Saturday, December 7, 2013

Remembering a Forgotten Coast

“I know I don’t get there often enough. God knows I surely try. It’s a magic kind of medicine, that no doctor could prescribe.”* 

What if we stayed? If we didn’t go back? Back to our jobs, to responsibility, to our lives? What if we decided to start over, to find a salty piece of land that was worth the heat, the humidity, the crazy-ass bugs and the occasional hurricane? What if we did what everyone talks about doing? What if we were a couple of those insane people who had worked hard for years only to realize there’s more to life than corporate ladders and profit sharing and conference calls and Sunday showings, and sold most of what they had, packed up the rest and piled the pets and the fishing rods into the truck and drove until the weather suited their clothes?

Seven days. I just enjoyed seven days of getting sand between my toes and fish scales on my hands. The original plan was for a family vacation to St. Augustine, but as family plans often do, the logistics of balancing work and school proved too much to overcome, and the trip was set aside for another week in the hopefully not-too-distant future. Instead, I remembered a forgotten coast a few hundred miles south of our home, and after a nearly spur-of-the-moment online rental, Betsy and I packed up our beach gear and drove eight hours south to the St. Joseph peninsula on the Gulf of Mexico. We arrived at dark, after a meandering drive through lower Alabama and the panhandle of Florida, through pecan groves and palmettos and scrubland, and down a sand-and-gravel road to our rental house. At first morning light, I was up, looking out the big screened porch and watching and listening to the greenish-blue surf rise and fall just a few yards away.  

The sand was still cool from the previous evening’s chill as I made first tracks. Nobody had been here in a while. Behind me, the sun rose and my shadow touched the water’s edge. Brown pelicans cruised inches above the slow-rolling and ebbing tide, and a sandpiper relentlessly probed the foam, followed closely by her miniature offspring, searching for periwinkles and small crabs and expertly dodging incoming waves.

There was a convenient washout directly in front of me, and I dropped my tackle bag, two beach chairs and an umbrella and walked a few yards down the beach. One sand spike will go here. An equal distance to the other side of my chair, another spike. Within minutes, two surf rods were appropriately placed, with their tips slightly bent westward, tethered to three-ounce pyramid sinkers and two-hook pompano rigs. After deploying the umbrella, I plopped down into my chair – I remember how it sounded as it crunched into the sand and shells – and inhaled deeply, flooding my lungs with salty air, holding it for a few seconds and slowly exhaling. I watched my rod tips as they deliberately pulsed with the waves. It looked as if they were breathing. I dug into my tackle bag and found my paperback and opened it to page one as gulls called from an unseen place above.

Twenty-three pages later, Betsy joined me. Pretty as always, wearing a red hat and smelling of sunscreen, she sat down and opened her own book. At noon, we snacked on chips and carrot sticks and I cracked a beer and took a satisfactory gulp. Later, as the tide shifted into high, a surf rod began to bounce wildly, and Betsy reeled in our first pompano of the trip. That evening, the fish was the main course in a wonderful “home-cooked” meal, which was followed by an unusually early bedtime. I think we wanted to wake up early and make the most of every moment.

A couple of days went by just like that. Our souls soothed by the sun and our spirits aerated by the gentle breeze.

“Salt air, it ain’t thin. It can stick right to your skin and make you feel fine.”**

On Day 3, we drove to the nearby St. Joseph Peninsula State Park with intentions of launching our kayaks into St. Joe Bay. At the pay station, the uniformed attendant informed us that the $6 entry fee was waved in honor of our veterans. We thanked the attendant and slowly drove under the rising gate and into the park, and I kid you not: within a few feet of the station, a bald eagle majestically glided across the road directly in front of our truck. I wondered aloud if the bird was tethered to a string and the whole presentation was a theatrical part of the park’s celebration of Veteran’s Day. Regardless, it was pretty cool.

The bay was choppy, but we successfully deployed kayaks and paddled around awhile before anchoring up on the edge of one of the many “potholes” of empty sand amid the acres of grass carpeting the bottom of the sprawling bay. As I rigged up Betsy’s rod, a school of jacks exploded on bait a few yards off the bow of her kayak. “Look! A bunch of fish! Hurry!” Betsy exclaimed/ordered. Laughing, I rapidly tied a jig on the end of Betsy’s line, fumbled in a rush with attaching a Gulp! shrimp to the hook and casted to the edge of the slashing and splashing in front of us. A fish nailed the offering immediately, and I handed the bent rod to Betsy. The Zebco's drag emitted a harsh NNNNNGGGGGGGGHHHHHH!, but within a few minutes, my wife slid the beaten fish towards my kayak. I lifted the three-pound jack crevalle from the water, removed the jig from its lip, showed Betsy the pretty yellow underside of one of my favorite species of fish, and dropped the little guy back into the bay.

The incoming tide brought on a frenetic bite, and we fought the wind in order to repeatedly catch fish. Flounder, whiting, ladyfish, lizardfish and a king-sized ocean catfish were landed within the next half-hour. When a large bull shark showed up and menacingly cruised between our anchored kayaks and into the open pothole in front of us, we carefully pulled anchor and moved to a different spot.

By then, the sunlight began to falter, and the high tide flooded the flat we had paddled across two hours ago. A few more fish were caught, but with fading light and a sense of completion, we made our way back to the ramp.

Where the no-see-ums lurked.

