Despite the fact that I have been a very serious flats fisherman for all too many years now, I still occasionally find sleeping difficult the night prior to a trip. Even though today’s trip was a short one to the redfish laden flats of McClellanville, I was already into cup number two of coffee at 4 AM. My eyes had sprung open at 3:30 AM and I , like the proverbial child on the night before Christmas, was unable to do the sensible thing and get some more shuteye ahead of the trip. I had spent the better part of the previous day making preparations. I carefully selected my flies, assembled my rods and reels, affixed new leaders to the lines and laid out my gear. As I did so, I looked lovingly at my paleolithic wading shoes, a faithful old pair of Orvis flats booties. They had served me well for many years. We had shared uncountable days together, wandering over flats from Mexico to Andros to the Keys , and finally back on my home flats here in South Carolina. My mind began to replay some of the wonderful memories of redfish, bonefish, and even permit, whose capture these shoes had made possible. With some remorse, I examined the large rips, tears, and gaping holes in their sides, realizing that they had now made the ultimate sacrifice for my fishing pleasure. I felt, at least a bit, like the hunter who is forced to put down his old, sick hunting dog and beloved companion. I briefly considered using them just once more, for old times sake, but instead walked smartly to the rubbish container and cast them inside. I never looked back.
Right on time at six fifteen, a white SUV , an olive drab flats boat tucked behind it, pulled into the local McDonald’s where Mike and I had arranged to meet. I had arrived early, enjoyed a breakfast of pancakes,then waited in my Tahoe.We had decided the night before to leave my vehicle at a local home improvement store parking lot in order to facilitate Mike’s return to his office once the fishing day had ended. So, I went ahead in my Tahoe, while Mike followed with the boat. After only a few minutes, my cell phone rang. Mike explained that he had heard a loud bang, and assumed that a trailer tire had blown. When he pulled into a parking lot, he discovered that the flat was actually on his vehicle. We were determined to catch the morning tide, so elected to switch the boat to my Tahoe, and attend the deflated tire upon our return from the flats in the early afternoon.
The remainder of the trip was uneventful. I had the radio on an oldies station, and we listened to the gravelly voiced Janis Joplin belting out her classic blues tune “Me and Bobby McGee”. “Busted flat in Baton Rouge” she sang as we motored down highway 17, the coastal road reaching ribbon like ahead of us over the monotonously level ground.
Conditions were near ideal that morning. We launched the skiff without incident, and set our course for our favorite flat. There was little wind, which made the ride quite comfortable. On occasion, the wind can kick up even these inshore waters a bit, resulting in a bone rattling experience in a lightweight flats boat on the journey to the redfish strongholds we fish. Today, however, the water was as flat as the land we had traversed earlier. After a pleasant ride, we found ourselves at what we hoped would once more be redfish nirvana. Mike deposited me at my “Most Likely to Succeed” spot, and sped off to his own. The tide was coming up nicely, and I turned towards the heart of the island, my eyes straining to locate the tell-tale signs of feeding reds- tails wafting gently in the air as they till the soil of the flat in search of crabs, wakes from their movements, or that delightful coppery color glinting in the morning sun. I walked along slowly, my knee creaking and paining despite a significant dose of oral steroids that morning. “At least I can’t walk fast enough to make sufficient noise to frighten the fish off”, I thought as I continued my march. The brand new replacement flats shoes were comfortable enough, but after a while, my feet began to become a bit achy. These shoes are built to protect the wearer’s feet from sharp shells, coral, rocks, and other hazards found in these shallow marine environments. The totally flat soles provide absolutely no support for the angler’s feet, which can easily become sore after prolonged ambulation. “Maybe I’ll see if a thin set of orthotics will fit inside these shoes”, I pondered as I searched.
