Saturday, October 27, 2012

Great Gulfcoast Arts Festival, Nov. 2-4

The GGAF's 2012 poster; design by Ellen McGaughey
Next weekend, I'll have the great honor of participating in one of the more highly-regarded and popular arts festivals in the country. The Great Gulfcoast Arts Festival takes place from Nov. 2 - 4 at the historic Seville Square in downtown Pensacola, Fla. 

The Festival is a juried art show, and I'm one of 200 fortunate artists to be selected to present their artwork to the public. It's a huge compliment to be chosen, and I hope to make the most of the opportunity. Within my booth, I'll feature a large selection of my original paintings, including a couple of new works making their debut at the show. 

Please visit the Festival's website for more information about this wonderful event. I certainly hope to see you there! 

"Robbie's Pets," my newest painting

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Fall fungus

Rather than bore you with witty repose about mushrooms and lichen, I'll just let the pictures do the talking here. A wet week of seasonal weather has unleashed spores and spores of some of nature's more interesting forms of mold and mildew. 

Our yard is full of fungi. 

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Fall color

The Greenway Art Festival was a big time, as expected, and I had the great fortune of seeing some old friends and meeting some new ones through the course of an absolutely beautiful day in middle Tennessee. Despite some initial challenges with booth location, I landed in a nice spot on the leading edge of the sea of craft tents, and made the most of my opportunity. I certainly thank all of those who stopped by and expressed such wonderful interest in my artwork.

In a way, this one-day show was a warm-up for a much bigger festival later in the fall. On Nov. 2-4, I’ll be one of 200 artists showcasing their creations at the Great Gulf Coast Arts Festival in Pensacola, Fla. This will be my first time to participate this prestigious event, and needless to say, I’m really excited about it. My list of things-to-do before the festival is immense, and all the while, I’m praying for good weather while we’re there. Regardless, it will be great experience, and I’m looking forward to introducing my work to a new audience.

The festival will be held at Seville Square in downtown Pensacola. For more information about the Great Gulf Coast Art Festival, please visit their website.

On a completely different note … after a summer of typical tumult, my beloved Nashville Predators are not skating anytime soon. Another big labor dispute has the owners and players at odds, leaving me and the rest of the NHL’s fans searching for supplemental sports entertainment.

The KHL's best goalie

Thankfully though, as football dominates the weekends and baseball takes its final swing at its interminably-long season, the weather begins to cool, the leaves turn, and most importantly, the fishing picks up. Most fish species typically use this season to feed, making for some special days on the water. Bass stock up on protein for the coming winter, redfish swarm the beaches, stripers move into shallow waters to follow bait migrations, and brown trout devour everything in sight in order to fuel up for their annual spawn.

However … fall smacked the crap out of Anthony and me yesterday, as we attempted to fish the Caney Fork River amidst the rapidly changing conditions of a strong cold front which lumbered through middle Tennessee. Promised cloudy conditions with steady light rain, instead we “enjoyed” blue-bird skies, brisk north winds and rising barometric pressure. Fishing death.

Early Fall on the Caney Fork
Early in the trip, before conditions deteriorated into an undesirable-yet-beautiful transitional day, Anthony fooled a few, including an expertly-orchestrated dry-fly offering to a rainbow trout which thought the white Adams floating by was one of the many pale mayfly sailboats that were gently making their way downstream. That prompted an awkward, mid-boat high-five and some general giddiness, before we reclaimed our maturity and resumed our float. Eventually, the dry-fly bite faded, and we resorted to drifting nymphs and tossing streamers into the milky-tinted green water. As the clouds parted and the sun drenched Anthony’s Gheenoe, our spirits darkened as the fishing action took a decided nosedive. While my angling partner proved his fishing mastery by fooling a few more decent rainbows on a nymph dropper, I was thoroughly beaten by my favorite section of the river. Basically, I just got a few hours of casting practice.

It happens.

But, it won’t deter me from future opportunities. While many sportsmen and sportswomen will soon take to duck blinds and tree stands, I’ll be paddling around in my kayak, wading hip-deep in clear streams and scouting structure on nearby lakes.