They waited until we were most vulnerable, with the truck backed down and tailgate open, and Betsy and me working in tandem to heave the salty yaks out of the brine and into the bed of the Titan. Then, they attacked. We fought off their assaults while loading both boats, but after valiantly enduring the bloodletting, Betsy surrendered to the onslaught of the marauding bugs and ran, arms waving wildly and profanity flowing freely, and jumped in the passenger-side of our truck, slammed the door shut and hit the lock button. Through thick clouds of evil biting insects, which crawled in my beard and among my eyebrows and into my ears, and lanced my flesh seemingly just for the hell of it, I secured the kayaks in the back of the truck, stuffed the keeper flounder in the cooler and hopped to safety inside the cab of the Titan. Bastards. All of them.

“Give me oysters and beer for dinner every day of the year and I’ll feel fine.”**

Days four and five were spent inland, as an impressive cold front chilled our lonely beach, allowing us to wander about the forgotten coast. We filled our bellies on oysters and shrimp at the Indian Pass Raw Bar; we walked the nearby beach and took zoomed-in photos of the incredible array of birds resting at the point of St. Vincent Island; we spotted a monstrous bald eagle’s nest near the peak of a pine tree; and, we drove to Apalachicola and strolled around the downtown harbor area, trying to remember where we had been before 17-plus years ago on our engagement weekend.

We spent the fifth day in Port St. Joe, doing some early Christmas shopping in the quaint entertainment district and enjoying a fantastic early dinner at Joe Mama’s Pizza. Not wanting the day to end, we wandered across highway 98 to a liquor store that promised “live music.” Inside the stand-alone building, we found a crowd of locals bellied up to a bar as a young woman belted out R&B hits to pre-arranged backing tracks. She was accompanied by a salty-looking older guy who played a Gibson Les Paul. He looked as if he had recently stepped off a shrimp boat, and my mind played with the idea that he had just wandered into the store seeking Very Old Barton and wound up being the captain to Tennille, who was currently pouring her heart into a Rihanna cover.

The bar patrons were there for happy hour, and one of them was celebrating a birthday, as tables of food and the perfunctory cake boxed in “the band.” A large, glass-doored beer cooler filled one wall, while wine racks stocked with an array of brands and styles lined the other. A solitary aisle in the center of the shop brought forth the liquor selection, while a walk-in humidor offered quality stogies. Most everyone was at or around the bar. We had to stick around. The vibe was too good.

I ordered Betsy a glass a wine and I got a dark porter on draft. The band played on. Sitting on a barstool near the liquor shelves sat a heavy-set guy with a Johnny Unitas haircut. He was playing the spoons. We recognized him from the Indian Pass Raw Bar. Around the bar, the conversation hummed, as gallons of alcohol were guzzled and bleary-eyed guys in khakis and cell-phones attached to their belts leaned over and chatted up well-coifed secretaries fresh from a day at the office. Betsy and I mused that even in the early evening, bad decisions were already being made. But, everyone was having a great time. 

At one point, a denim-attired 30-ish guy in a ball cap emerged from the crowd, stepped up to the make-shift stage, grabbed the microphone in his non beer-carrying hand and began to belt out spot-on Al Green tunes. The white boy had some serious soul. While he forgot some of the lyrics (beer’ll do that), he more than represented, and brought down the house … especially when Tennille joined in. It was a great scene and a very fitting way to end a fun day.

“The years go by, quicker than a wink. Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.”***

On the sixth day, we went back to the beach. One last day of toting chairs, coolers, umbrellas, fishing rods and a gigantic tackle bag through the short walk over the dune to the water’s edge. Even with a north wind howling in my right ear – which caused me to bundle up in my beach chair – I was determined to catch a few post-cold-front pompano, even though I knew fishing would probably be pretty tough. 

I employed three surf rods, with staggered presentations to cover a variety of depths of the washout and the bookends of the broken sandbar. Initially, the fishing was poor, as expected, but an incoming tide held promise and I routinely checked baits and carefully watched the rods for any abnormal movement. The morning bite was non-existent, though.

Betsy did the smart thing and waited until the sun was high overhead and the wind shifted out of the east. The dune behind us blocked the breeze and I shed my sweatshirt as the tops of the waves of the incoming tide retreated, and we were left alone on an empty beach in front of our own private paradise.

As we approached high tide, the first rod began to shake. I sprung from my beach chair and grabbed the bouncing Ugly Stik and tightened the drag on the Penn Spinfisher. The deep bend in the rod betrayed the species, and after an energetic two minutes of fighting, a silvery pompano flopped on the beach at the edge of the wash. Our first keeper of the day headed for the cooler.

The next 30 minutes were awesome as schools of pompano cruised the edges of the sandbar and routinely fell for the multi-colored Fishbite offerings. Not all were keepers, but every fish fought hard and their aggressiveness had Betsy and me out of our chairs and standing near the surf rods. My wife easily won big-fish honors with a hefty, 19-inch-at-the-fork pompano that probably weighed four pounds or more.

As the afternoon progressed, the bite waned, and any fish caught were small. Betsy packed it in after sundown, and I stayed out for a while longer, changing out pompano rigs and Fishbites for big circle-hooks and chunks of ladyfish. I was hopeful for a bull redfish, which is well known for cruising the beaches at night during the fall. As these bruisers can easily yank a rod from a sand spike, I only used two rods and kept a constant patrol between them. Just after dark, the bluefish arrived, and the rods began shaking as the toothy fish chomped on my bait. I caught a couple, including a good-sized specimen, but released them (carefully) back into the surf. An hour later and in pitch-black darkness, my biggest surf rod began to shake, and after a quick fight, I beached a four-foot blacktip shark. The redfish just weren’t out tonight. Running low on bait and knowing that I had five pompano waiting to be cleaned, I gathered my beach gear for the last time and headed back to the beach house.

