The Prodigal Piscator

Each of us seems to have his own individual image of heaven. My own vision is complex and frustratingly opaque. It includes commonly envisioned features, such as eternal peace, reuniting with family, and basking in the radiance of God’s presence. Perhaps the greatest aspect of a heavenly existence might be that , as part of one’s reward, every single item lost or misplaced during earthly existence is returned. It is fortuitous that heaven is infinite, as I will have a nearly limitless number of items on my return list. Losing things is an unending source of frustration for me. Fortunately, my wife is quite adept at relocating such items. I have taken to calling her “The Finder,” referencing a recent television show. She simply refers to me as “The Loser,” a description which is insightful on several levels. I am indeed lucky to have not lost her. Despite her remarkable talents, there are a few things even The Finder is incapable of restoring to my life. One of these is my health. Afflicted with osteoarthritis, I find myself unable to live life as fully as before. Knee replacements have given me back the ability to walk, at least to some extent, but the effect of the disease on my back, neck, and shoulders is not so readily overcome. For over three years now, sleeping has become possible only with medication and a recliner chair. I have lost the capacity to perform many activities which have long been cherished. My road bike, on which I have spent many sweaty hours, has been donated. My downhill skis languish in the attic, along with my running shoes. My greatest loss by far, however, is the ability to travel. The thought of tossing and turning on a hotel bed, unable to rest, has precluded any travel. The net result has been no bonefishing trips in several years. With the encouragement of my wife and friends, I finally gathered the fortitude to attempt a trip back to Sandy Point, Abaco, my favorite spot on this rotating mass of rock and water we call Earth. So, the plans were made and I began  pre-travel preparation with heavy cortisone dosing, and even persuaded my wife to inject my shoulder with the stuff. Despite being a nurse, she was initially uneasy about it, fearful that she might not be able to accurately insert the needle, despite my guidance. The Finder did not disappoint. Her needle found the joint easily and my readiness state was elevated to FishCon 1.

Though rustic might be the kindest description of Pete and Gay’s Guesthouse in Sandy Point, I love the place, as evidenced by some fourteen soujorns over the past fifteen years. Having not visited in over three years, I was a bit disappointed that no fatted calf was sacrificed on my return to the settlement of Sandy Point. Nonetheless I felt as though I was home again. I received a number of old friends upon my arrival, making me feel almost like family in this remote fishing village. Indeed, my circle at Sandy Point was now unbroken. In lieu of the calf, a Bahamian feast of lobster and conch was prepared, accompanied by a brace of Kaliks. Returning to Sandy Point, it seems, may have altered my concept of heaven. Perhaps Sandy Point is the vestibule of heaven. It certainly seems to be so for this fisherman.  I earnestly hoped that the bonefish I had missed during my absence would be returned in spades on this trip. That first evening, I eyed with some trepidation the saggy old mattress on the twin bed in my room. Visions of sleepless nights that would leave me too fatigued to fish reverberated in my head. I reasoned to myself that the medication would negate my symptoms, but still I worried. When at last I lay down, I fell fast asleep, waking early the next morning refreshed with a different vision in my head, one involving flashy blue edged silver tails wafting in the tropical breeze.

My old friend and former partner, Jay, joined me on this return trip. We have shared many days and many Kaliks on guide boats at Sandy Point, as well as numerous other destinations. After breakfast and coffee, we made our initial deployment from the government dock that lies a hundred feet from the door of the lodge. I was relieved to see that the Bahamian skies were just as bright and blue as those in my memory and that the water remained as gin clear as ever. Jay sat next to me in the skiff, while Perry, our chum and guide, steered a southerly course towards the fish rich flats that lay some eight miles distant. My first bonefish in three years now lay minutes away. My pulse quickened as I considered the thrill of the chase and the scream of the reel with a bonefish fast to the end of the line. That first day produced a number of bonefish and served as a warm up to what was to come. It was indescribably wonderful to be back in Sandy Point and back to what I love most, chasing bonefish with a fly rod.

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Day two dawned clear and Perry made the command decision to negotiate the crossing to one of my favorite fishing spots- Moore’s Island.  Between Sandy Point and Moore’s lies some eighteen miles of open water, usually calm and flat, but carrying the constant possibility of a slow, uncomfortable ride home should the weather turn inhospitable. Jay and I finished our morning coffees en route as Perry expertly navigated us to the remote flats of Moore’s in some forty five minutes. Upon arrival, we fished what I have come to call Permit Point, as I have seen good numbers of that maddening fish roaming its shallows. In fact, the first permit ever I hooked, many years ago, was at this very spot. My multiple recountings of that fish, which I ultimately lost to the jagged edges of coral, has become an object of both humor and dread to those who have endured its iterations over the years. Jay and I separated as we walked the flats seeking bones and permit. The air was perfectly still, and no ripple disturbed the water’s surface. The azure sky seemed to blend into its own reflection of blue and cloud on the water, creating a painters canvas of blues, greys, and whites. Soon, “nervous water” ruffled the glassy surface, and blue tinged silver tails could be seen slowly waving good morning to us. We cautiously approached our respective groups of happy fish, and I saw Jay’s rod bend over in the distance. An especially large bone fed hungrily before me while I watched in awe. It was one of those moments when I feel so intimately a part of the natural world. No sound, no people, only The Creator’s handiwork arrayed before me, a banquet for my eyes. Transfixed, I stood rod in hand, transcended by the spectacle. Suddenly, I remembered why I had come to this glorious spot, and made a medium length cast to this brute of a bonefish. He immediately inhaled my fly, then sped off like a bullet fired from a high powered rifle. My entire flyline disappeared in a flash, soon followed by perhaps a hundred and fifty yards of backing. My reel became a blur as the fish made a break for its freedom while I sought to bring it to hand for a photo op and release. The fish suddenly made a course reversal and was coming directly at me at Mach 2. In spite of having a very large arbor reel, and furiously turning its handle, I simply was incapable of keeping up with this speedster. The line went slack and the fish was gone. No matter, I thought. Seeing such a fish engaged in his everyday business oblivious to my presence, watching it pounce on my fly, and then  feeling its muscular pursuit of  liberty is the essence of the fly fishing experience. Satisfied, I turned towards the boat.

Perry moved us to a new spot, hard by Moore’s, where he switched off the Yamaha and picked up the pole. We searched around for fish and soon located a few bones feeding in the pellucid water. After releasing a few average fish, we poled around a small mangrove islet. I spotted a flat white object resting high in the mangroves. Thinking it was a surfboard washed in by a recent storm, I pointed it out to Jay and Perry.  Perry pushed us around the edge of the trees, and we were shocked by what we saw. What we thought might be a surfboard was actually the T-top of a very expensive twenty five foot offshore fishing boat, replete with twin 225 HP Yamaha four stroke engines, the latest in advanced marine electronics, and thousands of dollars worth of heavy fishing gear. It had been forced as far into the mangroves as possible, then a crude effort at disguise had been made by festooning cut off mangrove branches around the boat. Thievery was obvious.  As Moore’s Island is inhabited by a couple hundred hardy souls, the government has had a cell tower erected on the island, and Perry took advantage of this fact to call the local gendarmes. We were told that a boat of this type had been reported stolen from Marsh Harbour only the night before. Furthermore, we were instructed to remain in the area until law enforcement arrived on scene. Now, Jay and I were a bit concerned by this, wondering if the boat takers might show up ahead of the cops to claim their prize. Perry felt we should back off a bit and wait as instructed. Being captain, his judgment trumped our concerns, so we motored back a ways and shut down. Sure enough, in a matter of thirty minutes, a smallish white boat slowly motored around the corner of the mangrove trees. My heart crept towards my throat when I saw it was a privately owned boat, bearing no official markings of any type. Furthermore, its occupants wore no uniforms, just the tee shirts and loose fitting trousers favored by the local fishermen.  From a distance, I could see that the man in the bow clutched something close to his chest, but I was unable to discern exactly what it might be. As they drew nearer, I could see what he held, and I was not happy. It was a menacing looking automatic weapon, sinister in its appearance and adorned with all manner of target acquisition devices. A magazine that appeared to hold enough rounds to dispatch a hundred men protruded from beneath the weapon and it did little to allay our fears. I then realized that if these were indeed the bad guys, I was a dead man, along with my friends Jay and Perry. To our immense relief, a large smile appeared on the gun bearer’s face, and Perry confirmed his identity for us. The weapon holder was, as it turned out, the local constable and the boat driver was a local resident who, coincidentally, was related to one of my friends in Sandy Point.  I politely asked the officer if I might obtain some video, and he readily agreed.  No longer concerned for our lives, we watched as he and his assistant tied onto the purloined boat and pulled it free of the its mangrove hiding spot. They encountered considerable difficulty towing the boat, requiring some instruction from Perry in proper technique. We spent about two hours of our fishing day helping them, but Perry, as we shall see, provides a very long fishing day for his clients. I silently hoped that the police officer was better at policing than he seemed to be at seamanship.  Later, Perry received a call from a very happy boat owner, and was informed that a $2000 reward was coming his way. Perry indicated to us that he planned to donate it to the primary school on Moore’s Island in all of our names. He is an amazing man.

P1000499 Moores police

We moved to another flat, its bottom pocked by white sand holes and covered by variegated coloring, making visualization of our quarry difficult. Perry, however, had no difficulty locating the Ghosts of the Flats, and soon Jay was fast to nice specimen.    After the requisite image capture, it was my turn. I tied on my double secret new fly. I had warned Jay that this fly would render the remainder of the flies in our boxes obsolete.  Not surprisingly, he seemed quite skeptical. It was now time to provide empirical proof that my concept for this newly created fly was valid. Perry soon pointed out an average sized bone pushing past a small mangrove shoot protruding from the clear water. I let slip my creation and it fell a foot from the fish. Without hesitation, the fish charged my offering and we were off to the races. After a short battle, I held it in my hands, but only after I clumsily dropped it onto the deck, an unhappy occurrence for fish and angler. Jay was kind enough to take a photo for documentation, and I released the fish. Only then did I reveal my secret. This fly, which I am calling the Silver Haired Granddaddy, was crafted from my own hair! I had not visited a barber in several months, and when I finally went, I made an odd request. I asked the barber to allow me to save my hair clippings in a plastic baggie, which she did without comment. The hair was utilized that very night when I sat down at my tying vise to bring to reality the vision that previously existed only in my mind’s eye. I had no idea if the fly would prove as attractive to the bonefish as it did to me.  The design would require validation by the true judge of fly design, the fish. Once the bone had been released, I noted to Jay that the first fish that ever saw my new fly ate it, removing all doubt about its effectiveness. Jay stammered something about more data, but I simply reminded him about cognitive dissonance, a psychological phenomenon in which some people are unable to let go of a deeply held belief despite obvious proof to the contrary. I suggested Jay read up on it, as he clearly demonstrated signs of its effects. I told him that despite how badly he might want to use my fly, it was being returned to the safety of the fly box, to be used in a shadowbox presentation at home.  I also informed him that future production would be extremely limited due to the rarity of its chief ingredient.

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Jay’s last of day of fishing dawned with threatening skies lurking in the far distance. Perry decided to try our luck at Gorda Key, a gorgeous slice of tropical beauty some eight miles distant from Sandy Point. Some years back, it had been acquired by the Disney Company to serve as a destination for its cruise ships and was rechristened Castaway Key. It has proven an economic boon for both the Mouse People and the inhabitants of Sandy Point, as many of its residents have found work at the island resort. One of my Sandy Point friends even operates a large flats skiff which takes as many as five spininng rod equipped tourists at a time bonefishing the lovely flats around the island. Fortunately for us, the ship was at sea that day, leaving the entire island, or at least its fishing, for our exclusive use. The trip to Gorda was brief and we immediatley commenced the search for bones. The first sight that greeted us was an unusual one. A very large permit was seen cruising the turquoise water overlying a white sand flat in the company of a huge barracuda. Unable to set up for a casting opportunity in time, we watched in awe as these monsters made their way across the flat, out of reach, but certainly not out of mind.

