The Tug is the Drug!

liam and daddy catch a redfish hobcaw 2018

 

“The tug is the drug!” This commonly repeated aphorism is often parroted when a non-fisherman questions the appeal of a sport that frequently requires hours of inactivity interrupted by short episodes of intense excitement. Though the phrase is quite hackneyed, it does convey the type of thrill a fisherman experiences when the strike finally happens. It is reminiscent of the treasure hunter who, after years of effort, is at last rewarded after unearthing an ancient trove of gold and silver.

I am familiar with the intoxicating sensation of a sudden bend of a rod and the dizzying spin of my reel when a fish makes an all-out effort to free itself from my fly.  It all became an addiction for me many years ago and has caused me to spend bank account depleting amounts of money acquiring unnecessarily complicated gear and far flung travel to remote and exotic locales in pursuit of esoteric species. Much like drug addiction, ever increasing stimulation became required to get my “fix.” Fortunately for me, I have a wife who supports my habit and even encourages my uncontrollable urges to catch more and bigger fish to reach the high I am constantly seeking.

 

As an aside, it is interesting to examine the neurophysiology of drug addiction. It appears that certain drugs cause the brain’s reward center to overproduce a substance known as dopamine. Dopamine, in turn, activates a part of the brain called the limbic system. It is the pleasure center of the brain, rewarding us for positive actions, such as drinking water when we are thirsty. Everyone knows how good a glass of ice cold water is after mowing the lawn in ninety degree heat, for example. Perhaps that is the reason these drugs are often referred to as “Dope”. It seems clear to me, at least, that fly fishing must stimulate the limbic system as well. Perhaps the brain is rewarding us for the positive action of obtaining food, even though we may not actually eat it. So perhaps “The tug is the drug” has some basis in science. This explanation may be completely inaccurate, but it does seem to fit with my own reality.

 

Now nearing seventy years of age, I am at that juncture in life at which Providence provides little ones with whom life adventures and experiences may shared. Few things stir my heart and soul like my grandchildren. Sharing fishing with my grandson has uncovered emotions from deep within my soul that I never realized were present. Lying dormant, concealed in the form of nucleotide base pairs somewhere along the strands of my DNA, they were simply waiting, waiting to be expressed by the appropriate environmental trigger. That trigger was my grandkids. First Presley, next Liam, then Madelyn. Presley, my oldest, is my artist and Madelyn is only two. Liam, some four years of age, seems destined to be my fishing buddy.

Liam, his Dad, my very good friend George, and I were blessed with the opportunity to do some winter angling for redfish recently. I had fervently hoped for not only fair weather, but great fishing as well. Obviously, holding a four year old’s attention requires a plentiful supply of cooperative fish. Whether these requirements would be met that day was soon to be revealed.

liam gets help from mr steve with a redfish  We stood beneath a bluebird sky as George attached a chartreuse jig to Liam’s line. Ben had selected an orange rod with a closed face spinning reel for Liam’s use, clearly in honor of his beloved Clemson Tigers, soon to become NCAA national champions. Liam wound up as if to throw a fifty yard pass, his small finger tight against the reels silver button. I nervously observed Liam’s technique as he let slip the jig toward the creek. Amazingly, the lure hit the water at the spot George had pointed out as most likely to hold fish be. Ben instructed him to let it sink and after a few seconds, he issued the command to wind. Liam complied and instantly was rewarded by a strike. He wound furiously, excitiedly repeating “I got one! I got one!” After an epic battle, Liam held a nice slot redfish up for all to see. It became difficult to tell who among us was most excited, and it was a close call as to who was proudest. The mandatory photographs were taken, all were smiling ear to ear, well, other than the redfish. As Ben released the red to its home, George looked at me and said, “I would not take a thousand dollars for that.” I replied, “And I would not take a thousand dollars for hearing you say that, my friend!”

liam first redfish with orange closed face spinning rod

liam and mr steve with blue tail redfish dec 2018

Casting and catching continued relentlessly.  Finally unable to resist trying my new Orvis fly rod I assembled it and attached my favorite redfish fly. This rod must be constructed of un-obtainium, as it cost five times more than my first car. I must admit, however, that is likely the best casting and most powerful rod I have yet to use. It delivered my fly to the redfish sweet spot in the creek and I counted to ten as the fly slowly sank to the strike zone. A single strip resulted in a redfish savagely attacking the fly. I set the hook and handed the rod to Liam. Though the rod is nine and a half feet long, he handled it with aplomb and soon landed a gorgeous redfish, much to my overwhelming delight.There was little doubt that now I was the proudest man there or anywhere on the planet for that matter. Photos worthy of an Orvis ad were taken and once more we returned the fish to the water, grateful for its cooperation. Fishing continued unabated as everyone caught my favorite Lowcountry fish, the magnificent redfish. We failed to keep accurate count, but George and I each reckoned that we had caught well over twenty redfish in a two-hour span.

liam first redfish on fly dec 2018

daddy watches liam catch a redfish dec 2018

It was a day that will live forever in my memory. Someday, Liam will read this article and perhaps in the misty recesses of his childhood memories, recall the day he caught redfish, both on fly and lures, with his father, his grandfather, and a very close friend. As for me, I learned that indeed, the tug IS the drug. But not the tug on the fishing string by a redfish. It’s the tug on my heart strings as I watched Liam catch redfish. I have this memory hidden away in my heart and reflect on it often.  It will give me comfort as I reach the age when I no longer accompany Liam to the water. When Liam gets older and I have teleported to a new plane of existence, one beyond time and space, where the fish bite just often enough, perhaps he will remember this day. Catch one for Pa, Liam!