The last day, it rained, which was actually fine with us. It allowed us to sleep in, to casually clean the house and to pack up the truck for Saturday’s drive home. I worked on a painting, too, making good use of the art supplies I had brought with us. In late afternoon, the rain paused for a bit, allowing Betsy and me the chance to walk the beach one last time. We managed one final sunset, too, before the clouds thickened and the skies opened once again.

“I wanna be there. I want to go back down and lie beside the sea there.”

The drive home was routine. We stopped in Port St. Joe for some fresh shrimp and we hoped to see one more bald eagle before leaving the coast. We succeeded, but unexpectedly. The last national bird we spotted was scavenging on a dead skunk in the middle of the highway. Maybe not as majestic as we’d hoped, but an eagle, nonetheless.

We were refreshed and satiated. It was a vacation of the highest order, with no regrets, other than the same lament we almost always have: it just wasn’t long enough. The draw of life near the water comes from a deep place within my soul. It fuels dreams and lingers in my consciousness. I love what we’ve been able to establish here in Tennessee. I am proud of what we've accomplished and thankful for the world Betsy and I enjoy. But, I know one day, we’ll drive to the coast, pull up to a house on the water, and unpack our gear.

And stay. 

Thanks to Jimmy Buffett for the borrowed lyrics to "Tin Cup Chalice"* and "One Particular Harbour,"** and to Carl Sigman and Herb Magidson for a line from their classic song, "Enjoy Yourself."*** 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Summer Closeout

Be prepared.
Summer continued its annual swan song, as nights devoured days and the late afternoon skies burnt purple and orange, and I headed west to spend a few early October days with family on the banks of the Little Red River. As I weaved along the twisting and turning backroads to reach their Heber Springs home, Led Zeppelin's "Bring It On Home" blasted from my truck's iPod as I chased the fading sun before it disappeared behind the eroded bulk of Sugarloaf Mountain. The trip was three-fold in design: I wanted to see my parents, my brother and Bumper the Wonder Dog;  I wanted to spend a couple of days chasing pre-spawn brown trout in the river behind their house; and I needed a few days to let my brain breathe (so to speak) and to put aside -- at least for a moment -- the stress of work and responsibility. 

Headed west on Highway 64
The trip was successful on all three counts. 

It's always great to spend time with my family, and we enjoyed nice weather (a fall mix of warmth, followed by a cool spell) and great food and wonderful conversation. As usual, Mom kept us full of food, and we teamed up on at least one meal -- fittingly, an excellent pan-fried trout dinner. And, during the not-feasting periods, Dad, Tim and I spent a lot of hours playing in the backyard. The Little Red was very, very low, and the generators below Greers Ferry Dam didn't turn once during my three-day stay in Heber Springs. This drew the already-slow flow to a molasses-like pace, and the skinny, clear water made fishing tougher than usual. 

Fall colors
Bug hatches, however, were prevalent in the slight current. In the early evening, the surface of the river would dimple and shimmer and the air would soon be filled with newly-hatched caddis flies, midges and mayflies. Trout fed eagerly, but fishing actually became most difficult during these occurrences. Rather than matching-the-hatch (please know we tried, unsuccessfully), we typically turned to streamers. During other parts of the day, I enjoyed some good fortune on obnoxiously-fuzzy hopper patterns. The surface takes weren't frequent, but always violent, which made for a couple of fun afternoons. 

Dad and Tim work an upstream pool
Brown trout were beginning their move to shallower shoals in preparation for their upcoming spawn. We saw some truly impressive specimens, too, which made each cast more exciting as you knew that your presentation was either drifting or being stripped through water filled with some of the biggest fish of the year. 

Evening fishing was productive, but not great. We caught a few good-sized male browns in the 18-19 inch range, but none of the monstrous, orange-flanked fish that we observed patrolling various nearby pools. 

Hopper-fooled brownie
We did not observe any redds (oval-shaped spots on the stream bed in which the gravel has been cleared; the tell-tale sign of a big brown trout preparing to drop her eggs) and were careful not to tread on anything resembling the early stages of redd-clearing work. 

The time with Mom, Dad, Tim and Bumper went by very quickly, and seemingly hours after arrival, I was packing up the truck to head home. The good fortune of having nearby family is doubly-blessed by having the ability to spend such quality time with them. As I pulled out of the driveway, I waved a temporary goodbye, as the holidays loom and the next gathering is imminent. As I drove east towards home, the memories of another great weekend on the Little Red intermingled with a laundry list of upcoming job duties. Mile after semi-filled mile on I-40 east, I gradually re-entered the world of work and responsibility. But, I did so with a refreshed mind, an aching casting elbow and a temporarily-satiated angling mindset. 

For now, back to work ... 

Bumper, chillin'

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Longnose gar, a rope fly and a pink canoe

A great blue heron basks in a late summer afternoon sun.
Barry and I met at the ramp around 11 a.m. As usual, he was there five minutes early and I was there five minutes late. We had planned an 8 a.m. start, but a gloomy weather outlook caused us to delay the trip until the main threat of severe storms had passed.

