All those many days spent standing rod in hand on the bow of a flats boat recall my days at sea on a destroyer. There was I, junior officer of the deck, glasses in hand, scanning the sea surface from the bridge wing for Soviet vessels prowling the tempestuous North Atlantic. Perched high above on the masthead, the ship’s radar antennae simultaneously sifted through the wave returns and displayed targets well in advance of my Mark 1 eyeballs, as young and keen as they might have been. Attempts to insert some form of logic into naval surveillance methodology proved an invitation to frustration. So, I held the heavy binoculars to my face and at least pretended to search for the Red Menace.
Often have I reflected, while on bonefish watch, how similar these later marine experiences are to those of my naval youth. My Bahamian guides have uniformly been several orders of magnitude better than me in spotting bonefish and other sundry species than I fear I will ever be. I have now swapped my government issue binoculars for fancy prescription sunglasses whose cost is north of two hundred dollars, but even these have not resulted in enhancing my fish locating skills. Like shipboard radar, the guides, positioned high above on poling platforms, divine the presence of fish well ahead of my now aging eyes. On occasion, while aboard ship, I imagined what it might be like to be the Captain. “Make your course three-five zero.” “Ready the forward turret!” “Belay my last.” All very impressive to a young man such as myself who had never experienced the command role. Of course, I was completely unable to appreciate the burdens of command and responsibility at that point in my tender life. Similarly, I have considered the role of the guide whose job it is to pole the boat, point out the fish, and release them once landed. He must be able to find fish in all circumstances, operate the boat and its engine, tie sturdy knots, understand weather patterns, and even be a therapist to disappointed anglers. As I have gathered increasing appreciation for the many attributes required to be a successful guide, I have pondered if I might have the right stuff for the job. I have spent many days on the sea, and have considerable experience catching all manner of saltwater species. I have served in the Navy and have skippered my own flats boat for quite a few years now. It seemed that guiding might add a new and interesting dimension to my overall fishing career. Enhanced by a couple of glasses of Cabernet, my mind began to conjure images of poling a small boat, finding the client’s target fish, and directing his gaze to said fish. In my vision, he then lays out a seventy five foot cast with a six inch wide loop that gently touches down eight inches from the tailing bonefish’s head. The fish immediately inhales the fly, and after a ten minute epic struggle of mano a fish-o , I release a ten pounder, digital memories appropriately recorded.
Recently my good friend Steve called and inquired if I might be able to guide a client one day for him. Steve had enjoyed a relaxing and productive day of redfishing with me in my ten foot long electric boat and was anxious for his client to try stalking redfish at Hobcaw Barony in this shallow draft stealthy craft. I was totally enthralled by the idea. I immediately jumped at the chance and it was decided. All that was left was to substitute redfish for the bonefish of my imaginings. Soon, I would see if reality would meet my expectations. Like Eddie Murphy in the movie “Trading Places”, it was now time to see how the other half lives. I was fascinated to see if the square end of the boat would be as much fun as the pointy end. Reality would prove much more interesting than my fantasies. I awoke an hour before the five AM setting on my bedside alarm and quickly readied myself for my ab initio guiding experience. I find most new experiences, provided they are of my own choosing, to be exciting, and this day was no different. Coffee cup in hand, I hitched the ten foot twin electric fishing boat to my Tahoe and mentally punched in the coordinates of my destination – Hobcaw Barony, hard by the city of Georgetown. I had loaded all my gear the previous evening, lest I neglect some critical piece of equipment needed for a successful day redfishing. I had prepped the boat two days earlier by taking my wife on a photo safari on the nearby Little Pee Dee River in order to break in the new 2.3 HP Honda motor that now adorns the stern of my vessel. I had reasoned that this extra propulsion might save the day should the battery become exhausted or the current or wind too severe. I was, in true Boy Scout fashion, prepared for any and all exigencies, I reassured myself. “It’s going to be a really great day!” I thought, as the Tahoe turned south, towards redfish paradise. I met Fred, the client, and Steve, my friend the guide at Hobcaw, at the interpretive center, just off Highway 17 South. Fred was an impressive figure, perhaps six feet four inches tall, with a lean, athletic build. He exuded the look of a three point draining NBA point guard, or perhaps a fleet footed NFL wideout. Interestingly, he was neither. Fred, as it turned out, holds a VMD degree with specialty training in veterinary pathology. He is employed by the federal government where his efforts are directed at preventing acts of domestic agroterrorism. Tracking the whereabouts of such nasty pathogens as the foot-and-mouth disease virus, African swine fever virus, classical swine fever virus, highly pathogenic avian influenza virus and others. These pathogens are known as select agents in the government vernacular. I am relieved to learn that the people in the Washington, D.C. area are alert to to such dangers and have folks like Fred working to protect our agriculture, and thus our economy. Makes me sleep better. I just wonder what other devious ideas the terrorists may be attempting to perpetrate. Of course, it might be best if I do not know of such things. I’ll just trust the Freds of government worry about these disturbing matters.
