Capt. Gary Henderson, Florida

July 17th, 2006

The Customer, Part 2

By Captain Gary (Flats Dude) Henderson
I get nervous each time I fish with a new customer. More than once I've dodged errant flies by folks that weren't used to me being perched on my poling platform at the stern. But usually, after a friendly but firm warning, they begin to pay attention and wait for my instruction. Threatening to toss them overboard and make them swim to shore works, of course this is in a joking manner...if they only knew.

Then I've had the ones that, after being asked all the pertinent questions, such as; Do you know how to double-haul? Have you fished from a flats skiff before? What weight fly-rods do you cast? I found they have lied and couldn't hit a barn door, let alone a tailing redfish. But these things happen, and after a few onboard lessons, they usually do okay. None of this applied to Jack Thomas from Idaho.

I met Jack at the boat ramp at Parrish Park in Titusville, Florida very early that Wednesday morning. It was mid-September, one of my favorite months to chase tailing redfish on the shallow and pristine flats of the Indian River.

He was a tall man, at least six-foot three, but slim. Very polite and came armed with three fly-rods of nice quality. After a few minutes of small talk we boarded my eighteen-foot, Hewes Redfisher that awaited us at the dock.

As we idled our way to the bridge, I told Jack of the scouting trip two days prior to his arrival.

"There were so many fish I had to leave them. I didn't want to give all of 'em a lip ache" This excited Jack, and I was still pumped and a little sore from all the action I had seen on Monday. I couldn't wait to get him on these fish!

I nailed the throttle and the engine roared to six-thousand RPMs and ripped through the surface of my home waters. The ride was over almost before it started. It's only a couple of miles from Parrish, and at fifty something miles per hour, it didn't take but a minute or two. But the entire ride I wondered if Jack could cast. His actions answered my question.

Poling in from two hundred yards out, I watched as he strung two of his rods, a Thomas and Thomas nine-weight and something else, I don't remember. I had given him a couple of my deadly, golden bend-backs, and explained that two days ago that I had four of them destroyed by reds and trout, all the while poling and scanning the early-morning shoreline.

Something was amiss, however. It seemed too quiet. Birds that usually are standing in the vast, shallow flats were not there, and the schools of fingerling mullet swam lazily around in large schools and seemed relaxed as if they hadn't a care in the world.

"The mullet are happy." Jack turned and looked in my direction with a somewhat confused and concerned look. He probably thought I was nuts mentioning the mental well-being of the little fish.

"Is that good?" Jack began stripping the entire fly-line out onto the casting deck of the skiff. I took notice of this. Usually the stream guys only strip out enough line cover the width of a river or creek; at least that's what I always imagined, since I've only fished the Davidson River in North Carolina once. I certainly understand it since I fished the trees behind me a whole hell of lot more than the tree canopied Davidson.

"Nope. They're happy there's nothing after 'em. Two days ago they were as jumpy as a cat in a room full of rockin' chairs."

Blind casting on the flats is almost as important as being extremely accurate. If the fish are "laying down" in the grass beds or the sand holes, the more water one can cover blind casting, the better the chance to have a fish see the fly in that particular length of water. That's where flinging a line eighty or a hundred feet comes into play. And believe me, I've had some folks on the boat that couldn't cast thirty feet, and forget the accuracy part. But as I watched Jack work the head of the fly-line out and seek his rhythm with double-hauling, I began to watch him more than the lifeless shoreline. The guy was as smooth silk, and never got close to me with the fly. Then he gathered his fly in his left finger tips and began watching the shore with me.

By this time, I was poling parallel with the eastern shore as the golden-orange ball began to peek over the mangroves. The exact same water I had waded into two days ago. But this time there were no exploding trout or tailing reds, just little, content mullet.

I never fish when I guide, with the exception of my clients' wishes that I fish with them. I'm usually too busy shoving a boat around looking for the tell-tale signs of reds, then trying to get close enough to a spooky quarry to get them a shot at the fish. But that morning, I wanted to bring out the nine-weight to share in what I thought was his frustration. The guy must have cast a million perfect casts on to dead water!

Later on we poled away and hit several of my other favorite spots, and the outcome was the same. It was as if some alien spacecraft had hovered over the flats the night before and sucked up all the game fish and left only the vegetarian mullet.

Along about three, I noticed Jack began checking his watch every five minutes, or so. I knew he had to be getting tired; I certainly was. Never had I seen this water so empty of fish, and I had decided I wouldn't even charge this guy for the day. I never guarantee fish, but I was willing to make an exception. We headed in.

The only thing he said at the ramp was, "Same place, same time?" I went on to apologize, instead he interrupted me and told me how much he enjoyed the trip and was very appreciative that I worked my behind off looking for fish. I felt a little better, but as I drove home, I wondered if I would ever see another red.

The next morning came way too early, and as I drove back to Titusville, I kind of missed not having someone to talk to, especially Jack. We had hunted so diligently yesterday I had barely got to know the guy. I did know one thing; he could cast!

The day prior we had no sea breeze. On both coasts of Florida, in the summer, mini cold fronts happen almost every day on both coasts, each moving inland towards the middle of the state. This weather phenomenon creates a collision that results in afternoon thunderstorms that can be quite violent. As the eastern sea breeze begins around one, or one-thirty in the afternoon, the wind increases suddenly to the point of actually watching the calm and slick water's surface become choppy and rough. I can almost set my watch by it. Like any other cold front, the fish shut down. This didn't happen the day before, but I had explained this to Jack, and let him know that could be a determining factor of how long we stayed on the water, but otherwise I tried to get to the ramp around three in the afternoon. I guess that's why he started keeping a time check around three.