liam and paredfishing at hobcaw dec 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Agony and the Ecstasy

Steve albie 2018

 

Memories of years gone by spurred my hopes and fueled my anticipation as George and I rumbled northward towards Morehead City, Cape Lookout, and the throngs of false albacore that take up temporary residence there each fall. My trusty Hewes flats boat, having served me for some twenty years now, trailed my Tahoe, ready to transport anxious anglers to the very gates of albie heaven. The trip was one I had made for more than twenty years now. My first encounter with the false albacore had ruined me. Whether it was their delightful aggressiveness to the fly or the powerful runs that belied their size, it just didn’t matter. Each fall, I begin to feel a strong magnetic pull northward from my home in Myrtle Beach. Like a compass, the needle swung unerringly towards Albie Land, and I was forced, zombie-like, to gather my gear and point the Tahoe northward. As I long ago had explained to my wife, these fish had robbed me of my free will. I am become an albie slave.

As we pulled into Morehead City, we looked for signs of the extensive damage wrought by Hurricane Florence. Evidence of the storm’s brute power was to be seen everywhere. Equally remarkable was the intensity of the city’s residents’ efforts to return to life as normal. Though a mere five weeks had passed since the storms full fury had punished the area as it punched its way inland, much had been done to repair ripped down buildings and decimated infrastructure. The small motel where I stay on Atlantic Beach, had much water damage to its eight rooms, but already they were back in service.

 

As we pulled into the parking lot, we saw our somewhat perturbed friend Joe, appearing to be asleep at the wheel of his bright red Ford F-150. “Where have you guys BEEN?” he inquired. “Sorry Joe, we had to make a couple of unscheduled prostate stops. Guys our age can only go so long before its bladder break time, you know!” After a brief laugh, we transferred George’s gear to Joe’s truck and they were off to a relative’s beach house while I remained at The Fisherman’s Inn, which features a convenient boat dock where the Hewes could rest overnight.

After a night’s repose, we loaded our gear into the Hewes as the earth rotated the sun into view. After the usual cold start issues with the stubborn Yamaha, we putt putted up the canal towards the channel leading to Beaufort Inlet, and Albieville beyond.  I was delighted to see that the “No Wake” signs that bring boats to a crawl for much of the journey to the ocean had graciously been removed courtesy of Florence.  So, after a careful check for any Coasties lying in wait to pounce on unsuspecting boaters, I gunned it, not wishing to waste a single albie catching opportunity. (I later learned that speeding through such a no wake zone is illegal, if it had been marked on official navigation charts, which this one had. I was lucky to avoid a fine, as not having a current chart aboard is not considered an excuse!) As it turned out, there was no rush to reach the Inlet. As we approached, a confused mass of water swirled and rolled to and fro. I felt strong currents spin and twist the eighteen foot long hull of the Hewes. “Boys, we are executing a one eighty here and heading inside to safer waters.” As I timed my turns to avoid the worst of the rollers, I could see large white tops crashing in the open waters beyond the inlet. George and Joe let out a collective “Whew!” as we reached calmer waters- and so did I!

Having fished only for albies, the inside waters were unknown to me. We slowly chugged about, careful to avoid the many shallows while searching for likely holding spots for trout or redfish. Several hours of looking proved fruitless, other than one smallish trout and a sizable lizardfish. “Let’s call it guys” suggested George. With no dissent from Joe or myself, we made for Fisherman’s Inn.

Birdland Morehead City 2018

Ever optimistic, as fishermen must be, we headed out the following morning, greeted by calm seas and little wind. We laid in a course for “The Hook” at Cape Lookout, flying over mostly flat seas. George’s extensive pre-trip research indicated the most consistent early morning fishing had been experienced at the Hook, so we hopefully scanned every corner of the small bay that lays in front of the famous Cape Lookout Lighthouse. To our disgust, we spotted not a single splash of albies crashing bait. We saw no birds, a dead giveaway that albies are about. We saw only a few similarly disappointed anglers.  So, we fired up the now cooperative engine and ventured out of the hook. We drove around aimlessly, eager to spot birds diving into pods of happily feeding albies, but found none.  Ultimately, George pulled out his cell phone and placed a call to a friend who was also chasing albies that day. John reported that a few pods had been spotted out in front of Atlantic Beach, eight to ten miles from our present location. I fired up the Yammie and jammed the throttle to the limit of the stop and we headed west.  Once in the vicinity, John and his wife were spotted in their lovely Jones center console. I pulled alongside for a brief conversation. They related that they had had no casting opportunities and were heading  back east to Harkers Island, completely frustrated. We soldiered on for a few hours, but never saw a single bit of activity. Reluctantly, we cruised back toward the inlet remaining hopeful for a close encounter of the albie type. It was now 1PM and I had become concerned about our fuel state. My fuel gauge, supposedly replaced at last service was non operational. I suggested to Joe and George that we should run in, refuel, then try again with full tanks.

