Redfish Fortune

It was the sun glinting off its coppery surface that caught my eye. I stood fueling my flats boat and daydreaming about catching a big redfish when the brightness focused my gaze to the object lying on the asphalt of the convenience store lot. I leaned over despite fears of reawakening the back pain that plagues me to retrieve it. “How can a penny be worth stirring up the pain that could result in a premature finish to my fishing trip?” I asked myself. I examined the coin, rough and well worn, before deciding it could be an omen, a sign of good things to come on the flats, a lucky penny bearing the same coppery color of the fish I planned to pursue that day. I placed it in the depths of a wading pant pocket and tightly secured the Velcro fastener.

Three hours later, I stood on a flat near McClellanville, eyes scanning the surface for blue tipped tails exposed to the sunlight. Mike, my longtime friend and fishing mentor, had dropped me at this lonely spot before speeding away to a flat of his own. Back over the village, a heavy thunderstorm growled and barked, its darkening clouds occasionally glowing from massive cloud to cloud lightning.  We had consulted the Weather Channel on my iPhone only minutes before leaving the safety of the dock.  The radar imagery had suggested that the storm was heading off to the northeast, but I was not so sure now as I stood exposed holding a nine and a half foot graphite lightning rod in my hand. As I slowly ambled towards what seemed to be a slightly higher spot, I carefully reconnoitered the area, while silently appealing to the Ultimate Weatherman to direct the clouds anywhere but where I stood.

Within minutes, the first redfish appeared. It was not an especially large specimen, but it was the first red I had seen this season. I approached as stealthily as a two hundred and fifty pound man can and amazingly reached casting range without disturbing the merrily dining fish. My old standby redfish fly had been affixed to the tippet and after two false casts, it gently entered the muddy water about a foot from the fish. The fish pounced to the fly, and in my haste to catch my first redfish of the season, I overreacted and pulled the fly away from the fish’s mouth. He then departed, seeking sustenance elsewhere.

I plodded on, my neoprene shod feet sinking under their heavy burden into the soft plough mud.   Soon, a second fish made its presence known. This one was already within my casting range. “Stay calm,” I told myself. “Don’t blow it. Let the fish eat. THEN set the hook.”  I waved the rod a couple of times and let the fly seek out its target. Once more, all seemed well, the fish continued its search for food as I stripped the fly to make it look alive for the hungry redfish. On the second strip of the line, the fly’s hook dug deeply into a clump of spartina grass. The vibration caused by my efforts to free it resulted in the fish fleeing to an alternate area. I watched it as I worked the fly loose, entirely too late to make another presentation. I reached into my pocket and rubbed the penny.

Sweat was now turning my technical casting shirt several shades darker as I worked my way across the flat and through the mud. Furtive glances behind me confirmed that my earlier supplications had kept the thunder at bay. Over the next hour, I saw three more redfish, but had no chance to cast to them. The tide, as I had been warned, was running a foot to a foot and a half higher than predicted. The island on which I walked had been transformed into an almost uninterrupted expanse of water now, with only the odd grass clump or old tree stump protruding above the water. I reached for my radio to call Mike, hoping I had not somehow unintentionally offended him. Suddenly, I felt very lonesome. Should he elect to leave me here, I would be in serious trouble. The radio crackled on, and Mike announced he was making his way to my position. Relieved, I stood still, hoping my legs would not sink further until he could rescue me. The water was now groin deep and still rising. I scanned for fins as I waited.

After boarding the boat, Mike sped us to a very fishy location we discovered a couple of years ago that we were calling our “Double Secret Spot”. When we arrived, we were shocked to find two boats already poling along and looking for fish. The tide was nearly at its zenith, making locating tailing fish virtually impossible. After thirty minutes, the other anglers appeared to be sufficiently discouraged to stow their push poles and head for the barn. We then proceeded to our “Triple Secret Spot’ as we waited on the tide to fall off the flat enough for us to locate fish tails. After a while, our patient strategy was rewarded by the sight of a number of those oh so lovely redfish tails slowly undulating in the late afternoon air.  Mike, self sacrificing friend that he is, insisted on poling my excessively heavy boat while I manned the bow, fly rod in hand. His high tech composite flats boat that we usually fish had been sidelined by mechanical woes. He verbalized his love for his easy to pole boat, wishing it, like a long lost love, would magically appear. “Well, you know a heavy guy needs a heavy boat” was the best response I could mount.  “Straight ahead!” he exclaimed quietly. “There’s a nice redfish tailing.” I quickly began the familiar casting motion as my eyes locked onto the redfish.  The fish was coming straight at us- a perfect situation for a fly caster, especially with no discernible wind. A new fly had been substituted for the one that hung in the grass, a homemade pattern I had tied with a weed guard. It was a new design, about to undergo trial by fire. It fell two feet from the fish’s nose. A single short strip and my line came tight. The line shot up into the guides and I saw with a sickening feeling a large knot in the fly line coming up off the deck into the guides. “Oh NOOOO!” I said. “That knot will hang in the tip top and then the tippet will break and this fish will be gone.” Mike was now working like a galley slave, pushing mightily in an attempt to maintain pace with the large redfish fast to my line. For my part, I did my best to hold the line firmly against the rod with one hand, while trying to untie the Gordian Knot of fly line with the other, letting go as necessary to manage the fish. My anxiety meter was pushed to the stops when I got a good look at this fish. It was a very nice red, one of the largest I have hooked.  The struggle went on for some fifteen minutes, but ultimately, the knot came undone and I had the fish on the reel. Mike brought it aboard, and soon I was posing for a hero photo. I looked back towards McCllellanville and saw the storm slowly pushing south. We released the fish after measuring it at thirty inches.  As it swam away, I rubbed the penny again.

James big red June 2016

 

“Mike, I cannot adequately express my gratitude. That was truly a team fish. Let me pole the boat now so you can get one”.’ He demurred, but agreed to stop the boat and wade for the next fish we saw. I reluctantly concurred, recognizing that I probably would not be physically capable of pushing the boat properly.  “I see one!”Mike said. Quickly, he came off the platform, grabbed his rod and slipped over the side. The redfish tail disappeared as suddenly as it had appeared. Mike made a blind cast to its last known location. After a few strips, his fly line came tight. I literally jumped for joy. Now we had each caught a redfish, his Herculean efforts coming full circle. I pulled out my camera as he reached for the fish. Suddenly he burst out laughing. “What’s so funny?” I inquired. “It’s a mullet!” he said “A mullet?? You caught a mullet on a fly?” I responded. Mullet are algae eaters and will not normally take a fly or anything else for that matter. “I fouled hooked him in head just above the mouth. If you didn’t look closely, you would think this fish ate that fly.”  We shared a huge laugh and then realized that we would have to leave the flat right away, as the tide had fallen dangerously low.  Another ten minutes, and we would be stuck here, unable to reach deep enough water to make our way back to the ramp.

mullet man with fish

“I am sorry you didn’t get a redfish today, Mike, but consider this. Anybody can catch a redfish, a bonefish, or even a sailfish on fly, but you are such an expert fisherman that you have done the impossible and caught a mullet on fly!”  We chuckled as I exited the boat. Together we pushed the stern to the edge of a small creek. It had been a wonderful day after all.

 

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Spring Fever

“The pond we will be fishing today is overstocked” my friend told me as we motored down the two lane asphalt road towards our destination. “The owner insists that we keep every fish we can catch. I promised him we would do just that”. The pines and scrub oaks flashed past the rolled up windows of my SUV, now laden with a thick layer of that yellow-green airborne  gift we southerners are accustomed to receiving each spring.  “Will it be mostly bass in this pond?” I inquired. “No, there is a mixed bag of bass, crappie, and bluegill in it’ he responded. “You know, it has been a long winter and I really don’t care what kind of fish we catch. I just want to get hooked up to a few feisty fish today” I replied.  “Well, you know what they say ‘The tug is the drug’ “was my buddies’ response.