We drove away from the entrance and down a long gravel covered road towards our put-in spot, a small ramp barely large enough to launch my Twin Troller. Along the way, we were treated to the sight of some of Hobcaw’s abundant wildlife, including a small flock of wild turkeys. Once at the launch site, I loaded onto the boat the push pole, our rods, flies, cameras, and small cooler. Fred and I donned our personal flotation devices as mandated by law. We wore the low profile type that automatically inflate when contacted by water, as this type creates minimal interference with the casting motion. Fred anxiously clamored aboard, ready to stick a redfish with his fly rod. I followed suit, and Steve pushed us off. An unusally high tide was forecast that morning, the primary reason we arrived so far ahead of the tide peak. The tables predicted over seven feet of saltwater rise that morning, so if we were to have a chance to spot the tails of redfish, we needed arrive well ahead of the tide. As a friend says so succinctly, “You must be present to win.”
And so it begins! As the fortunes of the day dictated, a steady strong wind blew from the Northeast, combining its power with that of the very large tide flow which was sweeping millions upon millions of gallons of water onto the flats where we hoped to locate those coppery tails, emblazoned with those distinctive black spots, wafting in the breeze. The initial step in that process was to crank the engine and head directly into wind and current to reach an area where we might cut through the expansive spartina grass to reach a productive small island where I had seen redfish on previous trips. My new engine, which had been carefully broken in as per factory instructions, became an exercise in exasperation now. I followed the cranking procedures to the letter. Though this previously had been totally effective, the engine remained stubbornly quiet. Now the boat drifted with the swift current, pushing us against the pilings of the small footbridge that led from the landing to the research building at the end of the pier. Embarrassed by this failure, I was finally able to get the engine started and we made our way past the research building, turned to port, and headed upstream to the target for today. The electric motors I had counted on to hold us steady as I started the auxiliary four stroke engine proved powerless against the rush of the massive tide bulling its way toward the flats. I was happy that Fred was facing forward, unable to see the redness on my face.
LESSON ONE- ALWAYS ENSURE THAT YOUR ENGINE IS MAKING ADEQUATE POWER BEFORE ENTERING HEAVY CURRENT!
We made satisfactory way up the creek and soon made an additional turn to port. As we were well ahead of the tide, I had hoped to use the power of the Honda to push us through the still tall and thick spartina grass until we reached the shoreline. At that point, the plan was to come right and make for what I have termed “Redfish Island.” I began to notice large amounts of dead spartina grass filling the water’s surface now, being pushed by tide and wind into thick masses with no way to steer around them. The engine seemed to be producing much less than normal power, and as I turned in my seat to inspect it, I noted that Fred’s rod was missing in action. “Fred, ” I asked, “Where is your rod?” ” It was right here a minute ago” he responded. We managed a slow reversal of course and quickly found the rod. It was resting on spartina, the grass had silently pilfered it. We returned to our original heading, but very soon afterwards noticed that MY rod was MIA. Again, we located the rod easily and resumed our journey.
LESSON NUMBER TWO- SECURE ALL EQUIPMENT! EVEN IF THE BOAT IS SLOWER THAN A SLOTH WITH A BROKEN LEG.