Three hours later than planned and with showers still lingering in the area, we hopped into a faded red (maybe pink) Coleman canoe that had once been a wedding gift to Betsy and me, and shoved off from the well-used boat ramp and eased into brownish-green water that simmered with the ripple rings of lingering light rain. A low growl of thunder came in with a meaningful breeze from the north, causing us to instinctively pull paddles from the water and stare blankly into the sky. No lightning was noted, and after a brief pause, we continued to ease into a stretch of river well known as a summer-time “gar hole.” 

The longnose gar is an ancient species of fish; long and tubular and armored with diamond-shaped scales that protect it from everything except bowfishermen. Most prominent is the namesake business end, which offers a tiny head, a gigantic eye and several inches of a narrow, bony snout filled with razor-sharp teeth designed to grasp and hold prey. They’re slimy and prehistoric and oddly beautiful. Their olive-green backs give way to silver-and-gold flanks and a snowy white belly, both of which coalesce into an orange paddle-shaped tail covered in large blacker-than-black spots. Interestingly – and perhaps a characteristic that belies their cretaceous heritage – gar occasionally rise to the surface and gulp air. While they max out at around five-feet long and about 50 pounds, they are hearty, indomitable fish and close cousins to the massive and legendary alligator gar.

Within minutes of leaving the ramp, we heard the telltale bloops of toothy beaks lightly breaking through the murky film and Barry and I knew we wouldn’t have to travel far to find the fish. Indeed, even in low light and poor water clarity, we could make out dozens of gar slowly cruising around the canoe and throughout the deep hole in which we floated. We dropped anchor to maintain position and picked up our fly rods and began double-hauling into the productive water.

We threw rope flies – hookless home-tied minnow imitations that are primarily spun with unraveled strands of nylon rope. With a small amount of added flash, the flies take on an amazingly life-like presentation when stripped quickly and erratically through the water. I used a sink-tip line on my 7-wt rod in order to drop the weightless presentation just a foot or so underwater. Gar, when interested, will follow the fly and slash at it with a sideways strike of their gaping, tooth-infested snout. Some takes are subtle, but as they occur almost always in the angler’s eyesight, one can often “follow the fly” as it begins traveling at an odd angle and know that a fish has engulfed it. From a fisherman’s perspective, the preferred strike is more rare and infinitely more violent, as for seemingly no reason, the primitive fish will absolutely obliterate the fly – often on the surface – and use its paddle-shaped spotted tail to rocket away in a huge swirl and/or splash.

The rope fly is hookless; gar merely get their narrow teeth ensnarled in the strands of nylon. After landing them, the fun really begins as you need to carefully open the beak of the fish and meticulously cut away the nylon strands. If the fish cooperates, this is actually easier than it sounds. But, be forewarned: they are wildly unpredictable, and a seemingly subdued fish can – without warning – go angry cobia on you and thrash with incredible strength, often spraying you and your watercraft with prehistoric slime and disgusting green poop. It’s best to use a wet hand towel to provide grip on the slimy fish to semi-control it. 

Because you’re not using a hook, fishing for gar requires a little patience and considerable feel. The take is often obvious enough – your line jumps as the gar smacks the fly with its narrow snout – but then, you’ve got to allow for the fish to “chew” the fly for a few seconds. Typically, the gar does this as it swims away, which means you concede the line to slowly pull from your stripping hand until you feel enough time has passed to tighten your grip and connect to your quarry.

Gar are inconsistent fighters. Their resistance runs from crappie-like submission to tarpon-like explosiveness. Some may opt for a couple of lethargic head shakes and a disappointing surrender, while others will thrash on the surface in a wild white-water display and dump yards of line from the reel. Very occasionally, gar will go aerial, completely clearing the water in an angry attempt to rid itself of the fly. This, of course, is awesome to see, unless it’s a big one and you’re sitting a few feet away in a very tippy canoe.

On this rainy morning, surrounded by surface-cruising longnose gar and armed with the right flies and the right idea, Barry and I actually had to work hard to get the fish to play with us. While strikes were common, hook-ups were not. We stuck with it, especially after seeing more than a few gar in the four-foot-plus range and packing a good 10 to 15 pounds of heft.

I was the first to completely fool a fish, as a smaller-than-desired longnose tangled itself in my fly. After a modest fight, Barry guided the canoe to the shore line, where I was able to hop out of the canoe and perform the quick surgery on the nylon strands wrapped around the snout of the fish. Thankfully, the gar cooperated, and the whole process took only a few moments and a no-worse-for-the-wear predator was admired and released back to the water.

Fish No. 2 took a while to bring to hand, but when we did, it was accompanied by fish No. 3, as Barry and I beached the canoe to land a double-header of longnose gar. Barry’s fish was the larger of the two, and by the time we released it, we had become experts in how to land and safely release the toothy critters.

The skies began to lighten and the post-front wind began to blow, and positioning the canoe became a lot more difficult. Conversely, the emerging sunlight allowed for sight-fishing, and we began to target bigger gar, which continued to slowly cruise the hole in which we were anchored. This became much more of a hunt for big fish, as we saved casts for only larger fish. Frustratingly, while we continued to elicit follows and strikes, we just couldn’t get one to hold on to the fly.

Longnose meet needlenose.

