Thursday, February 20, 2014


“We’ll plan to be at your house around three.”

My internal computer is running on reserve battery. The statement doesn’t fully register.

“… A.M.?”

“Uhh, yea.”

On the heels of my last fishing adventure, I know I’m in no position to ask for sympathy. Plus, my buddies have done all the legwork – the meal plans, lodging arrangements, car packing. All I have to do is show up. The last thing I’m going to do is argue.

“I’ll see you at three then.”

I press ‘End,’ pocket my phone and start to do the math. I left the comforts of my Belizean lodge room roughly 33 hours ago. I slept in shorts and sandals on the C concourse floor at Hartsfield-Jackson last night, snuggling alongside hundreds of other stranded travelers. It has taken me only 24 hours to develop a life-long disdain for the soft, snow-fearing Atlantans who are to blame for this mess. I’ve missed two days of work that I can’t afford to miss. If my flight arrives in Cleveland when they say it will (it won’t), I’ll see my pregnant wife for about an hour, unpack, repack, sleep for three, and start driving south.

At this point in my angling career, there’s only one fish that could justify this insanity. 

The next 12 hours are a total blur and I’m in and out of daydream through all of it. When we finally hit the water the madness is just beginning to bloom. We’ve arrived to Dixie in the throes of winter with hopes of taking a thousand-cast fish on a fly, against all odds. The internal juggling of real vs. surreal, sound vs. unsound, dream vs. memory are struggles that will ultimately come to define the trip. In the meantime though, there are angling objectives to achieve.

The water is a deep wintergreen and casts a glow around our flies as we retrieve them in steady, anxious pulls. The lines are heavy - 300 and 350 grain sinking varieties, and the rods are built to handle the load. I realize right away that if I want to survive this trip with any cartilage left in my critical joints, I had better cast efficiently. We play with different retrieve speeds and casting angles and cover all parts of the water column. We’ve accepted that we won’t catch a fish, but expect one on every cast. I don’t need to have caught a musky to know that this is how you must fish for them.

We give each other feedback, checking our depth, coordinating fly selection, trying to eliminate as many variables as possible. The focus demanded by this type of fishing is a natural stimulant and the Seinfeld episode that was the last 36 hours of my life quickly becomes a distant memory. I’m fully engaged with my fly as it dives, kicks and darts, completing every retrieve with a figure-eight at the boat. In this water and on this river I’m not really sure what I’m looking for behind my fly, but I’ll know it when I see it.

When I see it, I wonder why I’d wondered: it looks like a musky and it looks like it wants to eat my fly. I employ the figure-eight off the right side of the bow and the fish is on it, hovering two feet behind the fly. Twice he slashes at the fly and misses. I cover both sides of the boat, plunge the rod tip deep and keep the fly moving long after the fish has disappeared. My heart, I’m certain, has gone minutes without beating. I need to sit.

John suggests a bigger fly – bigger than the 10” baby clown I have on. Thankfully the boys have come prepared with heavy artillery. We settle on a trophy-trout sized morsel from Alex’s box. We row upstream 100 yards, administer a couple of Budweisers for peace of mind, and approach the target again.

The menu is muskie five star this time. The fish savages the fly on the second strip, and I retaliate with a violent strip set.  Delirium spills over in the form of elation when the fish finally slides into the cradle. My sanity has been salvaged.

I’m banished to the oars for the rest of the day and I’ve never been happier about it. Not a quarter mile down the bank John raises an even bigger fish but can’t get him to eat. A few casts later the fish shows for a second time but still, no committal.

Two fish in twenty minutes has us feeling pretty giddy: The red and white can hatch is on. With a couple miles left to float, the wheels stay on long enough for John to put a second fish in the cradle. 

Back at the Executive Motel the boys sit down for some tinkering at the vises. There's a working blueprint now, but the pattern needs revision. Two shanks, or three? More flash, or less? We all agree that the most important variable is being in the right place at the right time, but a good confidence fly can only help the cause.

The second day is much slower, maybe to bring us back down to earth. Only one fish moves to a fly, and before we know it dusk sneaks up on us. Tomorrow we'll meet up with Matt Miles to run a different stretch of river. Feeling confident about our chances we trailer the boat, stow the rods and head to the local college bar. We quickly make a roomful of friends by queuing a long list of Allman Brothers tunes on the jukebox. A few whiskey & ginger's later, when somebody else's playlist kicks in, we take it as a cue, close our tab, and start walking back to the truck.

Except there is no truck. There is, in its absence, a sign that even the three of us can read.

6:00 A.M. comes calling a wicked cry, but there are angling objectives to achieve.