“Turn left at that dirt road just ahead’ I was instructed. The trip had been relatively short and that suited me just fine. Fish Fever had me in its grips and the sooner I could get a lure in the water the better. About a mile into the dusty old road, a small pond came into view. It was not large and appeared to have been manmade and quite old. “Do you know how long this pond has been here?”  I asked. “Not entirely certain, but more than a hundred years.  So, the fish have had lots of time to grow old and fat”. “Just like me!” I said. We both laughed at that one.

I pulled my truck up to pond’s edge and opened the driver’s door. It creaked and groaned just like my worn out old knees.  George had already exited the vehicle, bouncing merrily towards the back liftgate. I sometimes think he just enjoys showing off his amazing level of fitness. I never know whether to be dumbfounded at his agility or jealous since we are exactly the same age. “Hurry up and get this open so we can get after those bass” George said impatiently. The tailgate at last opened and George collected his tackle box and headed down to the small aluminum boat tied off on a scrub oak at the water’s edge. Meanwhile, I rummaged around and found the smallish bag with my gear in it. “Damnation!” I muttered. “What’s the matter?” George asked. “I forgot my big tackle box! Left it on the shelf in the garage. Just in too much of a rush to get back on the water.” “Well, don’t fret” said George. “I have plenty of lures and rigging stuff. Of course, tackle is never cheap on the water!” He laughed out loud, and was so amused at his own wittiness that he continued to chuckle as I walked to the boat, my pitifully small bag in one hand and my favorite bass rod and spinning reel combo in the other. “At least I did remember my fishing rod” I added, frustration showing on my face.

We loaded our stuff into the boat and assumed our fishing positions. I took the bow, George seated comfortably in the stern. We donned the inflatable lift vests we found onboard, and I picked up the broad wooden paddle that had been lying on the deck. “Where should we start, George?” I wondered, deferring to my friend’s greater fishing experience and knowledge. “That blowdown on the far bank looks good to me” he snorted, knowing it lay at the far end of the pond. “Are you serious?” I asked. “Well, actually, yes. I have fished this pond a couple of times and those submerged branches hold lots of bass waiting to ambush baitfish. Sorry it is so far away.” In a display of false bravado, I replied “Hey, not a problem. I have been working out hard on a rowing machine. No sweat. I got this”. We both knew I was lying.

We eventually made it. George even claimed to be willing to do some of the paddling, but I insisted on preserving my male ego by doggedly keeping at it. Once we were at a proper casting distance from the tree, George rifled through his box. “I think I’ll start with a green lizard rigged Carolina style. He was ready in record time and began a series of skillful casts, dragging the plastic lizard past the length of the tree. No takers. Meanwhile, I realized that I had but three lures with me. My bag contained a pumpkin colored plastic worm, a medium square billed crankbait in shad colors, and a white buzzbait. I considered asking George for something else, but decided against it. “George,” I am such a good fisherman that I bet you a Coke that I will outfish you with just these baits”. “OK. You’re on, my friend”. I tied on the crankbait since George was using a plastic bait on the bottom. I like those square bills since they usually will bump up against underwater wood and just pop over the obstruction rather than hanging up. PLOP! Into the water it went on the opposite side of the tree. I worked the bait back but again, no response. George and I worked that tree for maybe fifteen minutes before deciding to make a move. I paddled us to a group of promising looking stumps  and we began casting. George casted left and I went right. We fished in silence for a few minutes before George said “ No hits yet, so I am changing”. He cut off the lizard and put on jerk bait. “ Hmmm, I said, kidding my good friend, “ That seems appropriate!” We shared a laugh and George cast again. He worked that bait close to an old cypress stump and WHAM! A huge strike. “Looks like you got a nibble there, George”, I said as he set the hook and tightened his drag slightly. “Yeah, I think so too” he said, turning his reel handle in intermittent circling motions. We peered into the dark waters straining to see the fish. The bass leaped into the air writhing in midair and fell back to the water. “HOOWEE!!” exclaimed George. “That’s a good one, George” I said. “Be careful with him”. “Oh I got him, don’t you worry” George said, reaching towards the bass with a landing net. He soon held the fish by the lip posing for a hero shot. “George, I hate to tell you this, but I forgot my camera too!” “Well, no problem. I am just happy to have caught this guy. Maybe I’ll get a quick photo at home before he goes into my frying pan”. The fish suddenly wiggled and jumped out of George’s hand and back into the water. “Guess we won’t be taking that one home!” he said.

I made numerous casts but without success. I too decided to change lures. I went with my plastic worm and soon resumed casting. After twenty minutes of effort, I suggested we try another spot. We moved to a shallow flat type area with aquatic grass along the bank. I tried my worm what seemed like a thousand times but not even a bump. George was not having any better luck, so once more we made a move. A brush pile in the middle of the pond held promise, and we set up near it. George exchanged his lure once more for a spinnerbait. He offered one to me, but of course, I demurred, having bet I could outfish him with my meager gear. We made multiple presentations around the brush and were once more disappointed. It seemed neither George nor I could even buy a fish.

By now we had been on the water for nearly three hours, with only a single bass for our efforts, and that one had escaped. “All right, George. It’s crunch time. I am going to my last lure- a buzzbait. If this doesn’t work, I’ll say uncle”. I have had good success with buzzbaits in the past and seeing a surface strike on one is always thrilling. George also changed, now going to a broken back rebel. I paddled us around the perimeter of the pond, casting repetitively as close as I dared to the stumps and tree trunks along the bank.  Still no luck.  For his part, George remained stoic, secure in having a one fish lead on me. He was getting no bites either. After an hour of trying, it was clear that I had been defeated by both George and the fish. “OK. I give. Time to pack it in George. You win”. I wound in my lure for the last time for that trip. I looked down at the buzzbait and was totally shocked by what I saw. The bait was new, having recently been purchased from the local Gander Mountain store. “Well, it is no wonder why I didn’t get a strike on this bait!” “What is wrong?” George asked. I sheepishly held the lure up in front of his face. The brilliant shiny white store tag was still wrapped firmly in place around the hook, rendering it completely useless! I had forgotten to remove it in my haste to land a fish. I was beyond embarrassed, but after a short silence, George and I burst into laughter. “I do not have a fish, but I have a great fish story!” I exclaimed. “Man that Coke is gonna taste extra good today!” said George.  I guess the tackle box and the camera weren’t all I forgot today”. I said. “What else did you leave at home?” George asked. “The most important piece of gear of all- my brain!

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Good Things Come to Those Who Wade

redfish tail with grass

 

 

My initial reaction as the bow of the boat touched the spartina grass of the small island was  “ I’m going to need some bigger shoes- like snow shoes maybe.”  The salty water appeared to be about a foot deep but the incoming water would soon be knee deep. I double checked my waterproof radio to be certain I had set it to the same channel as my friend as I slipped over the side and grabbed my backpack and fly rod. “Good luck!” my friend said as he slipped the engine into reverse. “I’ll be back on the other side of the tide.” With that, he sped away to his secret spot, leaving me to my own devices.

I was leery of the muddy bottom’s ability to support my not inconsiderable weight, tentatively placing one foot ahead of the other. After some steps had been taken and my confidence buoyed, I began to scan the water’s surface for signs of redfish, the target for today.  My polarized sunglasses proved a valuable asset as I searched for those gorgeous blue tinged tails fluttering in the midday sun. Sometimes less obvious clues to the presence of redfish are an angler’s sole means of detection. Fins barely jutting from the surface, wakes, or even the shaking of the grass can all give away the fish’s location. But nothing beats the sight of that magnificent tail sticking up like a billboard along a highway, to get a fisherman’s heart pounding.

Soon, I thought I saw one at a distance. I made my way as quickly and stealthily as I could manage to casting range. There it was, a nice redfish, busily rooting the bottom in pursuit of fiddler crabs. Focused on its task, it made no note of my presence, fortunately for me. The rod silently swayed in the warm air and dispatched fly line. Leader, and fly towards the happy redfish. The fly landed ten inches from its nose and suddenly, the redfish was happy no more. It bolted with the gold colored fly in its mouth. After a couple of satisfying runs, I held it in my hand. After its wonderful redness had been recorded for my collection, it was released, free once more to stuff itself on the abundance of food found on the flats.