Snow bird.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Toothy critters

Don't know why, but I'm still catching these guys. On purpose.

Monday, September 10, 2012

2012 Greenway Arts Festival

My kayak, my fly rod and my feets on Calderwood Lake

One morning last week, I poured my first cup of coffee and took my mug and my laptop out to the back porch to try to shake off the lingering cobwebs and to enjoy a relatively-cool beginning of the day. For the last several weeks, the late summer heat and humidity had remained impressively oppressive, but the morning had a noticeably different feel to it. There was a slight breeze out of the north that promised a coming change of the seasons. As it blew through the screens on our porch, the faint wind brought the subtle yet recognizable odor of the fall. Leaves turning color. College football Game Day. Brats cooking on the tailgate grill. Art festivals. 

This weekend, at Old Fort Park in Murfreesboro, Tenn., I’ll participate in the annual Greenway Arts Festival (Saturday, Sept. 15, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.). The one-day event features a wide array of artists and craftspeople from the middle Tennessee area and is open and free to the public. Artists' booths line either side of a section of Murfreesboro’s greenway system, with the popular Kid’s Castle and the park’s tennis courts nearby. It’s a great event, featuring live music, good food and plenty to see and do for everyone in the family. I’ll have a booth at the festival, and I’ll introduce some new artwork along with a selection of originals and limited-edition prints (including Christmas-themed art and several boxes of Christmas cards). Everything will be for sale, marking a nice opportunity to stop by, enjoy the beautiful day and maybe pick up a piece of artwork for the upcoming holidays.

The Greenway Arts Festival is the first of two fall shows for me. In November, I'll participate in the prestigious Gulf Coast Arts Festival. The event takes place on Nov. 2-4 at Seville Square in downtown Pensacola, Fla. While I’m extremely excited about presenting my art to an all-new audience in a setting that should really complement the traditional themes of my work, I’m also facing numerous “things to do” in advance of the show. It’s fun stuff, though, and I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to enter a new market and meet some new friends. I’ll share more about this event in the coming months.

Back home, on the fishing front … well, it’s been tough. But, the burnt orange sunsets, the shorter days and the cooler evenings signal a change of seasons is imminent. Better fishing certainly looms. While I’m sure someone out there has been catching everything that swims, my last five fishing trips have realized just a handful of gullible fish, and have included two absolute “skunk” days.

But, last Monday – Labor Day – with the end of the annual Trash n’ Bass fly-fishing tournament looming, I went gar fishing. Yes, gar fishing. Armed with a couple of nylon rope flies (a rope fly is just a small section of unraveled nylon rope tied to a hook, along with some fish-attracting flash; gar have very narrow, bony mouths filled with multiple rows of razor sharp teeth, making them difficult to “hook;” instead, the rope fly ensnares them as the teeth get tangled in the nylon) and a 7-wt, I paddled my kayak around a deep pool on the west fork of the Stones River, where I had observed gar in the past. In a couple of hours, I fooled several fish, and managed to land three long-nose gar, with the biggest being just a shade over 36 inches. 

In first place, prehistorically. 

I know it’s not the most glamorous fish one could catch, but gar are still fun to tangle with, especially on the fly. And, based on the way my last several trips went ... well, I was just happy to catch something. 

For now, it's back to prepping for the upcoming festivals, including working on a couple of new paintings. It'll be a busy next couple of months. But, I hope to see you on the Greenway this weekend. Please stop by my booth and say hello. 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Birthday girl

Happy birthday to my wife. 

She's my dedicated and loyal partner, my backbone, occasionally my fishing buddy, often my conscience, my best friend (in the whole wide world), my soul mate and the love of my life. Today, my goal is to make sure she has a wonderful birthday, but currently, I'm failing in that endeavor, as I'm sitting on the sofa typing this blog, while she's a couple of rooms away, doing laundry. 

So, I better stop right here. Happy birthday, Betsy. Let me help with folding the towels ... 