As the day’s weather improved, our fishing hole became crowded, as bait fishermen began appearing on the banks and kayaks and canoes slid by us. Our time on the water was limited by prior commitments, so the end of our fishing day was near. On one of my final retrieves, just a few feet from the canoe, my fly line hopped as an unseen gar smacked the rope fly. I gently allowed the line to pull away from me, and methodically, gradually applied pressure. When I did, the fish pulled tight and provided us the most thrilling moment of the day. Maybe 15 feet from the bow of the boat, a huge longnose gar rose from the water like a marlin; its moss-colored back glimmered in the sun and its snout thrashed back and forth, seemingly in slow motion, before it violently crashed back into the surface of the water and sent spray onto the port side of the pink canoe and into my lap. The biggest gar we had seen then bolted downstream, pulling coils of fly-line from my feet and instantly engaging the reel’s drag.

My fly-rod bent with the pressure of the big fish and Barry maneuvered the canoe to allow me to properly pressure the gar. But, the expert boat-handling was for naught, as my fly line rubber-banded back to me, signaling the fly had pulled and our trophy catch had escaped. Intense silence immediately followed.

I sat for a few seconds, then chuckled to myself as I stripped in my fly line which floated flaccid in s-shaped loops on the brown water. Barry offered a sincere, "ah well." I checked my fly, straightened out the fibers and felt a sharp pain as I pulled the line from the water and began double-hauling into the depths of a good gar hole on my favorite river. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

An Evening Redness on the Stones

The viscous summer air smothered me as I slid the kayak into the river. On the opposite bank, a banded water snake dropped from a low hackberry branch and disappeared beneath the water only to emerge several yards downstream   Its head popped up next to a deadfall that doubled as a perch for a black-capped night heron, which watched all unfold with its wary right eye.

The weather prediction for today was alarmingly accurate – oppressive humidity, high heat and a frightening ragweed pollen alert. The tops of thunderheads began peeking over the canopy of sycamores while sunscreen melted into my eyes and sweat flowed from every pore. Welcome to the dog days of summer.

My right elbow has been cursed with tendonitis for the past two months, and with each forward stroke of my paddle, I felt the familiar nagging pain from a subtle injury that just refuses to heal. I paddled slowly upstream, amidst a cacophony of heat bugs that drenched the air with the pulsating white noise of their summer call. A few yards in front of me, one of the giant insects attempted to fly from tree to tree but clumsily bonked into a thick branch and fell backwards into the water. It fluttered helplessly on the brown surface of the river and tried in vain to flip itself upright, its wings softly gurgling in the surface film.

A small bluegill made the first attempt at the bug, nipping at a wing and making a “bloop” report as it tried to eat a meal decidedly bigger than itself. As the molasses current dragged the desperate insect downstream, it disappeared in a cruel swirl, swallowed from below by a much bigger fish.

I may want to try a cicada pattern, I mentally noted. [It’s these types of crack observational skills that have made me the great fly fisherman I claim to be.]

As I paddled upstream, the river turned scummy with a thick film of greenish-yellow algae peppered with floating twigs and leaves and empty plastic Sun Drop bottles, yet the water below was amazingly alive and full of shad. Oceans of baitfish patrolled bank-to-bank, with most fish being in the two-inch size range. They held in their enormous schools, and shimmered in the random clearings within the muck.

Amongst the bait, squadrons of small bass launched violent attacks, as they slashed, swirled and splashed on helpless fish, often sending their prey skyward to avoid being sucked into the gaping white mouths of the predators below. It was a bad day to be shad. 

And, I knew it then and there. I was not going to catch crap today. Matching the hatch was not a problem. My fly and tackle boxes offered plenty of perfect shad imitations. The issue was trying to get a bass to pick out my offering from a sea of easy meals.

Bass fed seemingly all around my boat. They exploded on the schools from below, scattering shad from the water and into the sides of my kayak. But, I could not get the bass to pick out my fly or lure. After watching dozens of my fruitless casts, a bored blue heron left its nearby perch and squawked in laughter as it flew above.

As the sun slid slowly behind the trees on this inferno of an afternoon, a slight breeze brought forth some relief from the heat. Yet, the air carried something sinister. From a distant register below the flapping of sycamore leaves and the incessant buzz of cicadas, came the eerie wail of a song being played from an ice cream truck which weaved through streets of a ghostly subdivision beyond the bluffs above. The siren’s song attracted some initial nostalgia, as thoughts of push-ups, rocket pops and sprinting home to beg Mom for a quarter flashed through my mind. But, amid the oppressive humidity and the stink of something dead nearby and the now-constant need to adjust my boat to accommodate the wind, the truck’s repetitive rendering of “Fare Thee Well” morphed into the soundtrack of a horror movie. As sweat stung my eyes and my fishing frustration grew, I found myself mindlessly humming along with the syrupy sweet song. An unseen murder of crows cawed in the far distance. A bellied-up catfish lay pinned against a pile of lichen-covered rocks and discarded blue nightcrawler containers at the river’s edge. A horsefly crawled on the rim of my open can of beer. At any moment, I expected Pennywise the Clown to slowly emerge from the mossy green water around me and snarl, “They all float down here, Danny.”

To salvage the now fading day, I gave my aching casting elbow a break and put down the fly rod in favor of a spinning combo and a big ol’ plastic worm. I was just going to ignore the shad massacre occurring around me and pinpoint the fishiest-looking deadfalls and stumps and do some old school bass fishing. The decision proved to be a good one. After a nice cast to the enormous root base of a fallen elm, I let the worm settle for a brief second, then gently shook the rod tip. A dull thump followed, and my line moved slightly to the right. Reeling up slack, I sharply set the hook into a keeper-sized largemouth, which thrashed its head wildly in an algae-covered froth before making the horribly unwise decision to swim to open water where I was able to gain control of the fight.