We are blessed indeed to have shallow water flats in coastal South Carolina which are havens for redfish. Equally fortunately, these game fish take flies readily ( well usually anyway). They are available to the fly fisherman both summer and winter. In the warm months and fall, they are best fished on the high waters of the larger tides. The exact height required will vary by the specific fishing location. Some flats can be fished a tides of five and a half feet or even less, while others need over six feet of water. This knowledge is gained through trial and error, or a very good fishing buddy who is willing to share his knowledge. I generally prefer to arrive on the flat about two hours prior to the predicted high tide, though timing can be affected by wind and other weather conditions.  Wading can be quite effective when the water is too shallow for the boat, though in certain spots the angler risks bogging nearly to his waist in the soft plough mud. I have learned to stay well clear of the greener grass, which often indicates a small creek where the bottom is treacherous. Slow careful foot placement also advised. Quality wading shoes are an absolute MUST to protect the wader’s feet from oyster shells and to prevent loss of other types of shoe wear caused  by the suction effect of the plough mud. Tennis shoes are a NO-NO.

redfish June 30, 2012

The author with a typical redfish caught on local flats

Most redfish on our flats are in the two to five pound range, though we do occasionally catch a ten pound specimen. The largest I have personally encountered was estimated by my friend at eighteen pounds! I prefer an eight or even a nine weight rod if the wind picks up. But some anglers who appreciate a more sporting approach, may use a six or even five weight stick. Floating lines and leaders of twelve pounds work well. I like fluorocarbon, though mono works also. Experienced redfish fly rodders all seem to have a personal preference for flies. Standard patterns like Clouser minnows or spoon flies are staples. Personally, I am partial to gold colors.

Winter redfishing is a whole different ballgame. As there are no fiddler crabs to be found on the high water flats, the redfish are not there either. We like to fish for them at low tide along oyster rakes and in back creeks in the colder months. Although wading is not recommended, the angler with a shallow draft boat has the advantage of clear water ( the algae has been killed off by the lower temperatures) and the height advantage of being in the boat allows a larger sight range. Often in the winter, reds aggregate into large schools, as many as a hundred at times. Seeing them coming across the flat at a distance is quite a sight, much like bonefishing the clear waters of the Bahamas.

I have heard redfish called “The Poor Man’s Bonefish.”  I suppose this is true in the sense that travel to some exotic location is not necessary. But I can promise that your angling life can be greatly enriched by spending some time in your wading shoes on South Carolina’s incredible flats casting to feeding redfish.

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Catching Up in Sandy Point

It is uncommon for two people to remain steadfast friends without seeing each other for over fifteen years. Yet this is exactly the case with my chum Tom and me. We met many years ago in a professional setting and immediately became friends, drawn together by our mutual interest in fly fishing and our similar philosophies of life. Though he lives in the Boston area, and I a bit further south in Myrtle Beach, we have kept in frequent contact. Some years back, I visited him and his wonderful family in Boston, where we attended a large and informative fly fishing show. He reciprocated by making the trek south to my home in South Carolina. We hired a guide and spent a frustrating day casting to highly uncooperative redfish in my home waters. We vowed to erase that failure by planning a new adventure fishing together again.

Growing families, heavy demands at work, and a host of other variables resulted in repeated cancellations of trips for redfish, bonefish, false albacore, trout, and tarpon. This pattern was repeated for more than fifteen years.  Though we spoke often by phone and emails, circumstances precluded any actual visits or fishing time together.

It was last fall when I began plotting yet another return trip to my favorite bonefishing destination- Sandy Point, which lies at the most southerly tip of Abaco Island. Here I have spent many days, rod in hand, pursuing my favorite fly rod target, the bonefish. It is a fish that provides the angler with both joy and frustration, delivering them in varying degrees of equality. Sandy Point is also blessed with a dependable population of permit, and I have become increasingly aware of its resident tarpon population over the course of the past four or five visits. Pete and Gay’s Guesthouse, operated by my old friend Stanley White, exemplifies the persona of a locally owned Bahamian lodge. It is rustic but functional and the staff and guides are hard working, friendly, and eager to do whatever it takes to create a memorable experience for the guests.

Stanley's Place

Our luxury accommodations at Sandy Point

Stanley, tom, james

Tom, Stanley, owner and manager of Pete and Gay’s Guesthouse, and some dude found wandering the Town Flat

When first I emailed Tom about joining me and five of my fishing buddies on this bonefish adventure, I did so half heartedly, suspecting that circumstances would once more preclude his participation. To my astonishment, his reply indicated that he would in fact be able to come along to Stanley’s. I was thrilled to know that at last I would be able to spend a few days fishing my favorite spot with my old friend.

We agreed that Tom would fly from Boston to Myrtle Beach, where my wife and I would retrieve him from the airport. Together, we would drive to an outlying airport, and continue the journey to Abaco. When Tom arrived, it was early June. Here in South Carolina, temperatures were solidly in the nineties, yet Tom emerged from baggage claim sporting a fleece coat. After our initial salutations, I queried him about the coat. “It was forty degrees in Boston this morning” he explained.  “Well, my friend, you can pack that jacket away now. It is ninety two degrees here, and even hotter down on Abaco.”

Most of my family was able to join us that evening for a wonderful dinner prepared by my wife Sheila, and I was pleased to be able to introduce to Tom my daughter, son in law, my unimaginably wonderful grandson Liam, as well as Sheila’s mother and stepfather. After dinner, Tom and I talked into the night and it seemed as if we had seen each other only two weeks ago, not fifteen years earlier. Early the following morning, we made the drive to Florence to catch our flight. Recent airline mergers have resulted in dropped flights and consolidation of others which have made the once UBER-convenient flights out of MYR now a two day travel adventure. So, our alternative was a one hour drive to a smaller airport. Sheila graciously agreed to chauffeur us there and retrieve me upon my return.

The trip proved uneventful other than the extensive security searches to which I was subjected. Having had both knees replaced, I always alarm the metal detectors and I have discovered that some TSA agents are more thorough, or perhaps bored, than others. I was led to a small room where I was brusquely told to “Sit down in that metal chair! Do not speak or touch ANYTHING!” Attached to one of the legs of said chair was a menacing appearing device that looked suspiciously like a cattle prod. The TSA man, meanwhile, went to fetch his superior. When they returned, I underwent a thirty minute search which, although no body cavities were penetrated, was very thorough. Once satisfied that my socks, with their hidden zippered pockets to hold my cash, were harmless, I was released to board the flight. I suppose it is the price we must pay for safe travels, but nonetheless I find it quite disconcerting.

The remainder of the journey was routine, and soon we found ourselves standing once more on Bahamian soil. Stanley , our host, had arranged an airport pickup by Ezra, a resident of Sandy Point. The final leg of our journey to Sandy Point requires an hour’s driving time. It passed quickly as the ebullient Ezra regaled us with local tales of interest, pointing out attractions as we drove. I was especially interested in hearing his stories about Casuarina Point, as we passed Different of Abaco, a now defunct bonefish lodge. It was there that I made my first visit to Abaco some twenty four years ago. It is also where I made the acquaintance of Miss Nettie Symonnette, a colorful local personality who built the lodge and created a manmade waterway for her guide boats into the Marls. The Marls area is a massive area of mangrove islands extending along the west coast of Abaco. Here bonefish, though smallish, are quite plentiful. There is no natural access to the Marls from this part of the island, necessitating a lengthy boat run to reach the treasure chest of swimming silver that resides among the mazes of mangroves. Miss Nettie created quite a sensation when she directed a local man with a bulldozer to create a sort of canal to allow her guide boats a means of passage. Her newly dug opening to the sea immediately became known as “Nettie’s Ditch.” But, that is a tale worthy of its own post.  We shortly thereafter found ourselves in downtown Sandy Point, though our true final destination required a boat to reach. That would be for the next day. For tonight, it was time to meet our fellow travelers and anglers, then pass the evening of catching up and enjoying a few Kaliks.

stanley sunset 2008edited

A typical sunset at Sandy Point. This photo was captured from the rooftop lounge area.