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Dog Days

As the seasonal cicadas buzzed annoyingly above me, I cruised silently up the east fork of the Stones River in my kayak, looking for any signs of life, fish or fowl, to distract me from the fact that I was profusely sweating in the oppressively-humid August heat. The river rippled and shimmered as acres of newly-hatched shad schooled just below surface, only to be periodically interrupted by the angry swirl of a hungry bass. Frustratingly, there was no rhyme or reason for the feeding, and matching the hatch, while possible, was futile. With this much bait in the water, it was going to be really difficult to convince a fish to select my hair-and-feathers offering amongst the smorgasbord of easy-for-the-picking shad fry. So, I quietly paddled upstream, soaking in the sights, sounds and smells of early August on the river.

Late summer is my least favorite time of the year to fish. Due to the heat – and we’ve had a great deal of it this year – most fish prefer the cooler climes of deeper water, which challenges anglers both in terms of tactics and patience. Traditionally, the best luck – at least for warmwater species – can be had at night. Some of my fondest fishing memories were made while participating in bass tournaments at night with my brother-in-law, Bubba. We’d head up to the lake every Monday afternoon during the summer and plop down $20 bucks a piece to a chain-smoking tournament chairman, who huddled inside a small booth in a marina restaurant on the banks of the reservoir. Competing anglers would mill about, some of them sharing secrets, most of them sharing lies, and all of them either smoking, dipping or chewing tobacco. The comraderie of this unique and colorful crew was impressive, and despite my lack of an appropriate nicotine rush, I was right there in the middle of 'em.

When darkness began to fall, we’d hop into Bubba’s well-worn and fish-scale-covered Alumacraft and blast off from the marina and usually head upstream. Bubba liked fishing the rivers, and his influence has stuck with me to this day. But, as a lifelong fisherman of this lake, he knew were the big ones were. We’d throw dark-colored, hysterically-large plastic worms in 10-15 feet of water and tried to fool a couple of keeper-sized bass before the midnight deadline. Most times, we were successful and even won a bit of money over the period of a couple of years. During the dog days, fishing would often be tough, even at night, but we still caught plenty of good-sized fish amidst the haze of cigar smoke, the buzz of orbiting mosquitoes, the pale light of the moon and the occasional pterodactylic squawk from a blue heron who didn’t appreciate us horning in on his fishing hole.

It’s been a long time since I’ve fished a Monday night tourney, but the memories came vividly back to me as I paddled to the boat ramp. I passed a couple of late-model bass boats, camped out on fishy-looking spots, with moustached anglers throwing huge soft plastics with fluorescent line spooled on their reels and black lights suction-cupped to the gunnels of their watercraft. Cigarette smoke swirled above them and hung in the river as I quietly passed them, as we exchanged a subtle nod and maybe a casual wave that said, “Evenin’ fellas … hope you catch a bunch.”

Black-capped night heron ... just before I paddled by him.

Over the past couple of hours on the water, I’d struck out in my hunt for big fish (or small fish, … hell, any fish), and I loaded up my kayak in my truck bed and headed home. Upon arrival, I carefully unpacked my fishing gear, but paused when I grabbed my spinning rod armed with a plastic frog. Remembering the night-fishing lessons of a few years ago, I quietly strolled to the edge of my pond, cast the topwater frog to the far edge of water and landed it next to the tall, frog-infested grass that ironically grew during the recent drought. After letting the bait settle for a few seconds, I twitched it twice and a bass exploded on it. After a short fight, I brought the fish ashore, carefully unhooked it and tossed it back into the water.

All that poetry aside, fishing during the day at this time of year can still be productive. Last week, my brother came up to visit, and we took the kayaks down to a friend’s lake down in Manchester, Tenn., just a mile or so from the site of the recent Bonaroo music festival. We had the lake to ourselves, and over the course of six hours, we caught an impressive number of fish and an equally-substantial amount of sunburn. Tim slung a rooster-tail and easily took big fish honors with several good-sized bass, while I happily landed a nice-sized shellcracker that vaulted me into first place in the Trash n’ Bass tournament. Regardless of the fishing, it was great to get out on the water with my brother. We were exhausted by the time we got back to Murfreesboro; I’m sure Betsy was quite pleased to go out to dinner with a couple of sunburned zombies.