Once fully laden with fuel, we returned to the inlet, preparing to enter open ocean. Just then, the engine overheat warning buzzer went off. Puzzled, I shut the engine down. Noting that the tell tale was “peeing” very well, I next checked the oil reservoir. It contained sufficient oil, but as a precautionary move, I added a bit more. Once more starting the engine, I immediately heard the buzzer. “ I am confused guys” I commented to George and Joe. Heavy boat traffic filled the inlet and a few very large offshore boats blew past us, raising frightening sized wakes. “Let’s see if we can make up to that channel marker and tie off till we figure this out” I suggested. I cautiously increased the throttle in an effort to make way against the tide, now running hard to sea. With the overheat warning buzzer screaming in my ear, I advanced the throttle enough to get to the marker. The engine began running roughly and I had visions of complete engine failure, leaving us to the mercy of the swift tide and putting my little flats boat directly in harms way from the big boy sportsfishers as well as the many freighters making their way to the shipping channel. Mercifully, George was able to extend an arm and grab a tieoff ring on the channel marker. I tossed him a rope and he made our little craft fast to the marker. We were safe for now, though I wondered how we might handle a large wake. I asked George to let out a bit more line. Once more, we all simultaneously said “Whew!”

As captain, I make the safety of my passengers my first priority. This is a lesson I had learned a few years previously, right here in Morehead City. But that’s another story altogether. I pondered our mechanical situation, unsure what to do to correct it. After deciding there was no easy way to restore power, I made a command decision to call Sea Tow for rescue. In the two plus decades I have had this insurance, I had never called on them, but now was the time. As I dialed the number, I was grateful that we were in excellent cell phone range, and that I had decided to renew my membership a month or so earlier. I made the call, and within thirty minutes, the pleasant young Sea Tow captain arrived on scene and cast us a tow line. I was a happy camper, as were my companions!

towed in at MHC 2018 edited

With the disabled boat secured to its trailer, I pondered our next move. Should we declare victory, turn tail, and head home without a single albie to our credit? Should we attempt to hire a last minute guide for tomorrow, realizing that the “good guides” would have all been booked by this very late date? I approached Al, the amicable owner and operator of The Fisherman’s Inn. He indicated that he knew a guide whom he held in utmost regard and gave him a call. As fortune would have it, Captain Justin Ragsdale was indeed free the next day and agreed to have his boat at the dock at 7 AM. I thanked Al and informed Joe and George of our good fortune.

As promised, Justin arrived at the dock at 6:55 AM, fully fueled and ready to get after some albies.  After introductions, we made our way past the no wake zone and into the slowly rising sun. We kept an easterly course and soon arrived at the Trawler Buoy. To our delight, we encountered a few scattered pods of albies feasting on masses of anchovies. Unfortunately for us, these were “up and down” fish. They flashed through the bait, disappearing before we could even initiate a cast with our fly rods. In a matter of minutes, they were gone and we stared at an empty ocean. Justin decided that a change of venue was necessary and we all agreed. He Fired up the huge Yamaha four stroke and we began the trek to the area of the Sea Buoy, some ten miles offshore of Atlantic Beach. I felt of mixture of hope, desperation, and fear as we steamed west. My fear was that we would again be denied the object of our quest- our beloved albie! The weather was finally absolutely perfect with sunny skies and no discernible wind. Best of all, the dirty, muddy water produced by Hurricane Florence we had seen closer to the beach had now given way to a clean, clear ocean. As we closed in to the target area, I began to see surface splashes, at first a few, then they seemed to be everywhere. Justin slowed the boat then switched off the engine. “See that red blob over there- on the port side of the boat? That is a school of about a hundred thousand anchovies.” “Where are the albies?” inquired George. Justin wasted no time in answering. “Don’t you worry! They will find this bait very soon. They will go after the anchovies attacking over and over until every last piece of bait has been consumed. Just get your fly rods ready.” Joe and George took up their respective stations fore and aft. No sooner than they had stripped out a casting length of fly line each, the albies made their attack. Water turned to froth as the voracious fish hurled themselves through the bait school, anchovies and remnants of anchovies flying three feet into the still morning air. Terns wheeled above and began divebombing these leftovers. It was complete chaos! I chuckled in delight as my friends cast their homemade flies into the melee. Each was instantly rewarded by strikes.

Joe albie 2018

james albie 2018_edited-1

The scene was repeated over and over for the entirety of the day. Albies are a saltwater fly fisherman’s idea of perfection. They are present in vast numbers and are stunningly aggressive. They eat flies with total abandon. And it is a completely visual experience. Once hooked, these speedsters can tear away from the boat at speeds of forty miles per hour! The fly line disappears almost instantly and immediately the backing peels off at alarming rates. Good quality gear and well tied knots are a must. These fish will certainly put equipment to the test! Albies will also tax the fisherman physically. An average of ten to twenty minutes of anaerobic effort is required to bring them to hand depending on how hard you wish to push your expensive fly rods. The first run of an albie might be a hundred and fifty to even two hundred yards long. Once the angler has manhandled the fish to the boat, most explode into a second, albeit much shorter run. Typically when the fish nears the boat after that second run, it begins the tuna spiral, sounding  as it makes concentric circles while vigorously shaking its torpedo shaped body. This imparts an impressive vibration to the rod. The fisherman then must lift it from the depths, regaining line with each pump of the rod. It is at this point in the fight that many rods are broken. Too often, anglers grab the upper portion of the butt section of the rod in an effort to ease the load on their tired shoulders. This results in negating the lifting power inherent in the thick butt section and a loud snap as the graphite explodes into a bundle of expensive shreds.