 

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My old friend Tom Guest finally made it to Sandy Point.

The following morning, we made our way to the guide boats, which were gathered into a small armada, all nosed into the sand at water’s edge in front of the lodge. Stanley had arranged for Tom and I to fish with Wally that first day, a fine choice. I have fished with Wally many, many times during past trips, and find him to be dependable and hard working. He decided to make the crossing to Moore’s Island, a rich fishery some eighteen miles away. Tom and I boarded his sturdy locally built boat and settled down for the forty five minute ride.

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Good times are even better shared with good friends. Left to right- Steve, Joe, Mike, Me, Jay, and Tom

After a pleasant journey, we arrived at Moore’s with high hopes. Tom was first up on the deck. We found fish, but unfortunately, were not able to seal the deal. We moved on and soon found a flat that was literally covered with large sharks in impossibly skinny water. As we approached for a closer inspection of these animals, it became clear that they were quite large. Even the smaller specimens were estimated at six to seven feet, and the bruisers around ten to perhaps twelve feet in length. They lazed about the flat, seemingly resting, but soon the reason they had gathered here in such numbers became clear. It was mating season, and these sharks were busily involved in procreation. I had witnessed this spectacle only once or twice in the past, but I have never seen so many sharks engaged in such a massive orgy. Wally guessed the total number of sharks at around one hundred and fifty to as many as two hundred!

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Three of the many sharks encountered at Moore’s Island

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Walks with sharks!!

I noted some movement in the short mangroves shoots near the shoreline. Several sharks were slowly swimming about the area. As I peered a bit closer, I discovered that the activity was actually a school of bonefish clustered in the super skinny water. We pondered whether they would take a fly in the midst of the enormous biomass of predators, but I decided it was worth an attempt. So, much to Tom’s horror, I carefully slipped over the gunwhale with my fly rod. I tread softly between the sharks that were now moving in the shin deep water in very close proximity to my exposed legs. I made a cast, but was rejected. A second cast was snatched by a bonefish whose hunger exceeded its fear, and off it went, boldly swimming among the massive sharks. Incredibly, I was able to bring it to hand and release it. The fish’s frantic, erratic escape attempt drew no interest from the sharks. Typically such vibrations in the water alert sharks to the presence of a wounded fish and the predation instinct results in immediate vicious attacks. Anything in the water, including human legs, becomes fair game at that point.

I glanced back at Tom, who stood with his Nikon to his eye, poised to capture the carnage, presumably to be displayed at my funeral. I did my best to suppress a chuckle and keep my game face in place.

Most people are lumpers when it comes to sharks. Any creature that remotely resembles one is immediately branded a bloodthirsty killing machine, intent on ripping to pieces any biologic object it spies in or on the water. While many , if not most, sharks are indeed predators, they serve their function at the apex of the food chain in the ocean much like their terrestrial counterparts such as big cats or bears. They are not inherently evil, or good for that matter. They simply do what has been programmed into their DNA by The Creator through millions of years of evolution.

I noticed several sharks engaged in the mating process perhaps a hundred feet away from where I stood. I flicked on my waterproof Nikon point and shoot, and slowly made my way towards them in an effort to get some underwater footage. It was a privilege to witness nature up close and personal in this way and I wanted to be able to share it with my friends who may have never had the opportunity to see it for themselves. Though the water was much too murky from all the sand being kicked up by the roiling, twisting shark bodies, I did manage a few shots from above the surface. I was especially fascinated by a behavior I observed in which one the sharks rolled onto its back and proceeded to spurt water repeatedly from its mouth. I began referring to this behavior as a “sharkgasm.” Perhaps some ichthyologist will elucidate this for me some day.

I made my way back to the boat and climbed aboard. Tom remained amazed that I had walked with sharks that day and even caught three bones while “amongst” them. I finally could no longer contain my laughter, and told Tom that the only reason I ventured into the shark den was that these were nurse sharks. Nursies, I explained are extremely docile creatures and are almost never aggressive. They do have a set of small transparent teeth that they use to crush their prey, but represent little risk to humans. “Had these been bulls, blacktips, or tigers, there is absolutely no way I would have even gotten close to the gunwhale!” All my apparent bravado was actually contrived as a way to get some dramatic photographs of me bravely wading in close proximity of ten foot sharks. I was never in any danger at all.

We explored a number of flats that first day and Tom was able to cast to more bones, but none made it the boat. That was just fine, however, as we greatly enjoyed spending the day in each other’s company in one the loveliest places on the planet, and observing the natural world together. That day reminded why I love flats fishing so very much. Despite my affection for trout fishing, I rarely have witnessed the myriad manifestations of nature, such as the mating ritual of sharks in shallow water, that I am privileged to see on the tropical flats.

Considering our experiences that first day, I have come to realize that the word “Fishing” is actually an acronym. It has taken me a mere sixty years to discern its true meaning:

F riends

I n unison

S haring

H appiness

I n

N ature with

G od

Day 2 Fishing with Mike

When I fish with Mike, I feel as though I am playing my guitar in a jam session with Eric Clapton. We may both be using the same instrument, but the outcomes are diametrically opposite! Clapton creates soul felt rhythms and riffs that flow effortlessly from his innermost subconscious directly to millions of his fans. I, on the other hand, can only make screeching disjointed noises, reminiscent of fingernails on a chalkboard. On rare occasions some sound wave freakishly emerges that might broadly fit the term musical in its tonality.  Similarly, on occasion, one of my casts somehow results in a fish being caught. For Mike, this is an expected conclusion. For me, it a cause for rejoicing.

I am always awestruck and humbled by Mike’s technical abilities. His casts are melodic yet somehow in some engineered way, his fly seems to land at the right place, at the right time, and with the right entry splash. He always knows what fly or lure those particular fish on that particular day will find appetizing. I often joke that he could catch a fish from a bath tub. That is actually not completely in jest.

Mike and I share a long standing joke with my old friend and business partner Jay about fishing for non piscine targets. This was rooted in his accidental capture of a shellfish while we fished for redfish on our home waters. We manage to keep the gag alive when he snags objects in the water such as oysters, assorted bivalves, and now mangrove bushes and trees. This jest has provided much merriment over the years.

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Jay has now added echinoderms to his already impressive fly fishing repertoire

Early in our fishing day Mike, to my astonishment, made an overly long cast and his Zara Spook sailed into a tangle of mangrove trees. I half expected him to slip off his shoes and glide weightless on the water’s surface to retrieve it. Or, perhaps, he might, Harry Potter like, point his fishing wand towards the tree to summon it from its leafy Azkaban. I was disappointed when instead Perry, another friend and guide today, pulled the boat up to the mangrove and stepped onto its branches. He scanned for limbs sufficiently strong to hold his weight, and mountain goat like, navigated those impossibly narrow wooden ledges to the spot where lay the lure. In a matter of moments, the lure had been returned to Mike’s waiting hands. Despite Mike now being exposed as a muggle, I determined that he might actually be some form of genetically blended squib and had inherited at least some magical powers.

We fished a few shallow spots back along the creek that drains a mangrove forested shallow behind the village of Sandy Point, catching a few bones as we enjoyed the beauty of the natural world that lay in such proximity to the manmade one. Only the occasional segment of telephone wire that appeared intermittently through the mangroves to our right revealed the presence of civilization.  Well, that is if you managed to tune out the sound of the odd car engine.

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Jay is not alone in his ability to hook non-piscine targets

As the tide neared its zenith, Perry moved us out of the creek, past town, and onto a coralline bottomed protuberance of electric blue and shocking day glow green waters known as Rocky Point. Located less than a mile from the lodge itself, it holds a breathtaking variety of marine creatures, including our target for today- tarpon.

Tarpon are relatively rare in the Sandy Point area, excepting their nocturnal visitation of a few brightly lit docks scattered around town. Free range tarpon are prized and rarely captured here. In my experience that now exceeds twenty years, I have been thrilled to cast flies to a few tarpon, and even to have a couple of takes and jumps, but I possess no grab and grin photos of these wonderful animals. I hoped that today would be the day, especially as I had my own resident Wizard aboard, ready to cast the appropriate tarpon incantation.