Tim, with a nice largemouth bass.

I’m not sure if there’s a moral to any of this, other than “get out and fish.” And, if the angling is tough, you can still enjoy everything around you. Even during the fishless couple of hours I spent on the Stones yesterday, I got up close to blue herons, green herons and black-capped night herons. While rounding a bend in the river, 25 turkeys flew from bank-to-bank, directly in front of me. Upstream from there, a Cooper’s hawk landed in a tree limb just above me, while later in the day, I nearly cast a large streamer into a much larger hornet’s nest which hung from a tree limb just a few feet above the water.

And, if it’s any type of saving grace … the days are getting shorter and fall is right around the corner.

Regardless … get out and fish. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Still wet

It took a while, but I've finally finished one of the largest paintings I've attempted. This one measures 17" x 46" and features a school of yellowfin tuna flanked by a couple of lit-up sailfish. It's actually painted on two carefully laid-out pieces of Arches watercolor paper. I'm still working on a title, but here's a peek at the finished work. Hope you enjoy.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Fervens, caliente, chaud

I was born and raised in Memphis. The southern riverside town is famous for a lot of things, but until you’ve spent a summer there, you truly haven’t experienced the Bluff City. Old Man River is the primary contributor to the humidity, but the mid-south is not exactly the High Sierras, so the flat basin just north of the Mississippi Delta is one of the hottest places in the US during the late summer. The air has a discernible thickness to it then, making it feel like you’re walking through a hot bowl of soup. In a city known for preferring dry-rubs, everyone sure is wet during July and August.

Thistles. Oblivious to the drought and heat.

Middle Tennessee, while blessed with its share of major rivers and lakes, does not present the same humid conditions as my childhood home. Instead of sandy soil and lowland cotton fields, we’re enveloped by rolling hills and quirkily-named mounds such “Tiger Hill” and “Short Mountain.” It’s just a quick drive to the Cumberland Plateau, which is well known for its cooler temps, tumbling waterfalls and gorgeous scenery.

But, it was 102 degrees on the Plateau yesterday. Here in Murfreesboro, my cell phone broadcasted 113 degrees at 4 p.m. Nashville set their all-time heat record. Today, the weather channel girl is gleefully predicting it will only be 107.

Froggy in the shade. 

Look, I know we’re far from the only place being pummeled by this heat wave and corresponding drought. But, it still sucks. My little bluegill pond, which is finally getting into balance thanks to the recent introduction of a few bass, is well off its banks and in danger of drying up completely. It has become a muddy haven for legions of bullfrogs. A month and a half ago, Betsy and I finally had landscaping installed at our new house. Perfect timing. We’re considering second and third jobs to help pay our water bill.

On the fishing front, it seem kind of cruel to make a fish fight in this kind of weather. Just before the “dome of hot hair” set up camp over the middle part of the US, I did a little trout fishing on the Caney Fork River (slow, but full of brookies right now) and the Stones River (slow at first, but then rather impressive for its aggressive bluegill and catfish). As of today, both of those fisheries are struggling with the heat, just like all of us. The Stones is as low as I’ve ever seen it at this time of year, and the Caney is warming up way too fast, signaling a really difficult year for the coldwater species.

Blue cat on the fly.

The Caney is also beset by leagues of kayakers and canoeists on weekends – and even some weekdays – robbing it of the tranquility it used to provide. Some of the riffles and pools we used to consistently pull trout from are now unfishable (except for the extremely patient and understanding of anglers) due to the traffic on the river. Most fishermen long for the cooler temperatures of fall and peaceful afternoons on our favorite middle Tennessee tailwater.

Things could be much worse, I know. It will rain again (hopefully soon), and the heat wave will end by mid-week. Our little garden is actually enjoying the desert heat (and our faithful watering), and we’re routinely dining on zucchini, squash and cucumbers. The tomatoes are ripening, although I’m worried the battalion of squirrels that patrol our oak trees are waiting for the fruit to turn red before leaving my bird feeders alone and turning their attention to fresh Roma’s. Tree rats.

