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.