Smile, breath, and go slowly.
– Thich Nhat Hanh
It was early, too early to be wading thigh-deep in cold water. I could clearly see the tails of bonefish on the shallow flat rising in front of me, but with the wind in my face I had better odds of being beaned by a coconut than actually getting one of them to see my fly. Still, I’d come here to try. My first few casts were tentative, feeling out the situation. Not good: the line piled up about halfway to the fish, which fed on oblivious of my presence. I tried harder, keeping my cast low and really muscling it into the rising morning breeze. Suddenly a small gust caught my cast and in an instant I was draped in fly line.
I raged at the wind, pulling lengths of line off my clothing, and false-cast hard against the breeze. Bad to worse. The bonefish continued to feed on into the tide, easing farther away with each futile false-cast. My leader looked liked I’d used it for knot tying practice and my fly was fouled in a loop of monofilament which had wrapped around one eye, dragging the fly sideways through the water. Humiliated, I retreated to shore and left the flat in peace.
The cast is the heart and soul of fly fishing. It’s what separates us from those who are merely fishing. It is the source of our joy, and considerable frustration. Many years have passed since my early morning jaunts to the local bonefish flats, but I can clearly remember the sense of futility when anything but a downwind cast was called for. It seemed like no matter how hard I tried Mother Nature got the better of me.
Of course, I now realize that it was exactly my own effort that defeated me. Casting is about finesse and control, not strength, and certainly not anger.
There is probably a lesson here somewhere, but I’ll work it out after I finish practicing my cast.
July 24, 2001
So pass the days. I hope I shall always remember summers here like this. The flats, though small, seem to stretch for an eternity, and I am always there with the sun at my back, searching. For what, I cannot say, but at the very least I have found memories. To really know such places requires time, and memory is built slowly, in layers. It is accreted, like the new sand of a high tide or the detritus of a storm. There is meaning there somewhere.
Stories, too, are found… or made. It was not a month ago now that I was stalking the mangrove fringe at dusk. The sun had set and I came there to see if the snook I knew lived there fed easier at night. Apparently they did, for a few minutes before full dark I heard a flounce under the mangroves. Their foliage is impenetrable, but I recalled a space between the main growth and a small outcropping that had held snook during the day. Getting a fly in there would not be easy, especially in the dark with the mangroves looking like a solid black wall against the charcoal sky. Still, my second cast somehow made it in and two short strips later I set up on what could only be a snook or a mangrove root… but mangrove roots don’t jump.
I proceeded, with building glee, to hand-line this snook out of the tangle of roots, through the small forest of young shoots, not giving an inch until the fish was onto the generally open water of the flat where it promptly snapped my ten-pound tippet. I stood cursing at the empty flat.
The stars spun overhead, dancing their celestial solea as a satellite glided across the night, its electronic eye mercifully occupied with greater matters.
Beneath heaven a small creature danced on the edge of a rock in the Caribbean. There, on a ragged corner of nowhere, I had stalked the crafty snook—a creature of the wild, lonely places—and touched it but briefly. I had seen its jumps, its outline distinct against the pewter water, but had lost him to my own shortcomings. Why? I gazed up at heaven with my question, but only received the usual answer. Heaven was as quiet as a conch.
The stars danced on.
July 24, 2001
The days are long now, and the evenings still. Deep summer brings the time of the south winds, and on days around the young moon the water flows well. Fish can then be found cruising the ankle deep water near shore and I go to hunt them in the fading light.
Dusk is peaceful on the flats: conducive to stillness and reflection—in the water, mind and soul. Mornings are fine, but then things are gearing up for the day’s work. The breeze grows and sounds of a new day begin. Evenings are just the opposite. The breeze dies and the seas lie down. Boats can easily be heard wending their way home far across the sound. The night birds take flight and the luff of their wings is distinct as they ride the damp air over the mangroves. On the far edge of the flat mullet make telltale jumps and glitter dully in the fading light. Much nearer the tail and dorsal of a bonefish ghost through water barely feet from the pale shore. At whiles it arcs its back to nose through the soft sand, hunting crabs maybe.
I begin the now familiar motions of presenting my fly. Three false casts and I lead the fish by a meter or more. Slowly it approaches the fly’s resting place. I strip the line every so slightly and my quarry’s pace quickens. There! It tails on my offering, the dorsal taught as a sail and the tail quivering. I strike, but too soon and all I feel is a momentary weight as the fly pulls free. Instantly the water explodes as it is pushed aside by a bonefish heading north. My offering sits forsaken, rocking gently in its wake.