Thanks to the high temps, I’m spending the weekend inside, trying to finish a painting I’ve been working on for several months. It’s a large one, for me – almost four-feet wide – and quite intense in terms of detail and color. As soon as its done, I’ll post it here and on my website.

While we’re on the artistic front, an interview with me was recently featured in the online fly-fishing magazine, Fly Life. I was certainly honored by the opportunity and hope you enjoy the read. While you’re there, check out all the other good things Skip Clement and his writers offer. 

Stay cool everybody. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Ballad of Driveway Bob

Several years ago, on a Sunday morning in early summer, Betsy burst open the front door of our house, holding the Sunday paper and wearing a curious grin. "You need to come out here and see this," she said. 

I followed her outside to the driveway where she pointed to a small, greenish-brown rock sitting by itself in the middle of the concrete. The rock moved slightly, and I instantly realized I was looking at newborn snapping turtle.

You're probably like Betsy and me and you've seen the National Geographic specials and Animal Planet shows that feature sea turtle hatchlings making their way to water. It's an incredible sight as these miniature versions of their parents carefully poke from their precisely-laid shells, and methodically waddle en masse to the nearby water. It resembles a beach assault in reverse as platoon after platoon of the baby reptiles march their way into fantastic peril, completely aware of the danger, but pushing forward, nonetheless. Waiting near the water’s edge, hovering in the sky, and cruising just beyond the wash, is a plethora of predators who wait all year for this opportunity to reaffirm their place on the food chain. But, as soon as the first seagull or ghost crab grabs a turtle, Betsy usually turns the channel. I certainly don’t argue. There are a few trials of life that I'd prefer to avoid when seeking home entertainment.

So, even though we knew we weren't looking at a loggerhead turtle, and we were pretty sure our yard didn't feature ghost crabs or seagulls, we realized that this little guy sitting scared-to-death and tucked in his protective shell in our driveway didn’t stand much of a chance on his own. So, we adopted him for a while.

The plan was to keep the turtle until he was big enough to slug it out on his own. We weren't exactly sure when that would be, but figured we'd realize it when the time came. Using gravel and a bucket of rocks, I created a stream bed of sorts in a the bottom of a metal washtub. I placed a big rock or two on top of the gravel, then filled the tub with a couple-inches of fresh water, making a wet wonderland for our new “pet.” When I placed him on top of a makeshift island in the midst of his private lake, he slowly emerged from under his shell, then quickly slid below the surface. 

In time, I enhanced the little guy’s surroundings with aquatic plants, various rocks and driftwood for him to root around and perch upon when he felt the need. All the while, I fed him a steady diet of crickets and earthworms culled from the backyard. He greedily gobbled them up at every opportunity.

We called him Driveway Bob.

At the end of the summer, Bob had grown enough that we felt a little better about letting him fare for it on his own, so I scooped him up (carefully; he was a snapping turtle after all) and placed him on the dashboard of my truck for the very short ride to the nearby river. After parking, I took Driveway Bob to the muddy bank, and gently released him.

He didn't wave goodbye, nor did he even bother looking back. He just went on his way. It was almost kind of sad. But, kind of happy, too.

I suspect Bob’s spent the past few years in the Stones River, rooting around on the bottom, covered in moss and all kinds of weird growths, and occasionally grabbing a fish or salamander or crawfish or whatever mistakes his tongue for something to eat.

Last week, just before leaving for work, I looked up at the end of the driveway of our new house, and a large, greenish-brown rock sat on the concrete. As I walked toward the curiously-out-of-place lump, it moved slightly, and I instantly realized I was looking at a pretty good-sized snapping turtle.

I ran back in the house, grabbed the camera and jogged up the driveway in order to take a few photos of this turtle-out-of-water. As I snapped away, the big guy seemingly posed for me, lifting his head up and standing on the tips of his claws. He didn’t hiss, and he didn’t retreat into his shell. Instead, he just looked at me. It was almost as if he recognized me. Maybe even knew me.

