Capt. Gary Henderson, Florida

August 2nd, 2004

Blue Water
By Captain Gary (Flats Dude) Henderson

It's three hours before "blue in the east" and I can't sleep. "Just like the old man," I thought. He never slept before a fishing trip, and I had inherited his blasted curse. I silently wished he was here right now. I'd like to hear him bitch about something, anything. As perfect as the situation may have been, he'd find something to complain about. I used to hate it when I was a kid. I knew I would be blamed for whatever was about to go wrong, and I was usually the cause. But he had left this world in '73 and I now wondered what he would have to say about her; whether or not he could find something to pick apart. She was "The Huntress," a 48' Buddy Davis sport-fisherman. Even though I didn't own her, I had been hired to keep her chartered for six months while her owner was away delivering boats all over the Caribbean. I earned my "sea legs" on her and knew her habits, her moves, and her noises. I began my silent bitchin'.

It was mid September and we had a charter that Saturday morning. I had stayed aboard the previous night and had instructed Tim, the regular mate, to meet me at the boat around five am, it was now three, and I rolled and tossed. "Aw, hell with it," I slung the covers off of me and staggered to the head, brushed my teeth and splashed cool water on my face; it helped, but it was still three o'clock in the damned morning. I needed coffee. I stubbed my toe on the bulkhead and bumped my head at the same time. "Jesus Christ, what in hell am I doing up?" Jesus didn't answer.

I sat down on the sofa in the salon and tried to see any form of daylight, or life; nothing but quiet darkness, no lights, no movement. Even the water was slick as glass. Not even a mullet was stirring. Three-fifteen and no coffee in the galley, dammit. I could call and wake Tim; he didn't live too far from the marina, but I was afraid I would wake his wife instead. She'd be mad as hell and probably show up to mate for me, just to pay me back for her lack of sleep. That wouldn't be good. I stood up and bumped my head again.

Four fifteen and I sat in the salon watching the national news, bleary-eyed, reasoning to myself whether this whole captaining thing was worth it. I looked in the cupboard again, still hoping I had overlooked something that was labeled "Coffee." Not even a jar of instant.

Headlights lit up the boat as I slapped at mosquitoes from the bridge. Tim had shown up early. He was drinking from a steaming, Styrofoam cup. "Mornin' Skipper!" I stared at his right hand that held the cup. I just grunted and rubbed my sore noggin, twice-bumped from things that grew from the inside of the cabin as I tried to sleep. "Ain't you all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed," my only reply.

I flipped the switch to the cockpit lights, trying to blind Tim as he stepped aboard, hoping he would spill his coffee. He just shook his head and went to the galley. I climbed down and followed. He pulled the coffee maker from underneath the cabinet, reached into the other cupboard and opened up a brand new can of Maxwell House.

"Son of a..."

"What, you couldn't find the coffee? You grumpy, or what?"

"Just make the damned stuff, will you." I went back up to the bridge.

Captain Phil had arrived and was opening up the doors to his 53' Hatteras next slip over. "Hey Dude, ya want a cup of java?" I climbed back down again and boarded the "Excalibur" and flopped down on the couch. "Where you fishin' today?"

"I'm not, just doin' some cleanup and getting' out of the house. The wife's planned a bridal shower and I wasn't invited."

"Wanna fish with us? I only have one angler. He'll probably think it's cool to have two skippers...and I can sleep."

"Nope, but thanks...here, you want a to-go cup?"

"Thanks."

"Hey Cap, coffee's ready!"

I was back on the bridge running up the electronics when the angler showed up. I tried to hide my excitement and act all salty and stuff as we introduced ourselves, then Tim showed him around the boat. I was always excited when we ventured out. A brand new day was about to happen, and it was though it was the first time I had been offshore. What a great feeling, reborn to the ocean and all of her surprises she held. First trip or the thousandth, the anticipation was the same.

I hate the smell of diesel smoke, it almost makes me sick. That is, until it's filtered through salt water. Then it becomes perfume. It intoxicates me. The twins downstairs in the engine room purred to life, dock lines were cast off and I bumped the transmissions from forward to reverse; starboard to port as "The Huntress" gracefully moved away from her moorings and out into the channel.

It was my favorite time of the morning. The sky was still dark to the west and began its transition from black, to deep blue, to goldenness, and pinks, and grays. The pelicans were waking and flew in formation, looking like a squadron of slow jet fighters. I passed the "Resume Normal Operation" sign and looked down to the cockpit, checking and making sure it was safe to do so. Tim looked up and nodded and I shoved both throttle controls forward. The engines sprang to life, roaring and growling, spitting black smoke. Bow rising, radio crackling, antennae springing forward and back, outriggers rising toward the heavens. Her hull buffets the shallow water's waves and sprays white waters far and away, and the spray hisses as it rejoins the ocean. I look to the north and see the breakers crashing over Gilbert Shoal. "I could drink this stuff!" as I yell and scream from high above the cockpit's deck, giggling and laughing in lunacy. Tim just looks up and shakes his head again as the customer winces with each rise and fall, and strains to hear what I'm yelling about.