Soon, I spied a good sized redfish tail writhing slowly in the morning sunlight. A single, large black spot adorned its tail. This was a good sized specimen, weighing as much as eight or nine pounds, I speculated. I slowly made my way to firing range, expecting the fish to work into the taller nearby spartina grass, where my fly would be rendered ineffective. I slowly closed the distance separating angler and fish. As I approached, I realized that I had misjudged the size of this redfish. It now looked much bigger than originally estimated. My best guess was ten to twelve pounds. My heart nearly flatlined as I prepared to make my presentation, so intense was my anticipation. Although it is somewhat rare to find so large a fish in so shallow a spot, my experience has been that they are generally indiscriminate and quite aggressive while feeding so intently. I decided that there was no need to change flies, but made the tactical decision that one final step closer might greatly increase the odds that my fly would land at its intended target- the fish’s feeding zone. My heart now pounding, I lifted my right foot and set it a couple of feet closer to the fish, which continued to happily root the bottom. As I transferred my weight I suddenly found myself falling forward towards the still surface of the saltwater. With acres of flat level earth all around in every direction, my foot found a hole and I fell instantly to both knees. The pain produced by flexing my severely arthritic right knee beyond its disease limited range of motion was exceeded only by the pain of watching that magnificent redfish bolt away towards the safety of the grass and deeper water of a nearby channel.
Optimism, along with an analgesic pill stowed in my chest pack, allowed the hunt to continue. I slowly trudged around the flat, keeping as close a watch as my sixty year old eyes would allow, for more reds. Alas, there no more to be seen. I did manage to observe a fairly rare sight on the salt marsh flats of South Carolina, however. As I crossed a shallow pool of water lacking the green spires of spartina grass that cover most of these tidal islands, I saw a somewhat longish slender animal, jet black, slowly swimming towards a nearby hummock. I recall a few years ago when I first spotted one of these creatures, on a flat very near to the present one. I remember asking Mike what in the world a cat was doing way out here. He replied with a chuckle (or was it a snicker?) that this was a mink. “A mink?” I responded. “I thought they lived up north in, maybe Minnesota or Alaska.” He then explained they are native to South Carolina, and often make salt flats their home, along with otters and muskrats. It was another lesson for me about the saltwater flats ecosystem I thought I knew so much about.
My radio crackled on. It was Mike. He, being by a very great amount, the better fisherman, had spotted a number of redfish. He brought two of these to hand. “It looks like I am running out of fish now. How about you?” he inquired. ” Looks like I am done as well”, I replied, discreetly failing to mention that I had not felt my fly line tighten all morning. “I’ll be there to pick you up in a few minutes. I am headed back to the boat now”. Sure enough, a flats boat appeared from the south shortly thereafter. I climbed aboard and began doffing my vest and stowing my rod as Mike slipped the Mercury into gear and started for the ramp.
As is our custom, we stopped at our favorite restaurant in McClellanville, Graham’s, and enjoyed a sumptous and satisfying seafood lunch. Fortunately for us and other fishermen, the dress code at Graham’s is quite relaxed. They never seem to mind our flats apparel, even if it is still wet. As we ordered, an old friend came through the front door and we exchanged pleasantries, as well as the day’s fishing stories. It was a wonderful way to complete our day on the flats.
After lunch, we motored on back to the parking lot where we had left Mike’s vehicle that morning. The tire was “flat as a flitter” as my mother frequently says. I always wondered exactly what a “flitter” actually is until I did a little research. It turns out that the word “flitter” is a colloquial term used in the south of England that refers to a pancake. In the south of the United States, it seems to refer to any flattened object. The spare tire, we discovered upon referring to the owner’s manual, was suspended below the trunk area on a winched up cable. I slid beneath the vehicle, lying flat on my back, and removed the plastic cover from the spare. Mike slowly wound the tire to the ground. After some heavy torsional force had been applied to the lug nuts, we jacked the car up and exchanged the tires. Mike departed to have a new tire installed on the rim of the spare, and I to my nearby home, for a shower and to raise a Kalik to the redfish I missed and the memories of all those past fish that hadn’t gotten away.