The final day of fishing was a stark contrast to the previous two days. In all, we brought to hand over twenty albies! We experienced many double hookups, and nearly had a triple. Great weather, great fish, and best of all great friends make for a trip that will provide lifelong memories. We were quite discouraged after the events of the first two days, but, as Yogi Berra famously said- “It ain’t over till it’s over!”

Michelangelo suffered in agony as he lay on his back on rough wooden scaffolds while painting one of the greatest masterpieces in history, the magnificent ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. He toiled for some four years creating the incredible paintings we still enjoy today. Many viewers of his work are simply ecstatic as they behold his genius. Joe, George, and I toiled for a mere three days to create our own version of ecstasy- a day of albie fishing which will be enjoyed on Sistine Ceilings of our minds for the remainder of our days.

michelangelo-tarpon-sistine chapel

 

 

 

 

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Life and Death on the Flats of Sandy Point

A dark gray, nearly black, torpedo appeared without warning in the shallow water near the edge of the flat. As if dispatched by some unseen submarine lurking in the deeper water, it tracked unerringly toward the bonefish. It was not just any  bonefish, it was MY bonefish, struggling to free itself from the sharp steely sickle now fast to its jaw. Deceived by the array of hair and sparkle which had been affixed to the fly, the bonefish now faced double jeopardy. Death dealing teeth attached to one end of a highly efficient killing machine were moments away, while a behemoth wielding a graphite stick terminating in twelve pound flourocarbon applied as much force as he dared in an effort to extract the fish from the path of the onrushing annihilation.

The massive wave created by the impact of my wading shoes as I hurried to rescue my imperiled bonefish resulted in a mini-tsunami, much to the chagrin of my guide and my fishing companion Steve, some two hundred yards distant, engaged in the pursuit of a fish of their own. For my part, I remained laser focused on saving my bonefish from its demise at the hands, or more correctly, the teeth, of the famished shark. I shouted in vain at the shark, now setting about its deadly business of bisecting my bonefish for its mid-day meal.

sharks tries to eat my bonefish 2018

“no!No! NO!” I admonished the shark, its mouth now engulfing the fish up to its dorsal fin. I reached the scene at the last possible moment and vigorously slapped the shark with the tip of my rod in an effort to discourage it. This shark, however, was not so easily frightened off, so I quickly exchanged ends of the rod, expecting eminently to see the water turn to blood. Suddenly, the shark turned tail, having had enough of being beaten severely about its head and shoulders. To my amazement, the bonefish swam lazily away, sans a blood trail. I felt no remorse about having intervened in a natural predator/prey interaction, as it was I who precipitated the entire affair.

As I watched the bonefish mill about, the realization that the fish was still attached to my fly, tippet, and fly line gradually solidified in my somewhat shaken head. Just then, the exhausted bone swam towards me, coming to rest between my neoprene shod feet, as a puppy might do. I could almost hear it say “I have had a tough day.’ “How about a break?” I bent over and gingerly removed the fly, taking care not to remove the fish from the water. I watched it make its way to safety and noticed the scrapes on the after part of its body. “Lucky fish” I thought. “Neptune has his eyes on you today.”

bonefish shark attack between my feet

bonefish and reel sandy point southside 2018 edited

bonefish shark attack scar

This had been the second bonefish versus shark encounter I had witnessed that morning. Earlier, as I roamed the same expansive flat, I encountered several schools of bones nervously picking at crustaceans and worms on the sandy tan bottom. I even managed to persuade several to pay me a brief visit after inhaling what they perceived as easy to catch shrimp, or whatever it is a bonefish thinks my fly may be. Between releases I looked around me and whispered a prayer of thanksgiving to The Creator. How magnificent He must be, able to bring into existence such an incredible place and its complex systems of interrelated  creatures, all with just a thought. I count myself fortunate to experience His handiwork firsthand, up close and in all its splendor. As I pondered God’s infiniteness and my inability to grasp His unseen presence across the universe, I saw a bonefish swimming for its very life. The bone raced across the flat, a shark as desperate to catch it as the bonefish was to escape. The bone veered right, now making a perfect circle across the sandy sea bottom.A second shark joined in the chase. It was over in a nano-second. The water, now crimson with bone blood, was flung violently into the warm air as the sharks enjoyed bonefish sashimi. It was quite a ruckus to behold. As quickly as it began, the entire scene returned to normal and the sharks resumed their patrol. As I considered the event I just observed, it occurred to me that I was standing on the saltwater version of the Serengeti Plain. The lemon sharks, much like lions, occupy the role as the apex predator in this environment. The bonefish, similar to the gazelles, serve their role as prey, relying on their speed to escape predation and propagate their species. Cruel though it may appear, predation serves to further evolution, selecting those creatures possessing the greatest speed and fitness to pass their genetic material to the next generation. I am not certain if this was The Circle of Life, but it was clearly The Circle of Death for this particular fish. I find comfort in taking the long view that what I saw was indeed evolution in action, enhancing the quality of the species living on the Saltwater Serengeti.