Just north of Castaway, there is a large mass of coral projecting from the water. It serves as home to hundreds of birds. It appears nearly cylindrical and is long and narrow. Jay suggested that it looked like a nuclear submarine cruising on the surface, giving rise to our name for it- Nuke Rock. We saw no bonefish around it, and resorted to trolling a diver plug in the deeper waters surrounding it. Jay was delighted as he caught both a cuda and a nice strawberry grouper using this technique.

jaygrouper 2 Jays grouper

Perry moved us to a flat that extended to the island’s interior. Though easy on the eyes, we found no fish. We then tried an outside flat. Again we found ourselves straining to pick out fish from the greens and whites of the uneven bottom terrain. Perry repeatedly pointed out fish, but neither Jay nor I possessed the superhuman sight required to spot the fish and make a viable cast. Our frustration was soon ended by a gathering of clouds, a clap of thunder, and angry skies rapidly closing in from all directions. Increasingly large globules of water pelted us from above, prompting the rapid deployment of rain gear. Perry fired up the outboard and set a course for Sandy Point. We raced toward home, veering our course to port to avoid the worst of the weather. Massive lightning bolts arced from sky to water in what seemed hundred yard wide swaths. Those dark clouds we had seen earlier now threatened us with both rain and fire from their dark underbellies. As we sped across the water, trepidation crept into my consciousness. Rain and cloud posed no threat, but that lightening. Oh my!!

rain running

The cell tower at Sandy Point soon came into view, much to our relief. Perry remained unmoved by the entire affair, a feature of his character we would see on display again. Jay and I quickly disembarked once the bow touched sand and ran to our upstairs rooms to wait the storm out. Thunder shook the boards beneath our feet and reverberated in our chests as rain fell in an alluvion onto Sandy Point. We could only watch from the second floor veranda, thinking our fishing day over. But Perry had other thoughts.

raining at Stanleys

An hour later, we returned to the boat, Perry at the helm. We made the short trip to the town flat across the creek from the village. In the aftermath of the thunderstorms, the wind had accelerated to an estimated twenty to twenty five miles per hour. Perry anchored up as shallow as he could and we donned wading shoes, grabbed rods and spare flies, and began our trek across the flat, hoping to spot a fish or two. The bottom was sand, but remarkably gnarled and lumpy. After a very short time, my focus shifted from locating fish to simply remaining upright. The howling winds whistled through the guides of my fly rod, and I realized that even if I did see a fish, there was no way I would be able to cast more than ten feet, and that was downwind. Fishing had now become a struggle for survival. Jay and Perry, being in much better physical condition than me, had disappeared around a small mangrove island. I was alone, facing the elements. The choppy surface of the water made identifying the thousands of holes on the bottom impossible, each a trap awaiting me to place a foot in it. I proceeded by feel, making slow deliberate progress. As the wind flapped my raincoat around my head and body, I felt like a climber on Mt Everest. Screaming wind, poor visibility, and uneven terrain made forward motion a struggle. I was certain by now that each movement could result in stepping into a sand crevasse, sending me deep into the bowels of the Town Flat, never to be seen again. I no longer had visual contact with Perry, Jay, or the boat. I wondered if I might make it back to Base Camp. Nonetheless, I struggled on, and as I rounded the island, the terrain smoothed, and I could at last see my objective.  As I approached Base Camp, I triumphantly held my rod over my head, fishless, but undefeated .

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We journeyed a short distance upstream, to a small flat where a feeder creek joins the main creek. Schools of bones pass through this flat as the tide falls off, forcing them from their feeding spots deeper in the smaller creek. It made an excellent ambush location.  As expected, we soon encountered bonefish, many quite hefty. Jay and I took turns casting at these wonderful fish, landing a few. It was my turn on the casting deck when a four to five foot lemon shark suddenly lunged from the creek to attack one of the passing bones about a hundred feet behind the boat. The shark made his approach from behind the fish, surprising it and easily cutting it in half with a single powerful bite. A large blood pool rapidly appeared as the shark circled, munching on the tail end of its victim. Perry, who saw it all happening, took great exception to the sharks behavior. In a flash, he jumped off the stern and ran as fast as he could through the two and a half foot deep water to the scene of the crime. He quickly located the remaining half of the fish, retrieved it, and slapped repeatedly at the shark. He then calmly made his way back to the boat, threw the half fish onto the deck, and reboarded. He then resumed his scan for bones as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. I was totally blown away. What a man! Who would even conceive of wading into  blood filled water with a circling shark and interposing himself between the actively feeding shark and its food? In an amazing display of understatement, he simply said he needed something for his dinner and the shark had just provided it.  Personally, I think Perry was simply unable to tolerate one of HIS bonefish being taken by sharks. This is the kind of guide I want on my boat!

Jay was scheduled for departure the following morning, though I did my best to persuade him to change his flight. All my arguments were fruitless, as he was determined to return as planned, lest he incur the ire of his better half. Even my accusations of emasculation proved useless. I was saddened by his leaving, but not nearly enough to prevent me from boarding the boat for two more days of solo fishing with Perry, Guide of Steel. Jay’s flight was around noon, and I bade him farewell and safe journeys. I loaded my gear on the boat, then Perry once more steered a southerly heading. He had mentioned something earlier about a permit spot he wanted to try. After a pleasant trip, we pulled up to a remote flat at the end of a small creek. The boat could go no further, so on went the wading shoes, and off the boat went I, trusty GoPro clamped around my head, ready to document my hoped for permit encounter of the third kind. Now, my experience and facility with the GoPro is quite limited. In fact, I am just learning to use it. As Jay had departed and Perry was even less familiar then me with this camera, the responsibility for recording any permit catch was mine alone. My desire was to create a stunning, Academy Award winning video about the proper way to locate, cast to, hook, and land a permit on fly. I faced two major obstacles, however. First, I could barely turn the camera on. Secondly, I had to actually find a permit and catch it, a task widely known to be daunting at best. In my entire fly fishing experience of some twenty plus years, I had manged to catch a permit only twice. Both had been corralled in the Sandy Point area, which gave me hope.

My strategy was to meet the permit on its own terms. I was determined to adopt the same attitude as most permit, one of indifference. I told myself that I really didn’t care if I caught a permit today or not. Even if I saw one, I might not even cast to it. To hell with them, I thought. I can be just as self absorbed as they can. Perry and I slowly worked our way across the flat. I walked along furtively glancing about, doing my best to appear aloof, apathetic, and insouciant about the whole affair. Perry whispered that he had seen movement, and he thought it was a school of fish, likely permit. I did my best to remain nonchalant. “Oh really” I casually said, but felt my pulse quicken. He pointed out the nervous water, and I was cool until I saw a couple of black sickle shapes protruding above the slick calm surface of the water. Suddenly I wished I had my bottle of beta blocker pills in my shirt pocket. To my amazement, I actually remembered to activate my camera. To my further amazement, I recalled which buttons to press.  The school, now identified as permit without question, slowly moved in my direction. I rechecked the knot securing the smallish Merkin crab fly to the twelve pound tippet, and ran my fingers along the length of the leader, checking for nicks and other imperfections such as so called wind knots. These overhand knots are formed in the leader when defects in the casting motion result in a tailing loop. I prefer Lefty Kreh’s less politically correct terminology. He calls them “shitty casting knots.”  Thankfully, my equipment was ready for the challenge. But was I?

“You can reach them now,” Perry said quietly. “Go ahead and cast.” I lifted my rod, and made a couple false casts, fearful that the permit might detect the rod’s movement or even the tiniest pressure wave caused by the shifting of my not inconsiderable weight as I cast. I stopped the rod at the horizon, following the fly with the rod tip as gently as possible to the surface. The fly landed quietly in front of the school. Breathlessly I made small strips, pausing occasionally. The permit, the entire lot of them, in typical permit fashion, ignored my fly. They did not blow out in a hyperfrenetic frenzy, but rather just metaphorically  glanced at the bunch of feathers I had affixed to a hook it and said “Can you believe this guy? Lets just leave!”  I actually made several casts before it happened. One permit, likely not the sharpest knife in the permit drawer, inhaled my fly! And then it was on. These fish, with their flattened bodies, make for an excellent fight. They seem to be able to position themselves in such a way as to maximize drag from the water. But after a few minutes, I held in my hands a smallish but absolutely beautiful permit. It is often surreptitiously stated that size doesn’t matter, when we all know THAT is a lie.  However, when it comes to permit, that aphorism is an undisputed core truth. A fifty pound specimen is staggeringly impressive, but a five pounder is still a permit. Its capture on a fly remains no less impressive.  Any permit catch is a cause for celebration and at this moment, celebration meant a cell phone call back to the lodge where Jay waited to depart to the airport. Perry dialed the number on the phone dangling from a cord around his neck. I was astounded when the call went through. He put the phone to my ear. “Jay, I just wanted to let you know that I just landed a PERMIT!!!” “I told you to stay, but NOOOO, you had to leave. Too bad, as this could be you holding the fish.”  Jay offered some muffled form of congratulations, but I was too excited to recall his exact words. Honestly, I would really have enjoyed seeing him get his first one, but I savored the moment before releasing this trophy to rejoin his compatriots. Excited by the jolt of adrenalin from the capture of my third lifetime permit, I resumed the hunt, hoping to meet that same school once more as it meandered around the flat looking for breakfast.

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In mere minutes, the telltale disturbance of the water’s surface that discloses a school of feeding fish was seen, almost within casting distance, heading in our direction.  Using the same fly that had moments earlier been extracted from the jaw of a permit, I lifted my worn, but functional old Orvis rod. This rod has been seen service for some fifteen years now and it shows it age. Its beautiful green finish has been worn away from most of the tip section and the handle cork is dark and sweat stained after many hours of casting. Still quite capable of subduing even the toughest game fish, it fired line and fly towards the target with accuracy and ease. Once more the fly landed in close proximity to the feeding permit, distracted by their search for sustenance. Once more, they ignored my fly. But a couple more presentations proven too much for one permit, and he hungrily devoured the Merkin. When he realized the error of his ways, he shot off across the flat with fly, leader, and fly line in tow. Feeling the pressure of the drag of my large arbor reel, he turned his broad, flattened body perpendicular to the direction of the line.  Once more, all my gear performed as designed and delivered my second permit of the morning to my quivering hands. Well, not quite all of my equipment. My brain, arguably the least reliable fishing tool I possess, completely let me down. It neglected to send the appropriate electrical signals to those muscles in my arm and hand that activate my GoPro. The result was no imagery , either video or still, of my triumph. My cerebral cortex seems the sole means of recording this particular fishing episode, one my most amazing. It remains to be seen just how long this extraordinary memory will persist, as my brain’s hard drive seems to often skip critical memory sectors. Time will tell, but for now the two a day permit practice is etched in my repository of lifetime events. Obviously, a second cell call was made to Jay. I am not certain that even now he believes me without hard evidence. Have a little faith in me is all I can say. I am aware that people have caught more than two permit in a single day. My friend from Freeport, Greg Vincent, has landed an astonishing five of these finicky fish in a single day, winning for himself the Del Brown Invitational Permit Tournament.  Most fly fishermen consider the Del Brown contest the world championship of permit fly fishing. I harbor no illusion that I might duplicate such a feat, but am more than contented to savor the sweet memory of the day I got two permit on the fly.