After a brief tussle, the bass relented boatside. I lipped the fish, took a quick photo, and slid it back into the river.  

And, the ice cream truck’s song stopped.

I picked up a couple of more structure-oriented bass, and even found subtle redemption when one of the open-water predators ambushed the worm as I lifted it from the water at the end of a retrieve. After a few “last casts,” I secured my rods and tackle and paddled home through the clouds of mosquitoes and midges, and enveloped in the purple-orange glow of a late August twilight.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Dog Years

Bumper is four years old. With energy appropriate for a dog of his youthful age, he bolted from the front door of my parents’ home and raced down the walkway and lovingly hip-checked me as I stepped from the truck. His bobbed tail wiggled excitedly and he dizzily spun in hurried circles and vied for my attention. I eagerly extended it and upon satisfaction, he raced towards Betsy to perform a similar greeting dance.

Be prepared.
It was mid-July and we had traveled west from Murfreesboro, through the rolling hills of southern Williamson county, over the churning and windswept Tennessee River, and through the interminable corridor of trees that line the stretch from the ancient roadside artillery at Parker’s Crossroads to the dry-rubbed sprawl of my hometown of Memphis. We cruised past billboards that bragged of winning big with Tigers or Grizzlies or winning bigger at Tunica casinos, and past the odd spectacle of the Bass Pro Shops Pyramid. Next, was the hulking bridge in the shape of a “M” that allows such an expansive view of the massive muddy Mississippi that you’re often distracted from the fact you just entered Arkansas. Eventually, we wound our way amidst the endless stretch of cotton fields and and rice fields and speed traps until Crowley’s Ridge emerged from the north to signal the ascent to Heber Springs and the Little Red River.

It’s always good to see family and Bumper’s fourth birthday was a good excuse to load the truck up with a couple of changes of clothes and an arsenal of fly rods and fly gear. Mom and Dad and my brother, Tim, were all excited to see us too, although none of them performed a welcome boogie as happy as their beloved best friend.

Bella and Bumper ask politely for a piece of my chicken.

Way too early the following morning, I carefully stepped into a river that owes its flow to the mammoth Greers Ferry Dam and tumbles and glides past an infinity of floating docks as it carves through the rolling hills of central Arkansas. The pale yellow light of the summer sun pin-holed the oaks and pines on the eastern bank and eviscerated the evening mist which vainly clung to what was left of the previous night’s generation, and the Little Red chilled my legs with each step as I moved into deeper water to reach a nearby stretch of fly fishing heaven.

Years of experience here have narrowed my fly selection and sow bugs of a preferred size and color dominate the contents of my careworn foam box labeled “nymphs.” I tied on a favorite, and about four feet above, a foam indicator. With a groggy head and complementary senses, I had to shake out a few horrible casts before gaining my groove and offered a decent enough attempt that plopped into a narrow seam and tumbled drag-free down a few drops and turns, slid perilously past a mostly-submerged moss-covered log, and bounced into a small pocket of creamy green water. Just as soon as it did, the indicator went under and I raised the rod and connected with an angry rainbow. Fish on.

Similar choreography continued for the next hour, as I caught a good number of spirited trout on the sow bug. By then, my brother emerged from the remaining wisps of morning fog and splashed his way upstream from one of his honey holes to join me. His fishing report was similar to mine, and he pointed to a downstream hotspot that I needed to try. He proved to be a good guide, as the location proved to be loaded with rainbows, all in the 16-18 inch range. They were stacked within a 30-yard-long section of a just-deep-enough riffle. A perfect stream scenario. Good flow, clear water, gravel bottom punctuated by foot-wide or bigger rocks. Behind each rock, there was a trout. And, those fat feeding fish freakin’ ate everything drifted their way.

Later in the morning, I walked across a small island and found my Dad working a small riffle that spilled into a foamy pool. His bent fly-rod and satisfied grin pretty much told the story of how his morning was going.  

Lots and lots of these.

For the next five hours, the three of us enjoyed some of the most stellar trout fishing I’ve ever experienced. The fish were aggressive, extremely lively and most importantly, quite gullible. While I landed fish on nymphs and dries, my Dad’s super-secret streamer pattern was the top offering. At one point in the late afternoon, I watched the Lord of the Flies land 20-plus rainbows – all solid fish – in a little less than 30 minutes, and all from a deep hole at the end of a long run. I was just a few yards downstream, catching a few, but mainly getting some quality casting practice. As I concentrated on my fly and the drooping loops of my now tired casts, I kept hearing the violent swish-smack! as fly-line slapped tight into bent graphite and the subsequent splashing of a struggling trout, followed by the muffled giggle of a man who was enjoying the hell out of his day.
Day 2 was just as epic as Day 1, with just a silly number of fish caught and released. The trout – rainbows, browns and the occasional cutt-bow hybrid – were plentiful and feeding constantly and obviously invigorated by the daily dose of afternoon generation. That oxygenated cold water, coupled with an obviously convenient recent stocking, created a wonderful arrangement for us. It also debunked quite a bit of conventional fishing wisdom, as we were “cursed” with post-cold front, high pressure, unseasonably cool, blue-bird skied days. It should’ve been fishing hell.

Tim works some structure.