Perry poled the boat over the technicolor waters and we were treated to the sight of a variety of species as we peered into the clear waters beneath the keel. Sharks numbered prominently in the count, and we did spot the odd permit. It is widely accepted that permit hold the top spot as King, nay, Emperor for Life, of the tropical flats. In the Sandy Point area, tarpon remain by far even less populous and at least equally desirable for fervent flats fishermen such as us.

Mike produced from its under the gunwhale storage place his own Elder Wand, which was soon to prove its merit.  Attached was the Zara Spook , a lure spoken of in hushed whispers in tackle shops. The Spook is rumored to possess such concentrated powers that it is able to summon forth all manner of fish, from sharks to jack to barracuda to even the lordly tarpon. I considered Mike’s wand and noted its appearance to be banal, plebian, and common. Yet I knew of its capabilities when wielded in his magical hands.  Looks can, indeed, be very deceiving.

He surveyed the wondrous waters that lay spread in all directions. It all displayed a certain sameness, disturbed only by the pod of bottle nosed dolphin that frolicked in the stunningly blue waters at the drop off of the flat. They wheeled and danced, cavorted and snorted, entertaining both themselves and us.

The Spook launched skyward. As I traced its path, I wondered if it might reach low earth orbit before it fell, meteor like, toward the sea. A soft “PLOP” and it rested at the very limit of my visual range. I made a furtive glance toward Mike. I could have sworn that his lips were moving- nearly imperceptibly, with a slight quivering, as though he were dreaming. As I strained to see the lure, I seemed to perceive a thin fog spreading across the water. Wispy, smoke like, it slowly flattened itself against the sea’s surface.

In his hand, the Elder Wand trembled, its powers travelling down the braided line which linked it to The Spook. The rod’s innocent appearance, however, belied its mystical construction. I now realize it must be made not from cane or carbon, not fiberglass or graphite, but fashioned instead from the wood of the holly tree, at its core a feather from the mythical Phoenix.

Mike’s spell now took full hold.  The Spook began to slide seductively, in a side to side motion so attractive to fish that only a sorcerer’s hand might create it.  In a sea of sameness, a featureless layer of liquid, the tarpon found itself drawn inexplicably from its cryptic lair to the cold, inanimate, floating object of its desire. Ten million years of evolutionary survival instincts proved useless against the siren song sung by the triple gang of treble hooks attached the charmed rune now wafting on the surface.

The ocean exploded in a mass of silver anger.  Thirty pounds of shimmering scales writhed against the hooks which now held fast to its mouth and jaw. Its intense pursuit of freedom caused the tarpon’s muscles to alternately tense and relax, as if it were posing in a bodybuilding contest, while it sought some avenue of escape. Twisting, turning, whirling, fleeing, it raged against the lure, but all to no avail. Mike slowly, steadily moved the tarpon towards the boat. Soon, he held the handsome fish in his hand. But the tarpon was not yet spent. In a final display of strength and will to survive, it flung itself from Mike’s grasp, flopping to and fro about the deck. The needle like tips of those treble hooks had now become lethal weapons. As it departed Mike’s hand, it left a reminder for him- a small but bloody laceration on the ring finger pad. Somewhere in its primitive brain, I could sense a laugh. The fish was once more in control, forcing Mike, Perry, and I to do the tarpon two step- dancing away from the fish and all those terrible hooks. I suppose it is true that he who laughs last, laughs best.

The Silver King by now was depleted of its energy. Mike triumphantly raised his prize for the obligatory photo op. The camera whirred and clicked and the hooks were removed, albeit not without difficulty. The fish was revived and swam on, continuing its day. It expressed no appreciation for the fact that it had actually been the guest of honor at a party that day. It was, after all, Mike’s sixty seventh birthday, and coincidentally, his forty seventh tarpon. What a gift from the fishing gods! Happy birthday to the best angler I have ever known.

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Happy Birthday to the best fisherman I have ever known- his present was a tarpon, the 47th of his illustrious career

I next mounted the casting platform, where I was entrusted with use of the Elder Wand. Despite being a couple of years younger chronologically than Mike, but many, many years younger in fishcraft, I lifted the wand, and letting the mystical Spook slip skyward. Its touchdown lay considerable closer than Mike’s castings, and my crude movement of the lure were surely the object of the fish’s ridicule. Yet, after a few shaky presentations, the water about the offering exploded into a localized rain shower. The smallish spinning reel instantly began rotating at the speed of blur. Line disappeared off the reel faster than a snowball on the surface of the sun. Alarmed, Mike implored Perry to crank the motor and take pursuit.  The little Yamaha sputtered to life as I became a mere spectator, powerless to have any influence on whatever form of marine life had fallen under the spell of Mike’s lure. Soon, we were straight up and down over the creature. I peered into the water and saw the line trailing off under a ledge of coral on the sea floor. Unable to force any movement, I had an epiphany. I released all the pressure and waited. In a matter of seconds, the fish emerged. But, it now had caught its breath and was ready for a second sprint. I tightened the drag a bit and held on tight. The fish raced across the water, but with less enthusiasm this time. It soon spent its energy and I brought it to the boat.

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This Jack Crevalle was quite a fighter

I held in my hand now a nice specimen of a jack crevalle. Far less glamorous than its lovely cousin, the permit, it is a hard punching fighter, well worthy of the angler’s attention. It resides in the same neighborhoods as the tarpon, but can also be found in some abundance in my home waters of South Carolina. The jack crevalle has certainly moved up on my target list after this close encounter of the very best type.

The day came to a close, and Perry pointed the prow towards Stanley’s, and the Kaliks and fellowship that awaited us there. It was time to celebrate both birthday and tarpon.

Day Three- Fishing with Jay

Jay and I have practiced orthopedic surgery together for more than twenty five years. During this time we have known the stress of standing with gloved hands and masked faces over bodies torn asunder by accidents, felt the joy of relieving the suffering of those afflicted with painful joint conditions, and seen the rapturous faces of parents whose children whose birth deformities have been corrected by our hands. (As an aside, the word orthopedic literally means “straight child”). We have even known the gutwrenching anxiety of sitting together in a courtroom, as our professional capabilities were being attacked in a frivolous lawsuit.

But we have also shared many positive life experiences outside our professional time together. We have participated in a number of athletic activities, such as the notorious bicycle torture ride known as the Assault on Mt, Mitchell- twelve hours and one hundred and two miles terminating at the peak of the highest mountain in the United States east of the Mississippi. We have shared the casting platforms of innumerable guide boats as we sought out that gleaming sliver of silver called the bonefish. Those days have created some of my favorite memories, memories that will substitute for the actual experience when I reach that point in life when my body is no longer able to stand on that bow, see those magnificent tails wafting in the tropical sun, or lay out that fifty foot cast to some of God’s most wonderful inventions.

The day was a typical day on the water with Jay, replete with his criticisms, offered with great relish, of everything from my casting to my physique, even my choice of clothing and the flies I had chosen for use that day. I was, in fact, offering to the bones a fly of my own design that I had crafted from my own hair. After a few months of growth, an exceedingly slow process for me, a plastic bag made the trip to the barber with me. Trimmings were collected and brought home to my tying bench. After constructing the fly, I reflected on an appropriate name for it. As my granddaughter has selected from her own imagination a moniker for me, I decided to use that. From thin air, she had concocted the name P-Paw and I, of course, loved it instantly. Thus the fly made of my own now silvery hair was christened the “P-Paw Fly.”

We happened upon a nice school of fish early in the day, and casts of the P-Paw fly resulted in nearly instantaneous hookups. I have not yet decided if I am more pleased by the success of the P-Paw, or the immediate cessation of disparaging remarks about it prompted by the hookups.

