I used to count fish. Most probably do when they start fishing as a way to catalogue it, or for whatever reason. I stopped mostly after reading Longest Silence–if you did you probably know the exact passage about “trout number seven”–and also because it is a nonsensical way to record a fishing experience.
Looking back on my fishing journals, I recorded a day in the year 2000 where I caught 30 just-stocked brook trout on a river where I paid for a beat. Should that carry more weight than the trip that year down the Rio Hatiguanico in Cuba? The one with the ornithologist who served me rum and helped me hook my first tarpon on fly? By numbers it does.
So I started counting days. In 2008 I recorded over 100 excursions with a fly rod and I knew with the birth of my first child that year that the pace would not last unless I moved to Florida and/or won the lottery. In 2013, I recorded 52. Once a week seems more than reasonable for someone in a northern locale with a full-time job and family, and who is not a guide.
Still, counting days is not a perfect math, either. The year in my head doesn’t add up to the numbers on the page–a notion my wife would find insane¹. Maybe it’s because I turned down as many invitations to fish as times I actually spent fishing–I am probably the king of the “Yeah sounds awesome oh wait I can’t” response. Maybe it’s because of the skunk days I withstood trying to force carp to like me. But likely it’s because much of my fishing time came in clusters or consisted of stolen moments².
Either way, in 2013 I got to be on the water in some of my favorite places in the world in both Florida and New York with some of my favorite people and also got to watch my two daughters catch panfish on little pink Ugly Sticks by the dozen. So, yeah, 2013 was good. And as the great Neil Young sings, “numbers add up to nothing.”
Happy New Year.
1. (And most likely is.)
2. (In the Wordsworthian “Spots of Time” vein.)
“Sure is pretty down here don’t you know.”–I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch in the House
Other things to do include snook, trout and Euchre until last call.
The price of the plane ticket is supposed to be exchanged for silver but for a well-placed low pressure system that’s been given a Christian name.
An osprey swoops down low over the grass flats and spears a mullet and flies it across the vast bay to an island in the distance full of dead trees. Add watching this to the list of other things, as well as Bimini ring toss, eating, acoustic sets, ladyfish, mangrove snapper and rehydration.
Six of them walked into the hotel bar and ordered double bourbons. They had already lost their situational awareness and laughed loudly at their own crude comments directed toward the bartender. She laughed along and defused the tension in a way that suggested hard-won poise in handling drunkards.
“George bought a boat today boys,” one of them shouted and they clinked glasses. “Nothin’ gets you off like droppin’ a million.”
They were from Alabama and they run 100 miles out to fish the Gulf and they came to Miami and George found the boat to do that.
A cold front brought in rain and everyone migrated from the boat show to the bars. The chill also shut down the tarpon running the bay and the beaches at night, and that reason to escape from the hotel.
Some of the people inside hid scars earned in the recession and saluted George for his free spending.
Places in Florida bear the scars more openly, from the boarded up apartments behind the hotel to the construction projects way out west that only recently resumed.
The peacock bass that live out west have recovered from the chill that did them in back in 2010.
The fly moved along the drop-off and two little fish fell in behind it. One outpaced the other and charged the fly and dropped it. A big one swerved in and grabbed it and felt the tension and jumped. The fly fell back to the water and another one hit and held fast.
No doubt the result turned out differently than expected.
Bass in Florida are like Led Zeppelin on the radio: Always on somewhere.
I’ve said that before* (in one of my infrequent posts on Buster Wants to Fish.) But I am saying it again because the words and the actions behind them are repeatable.
Sometimes I wonder if it seems like a broken record with me, and maybe it does, but we all need sporting traditions.
One of my main riffs goes like this: Fly down, rent car, criss-cross the State on back roads and wait for the rain to break. Drive past a body of water, look for access, cast.
The coasts and the Keys are incongruous with the interior, the land of Marjory Stoneman Douglas and Marjory Kinnan Rawlings. All the way up to Shingle Creek (documented by a green highway sign on S.R. 528 as the Headwaters of the Everglades) the fresh water that flows South through Okeechobee and the big swamp is dyked, funneled, redirected, canal-ized and otherwise manipulated so that the River of Grass and Florida Bay do not get their full eventual dose.
The roads cut through cattle ranches and orange groves and migrant farms and small town main streets that maintain an Eisenhower ambience despite the scarcity of Buick Roadmasters.
The water is a distraction. It’s always sitting just off the main road or down obscure side streets, where it would remain undiscovered if not for the invasiveness of Google Maps. Whether it should rightfully be swampland or something other than a containment born of front-end loaders is past the point of consideration.
It could contain bass, and is impossible to pass by.
I was standing on a rock and I fell off it. I banged my shin, right in that spot where there’s nothing but skin over bone, and it hurt. The rod did not break. The reel had a gash in the bar stock but still worked fine. I pulled myself up and on to the beach and the person fishing near me laughed. (He was a plug fisherman.) I did not catch a fish.
This happened in New York. Fortunately there is a cure for every fishing drought and it’s called Florida. I fished from a lakeshore at dawn for bass and I did not fall in. There are alligators. I had pulled pork and sweet tea for lunch and a cuban with black beans and rice for dinner.
My friend further south has a boat and I ran down the turnpike and we idled through the inlet on an outgoing tide and the breakwater was loaded with pilchard. Two boats took turns drifting close to the rocks so someone could throw a cast net. When they hauled in the nets stunned pilchard fell out and snook bolted from the rocks and ate them.
Hooking a snook near structure can end badly because that’s what they do, and even on the beach their gill plates can cut through shock tippet or draw blood. Phonetically, the old-timers pronounce it snuke, but try mentioning that in a way that doesn’t make you seem like an asshole.
Pilchard are easy to mimic with fly tying materials, particularly super hair assembled with mono thread and epoxy in Hamilton Eat-Me fashion.
Snook also jump, and I like them very much.
I’m a bass man. What can I say?
If I lived there still I might get tired of it. Maybe.
(If I lived there I’d do everything possible to be in the express lane passing through Whitewater Bay.)
But if I’m down there and I have a free moment in the right place, it’s a safe bet to figure what’s lighting up my train of thought.
Work last week brought me down to South Florida and then up the Space Coast and into Central Florida, and the signs of drought are obvious. Old ditches on the roster are currently unfishable due to the dropping water levels.
Central Florida seems to have it the worst. “We could really use a hurricane this year,” one of my fishing accomplices remarked, “only without the destruction. Maybe a tropical depression.”
He was hoping for something to fill Lake Okeechobee again, like Fay did last September, so that the State doesn’t have a mad rush over the diminishing freshwater supply.
It has been the third driest dry season on record since 1932.
There are too many stresses on Florida’s fresh water supply as is. With Okeechobee water levels below 12 feet, there’s a already a developing fight over whether the water is for fish or farming, and its not hard to envision the fish losing out.
This comes at a time when the State, facing economic hardships, is scaling back on the Sugar Land Deal intended to resuscitate the Everglades.
It always comes back to the Everglades.
Who do you think caught more?
Our boat? (Two redfish.)
Or these stone cold killers?
Watching dolphin work in concert to trap mullet against the mangroves and then literally flip them into the air and eat them made it all worth getting our asses handed to us.