After a few shots, I lowered the camera and the turtle nodded its warty head before lumbering down the embankment and slide into our little pond, where he joined the frogs, fish and creepy things that lurk in our side-yard’s ecosystem.

I wonder if he still likes crickets and earthworms.  


Sunday, May 6, 2012

Scratching an itch

The surf rolled in heavily, as three-foot swells pounded the front edge of the nearby sandbar. The water was clear, but wouldn’t be for long, as a southwest wind steadily intensified. Our short section of beach was bookended by tourists who had journeyed to their beach chairs via the dozen-or-so boardwalks which crossed over the sea-oats and connected to the dozen-or-so high-rises facing south. Just east of us, the longest pier in the Gulf loomed like a citadel, its concrete supports now glowing purplish-orange in the fading sun.

We needed this fishing trip for vastly different reasons, but those reasons faded into the diminishing light and were eventually blown inland by the salty breeze. Fred and I made it down on Wednesday afternoon, setting lines out within about an hour of slogging our prodigious gear to the beach. Our first fish was a 16-inches-at-the-fork pompano, which posed for a few pictures before taking an ice bath in the cooler. Several more fish followed as we high-fived and snapped cell-phone pics to send to Joe, who was en route, but about four hours behind the action.

Pompano Fred

This trip was several frustrating months in the making. While spending two grueling weeks in Las Vegas last October, the dream which kept me sane in the land of insanity was a surf-fishing trip to the sleepy panhandle of Florida. But, after arriving home, the plan was dashed by new-house responsibilities and the need to divert attention (and finances) to the upcoming holidays.

So, I stewed and plotted and schemed for another opportunity to get back to the land of snow-white sands and platinum-sided pompano. It took a few months to agree on a date, but eventually, we landed on the last week of April, and chose the quaint community of Navarre Beach as our base camp. It's ridiculous, I know, but the first cast I launched into the Gulf felt like a huge release.

There are really two types of surf-fishing. The passive-aggressive approach is to launch baited lines into a fishy-looking spot just off the beach, drop the rod into a sand-spike, plop down in a nearby beach chair, pop open up a cold one, then wait for the rod tip to start bouncing, which indicates you fooled something into eating your offering. It’s great fun, quite relaxing, and at least when the fishing is good, downright exciting.

One fish, two fish. Blue fish, blue fish. 

The second type of surf-fishing is more aggressive, and typically involves repeated casting, occasional wading and, at times, sprinting up and down the beach in order to catch up to surface-busting fish. Probably my best day of fishing like this happened in the Florida panhandle, just off of Seagrove Beach, about eight years ago. It was November, and a glass-minnow migration along the wade-gut and first-sandbar was occasionally interrupted by marauding predators, including huge ladyfish, chomper bluefish and torpedo-shaped Spanish mackerel. When the angry fish arrived, the water would explode as the minnows tried in vain to escape the slaughter. This Trials-of-Life scene would unfold over huge sections of the beach – sometimes several hundred yards – as acres of baitfish met their demise. The spectacle was even “enhanced” by a putrid aroma of regurgitated minnows, courtesy of the swarms of gluttonous bluefish, who are prone of eating so much, they have to throw up to make room for more. In the midst of the stinking fray, you could find me, slinging a spoon or frantically double-hauling Clouser minnows into the froth and quickly hooking up with seriously-pissed-off fish.

Conditions have to be perfect for all of this to happen, and thanks to a nearby high-pressure system and the significant wind it was generating on Navarre Beach, we were going to have to stick with surf-fishing approach No. 1 on this trip. Which was absolutely fine with all of us.

Over the course of three days and nights, we launched fish-bites, shrimp, cut-bait, live-bait and a variety of lures into the churning surf. Despite deteriorating conditions and murky, algae-and-seaweed-filled water, we caught a bunch of fish. Pompano were the prize, but we also tangled with squadrons of bluefish, ladyfish and Spanish mackerel. A few sharks and a bunch of whiting filled out the bulk of the catch, and we managed to land a few oddities as well, including a striped burrfish (one of the best aspects of surf-fishing is you really never know what you’ll catch). It was relaxing and fun. Downright therapeutic.  