By now, the engine was not capable of putting enough horsepower in the water to move us effectively, even when I added the additional capacity of both heavy-duty electric motors to the mix. I reasoned that the drag induced by the load of dead grass the boat was attempting to tow with us was the culprit. So, I elected to go overboard after checking water depth and the firmness of the bottom. After clearing as much as I could, I climbed back aboard with great difficulty. My artificial knees were not very compliant when I asked them to flex some 130 degrees so that I might climb over the gunwale and reclaim the helm. After much effort, and some discomfort, this bit of physical therapy allowed me assume the conn, despite my clumsiness. This maneuver was repeated several times, and I was reminded of a procedure used by the Navy. Minesweepers are built of wood, not iron, for obvious reasons. Nonetheless, the equipment onboard such as engines, generate magnetic fields, not something conducive to long term survival for any ship whose task it is to find and remove marine mines. To overcome this problem, the Navy uses something called a “degaussing station.” I have absolutely no understanding of the physics involved, but this equipment can effectively demagnetize these ships. I wondered if the Navy might also possess tools to remove all this grass from my vessel- perhaps a “degrassing station.” It turned out that much of the engine’s degraded performance was due to grass wrapped tightly around the prop hub. I was unable to remove this impediment to our progress, so fell back on the low tech push pole I had constructed some time ago from a long piece of hardwood closet rod and a metallic duckfoot attachment. I had included it as an afterthought the previous evening as I packed the truck. It was too long to fit inside, so I had trimmed it to the absolute maximum that would fit inside the Tahoe. I had no way of securing it to the boat for transport,and was terrified of it departing the Twin Troller and striking another vehicle, or perhaps some innocent pedestrian. I now wondered if sufficient length remained to allow efficient poling of the boat. As it turned out, I was able to make yeoman’s work of the poling. At this point,my greatest fear was the potential failure of my arthritic shoulders, leaving us dead in the water. I had envisioned my role in this enterpraise as sitting at the after seat, operating the motor handle and the pedals for the electric motors. That should be completely untaxing on my arthitic sholders, neck, back and my two artifical knees.
LESSON THREE- ALWAYS CHECK GOOGLE EARTH TO SEE IF A MORE PROPICIOUS ROUTE TO YOUR INTENDED DESTINATION MIGHT BE AVAILABLE.
I later saw on Google Earth that if I had followed that first large creek some distance further, I could have had deepwater, relatively free of debris, almost the entire way to the island. At this point,however, my only option was to turn directly upwind and pole towards Redfish Island, some half mile distant. Though the tide currents and the wind conspired to twist my bow in a thousand directions, I slowly managed to reach the island. I was tired now, but extremely thankful that my shoulders had not blown up. I was able to approach quietly to within ten feet of the island and began a slow counterclockwise circumnavigation. As we rounded the first small peninsula, I spotted a redfish tail. In typical fashion, it rooted the bottom, seeking crabs and mollusks for its breakfast. Fred assumed the position, and watched the red in complete fascination. “Cast now!” I urgently told Fred. He continued to stare at the fish as it waved back at him, its black ocellus in stark contrast to the greenish grass covering the bottom. “Do I need to get closer, Fred?” I asked, hoping he would make a presentation immediately. He stood on the bow, eyes on his prize, but failed to begin a casting motion. Predictably, the redfish disappeared from our view, swimming away to greener pastures. It was another case of redfish fever, the angling equivalent of “buck fever.” I offered no critique, as Fred is new to saltwater fly fishing, and I stand guilty of the same offense in the early days of my own fishing career.