After my once in a lifetime permit tour de force, we resumed our bonefish routine, slowly poling the shallow clear waters  seeking silver flashes or the dark backs of our quarry contrasted against the gleaming white sands of the spectacular waters of the Sandy Point area. As I stood watch on the bow, the idea of attaining a Grand Slam recurred repeatedly, since I had bagged the most difficult of the three glamour species of the flats- bonefish, permit, and tarpon. Sandy Point is blessed with large populations of both bonefish and permit, but its tarpon are far less common. There happens to be a particular spot, not far at all from the lodge, where these large leapers with silver scales and iron mouths,can be found with some regularity. That was where my thoughts focused now. I had mentioned it to Perry, but, as usual, he was far ahead of me. “We are definitely going to try to find you a tarpon today, but we must wait for the tide to be right,” he remarked. ” Until then, let’s find a few more bones.” We scoured several more flats as we waited, and saw good numbers of fish, landing several average bones. I tried a couple of the large triggerfish we saw cruising in very skinny water, but had no takers, even using imitations of their favorite food, crabs. I am beginning to think that these tasty fish are more difficult to fool with a fly than even the super persnickety permit. In my total flats fishing experience, I have landed but a single triggerfish, and I ended up dropping it back into the water before I could get it back to the boat and later the table. Perry announced that the tide was now perfect for the tarpon spot, so he returned his push pole to the boat deck and we made for Tarpon Alley, where I fervently hoped to complete my flats triumvirate. We soon reached our tarpon venue and commenced the search. We encountered a small school of very large yellow jacks moving rapidly across the rocky bottomed flat, perhaps motivated by the enormous barracuda we saw a short distance away. Now barracudas are widely regarded as trash fish to be ignored when seen on bonefish flats, but I am of a different opinion. Theses flashy speedsters make excellent sportfish, and I love catching them. They possess impressive speed and are happy to delight the angler with aerial displays like a tarpon. Few sights are as impressive as watching a four to five foot long cuda streaking like a heat seeking missile across a flat at Mach 3 to smash a rapidly retrieved lure or fly. I tend to prefer lures for cudas as they can be cast very quickly when one is spotted, and can be cast much further and in less time than a fly. I have noticed in recent years that cudas seem more reticent to take the traditional tube lures I have always used. This time, I had selected a double propeller equipped lure I used for for larger peacock bass in Brazil, reasoning that its noisy ripping motion and resultant surface commotion might stimulate strikes from these toothy fish. I did mange to catch a few nice cudas with it and my reliable bait casting rod and reel, but this big boy refused to eat. It teased us with torpedo like runs toward the lure, but turned off at the last moment. I suppose being selective is how this particular fish had survived to become so large.  I frequently remind Jay, when he torments me about my physical size, that the largest specimens are often the smartest, demonstrating the intelligence needed to reach such size.  No tarpon were found, despite intensive searching, so we retired to the lodge to celebrate the days victories and ready ourselves and our gear for my final day of the present trip.

cuda underwater cuda catch

I boarded Perry’s skiff at eight o’clock the next morning, excited, but saddened knowing it would be my last day of bonefishing for the foreseeable future. I was pleased that the medication had allowed me to experience the excellent fishing, the double permit capture, and the superb camaraderie of the proceeding four days. Already I pondered a return, wondering how much time would be required to elapse before I could safely expose my endocrine system to the trip enabling medication again. Perry decided to stay close that last day and we made the short trip to the creek around the corner from town. We motored as far as we could up its completely clear waters, on constant alert for bonefish. We found a few schools, and I made multiple casts to them, but to no avail. Flies which had been effective for the entire trip suddenly ceased to be functional. With Perry’s guidance, I went through the contents of all three of my boxes of flies, and sequentially tied on quite a few variations in size, color, and patterns, but no avail.  I was sorely tempted to break out the Silver Haired Granddaddy, but was able to summon sufficient willpower to resist, fearing loss of my special fly. This continued the entire morning. We then took a break for a brief lunch and a Kalik, and were interrupted a couple of times by passing troupes of bones. My presentations continued to be ignored despite variations in proximity of fly to fish, speed of the retrieve, and anything else I could change up. We pushed as deeply as we could into the creek, but eventually were forced to turn back. We fished our way out, once more without success. When we reached the junction with the main creek that runs beside town, Perry anchored up by lowering the motor into the sand. There we resumed our watch. Goodly numbers of fish, many significantly larger than average, passed us on their way to deeper water. Once more, my flies were ignored. These bones apparently had been taking lessons in indifference from their permit buddies. They simply refused to even acknowledge our presence. We would sight fish, cast and make presentations that normally would be gobbled immediately, and then watch in frustration as the bones waved goodbye to us as they swam towards open water.  The pattern repeated and then repeated again. Perry amazed me. His determination to catch fish is unmatched by any of the many, many guides with whom I have fished over the years. His resolve had already been established by the fact that we never made it back to the lodge before six PM. Standard quitting time at most places I have fished is four PM.  My last day, he set a new standard for persistence. Despite of day marked by a hundred refusals. Perry stood watch, motionless, perched on the motor as the sun slowly slipped into the sea west of Sandy Point. The shadows lengthened, and I glanced at my watch. It was seven PM. Perry remained immobile at his station, his eyes searching from behind polarized sunglasses. I was reminded of a scene from the old Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Terminator 2 – Judgment Day.  Like the cyborg that stood impassively for an entire night at the window of an abandoned gas station watching for potential dangers to a young John Conner, Perry was nearly robotic in his devotion to finding a bonefish willing to take a fly. He would occasionally point out a small group of bones, and I immediately made the cast. The result was always the same- refusal after refusal. I had been on the casting deck now for some twelve hours straight. My feet hurt. My back ached. I was actually ready to go head for the barn, but refused to say uncle before my guide.  Light rapidly disappeared, and I could no longer see the bottom, in spite of the water’s remarkable clarity. By now, I had begun to suspect that Perry really was some sort of cybernetic organism. He barely moved a muscle. He must have been using his onboard bonefish sensors to scan the dark waters for evidence of fish activity. Perhaps his detailed files allowed him to detect the circulating hemoglobin in the bonefish’s vascular tree, since they are cold blooded creatures incapable of generating a heat signature, and had long since disappeared from the visible light spectrum. Perry continued to offer periodic casting instructions. These were largely wasted on me, as I could no longer even see the tip of my fly rod. I made an effort nonetheless.  “Please, fish, for the love of God, eat this fly!” I implored as I  made truly blind casts in the general area that Perry had directed. But these fish were obviously atheists. None complied. “Somebody’s gonna eat!” Perry proclaimed as I swatted at the no see um’s buzzing around my head. At nine PM, however, he relented and acknowledged that the bonefish had defeated us that particular day. As we made our way back home, I wondered about the kitchen staff who should have left for home hours before. “I’m sorry, girls,” I thought as the lights of the lodge came into view.

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Synonyms for the word prodigal include wasteful and squandering. Three and a half years without a trip to the flats of Sandy Point would, I suppose, qualify me as a prodigal son of sorts. Those years represent wasted time and opportunity. After all, time continues its inexorable flow towards eternity, and I am not getting any younger. I allowed my physical impairments to steal away an important part of my life. Having now discovered a way to overcome them, I will no longer allow pain and my disease to dictate the terms of my life. I have found that which was lost, and I celebrate  the knowledge that I will be able to stand on that casting deck, rod in hand, and enjoy God’s natural world with good friends for a few more years.

Two of Jesus’ parables about redemption include The Prodigal Son and the The Lost Coin, both recorded in Luke, chapter 15. Both stories illustrate the fact that no matter how desperate the situation may seem, all can be reversed by faith and the realization that change is often within our own power. I, too, had this realization, and like the Prodigal’s father and the woman finding her lost coin, I invite all my friends to rejoice with me.

 

lost coin

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At Christmas, What Goes Around Comes Around

castingawayblog:

Here it is Christmas time again. I am reposting this tale of a less privileged boy and his struggling Mother once more. I hope to inspire readers to find a Joey of their own. There can be no better gift than knowing that a child is able to enjoy that magical moment of Christmas morning! Please make a difference for a child this year!

Originally posted on castingawayblog:

Author’s Note- This post was Originally Posted on December 13, 2011by castingawayblog. It iis re-posted today for the holiday season. Please do what you can to help less fortunate children in our community to have a happy Christmas. This is what the holidays are all about. Thank you for reading my work and especially for helping the kids.

 

Joey had grown to despise Christmas.

It was Christmas Eve, and he sat on the edge of the stained brown sofa that served as his bed in the tattered little camper that he and his Mom called home.  The  camper , forlorn and drafty, sat tucked into the edge of the forest on a farm, far out in the country. The farmer, now in his seventies, allowed Joey and his Mom to keep the rusted camper parked there at no charge. They had been living there since Joey’s dad…

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Achy Old Men

two_old_men_and_dog_fishing_dock editiedPaul stepped gently, he thought, on the brake pedal of his mostly rusted out old F-150. Seated on the passenger’s side, Alan let out of a loud “Ouch!” ” Dammit,Paul, can’t you take it easier on that brake pedal?” he said. ” Must be those brake pads. I had ‘em replaced in, oh, 1984, I think,” explained Paul with feigned sorrow. “You know my neck gives me fits, man. I might not be able to fish now.” “Sorry about that, Alan. I just might have to catch all the fish seeing as how you won’t be able to turn your head enough to see all the good casting spots.” said Paul, now chuckling softly. ” Just for that you’re going to have to launch the boat all by yourself !” retorted Alan, knowing full well that he was quite able to assist in dropping the ten foot long aluminum jon boat into the river. Paul slowly backed the old pickup down the ramp towards the water’s edge. Once the tires contacted water, he again braked the truck, this time being extra careful to avoid jolting Alan’s neck. Both doors creaked open simultaneously and the two men stepped on to the concrete of the state funded ramp. They moved toward the trailer, eyeing each other as they walked. “Paul, when you planning to get that hip replaced? It looks to be about as worn out as your old pickup.” asked Alan. “Just as quick as you get that cataract fixed, you half blind old fool.” responded Paul. “It’s a wonder you can see how to cast, much less tie on a lure.”

The two made carefully placed footsteps as they eased towards water’s edge, each placement of their feet calculated to minimize risk of slippage and a possible trip ending fall. Paul stopped at the bow, making ready to unlock the winch, while Alan continued to the stern so as to release the woven strap securing the aft section of the boat to the trailer.  “OK, strap’s off ” called Alan as he folded the nylon belt for storage. Paul began lowering the boat off the trailer and into the river. This maneuver required little force to control, yet his back spasmed a bit and a small groan escaped his lips. This did not go unnoticed. “Maybe you need to get one of them fancy electric winches, Paul,” said Alan snidely. “Just grab the bow line while I go park the truck,” responded Paul. With that, he made his way to the driver’s side door of the truck, slid into the driver’s seat, and guided it and the trailer to a parking space near the ramp. “Good use of tax money” thought Paul as he walked back towards the ramp. “So much better than that decrepit old dirt thing we used to have to use.” He looked down at the water and saw that Alan had already boarded and was holding the boat fast to the wooden dock with both of his tanned, wrinkled hands.  Just then, he heard the shrill whistle of a bird and reflexly looked up. He caught a glance of a particularly large bald eagle, scouring the river on a fishing trip of its own. As he descended the concrete ramp, Paul’s left foot slipped a bit and he nearly lost control and fell. “Careful, old man!” yelled Alan. “I don’t have time to take you to the hospital. There’s bass waiting out there!”

Soon the little vessel was slowly making its way upriver. Paul and Alan typically began their fishing upstream so in case of engine failure, they might be able to simply drift back to the launch site. Despite the protestations of their wives, and especially their children, neither man owned a cell phone. They were much too luddite for such modern gadgets. Instead, they depended on their long experience , each other, and plain old luck to ensure a safe trip. They way they saw it, they had been fishing for over fifty years without such contraptions, so they would spend that money on motor maintenance and new baits instead.

Paul and Alan had worked together in the post office in Baltimore for thirty years. Long ago they discovered a shared love of fishing and the outdoors. They began fishing the Maryland rivers for bass and stripers and found that they made a good fit as fishing companions.  Once, they had made a trip to central Florida to try its warm, clear bass waters. They decided on the spot to someday retire there together, assuming the wives were agreeable, of course. Samantha and Jill loved the idea of escaping Baltimore’s cold winters and all the congestion. The kids all agreed that it was a good plan. Besides, visits to Mom and Dad would dovetail nicely with taking the children to Disney World.  So, twenty two years ago, they made the big move. No one ever had the slightest regret. Alan and Paul fished two, often three, days a week. They had discovered several  locations on their home river where largemouth seemed to lurk around every stump or blowdown. They were headed to one of those spots today.

As the small craft slowly made headway against the current, they bantered continuously. The day’s Chamber of Commerce weather raised their hopes of a twenty bass day. The section of water they planned to fish was generally deserted, save for cormorants, and the occasional deer seeking sustenance from the tender leaves of the young willows that flourished along the bank. They hoped the weather had not brought out all the local yahoos with their sparklie painted fiberglass, massively overpowered bass boats. No, they wanted a quiet morning casting baits around the abundant bass cover found on “their” stretch of water.  “How old is that youngest grandson now, Alan?” Paul absent mindedly inquired.  “Seventy?”  ” Smartass! He’s eighteen and headed for college. Gonna study to be a lawyer, so he says.” was Alan’s response.  While Paul drove the boat, Alan began tying on a lure. “I think I’ll start out with a topwater. Maybe a broke back Rebel,” he mused . “Better put on your Mr. Magoos so you can see the line.” advised Paul, noting that Alan had left his thick glasses in his breast pocket. “Well, you better put on your life vest before the law sees you. Why don’t you already have it on? Did you leave it in the truck?” “No, I have it right here,” Paul said. “Guess it must just be getting a little bit too tight, huh?” prodded Alan. ” Didn’t you just have to buy a new one six months ago?” “Oh shut the hell up, Alan.” Paul said, silently reminding himself that he needed to start that Atkins diet thing next week.

