It's the start of a new season. The air is still cool, wind is calm and water is slick. I have a family looking to have a good day. For all I know, they are on their first trip of their lives. It is quite possible they have saved for years to take this fishing trip and I haven't been on a charter for over 3 months. With the seasons for many fish still closed and the fish we can catch are too far out for my boat to get to in time, I can feel the heat. The pressure to get these folks into a bite is weighing heavy on my choices. I have several spots in mind, but mostly spots that hold fish we cannot keep, or may not be there at this time of year.
Mom, dad and two young children between six and eight years old. Girl and boy, respectively. They are excited and I can see the innocent anticipation in their eyes. They hop around, looking into the water with visions I can only imagine. I do, however, remember the feeling of euphoria my first fish provoked. I was with my grandmother on a small pond in mid-state N.Y. We were in a small jon-boat, with my little sister. Much like what I see on board at this very moment. I can feel the emotion being stirred in the souls of young minds. This is why I do what I do. More than forty years ago, I can still feel what it's like. This young boy is me. I am him.
We have six hours to get it done. Trolling would most likely suck the life out of them. I need to find something to catch. My first spot was around five miles out of the pass and I ended my last years season on this very reef. It was a really good catch and that trip was one of the most memorable trips a boat captain could ever ask for. The Percivals, may their folks rest in peace. As I approached, I gave my mate the five minute signal and as I glance back, he started putting the bait out on the rails for them. The young ones followed him like he had a bag full of Halloween candy. Smiling, tense and ready to stop the boat. You couldn't break their concentration with a bomb.
As I pulled back the throttles, I heard them sound out the giddy scream I remember so well. It made me smile. All the while I was saying my prayers that we could at least get into some sort of bite. I searched the bottom for a short while and there it was. I saw the little hump that I recognised and after getting oriented with the wind and current, gave the signal to drop in. Now by this time Robert had them ready to go. Hooks baited, poles over the rail, tutorial fresh in their minds. As I give the go-ahead, i focus on my duties and concentrate on the wind and current to stay on site. Not too hard to do today. Less than a minute later I hear Robert say,,fish on! How sweet that sound is, I thought. Then a double. Then before I knew it, all of them were hooked up. I felt a slight relief, but I also know that anything could happen. They brought up 2 fish the first drop and that isn't bad really. Those who have never fish like we do can really have a difficult time getting the hang of it. Especially when the gear is not sized for such small hands. But they had the gear we could most fit them best with. And wouldn't you know it, the first two that hit the deck were from the kids.
We fished that spot for about thirty minutes and it seemed they were hitting pretty good. Most drops were successful other than some spit the hook, as usual. Every one was having a great time. Most of the pressure had gone and I was glad to see them doing what they came to do. I was prepared to sit here for as long as it took for them to get tired or the fish to stop biting. Bait after bait was going down and getting hit. It was exactly what makes a trip worth taking. The fish were not giants, but there were alot of them. These folks were busy, very busy.
And just when you least expect it, they quit. Someone flipped the switch. For several minutes, nothing was happening. Bait still on the hooks when they brought them up, no bites. They looked very perplexed and A thought came to me. And no sooner than I could say it, there they were. Porpoise. One,,then two then three. Rolling on top of the water to get a good look at us. I know they were wondering when we would hook them up with a fresh fish. They are masters of striping the hook of our fish without touching anything but the fish. We tried to drop a few more times and after the kids got their fill of the thieves, I started looking at my book for another spot. I checked the numbers and found another one about four miles away. We got the message from Flipper and pulled up and hit the next stop. We spent the next two hours on three more spots and not one bite. Things were turning bad, fast.
Time waits for no man and we had one more stop before we had to call it a day. This last spot is called the "Liberty Ship". It's a public reef that has been there for many years and I wondered if it was going to be very productive, if at all. We got there, I got rounded up on it, gave the signal and for the next forty five minutes, they wore themselves out. Every time they dropped, it seemed, the were not only catching fish, but they brought up four at a time. We had four hook rigs to increase their chances and it could not have been planned any better. As much as I hated to do it to them, I had to. I blew the signal and we had to pull up for the last time.
