Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Back to the Island (Part 1)

Watchin' the tide roll away.
The last leg of the trip is always the longest. You leave Alabama and enter Florida, and it seems like an expanse of saltwater should appear within minutes. It doesn’t. 

After passing a small, unintentionally-retro gas station in Sumatra, Fla., I drove down a two-lane county road through an endless forest in fading sunlight which flickered and fluttered through the vertically-striped backdrop of thousands of pine trees. Hours later, it seemed, the road appeared to empty into nothingness. The pine trees were replaced by spanish moss and live oaks and the road ended abruptly at the edge of Apalachicola Bay. I turned right onto Highway 98 and rolled down my window, and my truck was filled with the briny aroma of low tide. It smelled of salt, seaweed and oyster liquor. In the pale peach remnants of a lazy Monday afternoon, I shared the road with no one. Only a great horned owl perched atop a dead oak made note of my approach to the St. George Island bridge. 

The drive down had been a long one. I left middle Tennessee at 8 a.m., and made great time, aside from a questionable decision to exit the interstate in Prattville, Ala. I had stopped there in order to visit a Bass Pro Shops, where I spent unnecessary money on unneeded fishing stuff before stopping at Publix to load the truck with groceries for the week ahead. The nearly two-hour, hook-line-and-lunchmeat stop obliterated my ETA, but Joe persevered in my absence by fishing by himself on the beach all day. He had caught a few whiting and bluefish, and when I finally made my way down to the sand just after dark, Joe had fresh bait waiting for me. Now, that's a friend. I put a chunk of bluefish on each rod, blind-casted into the gentle tide and dropped the rod butts into PVC sand spikes. Then, I popped open a cold one and melted into my beach chair, exhausted. 

Joe, watching for dolphins. Or thinking about work. Eh, probably watching for dolphins.
While we were able to catch up on things that evening, Joe and I didn’t catch anything, but, hell, it didn’t matter. The trip down was behind me, and I’d begin anew in the morning.
By 9 a.m., four surf-rods, baited with Fish-bites of varying colors and flavors, were secured in spikes amid a deserted fall beach, and each rod tip gently nodded with the rhythmic pulse of the incoming swells. Just offshore — and I mean just offshore — an armada of shrimp trawlers cruised the sandbars. Every 50 yards or so along the beach, foot-long jellyfish, generally round and bell-shaped, and looking like a light fixture made of frosted glass, washed up with the steadily flowing tide. Later in the week, we’d learn the trawlers were actually targeting the jellies (called “cannonballs”), as the Asian demand for the goopy critters provide the shrimpers a lucrative alternative to scoopin’ up bugs. 

Fred and a lady he met on the beach. She was pretty but had a big mouth and smelled funny.
We caught a few, mostly whiting, and Fred arrived in the mid-afternoon, providing us with additional bait-and-tackle and substantial personality. The sun set on seven rods which anxiously waited pompano or redfish but, on this day, only realized whiting, ladyfish and bluefish. As night arrived, so did a sliver of a crescent moon and an endless ocean of stars. The three of us fished until we ran out of bait, and returned to the rented beach house with a cooler of keeper whiting to clean, not knowing of the monsters that awaited us in the days ahead.

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