It's a rough morning and gravel roads aren't helping. Lurching into an 11-weight cast after cast without a fish to show for it doesn't help either. By late morning we all need a control variable. An early lunch seems like a good idea. Musky lesson #37: always control the control variables.

Moonshine: Also a control variable.

I spend the morning with Matt, picking his brain and casting to his waypoints. By mid afternoon I’ve had 3 fish move to the fly, including a croc-mouthed behemoth that will haunt me for months. We shuffle boat arrangements, talk a little strategy, and keep sliding downriver. It’s not five minutes later when Alex and I notice the commotion in the boat ahead of us.

River blessings always come at a price. Before we jump the all night train home, there's some vehicle maintenance to take care of. 

The next day it's back to teetering on delirium. Musky is a powerful drug.

Friday, February 14, 2014

18 Miles Southwest

The car practically drove itself. West out of town past the community park and over the cow pasture crick rumored to hold smallmouth of disproportionate size. Past the 55 MPH sign and up the rise that caused my stomach to flutter as it had as a child on the rear-facing bench seat of my parents’ station wagon. At the top of the rise the centerline disappeared, the road narrowed, and I left my formal education behind in search of a much more practical degree. Ten minutes to the state line, five more to the water tower. Left, right, left, RPM and BPM rising, Allman Brothers blaring, eyes peeled for state troopers tucked into their usual ambush points. Down one slope, up the next, cresting the top of the valley and coasting to the finish line. 23 minutes on a good day; 30 if I got stuck behind a combine.

It was my first internship, a proving ground for borrowed ideas and vise inventions that absorbed every ounce of my spare time at the other end of those 18 miles. In between courtship and calculus and fledgling alcoholism, there was a surprising amount of spare time left to experiment with.

Like all of my favorite drives, this one told the story of the changing seasons. Rays of light striking the windshield at varying angles forecast the days fishing. The windswept, snow-dusted panoramas of winter promised epic streamer fishing and the likelihood of an entire river reserved just for me. The 18-mile return trip, even in the dusk hours of December, always seemed a bit brighter after a good streamer bite. In time, sharper angles of light turned the drive from gray white to yellow green and suggested possibility: could the bugs begin today? Fair weather brought fair weather anglers, smarter fish and smaller flies. I thought I was the coolest cat on the river, taking thick browns on #26’s, until I discovered that somebody else was doing it with #32’s.

After spring breaks and summer vacations I found myself making the 260-mile trek back to school early, only to drive 18 more so I could clear my head before digging into the books again. After one extended absence I arrived to a favorite stretch of river as the sun was slipping behind the hills and caught the last of a late summer caddis hatch. I threw a sleeping bag in the grass, slept streamside for a few anxious hours, rose before sunrise to cast tricos at rising fish, and made it to my 9:00 AM class with time to spare.

It’s been too long since I’ve been back. Outside my front window this morning, big flakes are flying and a foot of snow covers the ground. A bitter wind rattles the door on the foyer coat closet. I bet the streamer fishing is going to be epic.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Como La Muerte

My friends and I spend a lot of time talking about fishing juju. The terminology may vary – “mojo,” “karma,” “funk,” – but the root is always luck. We joke about our bad luck streaks being directly correlated to our transgressions in the eyes of the Fishing Gods and razz whomever has the hot hand for having stuffed their wader pockets with rabbits’ feet. We joke, but for some of us, it’s only half joking; we know that, try as we may to refine our skills and perfect our craft, the element of chance is constant. Even the most polished anglers need a little grace to befall them now and then, and most will be quick to tell you that. Perhaps accepting chance rather than fighting it is the key to realizing one’s angling potential.

In order for fishing luck to manifest though, one has to actually go fishing, something I haven’t done in far too long. So as I board a southbound jet sporting flip flops and a t-shirt, I’m feeling like good energy is already on my side. A few hours later my fishing partner for the week and I exchange high-five’s and clink glasses in the Belize City airport, toasting to the fact that regardless of how our luck plays out, we’re getting off easy. Our friends at home are about to get belted by a second “Polar Vortex” in less than a month. 

The island of Ambergris Caye welcomes us with a sticky ocean breeze, gray clouds and spitting rain, but the wet weather won't dampen our mood. We unload bags and kick off our shoes just as the lodge bar is opening for business.

5:00 AM knocks softly close to the equator. In Belize, you can almost get away without an alarm clock, the ratio of Belikin Beers to One Barrel Rum drinks consumed the night before being the deciding factor. Thankfully, we have three alarms set between the two of us. On our first morning, Dan and I rig a somewhat absurd quiver of rods, having previously agreed to pursue megalops but reserving the right to cast at anything that swims across the flat. With time to spare before our scheduled departure from the dock, we grab a couple of eight-weights and take a stroll down the beach, searching for bonefish tails carving  the early morning glare. We find a few, promptly send them scattering for deeper water, and head back for breakfast.

