.”

The partner’s outstretched hand received a rough-looking cream and tan crab. He looked up with a smirk ready, but realized it wasn’t a joke.

“You’re going to make me fish a crab.”

“Yep. That one's caught 5 this year already... it's got the mojo.”

“You know I hate fishing crabs. Aren't they eating anything more mobile? God, I hate not stripping a fly.”

“Is that the sound of whining I hear? C’mon, the tails are waiting.”

With that, the fisherman pulled up his buff and turned away, becoming inscrutable and obviously done with the fly choice conversation.

The partner only grumbled a little as he tied on the crab – it was the right time of year, he knew, and it wouldn’t have been recommended if it wasn’t working. Still, he couldn’t resist a parting shot at the retreating back of the other man.

“You’re an a**hole! Wait for me!”

“Love you too brother; hurry up, the fish wait for no man…"

The partner swore softly and grumbled, jerking the knot to finish tying on the crab and hurrying after the retreating figure of the other man.

At the water's edge they stopped for a moment to admire the sunrise and scan for any tails that might be close. When they stepped in, the partner noticed that the water went immediately to their knees; within another couple steps though they were up on the flat proper with shin deep water that gradually slid into deeper water on each side of the flat. The bottom of the flat was hard sand well-sprinkled with grass and punctuated by slightly deeper potholes. Crabs, marine worms and seashells were easy to see in the crystal clear water even though the surface was ruffled by the wind.  They shuffled slowly forward, trying not to push a wake or make sudden moves.

The partner finally began to smile a little as he looked around at the life at his feet. Ah, yes, this was much better. He didn't have to think about all the worries at home, and the...

"Fish!", hissed the other man. "Two o'clock or so. Maybe 40 feet. Headed to us."

A few moments of quiet panic ensue - the partner hadn't even stripped any line out to prep for a shot, and the fisherman chuckled a little at his friends' expense. Luckily, the fish turned and stopped to tail on something after swimming a few feet closer, waving the redfish flag for all to see in the morning light.

Now, line stripped out and rod at the ready, the partner moved slightly forward as the fisherman moved slightly back, giving him room. The tail disappeared and the wind gusted hard for a few moments, making it impossible to see through the water's surface. The fish vanished, and the two men strained to pick up a shadow or movement of any kind.

Nothing. It was just gone.

"There's no where for it to go! It can't have just teleported!" exclaimed the partner.

The fisherman smiled ruefully and shook his head. "I dunno... they're really good at that. You'd think it'd be impossible... but they can just dissolve."

The partner was looking for the fish so hard he actually leaned forward a little as his eyes darted to and fro; the fisherman's hand on his shoulder brought him back.

"C'mon man, there will be more. You gotta know when to fold 'em."

Numbly, the partner just shook his head, and turned back to face the open flat. The organic pattern of the flat spread out before them, eel grass and algae patches interspersed with thin, soft mud and firm sand. Every step was a slight effort. Suddenly, an arm slammed back against the partner's chest mid-step; wordlessly, the fisherman pointed at the stingray nearly underfoot. A prod from a rodtip sent the ray scooting off.

"Shuffle - I don't have time to take you to the hospital... and don't step backwards. They're attracted to your silt trail and will follow it to you."

The partner grunted assent, and they resumed the tireless searching. Trying to divide time between searching the water close for fish silhouettes and the far water for tails, wakes and splashes that could indicate feeding. Every dark weed patch became a fish; every mullet leap a redfish crashing bait. The partner tried to pick out the differences, the nuances that helped the fisherman separate the fish from the fish.

Suddenly the fisherman halted, raising his rod hesitantly toward a vague area slightly to their right, quartering downwind.

"That... might be a fish. Hold on, he may move again... Yes! There he is!"

The partner had no idea what the other man saw, but readied himself just the same.

"Where! Give me a mark!"

"Just a sec, I think he's swimming to us... yes! See the tail? About 50 feet, you got this.You'll have to lay it in on your backcast."

The fisherman stepped quietly to the right, leaving the partner's left side free from obstruction. Tossing the fly to the side from where it had hung in his hand, the partner roll cast to get the line moving and then punched a hard cast into the wind. He allowed the breeze to carry the line, cushioning it, landing the crab with a soft plop a foot from the fish.

The men watched intently as the fish moved slowly over to where the fly had hit the water.

"One inch strip, then let it sit."

Rodtip low, the other man stripped incrementally, barely twitching the fly.

The redfish turned slightly, body language telling the anglers that their offering had been spotted. Suddenly the fish darted forward, stopping over the crab and tailing.

"Slow strip..strip.. set! You got him!"

The partner's line came tight and the feeling of connection hummed through the rod. But only for a moment; as the fish turned and started to run, the line went slack, and from the highest height he was plunged to the the lowest low.

"Aw, hell. The hook pull out?", the fisherman queried.

"No... I don't... hold on." returned the partner as he brought his line in.

Quick scrutiny revealed a failed knot where the crab was connected.

"Boy it is just not your day! You wet that knot before you tightened it?"

"Ah... no. I don't think I did."

"Here. Quit moping, here's another crab. We'll get you one yet."

 

8

Spray sprinkled over his back, trickling in slow, salty rivulets. The windward side of the jetty surprised another wave, who had not heard about the granite tribute to human shipping and transport. Swirling water drove full force into the slimy, barnacle-speckled rock; the misty remnants arched across the jetty, driven by the stiff onshore breeze.