So, disappointed, I poled us further around this tiny speck of land and smallish trees and bushes. We encountered no more redfish at Redfish Island. Despite our failure to hook up, I was elated that now the wind and tide were at our backs. I easily poled us in the general direction of the ramp, some mile and a half to the south. As we departed the island environs, Fred’s sharp eyes saw a second redfish tail slowly working the benthos in about fifteen inches of water. “I see him too, Fred!” A nice redfish right there at eleven o’clock moving slowly right to left. Get it out in front of him!” I said, nearly breathless in my anticipation. It is remarkable how much I felt connected to this fishing event. It was almost like Fred had become an extension of me. I desperately wanted to see him land a redfish. This one seemed as good as any. “I got this,” Fred responded. He made a couple of nice backcasts, the wind now from his left and not a factor. He released the fly on the next forward cast, but unfortunately, the gold colored fly landed about a foot out of position. Without requiring my direction, Fred cast once more. Again the fly was not in a position to be visible to the fish. He then made one or two additional casts, but to our combined disappointment, the fish never saw the fly. It swam away, not spooked by the fly or by us. “Damn!” I thought. So close. Maybe next the fish will be The One. I turned the boat slightly to starboard to resume our course for the shoreline when I spied yet another redfish tail near the very edge of a line of short grass. Only the apex of the corner of the tail broke the surface of the water, and only intermittently. I was thrilled. “There, Fred. Right at the edge of the spartina is another redfish. Let’s get this one for sure!” I said as I spun the boat with my closet dowel push pole. “Where is he?” asked Fred, now frantically searching the water for the telltale signs of a feeding red. “Right there at ten o’clock and about 20 feet.” I responded, pointing the pole directly at the fish’s tail, barely visible now as he worked a bit deeper into the grass. “Cast now before he goes in any further and we can’t get the fly down through the grass.” I commanded. In the excitement of the moment, I neglected that fundamental rule of guiding – NEVER let a fly fisherman cast with the wind coming from his casting side. The wind had by now increased again and was blowing directly from Fred’s right side, the same side as his casting arm. He made a strong false cast and by the time he initiated the delivery cast, the crosswind had blown the fly beyond my left side. When he made his power cast, the fly slapped me smartly on my left cheek. I howled in pain reflexly as a half inch high welt instantly appeared on my cheek. Thankfully, I was wearing glasses and the hook was facing downwind at the moment of impact. There was no hook to be extracted and my Mark 1 eyeballs remained intact. Fred was incredibly apologetic. He seemed quite disturbed by this accident. I told him not to worry. This was an occupational hazard for guides. Besides, if I were left with a scar, it would make a great conversation piece. “Oh that? That’s an old guiding injury!” It would be a sort of Red Badge of Courage. Fred continued to profusely describe the depth of his sorrow over the incident, but in the meantime, our redfish slipped into that deep, impenetrable grass. A better man might have consoled Fred by telling him that he himself had whacked a guide or two in the past, but I didn’t.
LESSON FOUR- NEVER, EVER ALLOW THE ANGLER TO CAST IN A DIRECT CROSSWIND FROM HIS CASTING SIDE!!!
We worked on down the shoreline, but by now, some two and a half hours of poling left my shoulders a little achy, so I sat in the command chair and pushed the pedals of both electric motors. Nothing happened. Despite my apprehensions about my musculoskeletal system experiencing complete mechanical failure as well, I poled us to the beach and exited the boat in order to “de-grass” the boat. Indeed, the boat was weighed down by massive amounts of dead grass, and the prop hub was choked by green spartina wound as tight as a watch spring around it. I cleared what I could, then leaned forward to remove anything remaining under the keel. When I did, I was startled to the point of nearly losing bladder control when I heard a loud “POP!” and I felt a strong tightness around my chest. “Oh my God!” I thought, “My heart just exploded from all that poling!” At that point I realized, somewhat sheepishly, that I was still wearing my PFD. When I reached beneath the hull, it contacted the surface of the water, and the PFD’s water sensor did its job by instantaneously fully inflating. There I stood, a big yellow ring around my upper body, laughing out loud at my idiotic stunt. Fred began to chuckle as well. “Oh well,” I commented,”At least no one had mistaken me for a giant marsh hen, and shot me!” I climbed back into the boat, this last time easily from a firm and very shallow bottom. I doffed the PFD and picked up the pole.
LESSON FIVE- ALWAYS WEAR A PFD, BUT REMEMBER TO REMOVE IT WHEN MAKING AN ELECTIVE ENTRY INTO THE WATER!
By this time, the tide had reached its zenith. Seven feet plus of saltwater obscured the redfish that were almost certainly continuing the search for food. The wind had ratcheted up a notch or two, but thank God, continued to blow from our backs. The engine nor the motor were capable of making way for us, so I continued to man the pole. This was fortuitous, as there was no possibility of my propelling the craft against the wind which was now estimated at twelve to fourteen mph. A couple of hundred yards in the distance Fred spotted Steve and a prospective client at the ramp. They peered at us through binoculars. Fred theorized that Steve had a bet that I had fallen into the creek. We quickly approached the footbridge leading away from the launch site. The water was now quite high and I had limited maneuvering control. I had visions of cracked skulls as the boat crashed into the wooden support structures. In what could only have been Divine intervention, we managed to touch the footbridge , duck our heads, and pass underneath unscathed. We covered the remaining few yards to the take out in a few short seconds.