I gave Robert a few minutes to get everything stowed for the ride back to the hill, hit the head and opened the fish box just to take a peek and shake some hands. I chatted a short while and they looked like they had been through a hurricane. For a family of four that had never been out like that, it was a very good trip. I was very proud to have helped them with a good trip. We hit the dock right on time and there was a small crowd there, milling around. Robert had counted the fish on the way in the pass and after getting them on the dock he gave the number. Exactly two hundred and fifty fish. Two hundred and fifty! They waited very patiently while I helped Robert clean them and bag them up. These kids and their parents had the time of their lives. What's more, they did it on a day when I thought it was more probable that they wouldn't. It keeps me in perspective with the wild outdoors. You really can't tell how things will turn out. So when you get a little discouraged, keep the faith. You never know.
We all know that to quit, is to let them win. But do we know when it's time to let them win? We all know how frustrating it can be to leave the whitetail woods or return to the dock, when we don't have our limit or haven't harvested our game. Season rolls around and we have groomed our fields, worked on our boats and oiled the tackle and guns, in hopes of catching or harvesting a freezer full. Early in the season it's easy to have a great attitude and anticipate an experience we don't soon want to forget.
As we take trip after trip throughout our hunting or fishing excursions, we can get pretty discouraged. The animals play by rules we cannot seem to grasp. Game might not appear when and where we plan. Tackle may break and the "big one" gets away. Rifles missfire and line breaks. Deer bust us because we didn't take that extra minute to spray down with scent killer, as we are running a little late, only to sit there in our stands for hours before we catch a fleeting glimpse of a white flag.
It's relativley difficult to keep a perspective of what is happening. We think that, just because we are there, we can "plan" what will happen. We must be fair. If a deer was in my living room, I would know it. The same goes with them. We should remember, we are the ones that are out of our element and encroaching in another's world. When that coyote hangs up just behind that bush, he knows, something's up.
We cannot associate our behavior as humans with a wild animal or fish. I believe this is where we put ourselfs in a position to have to give up. By the end of our trip, or season, we find it much easier to rationalize quitting. And to be quite honest with myself, that may be the best thing to do, at that time. If the hunt is as good as it can be, then it's something we can feel good about whether we kill something or not.
By looking at all the ingredients in the trip we take into the outdoors, we can evaluate the odds of achieving success, and live with the outcome. I think it's paramount to remember that just by being able to do as much as we do, we are fortunate. By remembering that someone else that has as much passion and urge to do what we can take for granted, and cannot do as much as us, we can be happy when it does not turn out to be what we expected. At least we can return from our outings with another lesson in humility. I try to remember how blessed and fortunate I am just to wake up every day and I am able to get much farther than alot of people can. When I decide it is time to quit something, I have done all I am able to do, without regressing from whence I began.
It's the end of October, 2010. This was the last trip of the season. I just stepped off the charter boat "Gulf Winds", in Destin Florida. My deckhand is cleaning the day's catch as the customers watch, anticipating how they wanted to cook the booty they had caught that day. Nice Red Snapper, a few kings and a mixed bag of Scamp with some White Snapper to boot. They had just put their parents to rest at sea, my first burial at sea. It was really a non-event on the outside, but I knew how they must have felt. We got out to a place where it would be easy for them to revisit at any time, and they said their piece and off they went. The cardboard containers were sinking as we pulled away, turning our attention to the next 5 1/2 hrs left on our trip. As they turned around, I saw them smiling. It was a family of three, mom, dad and the son was around 8 years old. He told me his biggest fish was a monster bass, around 7 pounds or so and dad agreed. I told him well, today we are going to try and change your life. He smiled again and he wanted to know how big of fish we were going to catch and what kind. I chuckled. Normally this question comes from the old timers who are still thinking about the days when you could go three miles, catch sixty pound grouper and get back to the dock by noon. But I had to be fair and tell him, " we are going to try and catch the most and biggest fish that will bite". "We know where they live and we know what they will eat, but the rest is up to Him,(pointing to the sky), and them", pointing to the water. Again, he and his dad smiled and I knew then, we had a great day ahead of us. After that, I looked over and Robert was letting out the first of the trollers, as I got back up to the wheelhouse to tend to my duties when I heard,"FISH ON"!!! Wow, I said to myself, sweet. I pulled back the throttles and the child ran over to Robert, took the rod from him, and began reeling as fast as he could. This was the moment I was waiting for. This kid's life was in the middle of a change,, as I watched. The fish was not a giant by any standard, accept of course his. It was finally landed and when it hit the deck, the look on his face was priceless. It was a King Mackerel. It was about eighteen to twenty inches long and around ten or twelve pounds. At this moment, a young boy who just saw his grandparents being laid to rest for the last time, began to see a dream unfold anew. For me, it was not the fish that was important, it was the feeling I saw inside that young boy. He could not believe how big this fish was, and most of all, I could tell, he was contemplating who caught it. He did. He did something he had never done before. He was on top of the world.