Most assuredly, the weekend wasn’t just fishing; I got to spend quality time with my family, talked birds and cooking and flowers and trees and art with Mom, went to the gym at 11 p.m. with my Dad and Tim, took walks with Bumper, ate the usual embarrassing amount of wonderful food, flirted each night with the idea of running up to the dam and chucking big streamers, gobbled Aleve like candy to knock back the swelling and pain from “double-haul elbow,” and Betsy and I still found time to generally unwind over three days in the shadow of Sugarloaf Mountain. Such visits are always too brief, and the meaningful conversations and memorable moments are often lost in the blur of activity. But, the important things seem to grab hold in the crevices and folds and thankfully linger and endure, and the memories flourish and sustain.

Bumper had a big time, too. His goodbye dance was a slow one, as he could only exhaustedly muster a slow wag of his little tail and a sleepy-eyed look of affection as he curled his long legs into his favorite spot in his favorite chair. The day after his birthday, he reportedly slept nearly the entire afternoon. Good dog. 

Danced out.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Sand fleas

A month ago, I spent five days on the sand in Navarre Beach, Fla., with four of my buddies in our second annual surf-fishing extravaganza. With an embarrassing number of surf-rods deployed and deposited in sand spikes each day, Fred, Steve, Joe, Barry and I were able to cull the greenish-brown waters of late April for several keeper pompano, a good bull red and a couple coolers full of some of the biggest whiting any of us had ever seen. We had a blast on both the beach and the pier, and certainly got our fill of fishing.
Rods are deployed. Day One. 
By the numbers, here’s how it went.

One – As in the number of sharks caught on this trip. This was about 50 less than we caught in Cape San Blas a few years prior.
10 – As in the number of species of fish we caught. Redfish, pompano, Southern kingfish, Gulf kingfish, Spanish mackerel, bluefish, spiny puffer, Southern stingray, catfish, blacktip shark.

10 again – As in the length (in feet) of Steve’s brand-new kayak, which he toted to the beach via the top of his SUV and successfully christened and launched on his first attempt, at night, into a rough surf, carrying a bloody shark bait. Onions!
The arsenal.
25 – The unofficial count of the number of rods brought by five guys to the beach. Fred won top honors with nine rods, while Steve toted eight, I lugged five, Barry brought two and Joe only had one with him.
50 – The estimated number of fish Joe caught. He easily out-fished us all.
Pompano Joe

Showing off with nearly a 3-pound whiting.
11.15 – The official poundage of the largest fish caught on the trip, Fred’s redfish, which I weighed on my trusty digital scale.
267 – The number of times that weight was disputed by Fred.
13 – The age in years of the crusty nine-volt battery that powered my trusty 13-year old digital scale.
24 – The estimated, unofficial, actual weight of the redfish.
Officially, 11.15 pounds.
1545 – The length, in feet, of the nearby Navarre pier, the longest pier in the Gulf.
Two – The number of badly sunburned feet. Unfortunately, Barry owned both of ‘em.
Four – How many times we ate at Stinky’s Fish Camp. Thanks Dennis the Manager, for supplying us with a nightly dose of grilled fish and vegetables. And ice cold Hoptical Illusion.
Seven – The length in inches of Steve’s fillet knife, which fell out of his kayak and is presumably hidden in the sand at the edge of the first trough. Be careful out there, conchologists.
12 – The preferred age of MacMartin’s Macallan.
Fred heaves one towards a cobia boat.
7234.56 – The estimated volume of the seafood nachos Steve ordered at Flounders in Pensacola for our lone lunch outing of the week. It was man vs. food and food easily won. 
.5 – The seconds needed for Fred to nickname Barry, after watching him try to clean/mangle a whiting with a dull fillet knife he brought from home. All of us have nicknames (some more than others), but the newest member of our crew is henceforth known as “Butter Knife Barry.”
BK Barry
3.6 – The average number of times each of us got up to pee each night.
87 – Our average diastolic reading.
17 – The average number of times “We’re getting old” was muttered by the collective group each day.

Taking a kayak break.
11:30 p.m. – When I finally returned home on the last day, after Barry and I prolonged our visit with a final stop at the pier, a late lunch at The Fish House in Pensacola and a shrimp run to JoePatti’s.
First fish of the morning.
Last cast of the day.
Obviously, it wasn’t all just fishing. On the second night on the beach, we caught a full moon, which rose crimson over the indigo Gulf just after sundown, causing each of us to neglect our rods and reels in favor of our cameras and cell phones, which we used to snap terrible, out-of-focus shots of the giant glowing orb as it peaked over the southeastern horizon and climbed into the skies and slowly turned bright white and hummed like a gazillion-watt spotlight that glistened on the rolling waves of the outgoing tide while flooding the sand with the shadows of weary fishermen hoping for one last bite.

While many of the catches will be remembered – mainly, Fred’s big redfish, Joe’s near-Florida-record Gulf whiting – the stories from the overall experience will sustain … and most likely be retold yearly when we get together once again on a salty piece of land somewhere down south. 

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Guitar Hero

I’m from Memphis. Music, along with a healthy dose of dry rub and pork fat, is in my blood. Plus, I was born into a musical family, with my Mom being a piano player and a wonderful singer, my Dad being a drummer who honed his trills and runs while Buddy Rich-ing the skins in a polka band during his formative years and my brother being a drummer, guitarist and singer-songwriter. Me … I’m a self-taught guitarist with a deep affection for the blues and guitar-heavy rock. Purely in my own mind, a guitar hero.

My brother, Tim, and I used to literally and figuratively rock the house when we were kids, with him pounding the drums while I pounded on a cheap Les Paul knock-off guitar that crunched its out-of-tune riffs through a small Peavy amplifier cranked way past its limits. We typically ran through a set-list that included "All Along the Watchtower," some Zeppelin tunes and the random Grateful Dead jam. I have no idea how Mom and Dad endured the thunder bellowing from Tim’s upstairs' bedroom, although, I do remember them taking a lot of vacations back then.