Back at the ramp, I felt victorious, though never had a hook touched a redfish mouth. We had survived in spite of my loss of dignity. We had seen and cast at a few redfish. Most important of all, Fred indicated that he had had a great time. True or not, his comment did boost my spirits. We pulled the boat from the water onto its trailer and removed grass from its keel and some of that which was buried in the prop hub. It was only later, at home and with special tools, that I was finally able to remove the last of the spartina from the prop. In a rare moment of triumph, I handed everyone a Kalik, a Bahamian beer that is my favorite. Through a stroke of lucky clairvoyance, I had stashed several in a cooler in my Tahoe. We clinked bottles, took photographs of the battle damage, and made a toast to all the redfish which had eluded us that particular day. As we finished our drinks, I queried Fred as to whether he might like to try to walk the downside of the tide out at the point, beyond Redfish Island. I told him that I could make no promises, other than I would be happy to extend his day. He immediately accepted but wished to do a freshwater wash down of his gear beforehand. I agreed and climbed into the driver’s seat. Fred opened the rear liftgate to retrieve a personal item, then quickly closed it. The push pole, which I had carefully laid diagonally across the storage area and the center console got jammed as the door closed. The fit was a tight one, and the pole was forced into the front glass. A creaking sound was followed by the appearance of a ten inch long crack in the windshield. “Perfect,” I said with a smile. “This makes the day complete.” ” You should get that replaced as soon as possible” advised Fred. ” Don’t worry, Fred. My insurance will cover it completely. I’ll have a new glass by this time tomorrow.” We pulled the boat down towards the main research facility, and sprayed down the boat and trailer. Fred washed off his rod and we headed for the flats again. Only this trip would be made by foot. No motors or grass to bother us here.
We slowly made our way down a long and very bumpy dirt road to the tip of the peninsula. It was a pleasure to chat with Fred. His intelligence seems matched only by his engaging conversations. It had been a pleasure to spend a day with him, no matter the misfortunes which had befallen us. Soon, we reached the turnaround loop at the end of the road. We piled out of the truck and onto the flats, where the jumbo tide was rapidly pouring itself back into the Atlantic. In the distance, we could see Redfish Island. We trudged through the quickly falling tide, hoping to spot a tail or three. I glanced up and saw a large bald eagle wheeling overhead. That sight alone made this walk worthwhile. As we approached the terminus of a feeder creek, its finger-like projections spread across the flat, I “bumped” a redfish. I had nearly stepped on it without seeing it. The water was still a bit too high. Onward we walked, reaching a point perhaps three hundred yards from Redfish Island. Here the bottom turned soft, and every footfall sank past the midcalf. “I guess we turn back here, Fred,” I suggested. We made a course back for the truck, still searching. I guess it really is true about fishermen being eternal optimists. We had no casting opportunities on the way back, but did bump two more fish. In short order, we were once more at the road. Fred was totally fascinated by the hundreds of thousands of fiddler crabs that scurried across the now dry grass flat. He knelt down and took a few photos.
As we reached the road and the truck, I turned back towards the flats and thought to myself “I’ll be baahhk.” Everything I learned that day, all those lessons, might best be summarized by the old Indian aphorism about not criticizing anyone until you have walked a mile in their shoes. I gained a whole new respect for guides. The really good ones just make it all look so damn easy. This lesson may be a metaphor for life in general. I am as guilty as anyone when it comes to easy criticism of others’ actions or opinions. Perhaps we should consider their life circumstances prior to condemning them. Trading places seems a good way to gain an appreciation of the plight of others. Remember that trading places doesn’t necessarily mean living the life of opulence as Eddie Murphy did in the movie of the same name. It might also mean taking a trip to an impoverished third world country like Haiti to see how that “other half” lives. Like my newfound appreciation for guides and what they do, such an experience might leave the traveller with a profound sense of gratitude for all we have here.