My eyes snapped open mid-morning. The previous night found me restless—scouring charts, tables; interpreting the forecasts; weighing my options. Tides were slight; the weather, poor. “Cold spell” complaints were being tossed about Southwest Florida tackle shops like lies since the day I arrived. At 86 degrees and breezy, I found no quarrel with Florida’s sunny disposition. Had I met the coast with an inkling of prior knowledge of fly fishing saltwater or the area, I might have.
As I rolled from my sleeping bag on the concluding day of my sojourn, the mercury was reduced to 40. The sky was dismal and carried a briskness that rendered my featherweight Florida fishing garb useless. The snook that finned my dreams would be stressed.
Doubt flickered as I shouldered my kayak, and chilled water from an overnight storm met exhaustion. Its weight melded with the exhaustion of three months on the road depressed me. I pushed on, slinging it atop the car.
I met slack tide at D & D marina in Matlacha. A doorbell chime welcomed me to pay my launch fee to a gruff gentleman in a stained gray t-shirt.
“You might try it. Tough day."
Unstrapping my craft, I toted it to the water’s edge. An anchor and PFD smacked the gravel with a ceremonial thud. A milk crate took on fly boxes, Boca grip, leaders, and a dry bag. A paddle was assembled. I was a week-old tourist, but my routine was seasoned.
Every moment of flux is opportunity. The tide was rising, submerging the shoots of the tangled labyrinth of mangroves where predatory snook would set up to ambush unsuspecting prey. My plot relied upon a northwest-oriented course winding through the backcountry.
Fighting for every inch of advancement north along the Gulf edge, I was reassured that the gusts would assist me, moving my craft south as I fished. I needed only to reach the north end of the cut.
In the tight, winding water trail, the wind was shielded. I reached my destination inside a half hour. Fly rod rigged, anchor secured to the trolley, I slid into a standing position.
The gloom afforded no chance of sight-casting. Blind-casting would rule the day. I poled to a position fifty feet from the mangroves and dropped anchor.
Drizzle spawned rain and wind slanted it harshly. Many fruitless casts turned me to gliding upright through an open lake at the confluence of two creek channels.
I heard the fish first. Amid the timid roar of gray static stippling the tannic water of the backcountry, a beast woke and fed. Billows of an angry sea breeze shrouded the hint and challenged my balance atop my kayak.
The brisk frontal haze thinned temporarily, permitting my strained eyes a quick study of the mangrove edge. Dark water swirled again beneath arms of green. My eyes brightened.
Sixty feet separated me from the fish, and I feared clamoring to adjust my position would spook it. I stripped line from reel and awaited my moment.
A window emerged. The wind slowed. Raindrops thinned. Losing no time, I flexed my 8-weight. One, two, three false-casts and I punched my thumb through the cork. A white streamer uncurled, miraculously, between leafy limbs, tight to the shoots.
The fly sank for two seconds. Twitch. The line went tight before my strip was through. A surge of whitewater and unseen energy engulfed my fly. I swept the rod outward, flexing the butt, stripping, driving the hook. Tug-of- war ensued. Then, the fish tore parallel to the edge, wrapped the leader, and severed the leader with a flare of her razor-sharp gill plate.
My legs and arms shook. Minutes passed before I could sit without tipping. Ecstatic for fooling a snook into eating, I reconstructed my shock leader, retied my fly.
My hopes were escaping with the tide. The perfect ending to my story flashed before my eyes, fleeting. But it would be out of character to admit defeat. The outgoing tide would pull the fish from their hideouts into the troughs adjacent. I abandoned the lake, and poled on to another location.
Around the next bend, a deep drop-off grazed the mangrove shoots. Ambitiously, I pushed a long cast out parallel to it and let the fly sink. A few strips turned the water behind the white fly black. My rod hand began to sweat. The hallmark gill flare sucked in my offering. My arm reached skyward, coming tight to a fish in the open, with nowhere to go.
Somehow, I found the grace to kneel. Raising the rod tip, I reached out and seized the line-sider by the jaw.
*Originally published in The Rural Virginian