Later in life, while trying to balance grad school and a day job, I was the electrified member of a guitar-slinging duo that had a weekly gig at a dive near the University of Memphis’ campus. Steve was the singing talent and the headliner, and he graciously asked me to partner with him to provide some occasional lead guitar and backing vocals. It was pure country, and Steve was definitely the driving force in the group. We probably would’ve been more successful if I had actually ever heard most of the songs we played, but my radio dial never landed on a country station. Nonetheless, we normally enjoyed full-to-packed houses, typically consisting of Steve’s fraternity brothers and a healthy dose of pretty coeds, who were the main reason most of the guys were there. After all, I really doubt the KA's doused themselves in Drakkar and donned their finest Wranglers to come out to listen to us trudge through “The Dance.” In both sets. 

Crazy Larry’s on Wednesday nights was a big time for a while, but it eventually grew stale and like many acts, it just sort of faded away. Shortly thereafter, I did the same, when I moved to middle Tennessee to pursue a career in a cubicle. My guitars came with me, though, and provided a nice post-work release for me as I adjusted to an initially-stressful job in an initially-friendless world.

Musicians, though, are rarely friendless for long, because there's a common bond between everyone from guitarists to trombone players will reliably emerge when the opportunity presents itself and quickly blossom into “a jam.” Within a few months of moving to Murfreesboro, I met a drummer/co-worker named Elwood, and soon thereafter, our afternoons were spent rocking through a variety of cover songs and originals in the tiny music room of his house.

You’ve probably heard of the “Seven Degrees to Kevin Bacon,” in which you can name anyone on earth, and by tracing the friends and acquaintances of that person, you’ll eventually land on Kevin Bacon. It’s silly, I know. But, Elwood easily trumps Kevin. In fact, I think there are only “Three Degrees to Elwood,” and that’s probably pushing it. The guy knows everybody. Seriously, you could go on fly-fishing trip to the ultra-remote region of Kamchatka, Russia, and be able to cut through the language barrier with your bush-pilot, Yuri, by simply mentioning Elwood’s name. “Da, da, Elwood! Tennessee. Good drummer!” And if, for some reason, Yuri didn’t know Elwood, I’d bet you a stack full of Rush records Elwood knows Yuri. Or at least his cousin, Nikolai.

Elwood’s connection to the music business was predictably direct, and after a few weeks of practicing our original tunes, we were in the basement recording studio of one of his music-producing buddies, laying down tracks for a demo tape. We ended up recording eight, up-tempo rock songs, featuring lyrics and arrangements of our own design, and eventually produced a box of cassette tapes under the incredibly juvenile band name, A.M. Wood (complete with the clever “album” name, Three Chords of Wood).

In retrospect, I never did a whole lot to promote our songs (although Elwood did his part), presumably because I was more proud of the achievement than the need to see if other people would actually listen to our songs. Curiously, from those with whom I did share the tapes, their young children absolutely loved the songs. That certainly wasn't our target audience, but at least we got some positive reviews. And, maybe missed an opportunity. 

Like Crazy Larry’s, eventually, A.M. Wood faded away, too, as our careers went in different directions. Which, is a bit of a shame, as two-piece, guitar-drummer bands are quite popular these days (see: White Stripes, Black Keys). Elwood and I have to look back and realize we were simply ahead of our time. Pioneers, in a way. Jack White should be thanking us for exposing several dozen people to the merits of a two-piece rock band. 

I could be overstating it.   

There was no solo career after the band’s breakup, but I did eventually add to my arsenal of guitars. Another good friend, Randy, hooked me up with the American-made Fender Stratocaster that I count as my go-to electric guitar. My old Silver-Anniversary Alvarez acoustic has taken a beating through the years (several dents, and scrapes; even the headstock was snapped off by a stumbling party-guest several years ago, but later repaired), but despite attempts to find a more expensive, technically-better guitar, I simply cannot find one that plays as good and sounds as appealing to me as this one. It’s my Trigger.

I also live just outside of Nashville, Tenn., which means, by law, I have to be a singer-songwriter, and while it has been a few years since I last busted some rhymes, I’ve got an arsenal of embarrassing lyrics stowed away in a secret binder in my bonus room. The binder comes out on rare occasions – usually on Saturday mornings after the third cup of coffee pushes me into a weird, caffeine-induced, Gordon Lightfoot mode. God love my wife, Betsy, for putting up with me.

I play my Strat through a cracked-and-dented Ampeg tube amp that sounds dirty and mean and exactly the way I want it to, and my go-to effect is a Crybaby wah pedal that allows me to channel my inner Hendrix. While I’ve got other effects to use, I try to keep it simple. And, our three cats probably are thankful for it.

I’m almost 44 years old, and I’m pretty sure my chances of becoming a rock star fell and burned up in the atmosphere several years ago. But, as my beard turns gray and my appreciation for new music is limited to digital-remixes of classic rock albums, I’m still always looking to learn, to get better at my chops and to disappear upstairs when no one is around, to strap on my guitar, to crank the amp up to 11 and roar my way through a version of “Voodoo Child.” It’s in my blood. I can’t help it. 

But, I still hold out hope. I bet you a pocket full of rubles Yuri's got Three Chords of Wood in the tape deck of his Mi-8. His kids probably love it.