This was our plan until they quit biting and after four or five Kings, they quit. Their biggest was around eighteen pounds, a respectable fish no doubt. We eventually rolled up the trollers and turned our attention to seeing what was on the bottom. As Robert switched gears to bottom gear and I put the throttles full ahead to a spot I thought might hold some fish, the mood changed a little. the customers dissappeared into the cabin and I was alone in my world. Watching the GPS, counting the minutes to the waypoint, I was thanking God for the day. So far, so good. As they say though, "a bad day fishing is better than a good day working." As a captain I can tell you, this is true. This was a good day already. As we rounded up on the first site, I could see on my bottom machine, there was something there. I got the winds and current at my bow, and gave the signal to drop in. The wind was not as easy to work with that day, and was constantly blowing me off the site, making it very difficult to stay on top of the fish. As it turned out, they werent biting there anyway. A few small fish that werent edible was the only thing that bit for them. We pulled up and tried several different sites with no real results and then I found another site I had not tried before. Another captain shared this with me as one of his "runovers" he had marked once. He didnt know what was there, but he gave it to me to try. It was going to be our last stop and I thought, I hope this was the spot for this young lad. We got to this spot, I rounded up and everything changed again. The wind slowed, the current was a little more forgiving and the bottom seemed to jump up with fish exploding everywhere on my machine. I gave the signal and within 30 minutes, the box was littered with Scamp, White Snapper, Red Snapper, a Grouper, Vermillion Snapper and a few other fish that made a mixed bag they could be proud of. This was the reason I chose to become a charterboat captain. I have a passion for the outdoors and I want to share it with anyone who will have an interest. As we headed back to the dock, I looked back and saw them all looking into the water thinking, watching and I wondered what they were thinking about. It wasnt hard to guess. Their primary reason for being there was for their parents. You see, their father had passed seventeen years ago. They had kept him, protected, in an urn. He was waiting for his lifelong love to join him one day. After her life was at it's end, they kept their promise and both of them were put out to sea, as requested. Ending a journey on this earth. This was also a new begining for another journey. Their young grandson was in the begining of his long journey wherever life was going to lead him. I believe this fishing trip was going to be something he was not going to forget any time soon. The smile he had, perpetual it seemed, when he disembarked, was like you might see in a cartoon. He did not know what to say or think. It was an affirmation for me. This was why I was here. As I watched them walk away, I felt pride in knowing I had helped make this a fitting end, and a new begining.
This is dedicated to the Percivals. May they rest in peace.
Mid September, in a place where I had been many times before. I was comfortable there, in the tree. I was in a loc-on. Season had been open only for about a week. I had put many hours in this property in the past six years. planting, scouting, hanging stands, cutting lanes and pruning. I had the elusive whitetail patterned pretty well here and I was anxious to prove myself right. For the prior year, I remembered how hard my grandson Chad worked. He was visiting from Colorado, and he was dreaming of what it was like to see them, walking, slowly, easy and unaware of our presence. I had shown him many videos of what it was like and he showed that fever, that intense longing to get into the mix. I could see how he was already in the tree as he watched the first kill on the screen. I knew he was ready for his first hunt.
We had already gone through the training with his rifle. He listened, watched and the first shot he took was dead on. This was not the time to put his expertise to plan though. This was an introduction to the world of archery. I couldnt help but feel I was giving him the short straw without having a weapon in his hand, but I knew he wasnt ready for a bow hunt yet. I had made an arrangement to keep him for a year, with school and all the other sports and activities, we had not gotten around to getting him a bow and he was anxiously waiting for rifle season. In the meantime, grandpa was on his own quest. I had set up a ladder stand behind me in the clearing by the open field. As I look to my right, as far as I could, I see him sitting there, full camo faced. As the sun came up, we could see some deer across the open field. They looked like they were not interested in coming over to our side and as the next two hours proved, they weren't. They slowly disappeared into the neighbors woods and not long after, we thought, it was time to call it a morning. I always try to back out as quietly as I come in and I was trying to teach him the same. I looked over at him and the look he gave me was exactly what I was thinking. Nothing is moving anymore and it was time to go. I didn't want to show him, yet, about the long, boring hours it would take to get to where I was, so I chalked this one up to putting in the time. After all, he was going to experience more of this than the videos showed, but that would come in time. He has to learn the way everyone else has. The wild animals don't always work on qeue. He sat, watching me climb down from my stand and walking over to his, I waved him down. No sooner did his feet hit the ground, we caught movement and to both our surprise, a doe was running down the hill, through the hardwoods, and just behind a tree, she stopped and decided to lay down. At about fifty yards, it wasnt a shot I was willing or could even attempt through the trees and brush. We were pinned down and we had to make a choice. We could choose any one of about three options. One, we could start walking back to the cabin and bust her out of there, giving her an education of our whereabouts. Two, we could sit and wait for her to get up and leave. Not something he wanted to try. After all, he was already bored.