Foots guide at SAndy Point 2018 edited

“Foots”, out guide, directed Steve and I to reboard the Hewes and whisked us away to the next flat. Here the water was so deeply turquoise in color that it was nearly blinding. Beneath its blue topaz surface lay legions of bonefish, barracuda, as well as the omnipresent sharks. Goodly numbers of bonefish were located in short order and we brought a few to hand for inspection. They were quickly released to add to their gene pool. We spied an especially large cuda and I tossed my Woodchopper lure in its direction. This menacing looking lure is used primarily in the jungle rivers of South America for large peacock bass. It comes armed with three sets of six-aught treble hooks and sports noise generating propellers on each end. I began having some success with this lure after the cudas started systematically rejecting the old standbys such as tube lures.I made my presentation hopefully. The fish, in a most un-predator like fashion, shrank from the lure. I made a number of casts at the beast, hoping to entice this fine specimen of some four feet. No such luck!

woodchopper

The cuda repeatedly avoided the lure, so I wound it in, attached one of its manifold hooks to a guide foot ( No, not Foots’ foot!) and very carefully returned to its place in the rod holder. The Mercury fired up after a slight groan and we steamed to yet another slice of tropical paradise in search of Mr. Bonefish.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0017.JPG

By now, the tide had reached its zenith, pushed even higher by persistent westerly winds. In this particular location, winds out of the west tend to not only increase tidal movement, but to prolong its duration as well. When the water covers the inner complex of mangroves, the bones scurry deep within the maze of tangled roots and assorted plant life, seeking shelter from those who would aim to do them harm. For those of us whose quest is a momentary encounter and connection with the power and grace of these mirror sided speedsters, the day is then done. Foots silently poled off the flat and pointed the bow towards Sandy Point.

Southside flat from boat 2018

The return voyage included passing through a very deep pocket of blue water that exceeds three hundred and fifty feet in depth. This piece of water extends to within a few hundred yards of the shoreline. We were astonished to see flying fish sailing alongside out eighteen foot flats boat, a phenomenon I have observed only far out at sea in large sportfishing vessels. Foots said that local fishermen had been catching dolphin, tuna, wahoo, and other species considered pelagic at that very spot.

As we returned to the shallows, Foots veered into a small creek. The creek made a hard turn to port near its mouth. As we rounded the curve, we faced a very shallow sand bar blocking further access to the creek’s deeper reaches. As I peered across it, I made out one of my favorite sights- small schools of bonefish tailing vigorously on the other side. These fish were unable to cross the bar, though several made the attempt. Testing the skinny water, they swam up onto the bar, whereupon I cast my offerings of fur and tinsel. I caught several in this manner. There is nothing more satisfying in all of fishing than to find tailling fish, then at their wariest, and successfully making the precise yet delicate presentation required to catch them. Soon, I climbed clumsily back into the boat and we once more set a course for home.

As we ran, I glanced down at my exposed arms, wishing that I had worn a long sleeved shirt. I saw no sun damage, but I was suddenly struck by how wrinkled and age spotted my skin has become. I thought to myself “Boy, I am getting OLD! I am a grandfather now! I have no concept what plan God has for me, but I must somehow live long enough to share this experience with my grandchildren.”  After some twenty five years of travelling to Sandy Point, I realized that the sands were relentlessly pouring through hourglass of my life. I am not sure how many more years I have left to enjoy my favorite activity, but I am more determined than ever to ensure that I will be there to see my progeny experience this amazing place.

Once back at the lodge, Foots expertly slowed the boat as the bow gently kissed the beach. Steve and I exited the boat, removing our gear and presenting Foots with the customary tip. As this was our last fishing day, we exchanged our farewells. Foots departed for his home and family while Steve and I trudged up to the water hose to clean our equipment in preparation for packing. After showers, we enjoyed a fabulous dinner of cracked conch, then retiring to the rooftop “lounge” where we took in another Sandy point sunset.

Steve and I took a prolonged breakfast the morning of our departure, each enjoying an extra cup of coffee. As the grits and bacon settled in our bellies, Steve walked up the outside steps to finalize his packing. I decided to take a last long look at the waters I knew I would dram about until I managed to get back to Abaco Island. I traced the short distance to the beach, perhaps thirty yards away. As I glanced left, I noticed something. A few people quickly gathered about fifty yards away. I made my way to the spot and was totally shocked by what I saw. A lifeless body lay washed up on the beach. Rigor had made it clear that this man had been floating face down. When it was turned upright, the body’s arms were fixed outstretched from the chest, as if it were initiating a sit up. Thankfully, the sharks and cudas had not found the corpse, as it showed no evidence of attack. The constable was called and arrived soon thereafter. It turns out that a visiting fishing boat had left Sandy Point some twenty or so hours earlier, The leading theory at the time was a fisherman had simply fallen overboard and was not missed. Personally, I fear some darker workings resulted in this man’s demise.

Death is part of life, even more certain than the morning sunrise. Sand continues to run through the hourglasses of our lives, though we are unable to see how many grains remain. I have heard it said that the most cruel curse of all is to know the hour of your own death. Perhaps this is true. Thankfully, I have no knowledge of my day of death, only that it is inevitable. However, I do know this- I hold bonefish and the places they live close to my heart, but I hold my family much closer. As i consider exactly how to best utilize the time I have left to fullest advantage, my guiding principle will always be my family and sharing with them the things which bring me joy. I’ll return to Sandy Point and can hardly wait to witness my family’s reaction to the things God has brought into being in my favorite places.