When the murky water finally rendered our surf-fishing into surf-watching, we ventured to the nearby pier and casted bubble-rigs into the cobalt blue sections between the sandbars and tangled with Spanish macks, blues, ladies and blue runners. We also baited up a couple of rods and landed a few whiting, a couple of remoras and a few sharks (including one large one which bit through the heavy mono leader).

On the final morning, we packed up the trucks and went back to the pier for a few more casts. Thanks to a late night of fishing, we had slept in a bit and missed the early morning bite, and our final attempts were turning out to be less than fruitful. After a couple of fishless hours, we agreed to 10 "last casts." As I rhythmically jerked the bubble rig through the surf, I counted seconds, hoping to make this last as long as I could.

The pier traffic had diminished, as grizzled vets armed with cobia rods and huge, orange-feathered jigs, rattled their wheeled coolers behind us toward the parking lot. Fred had already broken down his rods, and packed up his fishing gear while Joe and I finished up the trip. I heaved my 10th cast towards Fort Walton, reeled up slack and popped my rod-tip down in order to activate the fish-attracting bubble. Within two pumps of the rod, it doubled over as an angry bluefish crushed my gotcha plug.

Man, I can’t wait to go back. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Northbound (It Ends)

The official cookie of our vacation.

I finally got a chance to cast my surf-rod at Matanzas Inlet, near Crescent Beach. Aside from hooking and losing a couple bluefish in an angry surf, the fishing wasn’t stellar. But, as the sun set on our final day in Florida, I was strangely satisfied.

I rared back and fired my weighted spoon towards the breakers. The noise of the crashing waves easily overwhelmed the sound of the lure hitting the water. A huge flock of skimmers flew overhead, bouncing back and forth from the entrance of the inlet. Betsy wandered the beach nearby, collecting shells and stuffing them in my tackle bag.

Tomorrow, we’d head back home to responsibility, cold weather (reports from home actually mentioned snow on the ground in Tennessee) and bills. Our cats would be there too, along with our own bed and our own couch and TV, softening the burden of resuming normalcy.

I reeled the spoon through the wash of the waves onto the shell-laden shore, flipped it up into my left hand, then cut the line with a pair of rusted needle-nosed pliers which had been resting in my back pocket. The spoon went into my tackle bag, and I zipped it up. That was that.

Casting to bluefish at the Matanzas Inlet.

The sun set beyond the dunes and sea oats. Betsy and I walked slowly through the sand and shells back to our parked car. Darkness settled upon us as we washed our feet at the picnic pavilion, then we packed up the fishing gear and drove up A1A to downtown St. Augustine, the oldest city in the country.

We wandered the cobblestone streets, past old Spanish churches and dozens of tourist-driven establishments. There was a big crowd out that night, and most of the restaurants offered substantial wait times. Instead of standing around with a lighted pager, we landed at the Taberna Del Gallo, a tiny 200-year-old tavern in the Spanish Quarter section of “old town.” The place was lit only by torches and our bar keep was a surly pirate who made sangria instead of swallowing swords. It was cool. Betsy and I played “Shut the Box,” then bought a version of the game to take home.

Officially, our last dinner in Florida was from the drive-thru at a Krystal’s next to the interstate. It was terrible, but we didn’t really care. We stayed the night in Jacksonville, and slept as a line of thunderstorms rattled the hotel and dumped torrential rain on the city. In the morning, the storms were gone, but the wind was blowing in a cold front.

The impressively monstrous Dame Point bridge in Jacksonville.

Nine hours later, we arrived home. We were tired. Maybe close to broke. But in a weird way, complete. On the way home, we had tried our best to recall what we had done over the past 10 days, then laughed when we couldn’t agree on what happened on what day. It had been a wonderful trip – one we definitely felt blessed to have enjoyed, and one we would remember and reflect upon for the rest of our days.

Betsy and I sat side-by-side on our couch, guarded closely by our three cats who had patiently waited for our return and who now didn’t want us to leave their sight. The TV was on, but the sound was muted. I leaned back and put my arm around Betsy and pulled her closer.