Paul’s cast landed three inches from a small cypress stump protruding from the clear water. He had on a spinnerbait in his preferred chartreuse color with Colorado blades. He liked to slow roll this bait. The bass experts seemed to think that this technique is better suited to use  in deeper or off colored water, but Paul had enjoyed great success with it in this shallower clear water. “Maybe the bass like seeing something they don’t have to dart up to grab. Takes less energy,” was Paul’s reasoning. In any case it seemed to work for him. He had made perhaps four slow turns on the crank when a bass sucked the bait in and departed for a refuge among the root tangles where he might enjoy his catch in safety. Paul gave his best “Roland Martin” set and the fish was on. The largemouth rocketed into the brilliant blue of the Florida morning. These aerial displays were what the two friends lived for, and they thoroughly enjoyed the fish’s acrobatics. “Hoo-eee!” shouted Paul. “Nice one!” added Alan. “Keep him out of the wood if you can,” he advised. Paul demonstrated his extensive experience by smoothly guiding the fish away from obstacles and towards the net Alan had submerged beside the boat. In seconds, it was a caught fish. Paul carefully lifted the bass by the lip, extracted the spinnerbait, and guesstimated its weight at four pounds. “I’ll take a few more just like this one,” he said, releasing the fish gently back from whence it had come. “My turn,” said Alan, with a mock serious tone in his voice.

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An unusual Pacific species known as the Treefish.

The two men continued to cast for the next few hours, all the while working back downstream.  Alan spied an especially promising looking stump featuring multiple bass sized perforations very near the riverbank. A spreading willow provided aerial protection for the giant bass Alan knew just HAD to lying at base of this piece of ideal bass structure. He made careful mental calculations of distances and angles, factoring in wind drift and boat movement. After a quick check of the reel’s drag setting, Alan expertly made a hook shaped cast, just like the bass fishing pros he regularly saw on the Outdoor Channel. The Rebel, all three treble hooks gleaming in the bright sunshine, tracked like a Stinger missile towards it’s target. “Damn it all!” exclaimed Alan as the Rebel made contact with a low hanging willow branch he had not seen. The lure and flexible ten pound monofilament line had instantaneously wrapped themselves into a Gordian knot amongst the tree branches some four feet above the intended touchdown zone. Paul took one look at the web of monofilament and calmly asked Alan “You bring your knife, or you need mine?” Then he let out a laugh that shook the boat so that its rolling made little waves which spread across the river.  “Of course, maybe you were trying for one of those fish I read about on the Internet the other day- a TREEFISH!!! You know, there really is something called that. Lives in the Pacific Ocean though. That’d be a hell of a cast.” Paul erupted in laughter once more.   “Laugh it up, Paul,” said a disgusted Alan. “No, I got mine.” he added. He reached in his pocket, then unfolded the pearl handled penknife his grandson had given him for his birthday last year. He rose unsteadily to his feet and cut the line. “Alan, don’t rock the boat. I have no desire to become gator bait.” said Paul. “Don’t worry, Paul. There are some things too stinky for even a gator to eat.”

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Alexander the Great cuts the Gordian Knot with his sword

Once Alan had re-rigged, they continued on downriver. They made casts to likely bass holding spots and were rewarded by multiple strikes. Together, they brought to hand some twelve bass that morning, ranging from one to four pounds. Though they traded barbs for the entire trip, Paul and Alan were fast friends. They not only fished together, they had often ate dinner at each others homes, traveled with their wives on those “senior” trips, and even attended the same church. Despite the good natured ribbing, they shared deep affection and admiration for one another, though this feeling had never been verbalized.  Such expressions simply were not the way such old school, John Wayne kind of men.

“Well, had enough, Alan?” asked Paul. “I guess it is getting late. Maybe we should head on in. Don’t want the Little Lady to get worried,” replied Alan, knowing that such a request from his friend usually meant that he needed to make use of the Port-A-Potty at the landing.  “Paul, I swear I’m gonna buy you a case of diapers so we can have a little more time on the water,” Alan added with contrived annoyance.  His own bladder was beginning to fill, and standing to relieve himself was a risky maneuver in the small boat. “Very well,” announced Paul. “Prepare to make flank speed,” Paul said to no one in particular in his best officer of the deck voice. He made a course for the ramp and soon they had tied up to the floating dock there.

After each man had completed his biological business, they loaded the boat. The slight incline of the ramp amplified the effort required to pull the small vessel to the waiting trailer. Alan did his best to camouflage his groans as he tugged at the bow and attached the winch line. Paul stood at the ready by the winch to begin cranking the boat into position on the small aluminum trailer. “All right, Paul, ” he said. “She’s ready. Haul away.” With that, Paul began turning the handle on the small winch as Alan maneuvered the boat in line with the plastic carpet covered bunks upon which the boat rested while being transported. The boat slowly made its way toward the winch as Paul turned it. Both the boat’s keel and the winch mechanism made creaking noises as the loading made slow, but steady progress. “Hey, Paul,” said Alan. “That creakin’ noise coming from the winch, or your hip and shoulders?”  “All three probably,” responded Paul, now winching a bit. ” Doc Barnett told me both my rotator cuffs were bad last time I went in to see him.” “Well, maybe when we get back to your place, I can grease these bunks a bit and throw a little on your shoulders,” Alan said with a grin. Paul silently wondered why the pain in his left shoulder seemed to be worse than that in his right shoulder, despite the fact that he was cranking the winch equally with both arms. “Funny,” he thought. ” I am right handed.”

Soon, they were unhooking the trailer from Paul’s forlorn old Ford and the friends parted ways for the day. ” Want to try ‘em again Friday, Paul?” Alan asked as he turned towards his compact Chevy. ” I suppose, but you know what day is a fish’s least favorite day? FRIDAY!” It was an old joke that they had laughed at to the point of ritualism over the years, but they still got a chuckle from the telling. “OK, buddy. I’ll call you Thursday night to confirm.” The driver’s door on Alan’s car closed with a bit of persuasion and he headed out the driveway and toward his house a few miles away.

True to his word, Alan punched in Paul’s number Thursday evening. The phone rang a few times before a strange voice answered. Alan thought he had recognized it, but was unsure if he had maybe misdialed the number. “Sam, that you?” “No, this is Jenn, her daughter.” “Oh, hi, Jenn. It’s Alan. Can I speak to your Dad?” He thought maybe Jenn had come for an unexpected visit to enjoy the warm Florida weather. “Alan, I have something to tell you. Dad had a massive heart attack last night.” ” Oh my God!” gasped Alan. “How is he doing?” “Alan, he didn’t make it. He passed away about nine o’clock last night.” Alan’s heart sank. All the feeling left his arms and the color disappeared from his face. The room spun in circles and he felt weak and nauseated all at the same instant. ” Oh God, that is terrible” he  finally said. “He was fine when I left to go home.” Jenn filled Alan in on a few more details. ” He decided to go upstairs to get a book he was reading, but stopped on the landing , holding his chest. We called 911, but by the time they got here, he was gone. There was just nothing anyone could have done.” “How is Samantha holding out?” Alan asked, concerned about how she might be handling all this. Samantha and Paul had been together sixty two years. “She is being a trooper, but this is very tough on her and the whole family.”  “I will be praying for you all. If there is anything…” He could not finish the sentence, and hung up the phone as the tears began to flow down both cheeks.

Paul had always been a planner. After relocating to Florida, he had visited an attorney and made a few changes to his will.  He specified that he wished for his remains to be cremated and his ashes to be distributed over the river where he had enjoyed so many days fishing with his old buddy Alan.  He bequeathed his boat, trailer, and all his tackle to Alan, including his favorite chartreuse Colorado blade spinnerbait.

Alan was numb that afternoon at the river. The events and people who surrounded him at the service somehow seemed far away, in a different dimension. He was for all his efforts to the contrary, sealed in an invisible bubble of shock and grief. It was like a piece of him had died. “Oh God! he pondered “As bad as this is,what in the world would I do should something happen to my sweet, sweet Jill?” He had never imagined that he might be so emotionally labile.  Jill squeezed his arm in support during the brief memorial.  Samantha, Paul’s children and grandchildren, as well as friends from church and even Baltimore, all stood silently at the ramp that had been such an important part of Paul’s life. Memories flooded through Alan’s mind as the minister read a couple of Bible verses and told a few touching anecdotes about Paul’s life and his love for fishing. The analogies to Jesus’ fishers of men were inevitable. One of these stories recounted a particularly successful day Paul and Alan had shared on the river. That one brought a bittersweet smile to Alan’s face. The service ended after a prayer for peace and healing for the bereaved family and friends. Sam then walked nearly knee-deep into the clear water, soaking her long black dress in the warm clear river water. She opened the urn, then slowly inverted it. Gravity emptied the container, and the gentle breeze wafted Paul’s ashes across the river he had loved so much.

Alan was the last to leave the ramp. He had sent Jill ahead with Samantha to comfort her. “I’ll be along shortly” he had told her. “Just do what you can for Sam right now. She needs you. I know her children are there, but she will need all the love and support she can get right now.” “You are right, Alan. Just come on over to Paul’s house when you are ready. We’ll have some fresh hot coffee and a few doughnuts ready.”  Jill had then looked into Alan’s eyes, took his hand in hers, and whispered” I am so sorry, Alan. I know how close you guys were. Maybe you can begin to get closure and start the healing process by spending a few minutes here alone. I love you.”

Alan gazed out over the river. Emotion swept over him as he thought about all the great times he had shared with his friend here. He knew that there would be no more days spent kidding each other about physical infirmities and fishing skills.  “Rest easy, friend,” he said to no one in particular. Alan thought to himself “You know, this is kind of like that Disney movie I watched with Jason when he was little. The Circle of Life.”  Paul, Alan realized, was now a part of the river, its fishes, and even those infernal trees that always seemed to reach out and grab their lures.  It seemed quite fitting and proper.

Alan had not gotten around to telling Paul about his own visit to Doc Barnett last week. He had not even been able to break the news to Jill, choosing instead to put it off a while, just in case the Doc was wrong. But he knew in his heart now that he must, just as soon she had recovered at least a bit from the shock of Paul’s death. Alan at last turned away from the river and headed towards the well-worn old Chevy parked near the top of the ramp. Partway up, he turned, looked again at the water, and said ” Save a few bass for your old buddy, Paul. I’ll be joining you soon, my friend. Real soon.”

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My Three Fathers

Dad and James

   Author’s Note-  The following piece was written about two years ago. Its original intended audience was family and friends. In the interim, my Dad has been transformed into an eternal being, now existing in splendor with The Creator. I decided to publish this in honor of my Dad and in recognition that part of him continues to be present on this Earth in the form of his three children, his five grandchildren, and his great-granddaughter. I will see you soon, Dad. I love you and remain grateful for all you did for me. My life is a testament to your guiding hand.

There is always a small gasp of surprise accompanied by a quizzical expression when I tell people I have three fathers. Most think I refer to my natural father, and two step-fathers, or perhaps with a godfather thrown in there somewhere. They seem puzzled when I tell them no permutation of those three possibilities explains my unique situation. Everyone requests an explanation of this curious phenomenon. I’m happy to oblige, but this one takes a little time.

An examination of just what a father is seems in order, especially now that I find myself at that point in life where I, myself, am a father of sorts.  To my surprise and amazement, I seem to be muddling through it. Throughout my youth, I never seriously felt that I had the right stuff to become a Dad. After all, Dad was someone whose wisdom massively exceeded my ability to comprehend. A Dad always knows, without hesitation or any necessity for deliberation, precisely the correct course of action to solve any problem, be it a broken washing machine, a suboptimal report card or inappropriate behavior at Sunday School. Dad knew without fail, how to do everything from changing a tire or building a room onto the house, to more delicate matters such as comforting my Mom when she became distraught over mostly non-issues. Heck, he could even distinguish her real from her not so real crises.  Would that that skill were passed genetically. It seemed to me that this type of Solomonian wisdom was simply beyond my reach.

I realized fairly early on that achieving Dad-dom would be a reach for me. As I watched Dad toil infatigueably, day after day , to provide our daily necessities and what he could of our wants, it just appeared altogether impossibly difficult. In my soul, I knew I was too lazy for all that self sacrifice stuff. Playing ball, watching TV, and later, pursuing girls, proved infinitely more appealing to me. He arose at hours that didn’t even appear on my clock to leave for his customary day of hard physical labor, and came dragging home, way past dark, only to ingest a few bites of Mom’s dinners, bathe, and fall into bed, renewing his body for a repeat performance in a few short hours. Fatherhood seemed to involve a superhuman amount of work. It seemed way too much for a mere mortal like me.