When I leave this world behind me

to another I will go

If there are no bonefish in heaven

I’ll be going down below

( apologies to Mark Knopfler)

 

 

 

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The First of Many

Liam first fish

Like any grandfather who is also a fisherman, I fervently hope my grandson Liam develops an interest in angling. Though I harbor the same wish for my two granddaughters, my experience has demonstrated that granddaughters seem less interested in fishy pursuits than grandsons, an observation borne out by many of my friends and fellow grandfathers. One buddy in particular, who is happens to be the best fisherman I have ever met (and that is saying something), has yearned for a grandson with whom he can share his passion and his lifetime’s accumulation of hard won knowledge. He is currently the grandfather of some half dozen granddaughters. He enjoys each one, but thus far, not a single girl has expressed any interest in anything remotely outdoors oriented. When we discuss my aspirations for young Liam, he often asks, with a wry smile, if he might borrow him as a surrogate grandson. I have no sons but am blessed to have one of my daughters become an outdoors person. She is an enthusiastic fisherman (or is fisherperson more correct?) in addition to being a Huntress of deer and the occasional upland bird.

Liam’s dad has a strong love of fishing, particularly the offshore style. Since Liam has first been able to hold a fishing rod, his father has encouraged the fishing bug to bite Liam by casting a small rod into the pond behind their house, in hopes of connecting to a bass or bluegill that he could land. To this point, these efforts have been fruitless. For his part, Liam remains fascinated by the rod and reel. He continues his efforts to master casting and is making some progress. Each time he visits me, he asks to go sit in the boat with me. Once he is ensconced in the captain’s seat, he gives the wheel a few turns, then looks at me and proclaims “We go fishing now, Pa!”  I think my dreams may well become reality soon.

Recently, Liam had a fishing opportunity on a local creek dock with his dad and his other grandfather. Using the old standby Zebco, Dad baited up the hook and dropped it into the muddy water of the creek.  After a brief waiting period, the rod quivered slightly. A small pinfish had taken the bait and now struggled to regain its freedom. Dad handed the rod to Liam and he pulled the fish in. Upon seeing his first catch, he seemed to deem it unworthy of being his landmark first fish, and in a demonstration of all he had learned about casting, Liam brought his rod back overhead and cast the hapless pinfish back into the creek, presumably to use his prize as bait for a proper fish! Mom and Dad quickly stepped in and retrieved the pinfish for the mandatory photo op. As Dad held the fish, Liam did his best Jimmie Houston impression by planting a big kiss on the fish’s lips! I am just glad he did not land a barracuda!

liam fish kiss

We will be taking Liam to Disney World very soon, and I am greatly anticipating seeing him react to the wonders awaiting him in the Land of the Mouse, but not nearly so much as the sweet anticipation of watching as he casts perfect loops to a tailing redfish on the flats at McClellanville. Maybe I should start building his fly rod now….

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A Dickens of a Day

redfish multiple tails

 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was a time of multitudes of fish; it was a time of no fish. It was a time of hope; it was a time of despair. It was a time of satisfaction; it was a time of frustration.

Ecclesiastes tells us that for everything under heaven there is a season. There is a time to for all our human activities and existence. This seems to be true even in fly fishing. There is a time for fishing and there is a time for catching. My recent trip to McClellanville brought the words of both Solomon and Dickens to living reality for me and my steadfast old friend Mike.

The day began, as most fishing days, filled with anticipation and optimism. In stark contrast, my recent trips had been filled with frustration. I seem to have been afflicted with what I refer to as “Fisherman’s Block.” It is the sporting equivalent of another of my maladies- writer’s block. Sometimes even the best writers sit for hours staring blankly into a computer screen, unable to coherently connect even two words, much less a plot. My theory is that fishermen have similar episodes when they suddenly seem incapable of connecting fly to a fish’s mouth. Today seemed such a day.

The weather was as good as it gets, unlike me. Mike, selfless friend that he is, pushed the boat over the flat with an eighteen foot long graphite rod as I stood scanning the water for redfish sign- a tail, a push of water, the fin of a cruising fish, even a ripple, or the subtle movement of spartina grass as a redfish pushes past it.

I was rewarded in short order by one of my favorite sights- a redfish tail swaying in the salty air. Mike expertly poled the boat into easy casting range without disturbing the merrily dining redfish. I took careful aim and discharged a cast towards the fish. It fell much too far to the left of the fish. I reloaded and shot once more. This effort dropped too far right of target. The line was retrieved and I readied yet a third cast, but too late as the fish had now disappeared, moving on to locate another crustacean lunch special. I was disappointed by my poor performance, but as we moved along, I had numerous shots at redemption. Each presentation seemed worse than the preceding one. We saw somewhere around fifteen tailing redfish in short order, but I now seemed to have never even cast a fly rod, so inept were my offerings. I implored Mike to come down off the platform and demonstrate his always impressive skills, so as not to allow these manifold opportunities to go for naught. He declined, insisting I continue until the spell had been broken.

I failed to connect the dots that day in every conceivable way, maybe some inconceivable ways. The one fish that haunts me even now was a smallish redfish, slowly swimming parallel to the boat’s path, stopping occasionally to go head down and tail up in pursuit of its quarry. It was uncomfortably close to the boat.  I feared the smallest shift of my feet would send the fish bolting away. Yet, I managed three casts without spooking it before the redfish turned its head towards my fly and the boat, not more than twelve feet away. I stripped the fly and saw the fish’s mouth open around the fly. Like a rank novice, I over reacted and pulled the fly out of its mouth in an effort to insure a firm hook set. I hung my head and expected Mike to make me walk the plank, abandoned to my fate on the flats while he sped off to another spot to catch a few reds himself. But, he did no such thing, instead encouraging me to continue my quest.