Shortly before 7:00 AM our guide, Emir, greets us. Dan and I show him our arsenal of rods and flies and explain that we're on a tarpon quest. On the dock Emir introduces us to his son, Gordy, a guide in training who will join us for the day. Gordy helps us load the Panga and I check the cooler to make sure it contains an ample supply of Belikin. Fully loaded, we push away and tear off toward San Pedro Town. 

A breeze leftover from yesterday’s cold front is stirring the water and as the motor cuts out in the mouth of a deep channel, we stare down at turbid water beneath us. Emir climbs to the front of the boat and points to a rolling deep-water flat at our 3:00.

“We’ve been seeing the tarpons on this flat,” Emir says. “If they’re moving through the channel, we’ll find them.”

His angle, I suppose, is to see what he’s working with before he plops us in front of moving targets, and to buy some time for the skies to clear and the weather to calm. Dan is an accomplished casting instructor and striper fisherman, and if nothing else at least this won’t be my first time casting for big rods for big fish. In fact, I’m feeling particularly confident about this go of it. But anxious as we are to begin hunting the flats, neither of us is prepared to argue with our captain. Besides, a little free throw practice before taking shots that count can only help. Dan takes the bow first and begins stripping line onto the deck. A couple of hauls get the heavy intermediate line moving, and when the rod tip finally comes to a halt, a narrow loop goes sailing out over the channel. He begins a slow, steady strip. When the fly begins to rise from the bottom of the channel and comes into view, he repeats the process. He does this again and again, and my mind begins to wander until the monotony is finally broken.  

“Got him, got him,” Dan says cautiously, knowing he could be un-gotten in an instant.

I finger the shutter button on my camera, waiting for the impending aerial display, but it doesn’t come. Emir is on the deck, hackles up, coaching the fish as much as he’s coaching Dan and barking orders in a voice that reminds me of Tony Montana's:

“Jump, you fohker!”

After 30 seconds of bulldogging, Emir mumbles something in Spanish. He’s convinced it’s a Jack and a boat-side flash confirms his suspicion. Dan muscles the fish in. It’s a good one, bigger than any Jack I’ve caught, and we agree that we’re off to a good start. But it’s not a tarpon, and we are on a tarpon quest after all. So I take the bow and Emir runs the boat over to the big flat. 

I work on making long, clean casts, shooting and retrieving in methodical arcs. Emir stands next to me on the bow, our backs to the sun, as I cast toward the beach.  We seem to recognize simultaneously the sensation of heat on our shoulders as the morning cloud cover burns off. Emir looks to the sky, left, right, and finally behind us in the direction of a faint green line on the edge of the horizon. Wide-rimmed sunglasses, a ball cap and buff hide his face completely, leaving his expression to imagination. I’ve only seen his face for a couple of minutes this morning and, in this moment, I can’t quite picture it. He taps his bare foot on the deck and whispers to the sky.

“El suerrrteee...”

“Bring it in,” he says. “We’re going to Savannah.”

I look down at the line piled at my feet and begin to reel in when the sound of 75 horses catches me off guard. I manage to land less than gracefully on the bench seat next to Dan as the bow lifts up and the panga blasts off in the direction of the Savannah flats.

It’s hard not to associate the ocean with noises. Crashing waves. Howling wind. Squawking gulls and splashing frigates. Hissing sand resisting tidal magnetism. When you find yourself surrounded by water on all sides, drowned in the complete absence of sound, eerie doesn’t quite describe it. Our vessel bobs above glowing green water now, surrounded by soundlessness. The only clouds to be seen are miles away and a haze hangs over the horizon. When you picture hunting tarpon on the flats, you picture this.

I try to ignore time on fishing trips. Any trip is inherently time bound, and this can create stressful undertones if there are angling objectives to achieve. And let's be clear: there are always angling objectives to achieve. The moments in an angler’s life that seem to last for eternity, though, are isolated from before and after. They occur during a meditative type of fishing often pursued and rarely realized. Soundlessness is commonly associated with these moments.

So, when it happens it happens timelessly. Only afterward will I recognize the opportunity as fleeting. There are three tarpon. They come from nowhere, cloaked in silence but very, very visible. There are three of them and they are coming for me. They are challenging me. They are, as far as I can tell, hunting me. There are three tarpon and then there is my fly and then there are three tarpon hunting my fly. And then my fly is gone, blacked out by a cavernous mouth and gaping jaws.

