Peter Brookes: On the fly: From fresh waters to the salty sea
Standing beside the guide’s boat slip on the placid waters of a southern Florida river, I gulped hard — reminiscent of TV’s Gomer Pyle, USMC, — when he asked pointedly, “Do you get seasick?”
Feeling like my manhood was at stake before even getting on the 32-foot fishing boat, I said somewhat sheepishly: “Well, I was in the Navy, if that counts … but I guess I spent most of my time flying or ashore.”
This was my first salt water fly fishing trip — and I started to wonder about the wisdom of making this part of what was supposed to be a vacation.
I thought I’d done my due diligence, asking about a dozen questions — if not more — of the captain before signing on for a day of fishing on the aquamarine Florida waters this spring.
How rough the ride might be wasn’t one of them.
My bouts with mild seasickness as a Naval Academy midshipman on a training cruise in the Pacific to a luxury cruise around South America (on my honeymoon, by the way…) flashed through my mind.
As a fresh water fly fisherman, I wondered if I was out of my “depth” (pun intended). But like so many things in life I was willing to be “schooled.” (Yes, pun intended again.)
After shoving off, we headed to a nearby marina for a casting lesson and some “warm-up” — always a good idea.
It not only gives the guide a chance to vet your ability with the rod and reel, but also to knock some of the rust off of the ol’ casting arm that atrophied during hunting and shooting season.
It was also good to get used to the telephone pole-like salt water 10 and 12 weight fly rods with tire rim-sized reels for heaving monstrous flies with the aerodynamics of a hay bale at mythical Moby Dicks.
OK, maybe I’m exaggerating just a little.
Indeed, with a ball cap and good polarized sunglasses, sight fishing was a breeze in the crystal clear waters; that’s not to say that stripping in the fly line quickly to imitate darting salt water bait fish was easy at first.
The hook-set is also different.
None of that easy-does-it “tip up” trout stuff in the salt — unless, of course, you don’t want to catch fish. We’re talking about a hard, strip hook-set with the fly rod being yanked to the side like for a bass on a spin rod.
After some instinctive “trouty” attempts to set the hook that failed miserably, I got the hang of it and landed a number of snook, crevalle jack, blue runner, bonita, and mangrove snapper–whose piscatorial power put a strain on the fly rod and tackle.
Salt water fish can make a sizeable steelhead seem like an itty-bitty brook trout.
At one point, the Captain throws me a roll of black electrical tape. I consider lashing myself to the boat’s superstructure to keep my balance in the rolling seas offshore, but instead he tells me to wrap up my stripping fingers in case we get into a “big ‘un” like a dolphinfish (i.e., mahimahi) — or a shark.
When he said “shark,” all I could think of was the scene from the 1970’s thriller “Jaws,” when Chief Brody murmurs to Quint, “You’re going to need a bigger boat.”
We didn’t hook a shark or dolphinfish, but I did witness beaucoup blazing bursts of speed, blinding flashes of silver, acrobatic leaps, and head thrashings that made the reel go zzziiiiiiiinng as the fish seemingly sailed for the Bahamas with my fly in its bony mouth.
But that, of course, is what makes it magic — and memorable — even if the prey gets away.
I’ve always said that when it comes to fishing or hunting, it’s better to be lucky than good — and on this first day in the salt, I was exactly that: lucky.
At the end of the day, I had brought to hand no trophies, but more than 15 fish. Best of all, I tested my fishing skills and learned a lot for a return engagement on the flats for bonefish or tarpon.
And, oh yeah, there’s nothing like a hard-fighting fish to keep your mind off getting a little green about the gills from the motion of that great, big ocean.
Dr. Peter Brookes has a home in Fort Valley and scribbles about the great outdoors whenever he can. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org