I pulled into the park around five-thirty that morning and noticed Jack's rental vehicle already there. I try to beat my clients to the ramp so I have the skiff in the water and warmed up before their arrival. He was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, unlike me, and handed me a cup of coffee as we exchanged greetings. It was still dark and we shot the breeze for a little while waiting for "blue in the east."

Deciding to head north, then west, to the Mosquito Lagoon, I figured we'd get a jump-start and left in the dark. I know the river like the back of my hand, so running in the darkness doesn't bother me. However, I noticed Jack had a pretty good grip on the "Oh Crap" bar that runs under the seat area of the Hewes. I know it wasn't nice, but when I saw the crushing grip he was using, I went to full-throttle-up on the skiff, projecting us into the darkness like one of the space shuttles that blast off over here. Only thing I got out of him was, "I hope the hell you know where you're going!" I just kept saying, "I know that oyster bar is around here somewhere! Let me know if you see something that looks like really sharp rocks, okay?" Jeeze, it was all in fun, and there aren't any oyster bars anyway!

As the sky began to change from black to blue-black, and the sparse clouds started showing their rosy-pink hues, I slowed down to idle through Haulover Canal. This area was dredged many years ago to bring the Inter-coastal Waterway across Merritt Island. It's all idle speed due to the many manatees that live there. I pointed several out to Jack as we crept along the tree-lined embankments.

The area I wanted to fish was an extensive flat on the west shore of the Lagoon. Linda caught her very first redfish there several years before, and I knew one area that I call, "Three Dead Palms" to hold reds due to a fairly good-sized grass bed just out from the three dead palms. By the way, the palms have now rotted away and the hurricanes have blown away any sign of them, so don't go lookin' for 'em.

As if I were stuck in the movie, Groundhog Day, the day played out the same, no fish were to be found. I tried several more "great" places the rest of the trip and I couldn't buy the customer a fish. Nothing!

Along about three that afternoon, I noticed Jack checking his watch again as I poled the skiff slowly along the eastern edge of Mosquito Lagoon, an area known for huge schools of big, bull redfish. Still no fish were to be located.

There's an area on the northern tip of the Indian River Lagoon that once was my favorite place to fish, but due to so many other folks discovering it, I had abandon going up there for several years. Linda and I used to fish there all the time, she caught three reds on light tackle one morning and two of the fish were IGFA world records, but she's a stubborn woman and wouldn't let me take a needed line sample to submit the necessities to claim the records. I had one more shot.

"You want to try one more place?" I knew he had to be tired, I certainly was, but if it meant putting Jack on just one fish, it sure would take the pressure off of me.

"I thought you wanted to be off the water by three. Sure, let's do it."

It was a twelve mile run from where we were, but the sea breeze never happened and I knew I could run full-bore except for Haulover.

Within minutes, I pulled back the throttle and slid into twelve-inch water praying to the fish gods that we would see at least one fish tailing in the crystal clear grass beds on the north end. They must have heard me.

As I scanned the area just over the sand bar, all I saw were tails, beautiful tails. Mullet were everywhere and were being blasted out of the water by huge sea trout. It was if every redfish in the entire lagoon system had gathered at this very spot. I poled to a safe distance and began pointing out the fish to my sport, looking down at my waiting nine-weight all the while. I think he read my mind.

"Hey, you going to fish?"

"I usually don't when I'm being paid." I bit my lip.

"Well, it sure would be a lot more fun if you did."

"You okay with wading?" All the while putting on my booties and trying desperately not to break my rod as I snatched it out of the rod holder.

We slid quietly over the side of the skiff and began the short trek to waiting and feeding reds as all hell broke out around us. Twenty, maybe thirty reds tailed in twelve, or less, inches of water. I instructed Jack to walk to my left a hundred feet and pick a fish. I walked over about twenty feet to the right of the school and stood watching and waiting and just as his fly touched the water, I let go with my cast. A boil of fish exploded on the flies and both of us hooked up at the same time.

As my fish ripped into the backing, I flipped open my phone and called Linda. The first thing she heard was a singing reel. "You found 'em, didn't you?"

"I'll be a little late." And with that, I hung up. I had to, my fish was about to go over and find out what was wrong with his fish, and his was about to do the same with mine.

We watched the sun setting as we caught red and after tailing red. I think the final tally was thirty-two reds between us, and they never stopped.

As the afternoon's sun began to cast that golden glow over my skiff, I noticed Jack had walked back to the boat and appeared to be getting a drink of water, and then I noticed he was removing his flats booties. I released my last fish and joined him.

"You okay?" I knew we had fished almost fifteen hours, and the adrenaline rush had to be still surging through his every cell, besides, he'd been slinging a nine-weight for two days.

"Go on back and fish, I am one-hundred-percent-plain-worn-out."

"Nope, if you're finished, I am too. I've had enough." I lied.

Jack and I sat on the side of the skiff for probably another hour watching those fish feed. We hardly said a word. The sun had set and silhouetted the shoreline; it was almost dark when we reached the ramp at Parrish.

After we said our good-byes, and went our separate ways, I relived that last three hours on the north end of the Indian River, and I obviously still do. Jack called me a couple of days later to thank me again. My thanks went to him more so. It's not often one has the privilege to have a client like him. His patience far exceeded mine, but it all paid off in the end of that golden afternoon. He went on to say that after three days, he was still sore as hell, but it was one of the best fishing trips he'd ever taken. Me too.

'Til next time. ~ Flats

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.

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