As I looked across the sparkling water, the sun transformed my eyes into slivers. The beach was surprisingly empty as the wind gave a gentle reprieve to my burning skin. After several days of fishing the marshes of southern Alabama, I was beginning to lose hope and motivation.
I shifted in the sand as I dug little holes with my toes. I was here out of desperation. I didn’t want to be casting next to people, and frankly, I didn’t want to see them either. Fishing to me was always a holy experience, and as the spiritual among us know, the holiest experiences were done alone.
Birds worked far down to my left, pushing against the wind. They occasionally dove into the water only to return to their hover thirty feet in the air. I knew they were working fish.
“About damn time,” I muttered in chorus with a wind that was just beginning to whip and howl.
I had dreams of sea trout and red drum caught in the marshes but could only land frustration. When that didn’t work, I moved out to sea and fished deep, chasing birds. However, I was rewarded with a terrifying experience with a school of sharks—a story for another time.
This is about the beach. It is also about the point most fishermen get to when they haven’t caught anything in a while. They get a tickling in their palms, a need for a rod that has something on the other end.
That’s where I was as I watched the gulls dive on the unlucky bait fish trapped in the surf. As I watched the birds grow more detailed as they came toward me, I knew I needed to grow more ready.
I had waited and watched for the birds for hours and a few beers. It was time well wasted, but it was a fishless time due to my novice nature. It is a chronic condition for someone that is always experimenting. I suffer from it to this day, always trying something new.
I took my rod from its case, carefully assembling its four parts and aligning the eyes. I never understood why I have such an emotional reaction to the misaligned eyes of a fly rod. Sure, they need to be lined up so it will cast right, but why did it bother me to a near emotional level?
We all have our ticks, I suppose.
Stringing the line through the eyes, I felt a tightness grow in my chest. The birds were fully formed, and I could see a cloud in the water underneath them. Some flavor of baitfish were pressed up against the shore, and the birds were feasting.
However, it was the invisible force that pushed the baitfish into their dire circumstances that I was interested in. The birds were merely a flag for the scaled treasures of the deep that I had been hunting for some time.
I retied my leader and tippet, then affixed a secret weapon I was all too giddy to use. A mylar spoon fly that I had assembled in my office in north Arkansas while on the phone with clients.
It was a small escape, tracing out the pattern on the mylar and then covering it with epoxy. The poor souls on the other end of the phone line didn’t want to talk about mutual funds any more than I wanted to sell them. However, the invisible chains of modernity had tied us together.
The spoon fly had been the blue skies through the bars of my prison. Now it was going to be the source of my eternal joy, provided I got it tied on soon enough.
I could see the top of the water boil as the invisible force pushed into the surf. The waves crashed and beached small slivers of silver, and the birds joyfully dove onto them. This scene stretched as far down the beach as I could see, and I was happy to join in.
With the wind whipping across my back, I knew casting directly into the Gulf of Mexico would only result in tragedy. So I elected to wade out and cast with the wind, using its power to pull the spoon fly even farther.
As I entered the water, the baitfish parted as if I were Moses and their lives the Red Sea. They scampered and scurried out of my way as I walked through the dark cloud of tiny fish. It was an interesting experience. One I think about often.
The birds didn’t cease to feed. They could care less about me. It became clear that I would have to make sure I didn’t catch one of them with my fly, line, or rod. I could only imagine how that would mess up an already unproductive fishing trip.
My first cast sent the spoon fly fluttering into the middle of the baitfish, and they seemed to welcome the company. As I stripped a lousy presentation in, I made a mental note to distinguish my fly as an injured outlier on my next attempt.
The next cast was far more professional. I expertly landed a perfectly straight cast right down the invisible line that separated the baitfish from the rest of the Gulf. I felt the fluttering of the fly through my rod and knew I would soon be rewarded for my effort and patience.
I wasn’t wrong.
I felt a violent snap in my line, and I set the hook, but to no avail. Whatever had hit my spoon fly didn’t have it in its mouth fully. Yet, the strike was more than anything I had experienced in the previous four days of hard fishing.
Replicating the last cast, I sent the spoon fly fluttering through the air and down the edge of the baitfish once again. As I furiously stripped the bit of epoxied mylar in, I gently guided it away from the baitfish and into the Gulf. It wasn’t long until the predators saw my attempt as an easy meal that had lost its way.
This time, I let the spoon fly soak in the fish’s mouth a little longer. I pulled the slack out of my line and then snapped back, sinking the number 4 hook deep into the jaw of whatever was on the other end.
It responded by showing me what saltwater fishing was all about. I had never caught a fish in the ocean before, and certainly not on a fly rod. I was an addict in a matter of seconds.
The line ripped out of my grip as the fish took off toward deep water at lightning speed. Within moments all the fly line was gone, and the fish was pulling the lime green backing I hadn’t seen in years.
In a rare moment of fishing competence, I braked the reel with my hand. The sudden, steady friction slowed the demon on the other end of the line, but it didn’t stop. Instead, it just changed course.
Taking advantage of the slack the fish put into the line, I began to reel every inch it gave me back furiously, but that would be a moment lived in seconds. Soon, it was back on a run.
This game repeated itself for minutes that stretched into eternity. The anxiety of losing the only fish I had hooked up with on my short vacation was intense, but the thought of landing my first saltwater fish on a fly rod was even more intense. With each run, my emotions yo-yo’ed back and forth.
Then it began to quit. Soon the runs were less intense, and my reeling sessions were longer. Then, finally, I saw it.
I reached down and picked up a long, silver fish that looked like a cross between a spotted gar and a barracuda. I had never seen anything like it, but I was in love despite its disproportionately small size compared to the fight it had put up.
I proudly held up the silver dart I had extracted from the sapphire waters and let the sun play over its skin. I was overly joyed to have been the one that got to catch it.
As our time together ended, I lowered the fish that had given me the most epic fight of my life back into the Gulf of Mexico. The ladyfish darted back into the cloud of baitfish, causing panic as it traveled into the deep.
I watched it go and began to load my rod with another cast. The spoon fly fluttered and glinted in the sun, now a trusted tool rather than an assortment of mylar and epoxy affixed to a hook. It landed in the water and soon was assaulted by another ladyfish.
The fight was on again.