It does seem to be true that such drubbings may be key to preventing fishing from becoming boring. Days such as these force me to become a better and more patient fisherman. It keeps me returning to the flats, determined to enhance my skills and demonstrate my improvement, mainly to myself.  Despite my deep disappointment in myself, I felt even more ashamed of letting my friend Mike down. I am indeed fortunate to have a friend who is willing to overlook my failings.

Now when is the next high tide??

 

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The Old Man and the Creek

redfish driftwood 2 James Sept 2012

Just getting out of bed wasn’t going to be easy. Every last joint in his aged body ached with the first rays of the October sun. Butter colored shafts of light  were sliding through his eastern facing window and across his age spotted face, now covered with three days of whitish face-hair. Each uncombed wisp of his silver hair seemed to value its independence and had sought its own direction, making him look a little like Einstein, he thought, as his countenance reflected blurrily into his as yet un-spectacled eyes.

“You might as well stay home and watch the History Channel,” remarked his wife, now gathering herself over the old gas stove to cook up some coffee for them both. The Old Man raised the thick ceramic mug to his dry lips. The liquid it contained was the color of coal- and tasted just like he imagined coal powder dissolved in water might. “Good brew today, dear,” he slyly said, the tiny curl of a smile forming at one corner of his mouth as he thought that “brew” had been a clever word selection.  “You know you’ll catch nothing except maybe a cold out there today,” his wife said. “Well, I need to be in The Maker’s world today. I’m not getting any younger sitting in front of the tube.” “Oh, all right then. Just be sure you have your cell phone with you- and don’t forget to put it in a plastic baggie!” she commanded.

He sat very still. His father’s ancestral baitcaster rested firmly in the Old Man’s right hand. Somewhere on the bottom of the creek lay a chunk of cut mullet, its aromas, like the coffee his wife had prepared earlier, spreading silently across the tide. He surveyed his surroundings. Deep green spartina grass stood in thick array in every direction, save the unruffled surface of the creek. He noticed the periwinkle snails that had scaled the slender stalks of spartina to escape the hungry blue crabs scurrying around on the mud flats below them. “Don’t worry, Mr. Snail, “he whispered to the hordes of white shelled invertebrates, “Mr. Redfish will be along soon to make a dandy snack of those pesky crustaceans.” He observed legions of fiddlers their one oddly disproportionate claw raised to a defensive position rush to and fro between piles of perfectly round previously sifted mud. They displayed their daytime colors now- dark in sunlight but light at night. It seemed counterintuitive to the Old Man. Nature remained an unending source of fascination for him and made the long periods of waiting for his line to move entirely enjoyable.

The ancient rod tip quivered, then made a series of bounces. The Old Man redirected his gaze from the marsh’s inhabitants to the now rapidly disappearing line. “See, Old Woman! The magic still works!” He raised the rod to the cloudless azure sky now. Feeling the increased resistance, the redfish hit his turbocharger and accelerated rapidly down the narrow creek towards the bay.  “I better slow this big boy down a little before he spools me,” the Old Man thought to himself. He lowered the rod tip, then, as if turning a tarpon, pulled it to his right. Just then, the fish surged, forcing the rod to strike the gunwale of his battered aluminum boat. POW! The rod snapped, and as it did, the spool overran, creating a monstrous knot of twenty pound monofilament. The fish pressed on, now switching on full afterburners. The Old Man watched in horror, helpless to prevent the knot from its inevitable collision with the tip top of the rod. Suddenly, the top section of the rod parted company with the lower section as the knot snapped the line and ripped the upper rod half into the water. The Old Man watched as the rod tip trailed along the surface of the muddy water, now in tow by the redfish, or whatever it was. “Could have been a shark.” He thought as he fired up the tired Johnson outboard. It took five pulls, but at last it came to life, sputtering in protest. He put all five horsepower to work as he followed the rod tip. He hoped to retrieve both rod tip and fish once he caught up.

The tip section, along with the fish, slowed now and finally came to a halt. The fish rested as the Old Man contemplated an appropriate course of action. The rod, with its bird nested line and missing section, was essentially useless. He looked quickly around the johnboat and his eyes came to rest on a spool of fifty pound mono. It was wound around one of those larger spools that has a large central opening. An idea materialized from the ether. He rummaged around and located a box of weights. With one eye on the still floating, and still stationary rod tip, he tied four of these in a non slip mono knots. Now he had a new fishing rig- what Cubans call a Yo-Yo. The theory was simple- toss the Yo-Yo line around the rod tip, then pul it to him, and bring the fish to his hand.

The practice was not so simple however. By now whatever creature was fast to the other end began to make slow movement to and fro, as though it might have returned to seeking its next meal. The Old Man was worried that misses might spook the fish into bolting, but he hoisted the weights, swinging them vertically, like a South American cowboy might throw a bolas. After three or four misses, he found this was not so. Finally, after multiple attempts, the line fell across the rod and even managed to encircle it twice. A wide grin now filled his face and he slowly pulled the line towards himself and his boat.