Sentinel

Perched on the farthest leeward jut of rock that could be reached, he swept a polarized gaze across the green water, watching for a sign. The shirt he wore rattled in the wind; what had started as a rich olive had faded to almost tan, sweat stained and sun-bleached from uncounted days in the heat. A beat up ball cap, sunglasses, and tarpon scaled buff shaded face and neck. His right hand gripped the worn cork of a 10wt – his left hand held the 80lb bite tippet, while the big baitfish fly swung loosely, waiting. A homemade stripping basket sat low on his hips, holding the coils of line he had stripped from the reel in preparation of a cast.

Rolling his shoulders against the ache of casting all morning, he glanced at the sun. Tide should be dropping anytime now. Fishing the incoming tide in the morning hadn’t produced, against all expectations. Now it was near noon, and the fisherman wasn’t nearly as confident.

The rocks shielded the area in front of him from the worst of the waves.  In this relative calm, the water was dark with shifting clouds of small baitfish. A cruising school of larger mullet some distance from the rocks suddenly scattered, throwing roostertails of water into the air.

The random bait movement of slack tide started to change, and nervous water told the angler that predators were on the move. First randomly, then concertedly, Spanish mackerel began slashing through the rafts of mullet. The fisherman watched with slight interest, but did not cast. He had caught plenty of the small predators; today was about bigger game.

The man waited for what followed the s’macks, and what followed them was the stuff of baitfish nightmare.

Razor-lined jaws agape, the king mackerel lifted effortlessly from the water, leaving behind a bloody path of rent flesh and dying mullet. Death stalked among them and took freely. First one, then three, then suddenly a dozen kings were skyrocketing from beneath the mullet which scattered and panicked to no avail.

The first skyrocket was well beyond casting range, but the angler smiled. Showtime. Rolling his shoulders again, he turned and gauged the wind speed and direction, choosing his window of best casting space. Tossing the fly up into the breeze, he began the rhythm of the double haul. Straight into the wind he punched his forward cast, and on his back stroke he finished high and allowed the line to shoot.

And shoot it did.

The wind grabbed onto the sailing fly like a new toy, wrenching it through the air. The fly line dutifully followed, zipping up out of the stripping basket like slurped spaghetti. The line hissed where it contacted the guides and pinged tight against the arbor of the reel when it could fly no further.

The fly rolled over and landed with a slap in the nervous pod of big mullet. Darting, they slid away, then slowed. Twitch… twitch… the big fly undulated, shimmering, and then dropped again slowly. Drifting. Dying. Then another strip. Slowly, the fisherman worked the fly back.

No takers.

Stripping basket full, the slender piece of graphite flexes deeply to overcome the headwind. Haul, slip line, haul and let ‘er go… hisssss-ping. Sinking, dying, undulating…

Suddenly the mullet go everywhere; the angler finds himself looking up at a king that seems to be lifting off. A glittering silver missile nearly 5 feet long, reaching altitude and leveling off a good twelve feet above the water before reentering with hardly a dimple.

My god.

The angler thought he heard someone gasp behind him, but he was intent on the water and the slow cadence of the strip. Strip, twitch, dying… and gone. Vanished in the middle of a swirl the size of a Volkswagen.

The line ripped through his fingers, burning deep lines in his skin; he swore and jerked his hand back.  The reel screamed; a high, buzzing whine that intoxicated the angler’s senses and threw his adrenaline into over-drive.

Backing zinged through the guides; after many long seconds he dared start to palm the reel. He could feel the headshakes thrum thrumming back down the line, and the fish slowed. Sensing weakness, the fisherman really put the brakes on. He planned to try and release this fish; if given the chance the big king would fight to the death.

Cranking down on the drag, he began to pump the fish back to the rocks. Another short run; the king mack was spent. Quickly calculating the safest spot to land the fish, the angler gingerly made his way out on the slick rock. Leading the fish by in front of him, he grabbed the mackerel’s tail and popped the hook from the formidable jaws.

Suddenly a shadow fell over the water; looking up, the angler saw a nice looking family gazing somewhat incredulously at his catch, with a little girl clinging wide-eyed to her father.

Knowing he had no time to lose, the fisherman quickly began moving the king back and forth through the water, hoping for signs of recovery. The mack twitched and flexed, causing iridescent colors to play in a ripple down its flank. Gradually, the fish seemed to grow stronger. While the king revived, the man chatted with the parents. They asked about the catch and fly fishing, and the fish grew stronger and swam away well.

One satisfied angler.

The father asked what kind of fly the fish ate. The man replied that he hadn't named it yet, but after a fight like that it deserved a name.

He grabbed the bedraggled remains of the once proud fly and showed it to the little girl.

"What would you name it?"

She looked at it with serious brown eyes, considering. Decision reached.

“Cookie Monster.” she said.

Taking a look at the forlorn, shredded blue tuft of fuzz with its one remaining eye, he laughed.

“Cookie Monster it is, little miss.”

Saying goodbye to the family, he began back down the jetty toward land. The tide was still moving but he’d caught his fish.

Back at the truck, he turned the fly over and over in his hand, remembering the magnificent mackerel. An old book from childhood popped into his mind… If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.

The story goes that if you give a mouse a cookie, he’ll start making all kinds of demands and the moral is to never give a mouse a cookie.

The moral of this story? If you give a king a cookie, he’ll want to take all of your backing, break your rod, smoke your reel, and ruin your fly… But I bet you’ll be okay with that.