Yet the list of Dad duties extends far beyond self denial. Dadness requires the passing of both knowledge and wisdom. Some things I learned from my Dad were merely osmotic. The basic concepts of what is right and what is wrong simply appeared in me, following the gradient between a high concentration of moral values ( my Dad) to a lesser concentration (me).  Watching him conduct his life, handle his family, and interact with neighbors, I acquired a strong sense of fairness, honesty, and right and wrong. I have since grown into an adult, become educated, and experienced a fair amount of the world, both good and bad. The moral compass constructed in my soul by Dad has never grown cloudy or spun in circles. His indelible impressions on my inner man have led me through the tempests of life on an even keel.

Other things I learned were taught in a practical way. An excellent example is the highly valuable life lesson about work ethic. When I was in high school and had finally acquired that most prized of all teenage possessions, the driver’s license, I fervently desired the second most sought after- a car of my very own. Dad saw this as a teaching opportunity. It was time to learn about hard work, reward, and the value of money. Nowadays, many teenagers are gifted with a fancy expensive automobile as soon as they earn a license. To their detriment, this phenomenon likely reflects the parents’ own ego gratification, at the cost of a lost chance to teach youngsters a solid, dependable core value lesson. Such an opportunity certainly was not wasted in my own case. Dad sat me down and explained the relationship between effort and reward. Dad elucidated for me the many splendors of hard work- self discipline, financial reward, enhanced physical fitness, and the satisfaction of making your own way. He explained how a real man cannot be truly satisfied, deep down inside, with mere handouts. Only the fruits of his own efforts provide that inner sense of worth that leads to true contentment. Only then does he truly value that car, bought by the sweat of his own brow.

Once the school year was complete, off to work I went. I worked with my Dad in the tough, physically demanding world of construction. Dad was self-employed in the land clearing and drainage business. My first job consisted of refueling the dragline he operated. That mechanical beast was enormous at seventy five feet tall, and its appetite for fuel was even larger. The pickup truck Dad drove holding the daily fifty five gallon allotment of fuel had to be left near the road, while the machine might be a half mile deep in the woods. My task was not unlike that of Sisyphus- constantly hauling the heavy five gallon cans of fuel to the machine, only to see it converted to carbon dioxide and energy before the next trip was complete. I would fill two five gallon containers, drag both them and myself through the woods, fill the machine even while it continued to move, then trudge back to the truck and begin again. I kept rolling that particular stone up the hill for the entire summer.

All his predictions about this task proved true. I did manage at least a modest gain in physical strength, and I earned enough money by the end of the summer to buy my first car. I was in heaven, despite the fact that the car was an older, battered economy model. I treasured it and lavished it with massive amounts of TLC. Other guys, sporting attention grabbing girl magnet cars laughed at my ride, but I never cared. I EARNED this car myself. Even today, I reminisce fondly about it. I began to understand the relationship between effort and reward. I discovered the joy of accomplishment. That car was not simply a possession, but rather a symbol of my new found self reliance.

Dad had not had the opportunity to be educated academically, but his genius was undeniable. True, he couldn’t introduce me to quantum mechanics or expound about the breathtaking beauty of Shakespeare’s plays, but Berkeley County schools provided teachers for that part of my education. His lessons were taught in the classroom of the real world. His instruction shaped every area of my life and formed the bedrock of my life view. There can be no doubt that my accomplishments, however modest, are all grounded in those fundamentals. All that I am as a person I owe to him and my Mom’s guiding hands. Without them, I shudder to think how my life may have turned out. All that has followed in my adult life was built on that foundation.

Nothing came easily to me. Academic success came at a price, despite having a few friends for whom it all just seemed so effortless. Their calls to put down the books and join their parties were hard to resist, and but I knew that grasping the plum for which I reached would take absolutely everything I had. So, most parties went unattended. Even dates got triaged to less critical status. I was totally, completely obsessed with admission to medical school. I even arranged a meeting with my local state representative at the capitol (at Dad’s insistence), just in case my academic record needed a measure of political impetus to ensure success. Dad felt strongly that achieving anything in life beyond a subsistence existence required the blessing of the political machine. I will never know if that meeting with our county’s senior senator produced such an effect or was immediately forgotten as soon as the door shut behind me. I suspect the latter was the case. My lack of confidence in a political intercession for medical school admission merely gave me added incentive in my studies. I sweated it out throughout my undergraduate years, bypassing much of the reverie that most college students enjoy, all in a do or die maximum effort to gain my place in med school.

Some things just remain etched in 72 point bold Helvetica in our memories for our entire lives. The first girlfriend, the first drive to the store all alone, and the day THE letter came- the letter that announced that I had been selected to join the class of 1977 at the Medical University of South Carolina. I remember it like it was this morning, despite being some thirty three years distant now. I was working at a local hospital as an orderly to help put myself through college. The Letter had arrived that morning, but I waited to open it until my shift that evening in the ER. I finally screwed up the courage to peek inside it on my dinner break. I nervously, cautiously, gently opened the folded paper that held the course of my entire life within. I carefully let my eyes take in the first line. The only word that mattered was the first- “Congratulations”.  Trying to convey my feelings upon reading that word seems impossible, like explaining a sunset in the Bahamas to a blind man, or attempting to communicate what sex feels like. Suddenly, life was completely different. I knew that if I worked really, really hard, one day I would be one of them- a doctor. As I watched the doctors go about their business, there seemed to be a new- felt kinship with them.  I was now a brother in arms. Someday, I too would be a doctor. I had no idea what kind of doctor, but the glorious reality was that I would be a DOCTOR!!

Med school was all I had imagined- tough, demanding, intimidating, and all together fascinating. As I progressed through the classes, rounds, lectures, and endless hours of study, it seemed I was living a real life version of an old classic novel- “Two Years Before the Books.” I studied from 8 AM until 11 PM for those first two basic science years in a battle to attain reasonable marks. At that point, I already knew I wanted to become a surgeon. Anatomy had held a special attraction for me and I had always enjoyed working with my hands. Surgery just seemed the epitome of medical science. All the esoteric knowledge acquired in the classroom was combined with the physician’s motor skills and his ability to think on his feet resulting in an outcome that was easily judged by the least sophisticated casual observer on the street- a basic form of what might these days be called an intent to treat analysis. Or maybe I had seen one too many episodes of Ben Casey. My mind was made up- I would be a surgeon.

But what area of surgery should I pursue? Initially, I felt general surgery was the right path. A general contractor, instead of just a plumber or an electrician seemed sensible. But, as the movie trailer announcers say, “A new wind was about to blow.”

Somehow, I heard one day about a meeting for the entire class in the large auditorium where we heard many of our lectures. We had now reached our third year, when the bulk of our learning was now done on the wards. An interesting program had been devised which allowed medical students the opportunity to leave the confines of the academic world, and venture into the real world with real practicing doctors. The format of that meeting was straightforward. Physicians of various specialties gave brief descriptions of where they worked and what they did. As I sat, mostly bored, I wondered if I had wasted valuable study time when my next Father made a rather grand ascension to the podium.

Dressed in an impressive three piece suit, and sporting an even more impressive, almost stentorian voicing and appearance was the man who would set in motion the course of the remainder of my life. J. Lorin Mason was his name and orthopedic surgery was his game. I vividly recall his presentation. He made orthopedic practice seem better than possessing the ability to reanimate corpses, and I was enthralled. After his speech, I hardly paid any attention to the remaining speakers. I knew in my soul that I was destined to go to Florence, South Carolina and spend a six week externship with this man. I had no idea at the time how profound his influence on me would ultimately prove to be.

I knew I had made the correct choice even before we began the formal externship. The medical school ,amazingly, made arrangements for me and my fellow student and embryonic orthopedic surgeon, Jim Bethea, to visit Dr. Mason in Florence. The university aircraft, a nice Beechcraft Baron, was put at our disposal. Being a lifelong aviation enthusiast, I was thrilled. I was absolutely fascinated by the flight, especially as I was allowed to ride shotgun and observe the pilot’s activities in detail. The remainder of the trip was a thing of wonder. We were greeted by Dr. Mason and it seemed the entire city of Florence when we arrived at the offices of Pee Dee Orthopedics. We even made the paper. “All this for a junior medical student” I thought. “I’m going to like this orthopedic business.”

Jim and I lived like kings in Florence. We had our own apartment, paid for by the University. Everyone was cordial and treated us like family. It truly was a heady experience for a couple of guys who hadn’t yet demonstrated anything beyond the ability to gain admission to medical school.  Even the doctors in Dr. Mason’s practice were benevolent. They showed patience and a real interest in teaching us some basic concepts in orthopedics. However, as nice as they were, their devotion to our education was several magnitudes of order less than that of Dr. Mason. At the time, I was completely unable to appreciate the sacrifice he of himself and his time for us. It was only years later, when I did some teaching myself, that I understood.  He never seemed to mind taking time after work hours to sit down with us and attempt to give us a basic grounding in the art and science of orthopedic surgery.

His teaching methods at times, seemed reminiscent of those of a marine drill instructor, and I was just as intimidated as a Parris Island recruit.  I can now look back with understanding and fondness at the occasions he referred to me as “dicknose”, for example. Initially, his entire approach to Jim and me, as well as his employees, nurses, and scrub technicians, seemed harsh. Little by little, though, I began to look beneath that gruff exterior to see and appreciate the real Lorin Mason.

It is hard for me to easily put into words everything that Dr. Mason taught me.  He showed me not only the technical part of being an orthopedist, but what it meant to be a compassionate physician. At the University, I learned science, and lots of it. Little regard was given to what it means to really take care of sick and injured people. Lorin showed me that. Early in my rotation with him, he got a call to go to the emergency department to see a young girl with a badly broken forearm. I will always remember that scene. As we walked into the room, she was visibly in pain. She was about 20 years old and had a terribly deformed right wrist, damaged in a fall at home. Dr. Mason walked over to her and in a very soothing tone, explained exactly what he planned to do. He then gave her, ever so gently, an injection of local anesthetic. Once the medication had done its work, he grasped her wrist and made a quick, deft movement she never even felt. As he applied a plaster splint to her arm, she let out a sigh of relief- her pain had totally disappeared! I was in awe of him now. Having just spent four months on the internal medicine service, I was flabbergasted that a person’s problem could be so simply and completely fixed. After all, I had seen the medical doctors treating high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease. They NEVER seemed to actually cure their patient’s problems. The best they could manage was to keep the symptoms under control. This orthopedic surgeon could FIX the problem. It hit right at that moment that orthopedic surgery was to be my life’s work.

I was so excited to get to go to the operating room with Dr. Mason the following week. The first case was an ankle surgery- a fracture that required surgical fixation with a special metal plate and screws, if memory serves. I had read up on the case the previous night, but admittedly, it was after some social activity that involved “moderate” alcohol consumption. Upon opening the skin, Dr. Mason asked me a basic anatomy question. Of course, I fumbled the answer. He glared at me and noted that as a student, I wasn’t expected to know much, but anyone who had passed gross human anatomy should know that answer.  With that, he demanded that I leave not only the operating theater, but the hospital as well. I was instructed to walk back to the office and study ankle anatomy. It was a lesson well learned. It became clear to me that being in the OR was a privilege- one that had to be earned. Preparation was all important. I never forgot that lesson, along with many others. This particular one served me well throughout my residency and my practice.

He also taught me to see my patients as people, not merely a disease process. I remember examining a middle aged black man who suffered from painful arthritis of the hip. My clumsy exam had caused his hip to pain him significantly. Dr. Mason reminded me that he was a human being, not a manikin, and that I should respect him and be more sensitive with my exams. I saw this trait repeatedly demonstrated during my time with him. He was helping me make that transition from the teaching hospital mentality to being a real doctor. At the teaching facility, patients seemed to be valuable only as an opportunity to see in real life the diseases we read about in the books.

It seemed that he and I were so different in so many ways that the development of a friendship that would last a lifetime would be impossible. He seemed the antithesis of me- brash, bold, supremely self confident, and socially adept. He was also at the pinnacle of his surgical skills, which he displayed with relish in the operating theater. In stark contrast, I was but a simple country boy who was way out of his depth in all these areas.  Coming from an extremely modest background, I felt ill at ease in most situations. I had minimal medical knowledge, no surgical skills at all, and felt like the proverbial fish out of water.

