Capt. Gary Henderson, Florida

May 1st, 2006


By Captain Gary (Flats Dude) Henderson
Let's take a trip back in time. I see many reasons to take a step back once in a while. Memories are nice, aren't they? The good ones, that is. Human nature tends to semi-erase the bad experiences, highlighting the happy and enjoyable times we record and enjoy for the rest of our lives. I know, I know, there are some experiences we block out, and with some, we learn life-lessons that whack us up 'side the head now and again.

I didn't grow up with a fly-rod attached to my little fist... glad I didn't. Mostly, the fly-fishing I ever witnessed, when I was little, was from watercolors illustrating an article in Field and Stream, or some other magazine I picked up in Fred Baugh's Shoe Repair and Sporting Goods Store in Auburndale, Florida, as my dad browsed over the new fishing gear Fred stocked. The only other forbearance was Dad's dabbling with an old fiberglass fly-rod he owned. That was it, nothing more. No cold-water streams, or brooks, or creeks that flowed with those crystal-clear, rushing waters from snow covered mountain peaks. It just wasn't in my genes. But, with all that said, I did grow up either in the old, green plywood skiff Dad built or butt-deep in a lake somewhere in my hometown, flinging a cane pole over my head loaded up with a gob of red wigglers. A lot of us started out this very way. But I'm not talking about just fishing, here. I'm speaking of the path we took, or was shown to us that got us where we are today. And along that same path, hopefully, we learned a few things.

How many times have we read threads on the Bulletin Board about someone, somewhere being more than just a little ticked off seeing our rivers, lakes, the flats, our oceans littered up with bait cups, discarded line, cans, and all kinds of other trash? Too many, I'm afraid. Litter is one of the "biggies;" however, there are numerous other articles that are left behind, and some that are not taken to the body of water to begin with. One being respect. Whether it is the respect of others, or the respect of Mother Nature, both are learned and should go hand in hand with each other.

I grew up in a small town and most everyone I knew, or my parents knew, fished. It wasn't all about catch and release back then. Heck, if one released a legal fish, they could almost expect to be run out of town on the next freight train, or worse. We ate a lot of fish then, I still do. There ain't nothin' no better than a plate of fried bluegill or catfish, cole slaw, baked beans and fried 'taters, and hushpuppies, at least down here there ain't, and all washed down with some sweet, iced tea. But that's another story.

Teaching was as important then as learning. The ones, usually the elders, taught us a lot. It didn't have to be my mom or dad; it could be anyone. There were many things to learn. Not just what lure or bait to use, but when the fish would be biting; what moon phases, where, what to smell for. Yep, I said smell. When bluegill and shell-crackers are on the beds, the perfume of the fish will waft through the breeze for hundreds of yards, and we would follow up wind until the smell went away. That's where we found the beds loaded with big, fat bream. And we took what we needed, not all we wanted. Big difference. It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure that out, but some never learned that part of respecting the natural existence and this plays out too many times by over-harvest of a species. I learned this lesson as a kid when I took too many catfish, and my reward, from who I thought was going to be a proud dad, turned out to be a long ride home on an overloaded bicycle through the orange groves.

There were things one just didn't do. Crowding out someone fishing in a certain "spot," even though they were catchin' and you weren't. Even if I was in the same boat with Dad, one of the actions that would certainly raise his hackles was if I threw my gob of worms over his line. Just a little lesson he taught me that kept me from doing that same thing to others later on in life. Bad manners.

If you ever want to observe a good helping of bad manners, go down to a boat ramp, especially around a holiday like Memorial Day, or Labor Day and watch. It won't be long before the usual buffoon shows up, many times more than just one, and totally kicks the proverbial ant bed. It's great entertainment. Stop first and get yourself a bucket of fried chicken, some Coke, sit back and enjoy. There are more lessons to be learned as what not to do, as there are to try and figure out why Bubba did what Bubba did (I hope your nickname ain't Bubba). And there really are lessons to be learned at the ramp while you enjoy your chicken and Coke (every soft drink in the south is Coke, no matter what it actually is, truth). Oh yeah, and when your ribs hurt from laughing so much, take the chicken bucket and Coke cans and throw them in the trash can. If there ain't one, take it home with you. Wait, just take the trash home, the raccoons will dig the chicken bones out and throw the container out of the can. They aren't responsible for bad manners.

Mentors. Yeah, I know. It's one of the "buzz" words that has come to surface that everyone is tossing around. I hate words that all too often come out and are used in excess; kind of like "thinking outside the box," or "closure," or "teamwork." Drives me nuts! But hey, a mentor is just that. They don't have to have a degree to be one, and it's usually the understudy that awards the "mentor" the status of being one. I have a good many mentors, or, let's just call 'em teachers. Anyone can be one, but it's the ones who mean that extra special something to us that deserve the title of the "M" word.