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The P-Paw fly at work

Jay caught a number of bones and I enjoyed watching as he played the fish to the boat. He caught one memorable specimen that sported a couple of large gashes, evidence of a recent attack by some toothy predator, likely a hungry barracuda. “Look!” said Jay excitedly “I just caught a twelve pound bonefish!” Puzzled, I remarked that a more accurate weight might be three pounds. “Yeah, but if you include the missing pieces taken by the cuda, it would easily weight twelve pounds, maybe thirteen!” Perry, our friend and guide, and I had a hearty laugh over that one. “Perry” I said “We need to find some shade right away. It looks like Jay has had a heat stroke!”

jay's cuda bonefish

Jay’s bonefish had a close encounter of the unpleasant type prior to being caught. He had now escaped twice when Jay released him.

We motored to our next spot, and anchored in the outflow of a medium sized creek. There we waited for the falling tide to bring with it the schools of bones that were almost certainly feeding among the mangroves further up the creek, too shallow to reach. Perry decided that we would have lunch as we waited. Jay and I noted the smell of gas as we munched on our sandwiches and turned to see the cowl off the motor, lying across the stern. Perry was hard at work on the motor. We had noticed that the engine did not seem to be performing as well as normal, and thought we had detected the distinct odor of gasoline while we were underway. “I checked the tank and we have used twice as much gas as I usually do on this run,” Perry informed us. “Might be a problem with the fuel pump.” He removed the pump, a diaphragm type, and carefully inspected it. “AHA!” he said. “There is a hole in the diaphragm.” He held the faulty part up so I could see the damage for myself. Sure enough, a small defect was present. “So that is why we smell gas. Fuel is leaking through and causing the engine to run rough.’ he explained.  “What do we do now?” I wondered aloud. Perry rummaged through the storage compartment in the console and soon produced an old vinyl tool pouch. “We’ll just have to make a new one” Perry explained. “One small problem though” he added. “I do not have a knife.”  As luck would have it, I had elected to bring my Abel pliers and knife combo with me on this trip. I had it on a trip to the Florida Keys a few weeks earlier, but when I experienced an unfortunate incident involving fishing line and a prop, I discovered the knife’s cutting surface had the approximate sharpness of a large marble. Once back at home, I made a trip to my local Gander Mountain store where I purchased an electric sharpener. I had spent considerable time insuring that the knife would be ready for any cutting task that might be required on this trip. I confidently handed the black handled serrated knife to Perry, smiling smugly at my level of preparedness.

Perry’s capable hands traced the damaged diaphragm onto the vinyl tool pouch bag with the now keen edge of my knife. In minutes, he held a duplicate of the flawed part.

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Perry’s Ingenuity saved the day for us.

He expertly reassembled the pump using the makeshift diaphragm. Holding his breath, he turned the engine over. It immediately sprang to life, running as smoothly as the proverbial top. Our fishing day was now salvaged, due to Perry’s resourcefulness and a freshly sharpened knife.

I just have to admire the ingenuity required to solve problems on the spot, with limited materials with which to work, be it a new fuel pump diaphragm, or if I may say, as modestly as possible, a P-Paw fly built from an increasingly rare ingredient- my own hair.

Day 4- Fishing with Joe.

Like many folks, I have met a number of people through mutual friends. I have been privileged to make the acquaintance of some interesting and knowledgeable people over the years in this manner. I have learned much from them, making me a better fisherman and in some way, a better person.

Joe Bibbo is one such friend. An environmental engineer by profession, Joe is a serious outdoorsman and sportsman. I have been fortunate enough to have spent a number of pleasant days fishing with him. His methodical approach, a product, I suppose, of his engineering background has demonstrated to me the importance of patience and a steady sure method. Ever the anxious one, I often launch off wildly in pursuit of my quarry. This technique, though sometimes successful, is apt to result in missed fish and disasters on a much larger scale.

Joe and I came upon a nice school of happy bonefish, feeding busily adjacent to and within, the mangrove studded shoreline of a small cay. I felt my heart rate rise exponentially as I saw the fish lollygagging about, searching for an easy snack. Despite a bonefishing career spanning two decades now, I continue to get giddy headed when confronted by contented, hungry fish. I noted a small tremor in the fingers of my casting hand, even though Joe was up on the casting deck.

Joe, for his part, calmly and deliberately stripped his fly line into a neat pile as he peered at the parade of silver sided speedsters drifting before us. He next drew back his rod and delivered a beautiful, cast which entered the water with a barely perceptible splash and within easy eyesight of the pack of bonefish. One dashed away from the school rushing the fly in an effort to grab it ahead of his chums. The bone was successful. Joe made a perfect strip strike and was rewarded by a smallish bonefish ripping line off his reel. Unfortunately, the proximity of the mangroves that had attracted the fish initially now offered the fish an escape route. All that was necessary to gain its freedom was for the bone to swim around the tangled roots and snap the ten pound leader. Into the mangroves went the bonefish. Joe, remaining totally nonplussed, calmly slipped over the gunwhale and, taking care to not put excessive pressure on the fish, walked serenely into the thicket of mangrove branches. Then he ceased walking, peering intently at the fly line as it entered the maze of branches and limbs. I could almost see his analytical mind calculating angles and vectors as he visualized the path taken by the line and the fish. Once his intracranial computer had done its work, he methodically separated line from limb, slowly and deliberately, until after a few minutes, he held in his hand a gleaming, wriggling mass of bonefish flesh. Had it been my fish, I would have tried the brute force approach of yanking the line, and the fish would have slipped easily away. Lesson learned!

Perry poled the boat across a number of flats, most of which held satisfying numbers of bonefish. We passed an enjoyable morning together reveling in God’s creation and casting our flies to sometimes willing, but often indifferent, bonefish. We were treated to the sight of large schools of barracudas, all of whom seemed to be in the throes of lockjaw, as well as sharks. These predators roamed the deeper waters along the edge of what I have come to call Permit Point, so named for the relative abundance of these persnickety fish found there.

The drop off along the eastern side of the flat is sand bottomed and offers spectacular visibility.  As I scanned the water I was, as always, dumbfounded by the variety and abundance of life in this salty environment. A mirror like reflection suddenly seized my attention, and I spun towards it, seeking its source. What I saw ratcheted my pulse up instantly. A school of perhaps fifteen good size permit were working directly towards in the boat. Instinctively, my arm began the casting motion, a crab fly already affixed to the tippet. The fly arced across the cloudless sky and entered the water some ten feet from the fish. I allowed the fly to sink and then added just a subtle small tug in an effort to simulate a fleeing crab. A nice sized permit darted from the school, making a beeline toward the fly. The lead eyes of the crab fly pulled it towards the bottom. My heart missed its next beat as I watched in anticipation. Taking a permit on fly, as I have said many times, is to flats fly fishing what a hole in one is to golf- a nearly freakish occurrence. At the very last possible nanosecond, the fish veered away, its disproportionately large eyes having spotted some defect in my fly that disclosed it as a fake. The permit joined its brethren and they swam past us. My hopes dashed, I comforted myself with some comment about how the rarity of the catch makes permit fishing an exercise in frustration. Perry cranked up and we headed to our final destination of the day and the trip- Rocky Point.

There is a spot along the beach south of the village of Sandy Point lying about a mile from Pete and Gay’s Guesthouse where large outcroppings of coral cover the sandy shore. The rock structure juts out into the sea forming a roughly triangular structure. The submerged portion of rock extends perhaps a quarter of a mile or so seaward. Its bottom topography is irregular, frequently punctuated by overhanging ledges and deep holes, creating ideal environments for a variety of fish species.  The deep water surrounding it features white sand bottoms that the brilliant rays of the sun cause to emit phosphorescent neon hues of blue, green, and topaz. Villagers refer to this are as Rocky Point. I think of it as Jardin de Rey- the garden of the King., as it is a fine example of the Creator’s stunning artwork. It is, to me, a sort of Garden of Eden, so much life teems in its waters. It is here that my friend caught a tarpon, and here that we encountered permit, horse eye jacks, and massive yellow jacks. The chrome flashes from huge masses of large shad, complimented by the royal blue color of hundreds of impressively large tangs enthralled me as I watched them going about their fishy business. Other, more sinister creatures also roam these waters. Impressive numbers of sharks prowl here. Bulls, blacktips, lemons, and other apex predators perform the task nature assigned them here. Soon we would become eyewitnesses to these magnificent creatures’ handiwork.