During my childhood and adolescence, I had heard my parents and their friends exchange “doctor stories.” I was always in awe when they spoke of the physicians who cared for them through injuries and illnesses. They seemed to ascribe almost God-like characteristics to them. I suppose hearing these accounts, mostly delivered in hushed, reverent tones, led me to believe that, as a group, doctors were more highly evolved than us gentry folk. That may be the reason I initially was completely intimidated by them.

As I went on to “climb the evolutionary tree”, as it were, I realized that for the most part, physicians are normal people, complete with all the foibles that accompany humanity. I found this to be true in Dr. Mason’s case. After peeling away the outer layers of bravado, I discovered a genuine human being who cared deeply about his patients, his students, and his profession.

When I first heard him mention that he dabbled in painting, I was totally surprised.  His persona seemed diametrically opposed to the meek, introspective, reflective personality I had erroneously always associated with artistic types. I was, frankly, shocked to see the quality of his paintings. He has never ceased unveiling new aspects of his complicated person. Once more, I learned from him. Never again will I judge a person quickly, or by observing only a portion of his overall life.

While working under Dr. Mason’s tutelage, another of the most important events of my life occurred. I met my future wife.

We were doing a surgical case at a small hospital in Florence, and our nurse anesthetist for the day was a strikingly beautiful young woman of Scandinavian descent named Sheila Hemmingsen. I could barely focus on the case for want of stealing periodic glances at her as we worked. Even Dr. Mason made note of her charms later as we reviewed the day’s cases in his office late that afternoon.

Kay, Dr. Mason’s nurse and girl Friday, had secretly made a blind date for me with Sheila.  I believe it was a Friday night when we first met formally. I immediately fell totally in love, although I couldn’t be sure if the attraction was for her or her brand new canary yellow Chevrolet Corvette. Here she was, a gorgeous woman with a new ‘Vette. It had to be fate, or karma, or something. Eventually I realized that was actually the intervening hand of God. Our first date consisted of me driving her, and her car, down to Myrtle Beach. The sudden rainstorm which forced us to stop and install the hardtop certainly didn’t dampen our mutual attraction. Some thirty five years later, we remain inseparable. She is the mother of my two incredibly beautiful daughters, and will always be the love of my life.

As my residency ended, I found myself thirsting for more knowledge and better surgical skills prior to beginning my own practice, just as Dr. Mason had predicted. I sought to spend some time in a post-residency program to gain special expertise in a subspecialty field. Since Dr. Mason’s major contribution to orthopedics had been in area of arthroscopy, I naturally desired more education in that burgeoning, but new, area of orthopedics. I scoured the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons publications for available fellowships. I settled on spending time with an internationally known arthroscopist and knee surgeon in the Los Angeles area. His program was prestigious, and he accepted only a single fellow for each period. I was doubtful that I would be chosen from the many, many applicants for this highly sought after position. After all, I would be competing with graduates of big name programs like Harvard, Hopkins, and Duke. Once more, I was the country boy from South Carolina.

One last time, Dr, Mason changed my life. He made a concerted effort to get me the fellowship. He attended most of the major orthopedic meetings around the country. At each one, he repeatedly suggested to Dr. Jackson that he strongly consider me as his next fellow. After I had arrived in California, I asked Dr. Jackson why he chose me. His replied that when he sat down to make the decision, all he could hear in his mind was the voice of Lorin Mason telling him that I was the best choice. Doing that fellowship proved to be another major event in my life. I learned much about techniques in surgery which advanced me professionally.   Manifold deeply rewarding opportunities resulted from having done that particular fellowship, things which I never would have been able to experience without it.

Time has continued to flow, like a river, towards its emptying place in eternity’s ocean. As it does, life changes with its current. As I write, more than thirty years have come and gone since I first entered medical school. My children are grown and on their own. My own orthopedic practice is beginning to draw to a close. As luck would have it, Dr.Mason  and his bride have moved from Florence to a small retirement village not very far from my own home. We have had the opportunity to meet a few times for dinner and remembrances. Even today, when I see him, I feel a mixture of intimidation, respect, and love for the man who so deeply influenced my life. I can only hope that I have been able to have some small similar impact on someone else’s life.

What about the third Father? Who might he be? He is my heavenly Father. God has been central to my life since I was a child. The love and gifts bestowed on me by my two earthly fathers, as great as they have been, cannot be compared to the love and care given from above by my Heavenly Father. He gave me life. He gave me parents who loved and nurtured me,  a mentor to help me in choosing and developing my life’s work, a beautiful and steadfast wife, two intelligent and equally beautiful daughters, and more earthly riches than any man deserves or needs. For these things, I am thankful. I have lived a life that is the envy of many and a joy to me and my family.

Yet, my Heavenly Father has given me an even greater gift- the gift of eternal life through the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ.

I often wonder what heaven will be like. It seems hard to imagine that it will be the wings and clouds of folklore and movies. I suppose we will exist in a dimension inconceivable in this life. At long last, I will be able to see clearly, no longer through a glass darkly, able at last to fully understand all the mysteries of creation I so diligently studied in the present life. We will exist in perfect harmony with God, His brilliant glory, and all His saints, just as He originally intended. If we are able to discern our loved ones from our time on earth, I will be afforded the opportunity to spend eternity with my three fathers, as well as my family and friends in Christ in a new dimension of holy perfection.

I just hope Dr. Mason doesn’t spend eternity asking me to leave heaven because I didn’t prepare enough. I learned my lesson well.

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Silver Stars

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George was a simple man. He led a simple life in a small town where each day seemed to be an instant replay of all the days that had come before it. It had reminded George of that movie, what was it called- “Groundhog Day”? This morning, however, was just slightly different. He drank his coffee today minus the customary reading of the small daily paper dropped at his front door by the McKenzie kid from the next block over. That boy certainly was punctual, George had noted several months earlier. But he was MIA this day.

He had not been particularly surprised by the announcement that the local newspaper was shutting its doors. With so little “hard news”, as the reporters like to call it, to report, everyone grew weary of reading about last week’s Sunday School social and the latest gossip columns. So, the publisher made an easy business decision. An announcement on page one of today’s issue informed the readership that the paper would cease publication in four weeks time. “At least it’s a change.” George chuckled to himself after a coworker told him the news later that day.

Shortly after each sunrise, George donned his ball cap, the same red and grey one he had worn for nearly ten years. He then climbed into his beat up old Chevy pickup, slamming the slightly malaligned door to be certain that it had fully closed. Next he systematically consumed his morning meal, a bright yellow banana, as he headed down his short dirt drive towards the busy highway. Bananas suited George. Healthy and tasty, they are provided by nature in a neat, biodegradable package. Even as he tossed the peel from the intermittently sticking, manually operated window of his vehicle, he felt no remorse. “It will be eaten by some creature even less fortunate than me.” George reasoned. He looked both ways at the end of his drive and aimed the battered truck north, towards the motel where he worked.

The journey consumed some twenty-five minutes of George’s day. He enjoyed the drive. The traffic was never overwhelming, and he had time to think about things.  Where he lived, in central Arizona, even the weather hardly varied. Nearly every day was “severe clear” as George had heard the helicopter pilots describe such meteorological conditions back when he was in Vietnam.  He tried not to think too much about his service days. He had been a helicopter mechanic, trained by the Army to keep those Hueys in the air, even when the pilots brought them back to him shot up, or their engines burned out by overstressing them during combat manuevering.  He had been diligent in his duties, right up until that night when NVA sappers had crawled under the perimeter wire, killed the guards, and burst onto the base. One of them had fired a round from his AK  at George as he emerged from his hooch, running to scream a warning to others in his unit. The lead found its way into his left femur, just above the knee. The bone had been shattered by the blast, but fortunately, the nearby major blood vessels escaped injury. This bit of good fortune saved George’s life, but ended his military career. He was medevac’d out after the sappers had been neutralized, to Tan Son Nhut, and from there to a military facility on Guam. There he underwent numerous surgeries. The skilled surgeons saved his leg, but it would remain a nuisance for the remainder of his days. His action that night saved many lives.

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After he had recovered, he was given his Republic of Vietnam service ribbon, a Silver Star, and a Purple Heart as well. George was subsequently discharged from the Army. He came home to Arizona, where he married his high school sweetheart and raised a nice little family. He and Deb were blessed with two children, a boy named Joel and a daughter, Sarah. They liked the biblical names so popular in the local Baptist church they attended. Sarah and Joel were grown now, and had moved away, with lives of their own. Joel taught algebra at a high school in Tempe, and Sarah had married a minister with a new church in Albequerque. The house had acquired an unaccustomed quietness now. George and Deb grew close again, without the daily distractions of raising a family to consume all their time and energy.

George worked as a maintenance man at a small mom and pop motel on the edge of town. He fixed whatever went wrong. His training and mechanical proclivity allowed him to repair the AC units, the plumbing, wiring, or even do basic carpentry. He liked the work and found using his hands to be rewarding. Samantha and Leroy, the middle aged couple who owned and operated the place, were good people and appreciated George’s dedication and abilities. Ever dependable, George planned to work until he simply could no longer go on that bad leg. The work suited him and gave him a sense of purpose. Besides, sending two kids to college had left him in considerable debt. Even with Deb working as a server at a busy local eatery, finances were always a concern. His money worries, however, seemed to vanish when he thought about how happy Joel and Sarah had been to become the first in family history to attend college.

George had acquired a love of the outdoors in his youth. He frequently sought out streams and ponds where he loved nothing more than casting his line at bass and panfish. As he matured, he was able to get up to the mountains, where he learned to fly fish for rainbow and cutthroat trout. Fly fishing had become a passion which never left him throughout his life.  He managed to buy an entry level Orvis rod and reel at an estate sale, and had become quite proficient at casting. Laying out a seventy foot loop and delivering a size six dry fly onto a nine inch plastic plate had become routine. His casts looked like they were straight out of “A River Runs Through It.” As Lefty might say, his loops were so tight, George could cast his fly line through a screen door. George’s innate manual skills made him a natural born fly tyer. Each of the locally available species had fallen in turn for George’s creations, pleasing him immensely. But now he yearned to move on to the next level. He had watched as famous television fly fishermen stalked exotic species such as tarpon, bonefish, and permit on the Saturday morning fishing shows. He burned with the desire to follow in their footsteps. He was mesmerized by the neon blues and greens of tropical flats, and steadfastly hoped that eventually, one sweet day, he would tread those same brilliant white sand flats. He pictured himself fly rod in hand, seeking out bonefish, the silver stars of the flats. These athletic fish had moved up to the number one spot on his bucket list. Mental imagery of a tailing ten pounder, gleaming and flashing in the Bahamian sun, filled his mind. “I just need to figure out how to afford it”, he mused. “Where there is a will, there is a way, as Dad used to say,” he thought. He just needed to find it.

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George sat at the kitchen table, blowing his steaming cup of coffee the next morning. Spread before him, in place of the his usual newspaper, lay a fishing magazine. He had opened it to a full page color photo of some lucky devil standing calf deep on a gleaming sand flat in the Bahamas. His rod was bent double, and in the distance could be seen the telltale rooster tail of water caused by a speeding bonefish fast to the fly line. “Man, I would love to be able to that, just once!” George told Deb. “Do what?” she said. “This” responded George, handing her the magazine. “Oh my, that is so beautiful!” she exclaimed. She peered more intently at the page. “George, it says something about a contest to win a trip to the Bahamas. Why don’t you enter it?” ” I never win anything. It would be a waste of a stamp.” George said.
“Say, isn’t the paper still supposed to be published for a couple more weeks? Where is it?” George wondered aloud. “Well, I was talking to Sally Gardener yesterday, and she mentioned that Danny McKenzie, the paperboy, has been real sick.” answered Deb.” His Mom took him to see Doc Turner. Turns out he has a bad form of leukemia.” “What? That is TERRIBLE!” said George. “He seems like such a fine young man- good athlete too. And, I hear he loves trout fishing, just like me.” “Life can be so unfair at times.” lamented Deb. “Maybe the doc will send him to the university hospital and they will be able to cure him down there.” “They have all the latest treatments.” she added.
George turned towards the door, banana in hand, and bid his wife farewell. “Have a good day, dear.” she said as he disappeared through the door. “You, too” was his response. Deb picked up the magazine, reading about the lodge in the Bahamas and gazing at the spectacular photos of the tropical waters and strange looking fish. She opened the kitchen cabinet junk drawer and retrieved a pair of scissors.
Days went by, just as they had for the past twenty six years. The work at the motel was steady, and George and Deb were slowly able to pay down their educational loans. George still was able to slip away on Saturdays, and occasionally on Sunday afternoons after services, to place his feathery offerings before the persnickety trout inhabiting the clear, cold, fast running waters of the mountain creeks above town. It gave George great pleasure to watch a selective bow accept his fly after thumbing its nose at lesser fishermen’s clumsy efforts. After releasing the brightly colored fish, he sat down on a flat rock on the water’s edge and had a long drink from his water bottle. He felt quite contented at that moment in the pleasant Arizona sun. Despite the satisfaction of the release of the rainbow, images of bonefish flats drifted steadily across his consciousness.  Though he cheerfully released every trout he caught, he seemed simply incapable of releasing the idea of chasing bones, no matter how remote the chances of actually living his dream. He sighed as he contemplated the fact that he really did already have the good life. He had a wonderful wife who worshipped him and two kids who had grown up to be responsible, productive members of society. Emotion washed over him as he considered how narrowly he had escaped death that day in ‘Nam, and wondered if Danny McKenzie would be as lucky. “Well, I best let these guys rest a little.” George thought, glancing towards the stream. He began packing his rod in its metal tube. “Hope my leg doesn’t give me too much trouble going back down the trail.”