Inch by inch, the Old Man worked the fish back. The redfish , realizing it was restrained once more, began to resist harder. It bulldogged and even shook its head in an unredfish-like manner. This made the Old Man think maybe it really was something other than the redfish he sought. The water was fairly clear in late October, most of the algae killed off by the recent cold snap. As he forced the fish to his will, the Old Man could now see that it was indeed a redfish. And what a redfish. He was treated to a closeup inspection when he had the fish boat side and was astounded by the size of this specimen. He estimated it to be over thirty five inches- a giant of unusual mass this far up a creek. With the heavyweight at the gunwale, the Old Man reached for a tape measure. He thought he would measure it alongside the boat since this one was significantly over the slot limit. He suddenly recalled that he had left his phone, and its camera, in his pickup at the ramp, neatly enclosed in a double plastic baggie. “That all right. At least I can measure it.” He comforted himself.

Someone else had noticed all the commotion caused by the fight. It was the Man in the Brown Suit- a bull shark of about six feet. His sensitive nares tracked the distress pheromones released by the redfish and the shark was now coming, torpedo-like straight at the redfish lying alongside the boat. The Old Man saw only a huge splash of water and blood as the hungry shark devoured the redfish in a single great flash of teeth and fury. The Old Man was grateful he had not yet put his hands and the tape measure in the water.

“I told you wouldn’t catch anything,” said the Old Woman as she stirred the pots containing dinner for the couple. “You could have saved yourself all that trouble, not mention the gas, and stayed here. Maybe made yourself useful by cutting the grass today!”

“Wonder what’s on the history channel tonight?” asked the Old Man. A small smile formed at one corner of his mouth.

 

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No See Gar!

wee tee lake

The day’s quest seemed simple enough. First, we determined to catch a few largemouth from a very remote oxbow lake Mike had fished a few times in the remote past. The location of this particular lake is, in fact, so remote as to necessitate the use of a GPS. Mike’s internal GPS, typically amazingly reliable, seemed to uncharacteristically fade in and out, like an old television with rabbit ears. We struggled to force the GPS unit in his new vehicle into submission, and ultimately were rewarded by the sight of this hidden, fish filled angling nirvana. At least that is what we had anticipated.

 

We quickly let the small electric boat slip into the dark water and boarded, arranging our gear in anticipation of achieving our secondary goal for the day- catching one of the lake’s numerous gar. Regarded as undesirable, most anglers do not pursue these exceedingly common fish. The species is considered ancient, with fossils dating from the Cretaceous period. They, like tarpon, sport swim bladders that are able to function as primitive lungs, causing them to frequently rise to the surface and gulp air, especially in poorly oxygenated waters. They can grow to amazing size, with some sub-species reaching nearly ten feet and one hundred pounds.  They are said to be strong fighters, sometimes leaping into the air while battling the angler. I hoped to see for myself and to add gar to my life list of species captured on a fly. My minnow imitation was affixed to the business end of a six weight fly rod lying at the ready in the bow of the boat. In my right hand was a light spinning rod armed with a plastic worm for unsuspecting bass.

gar fossil

Gar Fossil

Leaden skies seemed to inch slowly toward out little boat as we cast repeatedly around blowdowns and tree bases populating the lake’s edges. Bites were hard to get, so we made frequent lure changes. In the center of the lake, we observed many gar breaking the surface and submerging, creating telltale splashes and ringlets. “This overcast sky makes spotting the gar in time for a cast an almost impossibility” remarked Mike. “I had hoped that we would have good sun, and detect them from enough distance to be to make a cast with the fly rod.”  As we worked along, searching out the occasional bass, I was startled by the simultaneous appearance and disappearance, of several gar right by my station on the bow.  There was not enough time to grab the fly rod, much less to make a cast. I was tantalized by the large spotted tails as the fish thrust themselves towards the deeper water.  Our fishing day was complicated by the occasional errant cast, resulting in a lure stuck in a tree branch. After successful retrieval of my lure on one such occasion, my baseball cap was suddenly snatched from my head by a limb. We scanned the area for it, knowing it would be floating, making recapture a simple task. To our surprise, it not on the water, or in the boat. Puzzled, we backed away from the bank, and then we saw it, suspended on a tree limb, just like my lure!

wee tee hat in tree_edited-1

Hat Trick!

A freshening breeze and darkening skies prompted me to comment that I thought rain was inbound. Looking skyward, Mike agreed and within minutes we were being pelted by heavy raindrops. As neither of us had brought a raincoat, instead trusting the Weather Channel forecast, we made for a relatively protected spot under some low trees whose branches reached out over the water. This proved futile and we soon returned to our journey, now being forced to bail rainwater from our little craft. Our enthusiasm, unlike our clothing and skin, remained undampened and we slowly moved to the next spot, continuing to hold out hope for a fly caught gar, despite that now being extremely unlikely.

fishing tee wee with Mike_edited-1

Angling Dedication on Display!

Though bass fishing remained unusually slow and gar fishing now impossible, we were treated to the sight of a number of nature’s creatures. Among the branches of a blown over tree, Mike spotted a Prothonotary Warbler, its bright yellow feathers resembling something straight out of a tropical rainforest. Dozens of medium sized alligators prowled the surface of the lake, eyes barley above the waterline.  We continued to see quite a few gar, but poor light prevented me from presenting a fly to one of these swimming dinosaurs.

pro warbler_edited-1

A tropical bird in the swamp?

Darkness was rapidly covering the lake and we made flank speed for the landing as the sun’s last rays petered out against the irregular treeline to our west.  We will not require a GPS when next we visit this lake, neither will we neglect to bring raincoats!

 

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