This was the opportunity I was looking for. Option three. Make a stalk. I had stalked a few deer in this very spot before and I was pretty familiar with how I was feeling about it. It felt right and I was anxious about letting him see what it was like. All the factors that considering a stalk with a bow would take, were about to be revealed. We had the luxury of being able to whisper so I ran him through it. I checked the wind, right in our face. I looked around and not seeing any other deer, I told him to sit down and slowly get as comfortable as he could. It was not very humid and I knew that with dry leaves laying on the ground, this may take a while. I knew I had to close the distance about twenty yards before I would even consider a shot. He sat down and I turned and put on my face, focused and began to scour the ground for the best places to put my feet. I tried to remember everything I had learned, while also trying to remember how my student was watching every move I made too. It took about twenty minutes to go about twenty yards, so I figured. I was very thankful of the tree she laid down behind and how she was oriented behind it. I had a clear path while still being able to see her hind end. At one point, I stopped and turned to look at Chad. as my eyes met his, he was focused. I watched his eyes grow, very fast and it looked like he saw something. His jaw dropped and he was trying not to move, but it was very clear he was trying to tell me something with his eyes. I instantly knew what it was. When I looked back in front of me, my suspicions were confirmed. She had stood up and was staring right at me. I was busted! At this point, it was get it done or feel what every archer has felt before. So close, but yet so far. And so it was. I took a breath, raised my bow and drew. Remembering to breath was the most difficult thing I had done in this whole hunt. I looked through the peep, acquired the pin, adjusted to the hair on the spot, and took one last mental check of the routine. I moved my finger to the trigger of my realease, let half my breath out and loosed the arrow. I sighted my thirty yard pin and immediately knew she was closer than thirty. I saw the arrow fly right over her back. Being here before told me to knock another arrow as quick as I could and loe and behold, she stopped and gave me another shot. Because she ran some, I held the same pin. Thirty yard pin, and aimed, found the same hair, squeezed and, yea, over her back again. How could that be? She ran about ten yards and, over her back again? Well,, again, I knocked a third arrow and drew quickly. She stopped a second time! I raised up, focused and yes, the thirty yard pin again. After all she ran even farther. Ok, I think I can safely admit, the "now or never" feeling hit me. This third arrow, again, right over her back. Three shots, not a hair. I could feel my face flushing with the heat of embarrasment, frustration and defeat, from top of my head to the very core of my toes. I watched her dissappear in the woods as quuickly as she ran down the hill thirty or so minutes ago.
I stood there for what seemed to be an eternity before I turned around to face what I thought would be a very disappointed young lad. When I made the eye contact, I was so afraid of what I thought I would see but, what I saw was a young man that just understood it. I walked back to Chad and to my delight, his words told me he was farther along this road than I thought. He turned to me and told me how it was ok. I did a great job stalking that deer. I did something that was very hard to do. He was showing a level of professionalism way beyond his years. I was so proud of how far along he was, being so young. Well I continued to explain as we walkled back to the cabin how most of the time, the animal wins. I tried not to beat myself up too bad in front of him, but I knew down inside how I let that opportunity escape me. We began to make jokes and let it be what it was. I felt better pretty quickly because I knew, they were clean misses. No injuries, other than my ego and that was a pretty good consolation for us both. Through the laughter my thoughts turned to how much I loved him and how great a hunter he was going to be one day. I took pride in being his teacher and showing him that the real hunter can come back empty handed and still know how to make it one of the most memorable times in ones life. He was on his journey to live the ups and downs it will take to be a sportsman. Being true to his age, for the next three days I heard about how the broadside of a barn was a pretty safe place for a deer to stand. I love that boy. If you love yours, pass it on.
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