Tuesday morning found George at his customary place at the kitchen table having what he thought was his customary coffee. “Hey, Deb. This coffee tastes different today. What gives?” George inquired. “Oh, it’s Jamaican. It’s a tropical blend. I thought you might like to try something a bit different today.” With no paper to read, George looked down at the table, silently thinking about the day’s work tasks. The eight ton AC unit would need to have the Freon topped off today. George wondered when he would have to switch to the new government mandated 410A refrigerant that was supposed to be better for the environment. “Probably a good thing.” George thought. Anything that could protect his precious trout was all right with him. “Oh, this came for you.” Deb said as she dropped an envelope in front of him. “It is from Tropical Fly Fishing Magazine.” George said as he examined the envelope.” They probably are looking for another subscriber. I don’t think we can afford it, at least until we get those loans taken care of.” He casually tore open the paper. He retrieved the letter it contained and began reading.

“Dear Mr. Taylor, we here at Tropical Fly Fishing Magazine are delighted to inform you that your entry was drawn at random from over four thousand that were entered in our recent contest. It is our great pleasure to let you know that you have won a week long trip to Abaco, Bahamas, to fly fish for bonefish, permit, and tarpon. Congratulations! All expenses, including airfare, lodging, and transfers are included. Please contact us at your earliest convenience to make the arrangements. Thanks for entering and being a supporter of our magazine.”

George was stunned! “There must be a mistake. I never entered any contest!” he protested. “No, you didn’t, but I did!” explained Deb. “After you left for work, I filled the form out with your name and mailed it in. I never dreamed you would win, but you did! George, you deserve this! I am so very happy and excited for you!” George looked up at Deb. “I love you, Deb. How can I possibly deserve such a wonderful woman AND a free trip to the Bahamas?” “I love you too” was her simple response.

George had great difficulty concentrating on work that day. He had even forgotten to eat his banana on the way to work. Hunger never entered his consciousness. Instead, his mind’s eye saw massive schools of silver flashing in the Bahamian sunlight. He imagined his homemade Gotcha sailing through eighty feet of salty air, landing gently six inches from the mouth of a hungrily feeding bone. Then he wondered what it might feel like to have a ten pound bonefish emptying his reel of all of its twenty pound braided backing. George was completely enthralled by the upcoming trip. He made it through the work day and hurried home to begin his preparations, despite that fact that the trip was still several weeks away.

Back at home, George found Deb home from her shift at the restaurant. She was beginning dinner preparations. “Deb, I am so excited about the trip, I could barely think of anything else today.” George told her. “How was your day” he asked. “A bit disturbing” she said. ” I overheard a conversation about Danny, the young man with leukemia.” “What is going on with him?” George asked. “Well, the news is not good. The doctors at University Medical Center have looked over his test results. They say his leukemia is incurable. He has maybe eighteen months left. Sad, isn’t it? A nice young man being taken from us. I feel so bad for him and his family. I just don’t know what to do to help them.”

Once more, George was stunned. He was sick to his soul as he considered the situation. He uttered a silent prayer of thanksgiving that his own children had grown up healthy and happy. Danny, on the other hand, would never enjoy many of life’s greatest joys. He would never graduate from high school, marry, see the many marvels of the world, or have kids of his own. How could God let this happen?

George suddenly looked up and a broad smile developed across his now tear tracked face. “I know what to do!” he said joyously.

He fumbled through his wallet and extracted a small piece of paper with the phone number he had called to claim his fishing trip of a lifetime prize. He quickly dialed the number. George explained that he wished to transfer his prize to someone else. The nice man on the other end of the line explained that such a thing was not possible. However, once George explained Danny’s situation, the folks at the magazine had a change of heart and agreed to allow the sick boy to make the trip to Abaco instead of George. “Thank you SO much” George told the man. “You have made a dying kid’s life a whole lot better. He now has something to look forward to. God bless you, sir”.

The next day, Deb and George went to Danny’s house. Danny’s parents were doing the best they could to be strong, and called for Danny to come downstairs. Danny didn’t look sick, at least not yet. He still maintained the vigorous appearance of a sixteen year old, easily able to stand on the bow of a flats skiff and cast to the silver treasure of Abaco’s flats. “Danny,” George began, “I have a big surprise for you- and one you are going to really like! I won a free fly fishing trip to the Bahamas and  I want you to have it. Please accept it and go have a great time.” “Gee, thanks so much, Mr. Taylor. This is so very cool. I have watched those guys on TV catch bonefish, and I know I will absolutely love this trip.” “You are more than welcome, Danny. I know you like to fly fish , and bonefish are like trout on steroids!” responded George.  “Don’t forget to take photos so that you can do a show and tell for us when you get back.” suggested Deb.  Danny hugged them both, as did his parents. Deb and George excused themselves and let themselves out. No longer able to contain their emotions, tears rolled down their cheeks as they walked down the walkway to their car.

It was several days later when the doorbell rang. George answered it to find Thomas Lineback standing there. “Come on in, Tom”, said George. George had become acquainted with Tom through the local veteran’s group and knew him to be a fine man who was quick to come to assistance of any vets in the area who might find themselves in need. “How are you doing, George?” Tom asked as the two men sat down on the couch. “Can I get you a cup of coffee or anything?” George asked his guest. “No, actually, I have something for you today, George.” “Tom, as you know, there are lots of guys around who need help more than I do.” George responded. “Yes, that’s true, but there aren’t many so willing to help others as you!” Tom said as he handed George a manila envelope. George opened it, emptying its contents onto the coffee table. “What in the world is this?” George asked rhetorically. He sorted through the materials and found a plane ticket to Abaco and a reservation confirmation at the very same lodge where Danny was to fish. He checked the dates, and saw that they matched those of Danny’s trip. George broke down, weeping in gratitude.
“Not many men are heroes twice in their lives, George. I am proud to know one of them!”

JAYMOD

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Muddy Waters

charles-reid-fly-fishing

The lowering sun was a smudged orange ball as it slowly found its way behind low hanging puffy cumulous clouds, seeking a resting place for the night. A layer of cypress and water oak trees lay interposed between earth and sky, ringing the smallish lake where I sat motionless in my tiny fishing craft, transfixed by the scene arrayed before me. The reddish orange hues of the sun oozed into the greens and greys of the trees, flecked with splotches of Spanish moss. The scene could have been one painted by noted watercolorist Charles Reid. The occasional call of a great horned owl, readying itself for a nocturnal safari, reminded me that I was indeed, in the midst of the greatest art gallery on Earth, Nature Herself. I was at ease in my diminutive plastic boat, alone with The Creation, knowing the Creator’s face lurks just beyond the façade of His handiwork. I actually sighed as I contemplated it all.

Nonetheless, I was here not for philosophical pondering, but to fish. Actually, it was a bit of both, as the two have become inseparable to me.  Rarely do I fail to consider the order of things in this magnificent universe we call home as I stand rod in hand, casting bits of animal fur and feathers into that liquid bit of heaven called water. This day I floated on the sweet surface of a small lake that protrudes like an irregularly shaped liquid hernia from the banks of my home river, the Little Pee Dee. The unlikely clarity of the river’s waters, the abundance of life both above and below the waterline, and its ability to remove me from the modern world, invariably induces prayers of gratitude to the Maker. Once I am out of visual contact with the boat landing, I seem to step through the door of an invisible teleporter, carried to another, nearly alien world.

carp record

Rumors of large carp had lured me to this spot. A carp seems an unlikely component of a fly fisherman’s life list, but it has slowly moved up the hierarchy as others species have been gradually crossed off. In my youth, carp were regarded as coarse fish, unworthy of attention, and considered nothing more than a waste of good bait. In recent years, fly anglers have awakened to the sport provided by these freshwater denizens. They can grow to capacious size, reaching weights of 90 pounds or more. Despite being considered devoid of any sporting value by more modern anglers, Izaak Walton wrote of the carp in his classic treatise ” The Compleat Angler”  that  “The Carp is the queen of rivers; a stately, a good, and a very subtle fish;”.  Contemporary fishermen are now recapitulating his observation, thrilled by the size, power, and speed of these generally disrespected fish. I sought that day to experience its strength for myself.

DCF 1.0

I had affixed a highly recommended fly tied specifically to entice these fish to the tippet section of my fly leader. My fly line was a full sinking model, designed to take my offering to the benthos, where these bottom feeders generally prefer to dine. I had always been taught that carp are strict vegetarians. Scientific investigation has revealed that they are, in reality, omnivores, greedily consuming whatever meal of opportunity presents itself. An enormous variety of flies have been devised for these newly glamorous fish, but I prefer one that moves water and resembles a crayfish. That way, even if no carp seems inclined to consume my dining option, a collateral species might take it as an easy meal.

In the dappled filtering of the soft ochre light emerging through the treeline, I cast beneath an overhanging branch, reasoning that my quarry might be lying submerged beneath, awaiting its daily manna. A bow and arrow cast is not especially easy, particularly when a heavy sinking line is involved, but I did my best William Tell impersonation, letting the fly slip quickly and carefully from between my thumb and forefinger. My second sigh of the afternoon was the result of a happy combination of a bloodless release and the striking of the water’s surface in the general area I had intended. I let the fly, leader, and fly line sink into the darkening water. Once the downward movement ceased, I gently stripped the fly along the bottom. I felt no response. After covering the bottom, I pulled the line from the water, and once more made an archery release. Dragging the fly in short, quick movements this time, I continued to feel only temporary encounters with underwater objects, but no strikes. This sequence was repeated multiple times until I determined that perhaps the carp preferred a different locale this day. I engaged the twin electric motors of my boat and moved a small distance down the shoreline. Once more, I sent my fly to water’s bottom, desperately seeking carp. Once more, I was met with frustration. I now tied on a different color variation of the same fly and let it arc towards the spot I hoped to find a hungry carp. The fly sank slowly to the bottom. I stripped once and, as the famous chef Emeril would say, “BAM!!!”  The line came tight and the fight was on. From the pull on the line, I knew this was a decent fish. I tightened the drag as much as I dared and applied some heat to the fish. Unexpectedly, the water about twenty feet from my boat exploded as though a neighborhood kid had dropped a cherry bomb in it. A dark brown mass of writhing muscle contorted itself into the languid late afternoon air. “That’s an odd looking carp!” I thought as I made some semblance of a bow to the fish, so as not to allow disengagement of the hook. Line unwound from my Rulon drag equipped fly reel. The reel had been designed to tame saltwater species such as bonefish, so I remained confident in its ability to control this freshwater beast.  I gingerly added a bit more drag. The line began to slow down, so I wound furiously in order to keep the fish away from the many underwater obstructions and snags that coat the lining of the lake. Once more the water’s surface split into a million pieces as the fish leaped into the air, frantically throwing its head to and fro in a last ditch effort to rid itself of the steel that was jammed into the corner of its mouth.

“Go ahead and shake, buster. I got you now!” I thought. I would finally be able to cross carp off my list. The fish felt like it was beginning to exhaust itself, and I seized the chance to bring it to hand for the mandatory photo op. The reel did not disaapoint, and soon the fish was at the boat’s side. Then, out of nowhere, the fish began a violent series of thrashes that reverberated against the hull. “I thought this fight was over”, I silently noted as I held fast to the line. The fish rested, but only momentarily, and quickly began a prolonged episode of seizure like spastic motions. “Wow! I have never seen anything like this before. No wonder carp are regaining sporting popularity” I said aloud, to no one in particular. “I may have to provide a little anesthesia to break this seizure” I surmised. I reached in my tackle box and produced a rusty old pair of heavy pliers that had resided there for many years. I pulled the fish sufficiently close and applied the anesthesia in a series of quick sharp blows to its head between the spasmotic movements.  At last, it lay still and submissive, but breathing the dark water of the lake. “Now I can get a photo” I thought. I set up the self timer and positioned my digital camera on the front seat of my two man boat. I next pulled the fish clear of the water. What I saw shocked and puzzled me. “This is not a carp!” I mentally exclaimed. I think it is a MUDFISH!!!