Sometimes you can be too lost in the moment. Seconds later I watch as three tarpon swim away and fade to glowing green, my fly lying limp in their wake, soundlessness shattered by the coarse-chorded ire of my guide.

“Jeem!! Streep-set!! Don’ move your rod!!”

I laugh, knowing better than to argue and trying to make light of my folly. Emir does not laugh. I take the gesture to heart.

The next day begins at the mouth of the same channel, but the wind is quieter and the clouds burn off early. We spot some fish rolling on the deep water flat and set our radar to high alert. Dan is on the bow when we spot some fish working in a daisy chain, rolling in sequence on a defined current break. With direction from trained eyes he makes a calculated cast, landing a 3/0 “purple death” in the heart of the bull’s eye and stripping in quick 8-inch pulls. After only a few strips a big tarpon does a head-and-tail roll on the fly, mouth agape. The fly disappears and Dan strips in cadence, but meets no resistance. 

There are more shots throughout the day, but luck is not with us. Late in the afternoon Emir suggests that we go investigate a bonefish flat that he’s sure will be hosting tailing fish. Egos aside, with one fish to hand in two days we’re eager to sign on, and he delivers. Upon arrival the flat is smooth as glass, save for the countless forked tails that dance across the surface. Wading in bare feet, we hook fish after fish, spooking only a few, and head back to the lodge feeling sufficiently smug. Tomorrow will be our last shot. 

We make the same rounds on the final day.  The conditions are perfect - there will be no excuses today. Active schools of tarpon and permit cruise the flat, but seeing them with time to get a shot off is a challenge in the morning glare, and for the third straight day luck evades us. When the angler on deck picks up the tarpon rod, a school of permit comes into easy casting range. When we commit to chasing permit, tarpon seem to roll in all directions. When the right fly finally crosses the right fish – a crab fly in front of a big, hungry permit – he eats, and promptly breaks 16-pound flurocarbon leader. Several more tarpon eats fail to yield a hookup. 

El suerte es como la muerte.

Emir and Gordy explore every avenue, call out every possible shot, check every last flat. I’m fighting the urge to glance at my watch the whole time, counting the minutes, finally accepting that our tarpon quest will go unfulfilled. I do everything I can to dodge disappointment, mainly by digging through the Yeti for another Belikin. We’ve had a great time and I’ve learned a lot about capitalizing on the opportunities you're given. Not to mention that I’ll be returning home to Cleveland in January with a wicked tan. Tarpon or no tarpon, life is good.

Back at the dock we convince Emir and Gordy to join us for a drink. Mariano behind the bar, perhaps sensing my disappointment, pours me a kick-ass Painkiller. In short order we’re swapping stories and laughing it up and I’ve almost forgotten about those angling objectives. Against my better judgment I dig my cell phone out to see if I’ve missed any important emails. I scroll through quickly and the only thing that catches my eye is a message from Delta. I’m tempted to ignore it until I catch the word “urgent.” I’m scheduled to fly out tomorrow morning, but the message tells me that my plans will have to change. My flight has been cancelled, and the next available flight isn’t until the following day.

There are a few tense moments as I juggle arrangements at home and with the lodge. All flights to Cleveland have been cancelled. As it turns out, Dan is flying out late tomorrow and has the morning free. The lodge has generously offered to host me for another night, and one of the guides has had a cancellation for tomorrow, so we’ve been offered a bonus half day.

El suerte es como la muerte.

Dan and I meet captain Cesar early the next morning, leaving the dock at 6:00 AM. As we run to the first flat I promise myself again not worry about time. This is a bonus day as it is, and if it’s meant to happen, it’ll happen. As Cesar kills the motor and climbs atop the poling tower, I notice for the first time the heat promised by a new morning sun. There is almost no wind and I’m already sweating. We start noticing fish rolling almost immediately, and Dan makes some well-placed shots with nothing to show for it. When my number is called we switch, and it’s my turn for one last hunt.

Cesar’s directions are calculated and concise, and that gives me confidence. When he tells me to put a shot at 10 o’clock and 60 feet, I put it there. There is excitement in his voice as he calls out a cadence for the retrieve, and though I can’t see the fish I’m ready when it tries to eat my fly. It’s a different kind of eternal moment – not the type that seems timeless or fleeting, but the kind that seems to last way, way too long. Finally the hook finds a home, the line clears the deck and a tarpon goes airborne, throwing light in every direction. When the fish comes boat side, Cesar leaders it and grabs it by the jaw. As he does, the fly falls from the tarpons mouth - the hook has broken.

I take the fish by the tail and move it into the light. Huge, perfectly patterned scales shimmer a thousand colors beneath the water's surface. I rock the fish back and forth, hoping to catch a glimpse of all of them at once. 

The soundlessness is deafening.