As I retrieve my line, it completely fails to occur to me how lovely the evening is. I can’t see how the sea to the westward glimmers like old gold and the reflected clouds ripple and crease as the V-shaped wake of the fleeing bonefish spreads across the glassy flat. Or, rather, I only notice those things after reminding myself that beauty and stillness are why I’m out here in the first place. Catching fish is only an excuse. Right?
April 25, 2012, 5:25 pm
BarJack: [On poling platform, back to sun straining against the 12 knot ESE breeze.] Ok, he’s facing away from you.
WindKnot: [Searching for fish shape in the glare.] Away? You sure?
[Recast. Slooow strip. The tarpon materializes as it turns.]
WindKnot: Got some kinda reaction from ‘im… oh, dude, that could be really good dude.
[Strip, wiggle, wiggle, pause… line jumps tight, rod bends, rod straightens, line slides back slack.]
WindKnot: Ugh! F***! F******!
BarJack: WindKnot, WindKnot, WindKnot, WindKnot...
WK: [Pulling in fly line and leader.] Aaaah, duuude. F***! Alright. Your turn… Guarantee you I popped that 20-pound. I knew I was holding on a little too tight. That was an awesome eat… oh, noooo!
WK: [Fingering the leader in disbelief.] You’re not going to believe where it broke.
WK: In the F***ing 40!
BJ: And why would it broke in the 40, WindKnot? Can you explain that to me?
BJ: Cause you told me that would never break in the 40. Never break. Never! Forget Wind Knot, your name is now Forty.
Roughly 26 minutes earlier:
BJ: Leader looks a little frayed there. I’d retie, but that’s just me.
WK: Dude, that’s in the 40. [pull hard on line] That’ll never break.
BJ: Ok, man, you say so. I’m just sayin’, I would change it. I dealt with a lot of frayed leaders on Diego and I’d change it.
WK: Bro, look, I retied the 20-pound. I’m telling you, that will break way before the 40.
BJ: Ok, man. You say so… it’s your fish.
The fishing was good today, especially considering the dismal results of the last week. You even got a five-pounder there at the end, but that fish, that first fish keeps coming back to ruin it all. Thirty inches?
The sun is low. Your shadow stretches out, straining for the horizon even as you turn away. You put the wind at your back and head for home. It’s Christmas Eve.
So appropriately I’m regifting the above post to you all. I do have several other Christmas related posts, published and not, but I like this the best (and am too lazy to edit the unpublished stuff right at this moment). Don’t think there’s anything wrong with a blast from Christmas past from time to time.
Merry Christmas, and tight lines to you all!
WindKnot the Angler
May 5, 2004
Went fishing today, walked a country mile to catch a bonefish… but catch one I did.
The tide was dead low, and half the bay was uncovered. I saw a flat I’d never walked before, only barely suspected was there. I walked through mud and soggy turtle grass, around mangroves and across shallow pools where snappers darted beneath my feet and stood out there with nothing but the wind in my ears and not a fish to be seen. Yet, it was beautiful: light northeast breeze, clear skies, and birds resting on the dry flats. I thanked God for it all.
It was the birds that did it, flying off like they do. They flew over a school of bonefish that I wouldn’t otherwise have seen. I heard the splash when they spooked and turned to see the wake as they swirled around before settling down again. I trudged through the muddy grass to reach them.
I fished them well, I thought, but they wouldn’t eat. I had on a chartreuse fly, which may have been a mistake. Certainly they saw it, but it just seemed to make them nervous. If they’d been feeding they may have eaten it, but these were laid-up fish, resting in the shallows on a slack tide. I changed flies. Still nothing, and by then the fish had moved so that I had to cast with the wind over my right shoulder. Not good. And the new fly also seemed to make them uneasy. Must not look like food, I guess.
I waded out to get a better casting angle and changed flies again. This time I tied on an old, beat-up shrimp fly. It was missing one eye and of its original four legs had only two, both on the same side. I had good versions, but I refused to use a fresh one for myself—I needed those for my clients. This was partly laziness—they’re a pain in the ass to tie—but also a move to keep the odds against me. More and more that’s how I like my own fishing. Just the fact I was here, in a place I’d never fished before when I knew there would be fish on other flats—less muddy, easier to reach flats, where I know what the fish wanted to eat—well, that sort of says it all.
I worked out a cast and let the fly sink. The school approached and I gave it a slow strip. There! A wake followed. Suddenly I came tight and my leader went sheering through the water. Bonefish scattered like birds.
Within minutes I removed the hook and gently rubbed the head of a bonefish I’d never seen before. It swam away and I checked my beat-up fly. I sure wish there was another pattern that worked so well.
The fish were gone I didn’t feel the need to find more. Time to head home, back over the miles of grass and mud; I would walk and think about shrimp flies, birds, and bonefish and how sometimes you have to walk a bloody country mile to learn something you already knew.