The Bowfin, also known less attractivbely, as the mudfish

The Bowfin, also known less attractivbely, as the mudfish

The mudfish, or bowfin as it is also known, is an inelegant, but feisty resident of many of our local rivers, lakes, and ponds. It is inedible to all but the hungriest of fishermen, and sports extremely sharp teeth. The mudfish is no treat to the eyes, but has survived since the Jurassic Era. In fact, scientists tell us that it is the sole survivor of the order Amiiformes. It has been so wonderfully constructed by the Maker that even today it continues to prowl these waters in search of such food as it can find. It exists in large numbers in my area, but is rarely fished for. Its capture is generally merely accidental.
I sat motionless as I considered my next move. I initially thought I might simply throw the fish back from whence it came. It certainly was not what I had thought it to be. The carp was my quest. That species is no glamour fish either, but seems to be Miss America when compared to the mudfish. The tenacity and ferocity of this mudfish had, in fact, created an exciting angling experience for me that afternoon. Its leaps and vigorous runs had tested my reel as well as the knots I had tied to attach leader and fly. “Well, this monster does have heart, I suppose.” I admitted to myself. I carefully lifted it from the water, activated the timer on my Panasonic, and posed, removing my sunglasses quickly before the shutter fired. The camera beeped, the fill flash illuminating angler and fish. I placed the fish back in the water and checked the image on the camera’s small screen. It seemed acceptable, so I turned to the gunnel once more, this time using the pliers to remove the hook from the mud’s mouth, mindful of its sharp teeth. It swam away, appearing unfazed by the fight or the “anesthesia”.
By now, long shadows extended from the western edge of the small lake and across me and my sturdy little craft. The landing lay some two miles distant, and I thought it prudent to begin the return journey. My Honda four stroke could, with maximum effort, propel my boat at the breakneck speed of 3 miles an hour, and that was without considering the current I would be facing. I laid my rod alongside the gunnel, cranked the modest motor, and pointed the bow towards the landing.
The journey took nearly an hour to complete, despite the best efforts of the engine. That was no matter to me, as I was able to enjoy the scenery and wildlife along the way. It also provided an opportunity to consider the events of the afternoon. I had a wonderful angling experience, though I did not land what I thought I had hooked. Initially, the mudfish seemed gross, ugly, and undeserving of even a second glance, much less a photograph. Yet, on further reflection, it had become clear that even the mudfish did have its appeal. I found myself hard pressed to dismiss the warrior spirit of this creature, in spite of its unattractive exterior. It had earned a place on my list after all.
As I motored slowly landingward, a realization suddenly formed in my mind. I now see that fish as symbolic of people in my life. On occasion, people I have known for many years have turned out to be quite different than my impressions of them. Some are far better and stronger people than I had previously appreciated. I had simply not recognized these qualities in them. In many cases, they silently bear burdens of which I have been completely unaware. The quiet dignity with which they go about living camouflages physical ailments or deep psychological or emotional damage, which can be just as painful as other kinds of injuries. Others for whom I have an accumulated lifetime of respect and admiration, have ultimately been revealed to have feet of clay, like the statue in King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. I remain devastated by discoveries of their true character. But, as the writer of Romans said “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” I am learning that, thankfully, one does not have to meet a standard of perfection in all ways to be worthy of love and respect. God does love all his creatures, even the mudfish, warts and all. And as the saying goes, I am trying!
The following day, I printed that image of the mudfish, enlarged it, and hung it in my fly tying room, right next to the photo of my hallowed permit.

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The Catcher in the Wheat

 Small explosions of dust marked each step as I ambled toward my destination,some half mile distant down the dry, hard pan dirt road. My right knee felt as though a couple of mad carpenters were using forty grit sandpaper to furiously grind away at what remained of the cushioning in my right knee. The knee creaked audibly and each step immediately flashed a high intensity signal to the pain receptors in my brain. These aches at least reminded me that I was still alive, unlike several of my fishing buddies, and that I was blessed to be able to continue to peer into the maddeningly detached eyes of a trout. I was inspired by the thought that I had somehow been left here to catch a few for my friends, so I pressed onward. The pain also reminded me to go ahead and make an appointment with that son of a bitch orthopedic surgeon who had none too subtly told me that I would return, sooner or later, for a knee replacement. The trout were getting increasingly difficult to approach physically as I aged, but remained within easy reach in my library of sweet memories. I could only pray that the joy of reliving my good days on the stream would not eventually be stolen by the cruelty of Alzhiemer’s Disease, as had happened to my great grandfather.

 The summer sun fell hard across my face, reminding me of the wife’s admonitions to wear a hat and extra high SPF sunscreen. She rightly reminded me of the three skin lesions Doc Underhill had removed from my face this winter past. They turned out to be something he called squamous cell cancer. “Too many days out in the sun chasing those trout around, I suppose.” he had theorized. “Be more careful, or I may have to whack off half your face next time!” he warned. “You won’t be much to look at after that.’ he added solemnly. “Not that anybody wants to look at the face I have now”, I remembered thinking as I mumbled some appreciation for his concern.

  My right hand bore an ancient fly rod case crafted from a sturdy piece of oak and some canvas and string. It had been constructed when TR was in office, I had eventually discovered. The rod within had belonged to my great-grandfather. He had been the intellectual type, a college professor teaching English Lit at one of those ivy covered schools in the northeast. Fly fishing for trout seemed to be an appropriate pastime for men like him and he took to it like a big brown to a caddis fly. When he finally moved on to that eternal stream where the fish are all large and take flies just often enough, he bequeathed his precious rod to his son. John, however, showed no interest in it.Neither did his son, who left it in a dark corner of a basement until the natural progression of time led to it being placed in my eager hands.

 My own vocation was, in a way, similar to that of my forebear. I had been consumed from youth by a desire to understand how the universe had been designed and the principles that bind it all together. For forty five years, I had spent the biggest part of my life in the research lab, seeking to unlock some of nature’s biggest riddles. My work had been interrupted only by visits to the nearby stream to try to solve the equally difficult riddle of getting trout to eat my creations of feather and fur. I found casting to be relaxing, almost meditative, often opening my mind to a sort of left brain activity that I hoped might connect the dots in my right brain to answer some question of theoretical physics I was wrestling with at the time. There seemed to be some correlation, as I had noted a certain similarity between Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and my trout fishing- I found that I could be sure of the location of a given trout , and what fly might be necessary to imitate the insects hatching at the moment , but I was unable to predict both simultaneously.

  Sunlight refracted off the waist high wheat in the fields alongside the old road as I marveled at the uniformity of each stalks’ height. It looked as if some Middle Eastern rug maker had snipped all of them at the same length, creating an undulating, living carpet of lager colored grain. As I walked on, I noted the antique split rail fence separating the wheat from the livestock around the barn. It was obviously very old. Its surfaces were coated with lime green mosses and grayish  lichens. An occasional mushroom sprouted from its wood, softened with age and countless rain storms. I guessed it must have been at least fifty years old, but nonetheless, the Guernsey cows that grazed within its borders remained properly restrained, unaware of the ease with which they could have simply walked through the mostly rotten wood.

 A short distance away, the rails led to a battered old barn. Its walls had long since been bleached by the sun to a grayish white color not unlike that of my beard. Some of the boards were loose, one end forlornly dangling towards the ground. Its tin roof sported large patches of rust and a few areas were devoid of metal altogether. The door and window hinges appeared rusted shut and unusable. The entire building leaned precariously to port. I did a few quick calculations mentally and guessed the entire structure might collapse in another four and a half months.

  A loud creaking sound filled the air when the farmer, appearing nearly as old as his barn, opened the side door.  “Sorry if I startled you. I need to put some oil on that hinge”, the old man remarked as I neared him. “No problem”, I replied.  “I thought maybe it was my worn out knee”. “Gonna try them trout again today?” he inquired. “I get lucky with ‘em once it a while”, I responded as I continued my journey.  Our vectors diverged, his to his beat up pickup and mine towards the stream where I hoped to land a nice brown today.

  I had studied the hatch charts and checked the weather conditions the previous evening. A cloudless sky with a slight breeze from the southeast had been predicted by the Weather Channel. This time of year, I might expect the wind to deliver a few hoppers from the grasses lining the stream and so I tied on a medium sized foam hopper pattern. It was just the right shade of green and even had a bright white piece of foam tied its most upper section. I figured it would be a triple threat- conditions called for hoppers, the foam fly would float high, and the white patch would make it easy to see, even for my now failing eyesight.

 A blowdown jutted into the stream from the opposite bank. I knew there was a deep pool just beyond the downed tree. It was the kind of place a brown trout dreams about, and the kind of place I was dying to float a hopper over. As I assembled the rod’s bamboo pieces, I marveled at how wonderfully constructed this wood really is. Its strength to weight ratio is remarkable, and it is used in the Orient for everything from chopsticks to scaffolding for high rise construction. The fly rod’s wood remained sound, but the antique agate guides clearly showed their age. Frayed tags extended from each wrap where I had done my best to super glue them back into place without destroying the rod in the process. The reel seat was worn and loose, and had required re-gluing last year, but overall, the rod was still quite functional. I yearned for a new boron rod, with its superfast action and completely indestructible guides, but that idea had been vetoed by the wife.  My well conceived, logical arguments about a lifetime warrantee being such a good investment fell on unsympathetic ears. I secretly continued to lust for the high tech rod, and had even clandestinely brought a fly fishing catalog along this morning, so I could fill out the order form away from prying eyes.

  Hopper in place, I lofted the century old bamboo into the nearly still morning air. Its action was not unlike watching a movie shot in super slow motion. I could almost take a sip from the brandy flask in my hip pocket while I waited for the back cast to unfurl. But, when the rod was brought forward, the line unrolled into a slow, smooth, tight loop that could bring a tear to the eye of any true fly fisherman. After a single back cast, I let slip the weight forward floating line bearing my offering to the Trout-God. Weightlessly falling, the fly seemed to defy Newton’s Law as it alighted ever so gently on the water, barely disturbing the surface tension.

  The hopper moved as one with the current, no telltale drag to be seen. The attached fluorocarbon leader belied its true intent, winking at the fish beneath the water’s surface, while inviting them up for a delicious meal, free for the taking.  A flash of brown, interrupted by black and red blurs, appeared and disappeared simultaneously. The hopper was gone. The old bamboo rod bent over, almost begging in its agony, for me to let this big fish run for now. I complied and the big brown raced down current, seeking to relieve itself of the hopper and its size 10 hook. Unlike most browns, this one proved its athletic prowess by leaping high into the morning sunlight, to my very great delight. I doubt that the rod had seldom been called on to handle such a challenge, but it performed flawlessly. I tried to calculate the bending moments being placed on the rod, and the tensile strength of bamboo and tippet, factoring in the rod’s age and the effect of its being wet, as well as the angle of the line to the water, but finally gave up and fought the fish by feel. Each surge was transmitted to my hand, and I used this tactile feedback to put what pressure I thought appropriate to bring the fish to hand. Slowly, I began to win, but was careful to let the brown have it his way when necessary. The bamboo groaned and maybe even creaked a little, not unlike my worn out old knee, but never gave in. The softness of its action allowed it to flex deep into its length, all the way down to the handle, providing at once a challenge and simultaneously the deep satisfaction of control without exerting total physical domination. I delicately guided the fish ever closer.

  After about ten minutes, I held in my net a magnificently colored brown, weighing some eleven pounds.  I carefully released back to its home what was easily the biggest fish of my life.

  Shaken, I noticed the stump of a cut down tree. It made a convenient stool and I sat down to savor my experience. Reaching into my pack, I pulled out a Cohiba, sliced off the end, and lit up. After a deep draw, I retrieved my flask and enjoyed a sip of my favorite brandy. After a few minutes, I noticed the catalog order form for the new rod where it had been neatly placed in my day pack alongside the Cuban cigar. I quickly grabbed it, inspected it briefly, then crumpled it into a ball and stuffed it into my pack.

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