Joe let slip a cast to a sizable fish that Perry had spotted. He was unsure exactly what it might be, but ventured a guess that it was a jack. Joe’s fly no sooner was wet than the fish attacked it with considerable gusto. His reel whirred itself into a blur of motion as the fish sped away hoping to free itself. Suddenly the water exploded into a billion drops of liquid blueness. It churned and boiled like an overheated pot of stew. The Man in the Brown Suit had made his arrival known. A large shark, likely a blacktip, intercepted the fleeing fish and ripped it to shreds, along with Joe’s fly. Suddenly, the water was once more calm. The shark had enjoyed the dinner Joe had prepared for him, and now was wiping his mouth clean with the clear blue water rather than a napkin. He inconsiderately swam away without so much as leaving Joe a tip.

We were both amazed and amused by the display of the brutality of the natural world. It truly is a cruel world, but it is as the Creator intended. We had just seen an example of the underwater version of The Circle of Life.

I ascended the casting platform, now armed with a baitcasting rod and a monstrous eight inch long lure originally designed for peacock bass fishing in the Amazon. Sporting three sets of 8-0 treble hooks, it is a fearsome weapon, looking like it should be trolled offshore for giant blue marlin. I have found it to be attractive to the big barracuda found at Rocky Point and indeed all around the Sandy Point area. For reasons I do not understand, the cudas have ceased to pursue the old standby tube lures. This appears to be true in the Bahamas as well as Florida. It is as though the Barracuda Times published an article warning the barracuda populace about this piece of human treachery. In any case, I hoped to cast my Woodchopper, despite the perils involved in launching something that could have been used in the Inquisition, to any barracuda we encountered on the flats.

Not seeing any cudas or other likely targets, I began a series of blind casts, ripping the Green Monster across the surface of the water. It really does create a remarkable disturbance as the fore and aft propellers churn up the water. I let it pause periodically, as though I were bass fishing. Then, out of nowhere, a gigantic flash of silver nearly blinded me, so bright was the reflection off the fish’s silver sides. A huge SPLOOSH, and my lure was gone. The fish peeled line off my reel at a frightening rate as it headed for Havana, lure in mouth. “What the heck is it?” I asked Perry. “I’m not sure” he replied. “Maybe a really big horse eye” was his reply.  The fish by now had very nearly emptied my reel of all two hundred yards of its braided line when, BAM! The line went completely slack. “Damn” I thought. “I really wanted to see what this was.”  A disturbance in the water close to the exposed rocks on the shore caught our attention. My fish, like Joe’s, had been snatched by another large shark. But this time, a few of the shark’s friends had shown up, uninvited, to share his meal. The water was whipped to a frenzy of fish remains, blood, and whirling shark fins and snouts as what seemed to be three or four of these predators locked in combat over the tasty morsel of jack. Suddenly the waters once again calmed without providing any clue as to the identity of the victor. “Anyone care to go for a refreshing swim?” I inquired. “No way” was the simultaneous response of my companions.

By now, it was seven PM, well past the usual four o’clock time when we return to the lodge. “I guess we should get back to Stanley’s” I suggested to Perry. “You remember how they worried when we were late last year” I remarked. Perry reluctantly stowed his push pole, turned the ignition key, and we made for home port. As we ran the short distance back to Sandy Point, a song spontaneously popped into my head.

ROCKY POINT ( sung to the tune of Rocky Top)

Wish that I was on ole Rocky Point

Down in the Caribbean sea

Ain’t no time clock to punch on Rocky Point

Ain’t no fishing license fee

Once I caught a tarpon at Rocky Point

Silver and shiny and fat

Runnin’ and jumpin like he smoked a joint

I still dream about that

Rocky Point you’ll always be

The best fishing spot to me

Good ole Rocky Point

Rocky Point in the sea, Rocky Point in the sea

( apologies to Felice and Boudleaux Bryant. I simply could not resist!)

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Hookless in Sea Battle

View of the Lighthouse from "The Hook"

View of the Lighthouse from “The Hook”

I have always thought of myself as the straight arrow kind of guy. One that always follows the rules, never exceeds the speed limit, and loves his wife and family above all else. But now, here in the presence of God and all His creation, I must confess to a torrid love affair that I have carried on for some fifteen years now. I seem to sneak off several times a year, usually in the fall, to spend time with my other love. The journey takes me north to the home of my paramour, Morehead City, North Carolina. It is here that she visits each fall, and here I must meet her. Recently, I discovered that she has not been completely forthcoming with me. She is actually in these environs at other times. In fact, she seems to be about even in the spring, though she often lays low, living the clandestine life, as if she were a secret agent. And who might this mysterious object of my affection be? No, not a woman. There can never be another woman that could take the place of my lovely, intelligent, sweet wife. Never in a million years. However, the false albacore has a place in my heart that will also last forever. When I discovered a few short days ago that the false albacore had been seen around town, I knew I had to make the trek. So, I called Captain Byron Wills, loaded my Tahoe, and steered a northerly course from my home in South Carolina.

Weather conditions were forecast to be marginal. Despite sunny skies, the wind was predicted at fifteen to twenty knots. This alone makes casting a fly, my personal preference for a gift to the fish,  both challenging and frustrating. Not easily deterred, I readied my gear for the day’s fishing.  After meeting Byron at the ramp in Beaufort, we loaded my rods and flies. I had come ready for whatever Mother Nature had in store, or so I thought. Byron placed my three rods into the under gunnel rod holders, one rod armed with a floating line, one with a sink tip line, and the third sporting the heavy stuff- a full length class 5 sinker.  Byron carried a variety of spin and trolling rods. Interestingly, though he is not yet a committed fly fisherman, he has the soul of one. His reels are all spooled with twenty pound mono and the drags set at a mere three pounds. Going to fly gear would not be a bridge too far for him.

The twenty three foot Wellcraft angled away from the dock, propelled by two finely tuned Mercury 150 outboards. We lazily waked past the condos and through the channel markers to Beaufort Inlet. The lack of boat traffic amazed me, as in the fall this area looks like an LA freeway at rush hour. We had the water all to ourselves this morning. Byron pushed the throttles forward, the Mercs coming to full power with a throaty growl reminiscent of an offshore racer. The immediate near  shore water was greenish and dirty. We read a water temp of sixty one degrees as Byron wheeled onto a course for the shoals and the false albacore we hoped to locate on the far side. As we progressed, the waves became increasingly large. The wind was winding up for a fastball as well. The radio crackled and a voice was heard over the static and the engines. ” Weatherman says its going to lay down this morning.” the voice declared. “It better hurry up. Nasty looking water here at the crossover point” he added, referring to a deeper area towards the end of the shoals. ” I think I will pass on this whole deal and head in for some coffee and pancakes.” The shoals at Cape Lookout are an enormous pile of constantly shifting sand about eight miles in length. They extend from the tip of Cape Lookout to the Knuckle Buoy, which marks the beginning of deeper waters. As we approached a GPS number marking the entrance to Byron’s safe zone for crossing, we noted the water temps to continue to be steady at sixty one degrees. We also noted menacing appearing rollers pushed by the strong northerly winds. I guessed them at maybe six feet, though Byron thought they were less. We cautiously started across, eyes glued to the GPS and the depth finder. Occasional tall rollers dropped from underneath us, and the Wellcraft fell back into Mother Ocean’s arms in heavy thuds, making  my back and shoulders yelp in protest. Water depth remained easily in the comfort zone, despite the wave action being anything but comfortable.  After perhaps fifteen minutes, we reached the east side and I took a sigh of relief.