Tim says something to him and he looks up at me and I see him nod and mouth the word, "Oh," never looking away from me. I briefly wondered what Tim had said to him. I hope this guy took his seasick pills...

Fifteen minutes into the twenty-five knot, easterly ride, and the water has turned from shallow, emerald green to deep, midnight blue. Small flying fish scurry from beneath the bow. I search the surface for sea turtles and hard objects that might damage the hull. Three, bottle-nosed dolphin ride just in front, using the displaced water to accelerate; occasionally jumping to catch their breath. Tim points to them, showing the angler. The sun is glowing orange as it rises from the Atlantic's intersection of water and sky.

I yell down to Tim as I bring "The Huntress" to six knots. "Where here!" The 'riggers are lowered and rods and reels are loaded and dropped back. I adjust her throttles to eliminate the vibrato of the engines; they settle into a harmonious drone and become one. The baits now skip, dig and smoke; it's time to tease Neptune's creatures into eating breakfast.

The hunt has begun as both Tim and I scan the surface of the Atlantic for diving and feeding birds, floating objects, weed lines, rips and surface temperature changes. It's seven-thirty now and the early morning coffee search seems like three years ago. My head is still sore; reminding me it really happened today. We wait and listen to the ocean.

The engines have settled into a purr, content to be where they are; fifteen miles from the coastline, and thirty fathoms of water beneath them as they turn the twin screws in counter-rotation. This is where I need to be, too, high above the surface of blue water, settled into my chair, scanning the sea and smelling the salty air. I begin to relax. I use binoculars to search the far waters, looking for anything that may be different. I look back to check the five, skipping baits adorned with their little, colorful skirts.

"Sailfish on the starboard teaser!!!" He's come to have a look at the pink one. The seven-foot sail has come from nowhere. He lights up neon and follows just behind the ballyhoo, then turns from the bait and disappears. We watch the spread, hearts in our throats and nothing. He's gone as quickly as he appeared. "SNAP!" the 'rigger clip releases and the Penn International screams as the sail heads away from the stern dancing, jumping and grey hounding; sending a shower of seawater. The belly in the line rips the surface of the blue water as he again propels himself skyward. The fight is on, and the angler now knows why he laid out plenty of good money for boat and crew.

He's brought along side for a photo and release. He's tired and has given up. His large, blue eyes look into ours, unsure of what has happened and questioning his fate. His brilliant, neon blues and violets have diminished into a dull, brownish color and several minutes are spent reviving him. He's never lifted from his waters, and is tagged and released. High fives all around! The noble warrior swims away, just below the surface and then disappears into the depths to sulk.

With the excitement over, the baits are repositioned and re-rigged. The purr of the engines begin to take their toll on me as I shake my head, splash cold water on my face and try not to fall out of my chair. Tim brings up a sandwich of ham and Swiss cheese with mustard, lettuce, and tomato and a diet Coke. I grumble at him for not bringing me a cup of coffee earlier, and then I grin at him. He's a good kid, mid twenties and studying to get his captain's license. He knows I'm just ragging on him. He'll be a great skipper. He's made himself and the angler a sandwich, and they sit on the transom, in the heat of the day, and talk about the tagged sail. I can't hear them from the fly bridge, but I can tell by their gestures what they are talking about.

"SNAP...SNAP!!!" Two 'riggers go off and tomatoes fly from the sandwiches, one sandwich goes overboard. Two, very nice dolphin (Mahi-Mahi) have crashed the baits on the starboard side and now have gone nuts in an attempt to free themselves from the green and yellow lures. They look to be around thirty pounds apiece. I pull the throttles back and slide down the ladder to assist. There may be more with them, but not this time. Photos are taken and they are both released into the cooler for dinner. Three more smaller dolphin are caught that day before we turn 274 degrees to head in. A good day; a fine day.

The ride in is uneventful. Tim cleans the interior of the boat, and the angler has joined me on the bridge. We talk about past trips and where he lives. We speak of the day and the fun he's had aboard and his willingness to do it all again next year. The pressure is off now, and I can relax.

Tim cleans the dolphin and accepts a large fillet for his supper. The angler tips Tim sixty bucks and heads away, thanking us for a "perfect day." Tim and I finish cleaning the boat, then sit in the cockpit, sipping a coconut rum and pineapple juice.

"Just another day in paradise, ain't it?"

"Yep, I hope I sleep better tonight."

"You gonna eat all that fish?"

"Want some of it?"

"Naw, just make sure you leave the coffee and the pot out tonight."

"I wondered why you were so damned grumpy this mornin'."

"Shut up and finish your drink, then get off my boat. See ya in the mornin'"

"G'nite Skipper."

"G'nite, Tim."

See y'all next week. ~ 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.


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