You ever run into those that you could sit and listen to for hours? Their stories are golden; rewarding. And once these folks are gone, they are gone. We only have ourselves to blame for not taking the time to sit with them, or fish with them and absorb each and every word they bestow on our ears. I know I have some that could have taught me volumes, if I had only kept my ears open and my mouth shut. My main mentor was obviously my dad. I write about him a lot, not because he sat on some untouchable pedestal, but because he was touchable, and loaded with common sense; a trait that seems to be slowly fading away.

Back when I was a boy, and Dad began teaching me life-lessons, I was sometimes too hardheaded to pay attention, or simply thought he was the dumbest man on God's green earth. Now it amazes me how smart he became as I grew older.

To Dad, a simple cane pole was a work of art. I remember him taking long expanses of time pouring over the bundles of cane that stood leaning against the outside wall of Maggie's Bait Shop behind Mr. Spivey's ice house. He would take the time to pull each one out and examine it closely. The blondish-red shellac glistened in the sunlight, and sometimes the person that made the poles would burn a pattern into the raw cane before the coating went on. For a buck and a quarter, one could own one of these fine sixteen-foot cane poles. But it really wasn't the poles that taught me another lesson. Dad always told me if I stepped over the poles that were always stored on the starboard side of the boat, it would bring bad luck. And as sure as I would forget, he would cancel the fishing trip, no matter if we had just driven thirty miles to a lake. He would turn around and go home. A little extreme, perhaps, but here's my take on it. He probably knew that a clumsy kid stepping over the rods and poles had a pretty good shot at tripping and falling on them, causing breakage. His way was his way or the highway, literally, and after a few times of making that mistake, I never did it again. Even today I can't bring myself to step over a rod. Quirk, superstition, or tradition?

There continues to be people of all walks of life I run into, and I take something from each one. This is part of a tradition my dad started. He never met a stranger in his life, and he passed that on to me. I sometimes talk too much, then he taps me on the shoulder and tells me to shut up and listen, or just as importantly, observe. Observation is a tool, and a fine one. As we fish wherever we fish, observation is a key that unlocks many of nature's little secrets. For instance, wading birds can give away the location of where fish are. They both feed on baitfish, and if there are baitfish, there are predators. Besides, just sitting, or standing there, is great entertainment, and it's there for all to enjoy free of charge. Beats the heck out of Sea World any day in my book.

I really wanted to stick to the subject of tradition, but I seemed to have wondered off of my main thought when I titled this essay. But that's who I am; just ask some of the folks that hang out here. Probably drives them bonkers.

As I stated in the beginning, I wasn't born to fly-fishing. However, the journey to the fly-rod is priceless. There have been many paths taken and some not followed that led me to this art form. I've never cast a cane fly-rod, but I've cast shellacked cane while gathering important information over many years of doing so. I've sat still in old, dusty shops listening and sponging up colorful stories by Fred Baugh, Alton Smith, Gerald Exum and many of my dad's other friends, and for the most part, they were all about fishing trips. I graduated to spinning rods, then to off-shore rigs, then to captaining large boats and flats skiffs. I've been fortunate to have not just good, but great mentors who taught me etiquette on my home waters, and instilled values at the same instant. Captain Jon Cave, Captain Ron Rebeck, Jim Wilson, Bill Parlaska, Leon Chandler, and many, many others, I owe greatly.

From cane poles to fly-rods, it's been a respectable journey, and it all started out in search of fish...a true tradition, something I honestly hope never fades. But even though our canes may be different, it's our traditions, and the tradition of others that has transformed us to who we are.

Well, I've rambled on way too long, and to all of you out there that were a part of my continuing journey; Thanks.

'Til next time. ~ Capt. Gary

About Gary:

Gary grew up in central Florida and spent much of his youth fishing the lakes that dot the area. After moving a little closer to the coast, his interests changed from fresh to salt. Gary still visits his "roots" in the "lake behind the house."

He obtained his captain's license in the early '90's and fished the blue waters of the Atlantic for a little over twelve years. His interests in the beautiful shallow water flats in and around the famous Mosquito Lagoon came around twenty-five years ago. Even though Captain Gary doesn't professionally guide anymore, his respect of the waters will ever be present.

Gary began fly fishing and tying mostly saltwater patterns in the early '90's and has participated as a demo fly tier for the Federation of Fly Fishers on numerous occasions. He is a private fly casting and tying instructor and stained glass artist, creating mostly saltwater game fish in glass.

Previous Flats Dude Columns

If you would like to comment on this or any other article please feel free to post your views on the FAOL Bulletin Board!

[ HOME ]

[ Search ] [ Contact FAOL ] [ Media Kit ] © Notice