As we motored towards an area known as The 1700 Rock, I noticed how blue the water had become. It was as if we were forty miles offshore, so pristine was the ocean below us. The water temperature gauge now read seventy two degrees. I was astounded at the change in so short a distance. Byron explained that there is sufficient offshore underwater structure to divert a bit of flow from the Gulfstream towards Cape Lookout, creating a sort of back eddy. This water from the Stream sometimes brings pelagics such as blackfin tuna to the area we would be fishing. That would be cool, I thought. Catching tuna ten miles from the sand of Cape Lookout. The waves were relentless and made for an uncomfortable ride, but certainly not an unsafe one. The pitching deck, however, made fly casting a virtual impossibility. Additionally, despite our vigorous searching, no false albacore , or albies, as they are affectionately known, were to be seen at any point of the compass.  Changes in conditions force changes in plans usually, so I left my rods ensconced in the holders, hoping to break them out as the forecast wind dieoff occurred. Instead, we rigged a couple of pink colored Yo-Zuri  lures, fresh from the packaging, on twenty pound mono on light trolling rods. The drags, as Byron had said, were set for a minimalist fisherman’s dream of just three pounds.

The lures were barely wet when one went off, its tip shaking violently. I grabbed it and a glance at the spool found it to be rotating at light speed. The reel was a blur and line melted off like a snowball at the surface of the sun. Initially, I was completely confused by the identity of this fish. It ran like no albie I had ever encountered. It seemed to have the velocity of a large sailfish or perhaps an enormous wahoo. I conjectured that either might be possible, considering what Byron had told me about his catches of tuna at this spot. I turned the reel handle furiously but to no avail. The super light drag setting did nothing to slow this fish. I begged, I pleaded for Byron to let me increase the drag if there was to be any chance of boating this beast. Instead, he turned the boat and gave chase. I began to have very real concerns about being spooled. Byron gave me advice such as “Fight the fish with the rod tip. You don’t need any more drag.” I had my doubts. Maybe a better fisherman than me could subdue this monster with finesse, but I felt like I was trying to slay a fire breathing dragon with a child’s plastic sword. Ultimately, Byron, recognizing that the reel was in mortal danger of having every last inch of line taken, relented and he added some additional resistance. Bit by bit I began to gain line. The “hobbly gobbly” sea conditions made remaining upright in a standing position difficult enough, let alone attempting to tame this Chuck Norris of a fish with a bream buster. The fish made a number of blistering runs, forcing me to seek a balance between adequate force to maintain control and the point at which the pressure would become excessive, resulting in an instantaneous break off. Then, it was as if all the stars in the heavens suddenly transported themselves into an infinite queue , all in a row, all directly over my pitching and rolling boat. The runaway fish slowly was coming back towards my trembling hands and shaky knees. It appeared that I would emerge victorious after all. The now tired fish stubbornly fought on, but it was no use. I gazed deep into the water and saw color. I continued to wind all the yards of monofilament back into its place on the smallish reel. And there it was- an albie of what only be described as epic proportions  had now struck its colors and heeled to. It was a magnificent creature. Shiny sides and green back glimmering in the perfect blue water. All there was left now was to grab the fish and bring it onboard for a photo op and a quick weight measurement on the waiting Boga grip. I was very careful to maintain just the right tautness in the line as I began the recovery effort.

Suddenly, my line of stars fell altogether out of alignment and collapsed into a heap. The Yo-Zuri lost its lock on the jaw of my trophy. Horrified, I watched as the beast, nearly spent, slowly finned into the depths of the azure water.

Once retrieved, examination of the lure revealed the cause of my loss and my now growing frustration. The hook had snapped cleanly in half. So, there I stood, with both a broken hook and a broken heart. This albie must have been a female. Like a beautiful vixen, it had teased me, excited me, then just disappeared, leaving me standing there looking dumb with my rod in my hand.

Byron did his best to console me, but it’s no easy task when the best albie of your life has just slipped through your fingers through no deficit of angling skill, but rather faulty equipment. That particular lure was, in fact, a shiny new one, fresh from its plastic wrappings. Just a defective hook I suppose.  “That’s why it’s fishing, not catching.” I told myself in a failed effort to ease my despair. “Let’s go get another one!” said Byron cheerily. He replaced the defective hook and soon we were underway, Yo-Zuri’s in trail, singing their songs of seduction to the albies beneath our keel.

“James”, he said, “That was the biggest albie I have ever seen. I would estimate that one at twenty pounds PLUS. Easy. I am so very sorry that you lost him, but, hey, there’s more fish in the sea.”  We rocked and rolled along for a couple of hours, and the rods and lures did prove that there actually are more fish in sea, as we caught a couple more nice albies. None were in the same class as Chuck Norris, as I began to call the infamous “one that got away.” Still good fun. These fish have hearts the size of an aircraft carrier and fight to the last drop of energy they possess. I have always admired that trait in them and the main reason I love them so. They are wonderful sporting fish, but are completely unpalatable. This is a blessing in disguise, as all albies are released to be fought, and sometimes caught, again.

albie James April 2015_edited-1

The seas finally began to calm as the wind trailed off in the afternoon.  We made an uneventful passage back across the shoals and soon we were drifting over a favorite wreck of Byron’s. Here, no albies could be seen breaking the surface in pursuit of the massive bait schools that seemed to be everywhere. Instead, we decided to get jiggy with it, as the kids used to say. We dropped Stingsilvers to the bottom and rapidly moved them vertically, bouncing them off the bottom. I was rewarded with a number of quite lovely black sea bass. Fortunately for them, they all seemed to be an inch too short to make the trip back home with me, so they were immediately released to grow a bit more. Fortunately for me, I was jigging the Stingsilver when, BAM!, as Emeril would say, the reel began rapidly unwinding, depositing its monofilament line into the ocean at an impressive pace. This fish ran hard, albeit several orders of magnitude less than Chuck Norris. I got him close and saw the mirror like reflection in through the water.  “Hey, I got another albie!” I called to Byron, who was doing some jigging of his own on the starboard side. He took a quick look and said “No, that’s an Atlantic bonito.” “Bet it’s an albie” I responded. “Hey, I AM the Bonito Boy and I really think that’s what it is.” I soon settled the debate by removing a beautiful AB from the water. I admired the fish, realizing that it is truly worthy of its name. Bonito means beautiful in Spanish, and this fish was a fine example. “Do you want to keep it?” Byron inquired. “Keep it?” I asked. “Aren’t they nasty?” I asked. “No, they are quite delicious.You should take it home and grill it.” So I did. I repeated the catch in a few minutes and Byron bled the fish in preparation for cooking later. “Well, I learned something today.” I said to Byron. “What’s that?” he responded. “I guess you can eat-a a bonita!” I laughed.  Later, after my wife and I dined on her expertly prepared Atlantic Bonito dinner, I realized that Byron was indeed correct. My first experience with the Atlantic Bonito has moved me to wax poetic.

Bonito, bonito, my beautiful bonit

                                            You fight so hard and so tasty to eat

                                            So shiny and speedy, with stripes underneath

 And a great big mouthful of serrated teeth

                                             Bonito, bonito, my beautiful bonit!

                                                 ( my apologies to Deputy Fife)

bonita Jame April 2015_edited-1        bonita April 2015 teeth

  We headed back towards the Inlet, now riding calm seas and making good speed. As we neared the inlet, we noticed large numbers of feeding birds diving headlong into the water along a prominent tideline moving away from the inlet. Soon we were near enough to discern the small splashes characteristic of bluefish attacking bait on the surface. I was disappointed not to see any greenback beauties among the mayhem occurring at the surface. Realizing that I had not cast to a single fish all day, I quickly grabbed my fly rod and cast into the midst of the action. I finally hooked up a fish on my fly rod, though late in the day. I caught a couple of smallish blues before turning to Byron and suggesting we steer a course for home. It had been an interesting day, and the sea state ealier had left me feeling like I had gone ten rounds with Smokin’ Joe Frazier.  Bruised but unbowed, I stowed my rod and took a seat.

Birds Make fiding the fish MUCH easier!

Birds and flat water makes fiding the fish MUCH easier!

My affection for the false albacore remains unabated by the days events. If anything,my desire has enlarged manifold. I’ll be back in a few months, eager as ever to see my old love. I know she will be here, waiting for the gifts she knows I will lay at her feet.

 

 

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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.

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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.

 

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At Christmas, What Goes Around Comes Around

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!

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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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