Sunday, March 11, 2012


People assuredly come to Key West for a variety of things … to fish the diverse and fertile waters that surround it, to party like Buffett and Hemingway on Duval Street, to wait in line to get their picture made next to the Southernmost buoy, to dress up like a pirate and yell at people to watch you swallow swords … all sorts of things.

On this picture-perfect, 80-degree-and-sunny morning, Betsy and I came to Key West to look at butterflies. The Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory sits at the relatively quiet southern end of Duval Street, and it was probably the most enjoyable and interesting thing we did in the historic city.

After donating a few bucks to the cause, we spent the next hour wandering in the tropical setting of the climate-controlled and impressively-exotic conservatory. Thousands of butterflies and moths fluttered about us, many of which displayed colors and color-combinations that truly defied description. We snapped dozens of photos, as we tried in vain to capture the beauty of these remarkable bugs.


We were so awe-struck by the experience, we donated significantly more bucks to the cause to purchase a butterfly display case from the gift shop. It was well worth it, though, and the case was anxiously waiting for us on our front porch a few days later.

Post-butterflies, we strolled down to Duval to grab a bite to eat and to eventually join the swarm of tourists at the famous Sloppy Joe’s salon. After coordinating our positioning in front of the establishment’s webcam (to the delight of my mother-in-law, who had been trying her best to keep up with our meanderings throughout the Keys), we bellied up to the bar and ordered a brew.

To have and have a lot.

Later, we walked off the beer by strolling one more time through a much-less-crowded Mallory Square. Even though it was mid-afternoon, the street vendors – including the frustrated sword-swallowing pirate – were already staking claim to spots for the upcoming sunset rush. Roosters, chickens and regiments of peeping chicks controlled the perimeter of the square, as seagulls soared above. We snapped a few more photos before making a long walk past Hemingway’s house to our parked car.

Chick magnet.

There are lots of chicks in Key West. I've got a ton of these ...

Key West was interesting. So many words come to mind to describe it, yet for each word, it's antonym would also be appropriate. It's historic, scenic, significant … but also expensive, overrun with tourist-y attractions, and commercialized to near disturbing levels. It was not the same Key West Hemingway lived in, nor was it close to the place Betsy enjoyed when she visited it in her teens. But, we were glad to give it a shot and we had a good time, but we were perfectly fine leaving it all behind in our rear view mirror.


For the first time in over a week, we drove north. As the sun set behind us, we motored along in the orange light towards our next destination: Zaza Pizzeria Napoletana in Sugar Loaf Key. Betsy had read about it in Keys’ visitor magazine, and after eight straight days of seafood and one stray burger, we were craving pizza. The restaurant is authentically Italian, yet presents almost zero curb appeal, mainly because it’s hidden in the relatively nondescript Sugar Loaf Lodge (which we drove right by, despite being on the lookout for it). Yet, it was packed with people. Always a good sign. We ordered a pizza to go, then enjoyed the hell of out it as we followed red tail lights past Bahia-Honda, the Seven-Mile Bridge, Hawk’s Cay, our beloved Islamorada, Key Largo and the eastern edge of the python-infested Everglades.

We planned to find a place to stay just north of Miami, which would position us for a variety of opportunities the following day. Unfortunately, an enormous Miami boat show and an equally impressive West Palm Beach horse show had every hotel booked solid. So, we drove along I-95 in the dark as crotch-rockets and halogen-lit sports cars rattled our Honda as they darted about the six lanes of traffic, risking their lives and ours in order to quickly make it to wherever they had to be. Where were Crockett and Tubbs when you needed them?

At 2 a.m., we pulled into the Hilton Garden Inn in Fort Pierce, almost 290 miles from Key West, and much farther than we had planned to drive when we exited the Old Town. Exhausted, we dragged our overnight bags and a cooler of melted ice and bottled water to the front desk clerk, who was as nice and helpful as anyone we had encountered on this wonderful trip. Discounted, but not defeated, we were asleep within minutes of putting the “Do Not Disturb” hanger on our door. Tomorrow, we thought we’d drive the coast up to St. Augustine, the oldest city in the country.