Capt. Gary Henderson, Florida

August 8th, 2005

Johnny Walker, Red

By Captain Gary (Flats Dude) Henderson
Okay, now that I have your attention, this has nothing to do with scotch whiskey.

I met Johnny Walker (seriously, his real name) in 1998. He and I were members of another fly-fishing website. He is from the Dallas/Fort Worth area in the great state of Texas. And, since my dad was from Texas, I figured we had a little more in common than just fly-fishing, although I've never been to Texas.

After conversing with John for over six months, I invited him to visit us whenever he could get away and do a little fishing on the flats, which he told me he had always wanted to do. A few months after the invite I received a phone call from John, accepting.

Linda and I were both excited about meeting Johnny at Orlando International Airport, and we both expected him to be the stereotyped, long and lanky Texan. Not hardly! John ain't real tall, he's fair-haired; nothing like we had expected. It's rather humorous how we imagine folks we talk to but have yet to meet them face to face. Now don't get me wrong, I had spoken to John on the phone, we had conversed for hours in the chat room, so it's not like I didn't know the guy.

As I arrived at the airport, the only info I had was his flight number and the arrival time. That doesn't mean a whole lot at Orlando, but the only saving grace I had was to look for someone carrying a rod tube and looking like a "Texan." Yeah, right! So, I park myself at the baggage claim, since I was a little late parking the truck and figuring I wouldn't waste time riding the monorail out to the arrival area (I love riding that thing) and waited. Nothing looked like a Johnny Walker. But just as my cell phone rang, I just happened to look in the direction of a pay phone and there stood this dude in an "Indiana Jones" lookin' hat, a carry-on piece of luggage and most importantly, fly-rod tube!

My cell phone began to ring as I tapped him on the shoulder...'bout scared the heck out of the guy! We introduced and off to the local fly shop to fetch a few leaders and John a non-resident, saltwater fishing license; chewin' the fat the entire journey.

The weather in June is sometimes quite unpredictable, well, let's just say the weather in Florida is totally unpredictable, and just so happens the week that John decides to bring himself to our subtropical state, the weather goes nuts. I seriously believe through some strange phenomenon, the sun either came nearer the Earth, or old Beelzebub himself decided to go to Disney World. Now mind you, I could've warned the poor guy if it had have been any other state in the Union, but not in Florida. As we say, "If you don't like the weather, hang around a few minutes; it'll change!"

John had already purchased his plane ticket well in advance, and who would have thunk it? Our night temperatures were in the mid-nineties! Not to mention the daytime highs were in the teens, hundred and teens, that is!

As John and I discussed the possibilities, I explained to him that we could hit the flats around dawn, fish 'til nine or ten o'clock, head home and go back late in the afternoon and fish until past sundown. Sounded like a plan, so off we go on our first morning adventure. It's always a little cooler on the coast anyway. Wrong!

To add to the situation, John was on some sort of medication that depleted the PABA in his system, but not to fret! Linda dug through her numerous bottles of suntan oils, and sunscreen and came up with a tube of number 50spf. That ought to do it! But it wouldn't do a bit of good for the hellish condition on the waters of the Indian River.

I don't mind the heat, really. I hate cold weather, really. But this was ridiculous.

We happily blasted our way to the north end of the estuary at a mere fifty miles an hour, salty spray adding a false sense of "oh, this ain't too bad" security. Heck, I even let John take the wheel of the skiff as I snapped his photo, even let him pole it later on. Big grins and whoopin' and hollerin'. But when I settled the Hewes in the area I wanted to fish, it was though the caverns of Hades opened up just to our rear, and the breath of a thousand dragons breathed fire from within.

I immediately saw red fish. They weren't tailing, but were just sitting there, as they sometimes do. John launched a fly. Nothing. Again. Nothing. This went on for over an hour. I decided we should wade. As I stepped overboard, I realized what the problem was. These fish were poached! The water, only being a foot and a half deep, was on fire. But we fished on. Ten o'clock came and I told John we could head home and try again late in the afternoon. He wasn't havin' it. He was here to fish. Period!

Looking like a mummy with a long rod, he was quite visually entertaining. We joked about the slathering of white cream that coated all of his exposed skin, the long-sleeved Columbia flats shirt, the Indiana Jones hat, and all the while, I honestly wished I had worn more clothes. Actually, I wished we were back at home in the air conditioning!

Five days went by with no relief. The fishing was out of the question, even though we went each and every day. We did eat well; grilled shrimp and pina coladas, cold beer and smoked fish. And we had a great time of it. We discovered that my grandfather is buried in the small town of Alvord, Texas only twenty minutes from John's house. We discovered our structure, our beliefs, our upbringing and our whole outlook on life was almost parallel. It seemed as if we had known each other for many, many years. The heat suddenly just didn't matter as we conversed for hours on the drives to and from the river, and spending time looking over areas he had never seen.

Anyway, as the title reflects, now you understand, "Johnny Walker, Red". He did get quite red. Funny now, miserable then.

The seasons passed, but we stay connected and the next year, John brought his wife, Joyce, with him. The heat had diminished, but the second day he was here, a hurricane was brushing along the west coast of Florida which disrupted the gentle, warm breezes on the east coast, rendering the usually clear waters of the flats to a substance that took on the appearance of coffee with a small amount of cream thrown in for good measure, and a brisk thirty-knot wind that rendered the captain of the small vessel useless as he attempted to pole his worthy skiff, dodging arrant flies.

John went home again, fishless.

Year three came to pass. John called and asked about the weather, the fish and my schedule. All was well, but as stated earlier in this story, things are subject to change without warning. This time they stayed the same. John was off the meds that caused him to turn bright red and then peel like a shrimp. The wind was variable to calm, and the mornings were rose-gray. These were the mornings I always sought out. The engine was pre-tested, the trailer was checked over. Tackle was pre-rigged, flies tied, and once again, we were ripping over glassy, saltwater flats.

I throttled the growling monster back to idle and shut her down in less than two feet of invisible water. All was quiet, until John yells out, "What the hell is that?" Looking over the starboard side of the Hewes, a four-foot long bull red fish cruised within reaching distance. He was huge, maybe thirty, thirty-five pounds. He knew he was in no danger. That fish knew our names, what type of boat we were in and its serial numbers. He just cruised lazily out front of us and swam away. I kept scanning the shoreline.

Just ahead, and out of casting distance, at least twenty red fish tails were visible, projecting just above the film. I suggested we get out of the boat and wade to them, since the water was less that a foot deep where they fed. John agreed, and we both slipped our wading boots on, trying to be as quiet as we possibly could.

Slipping over the side into warm water, we waded within thirty feet of the bronze and blue tails, then cast to two different fish. Instantly we were both attached to two reds that were boiling the once slick surface of the river. The pressure was finally off after the two previously empty trips in as many years. John finally had his first Indian River red fish! My thrill, of course, was two-fold. I had a red on my nine-weight and was watching Mr. Walker fight his first. The observation was far more rewarding than my catching another red.

Over the past years, John has visited us many times. He is family. Was to begin with, I reckon. We've shared many meals, caught a few nice fish. Laughed a whole bunch, especially about that saltwater catfish he caught on his "special" fly.

Funny, isn't it? These relationships that are formed by a long rod...

'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.

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