Capt. Gary Henderson, Florida

September 6th, 2004

To All Things Taught
By Captain Gary (Flats Dude) Henderson

Note: I posted a "challenge" in a thread on the saltwater board for folks to give me a subject to write about. I printed out the suggestions, put them in an old, stinky fishin' hat and drew two out. One is to be fictional, and one to be factual. Harold Hattaway, a well known member of FAOL, asked for a story about my wife Linda, and "the fish that didn't get away."

Linda had never been in a boat, let alone, an 18 foot Hewes Redfisher, one of the finest flats skiffs made, in my opinion. Let's back up a tad.

Linda was my best friend three and a half years prior to my "poppin' the question" in the summer of 1995. She graciously accepted my offer, knowing full-well I was seriously involved with a mistress; that mistress was saltwater.

We had set a date to "just show up" at the restaurant on the Rod and Reel Pier in Anna Maria, Florida the first week of September in '96, approach the owners, Mel and Rema, and since Mel was a licensed captain, have him perform the ceremony. Those in attendance would be all of the unsuspecting "Pier Rats" I had known for many years. We figured it would be highly memorable, since I had introduced her to all of my fishin' buddies and Rema and Mel, and they, as well as I, thought the world of Linda.

In February of '96, Linda called me from work at lunch on a Friday, and asked if I could take her fishing. I tried to explain I was boat-less at the time. She just wanted to go and sit on the bank of Lake Monroe in Sanford with a cane pole. It wasn't my idea of a fun afternoon in February, but, what the hell; at least she wanted to go fishin' and was willing to take an afternoon off to do so.

We sat on the seawall and flipped minnows into the tannic waters, catching a few speckled perch (crappies), and a mud fish. She spent most of the time poking at the fluorescent, cork bobber with the end of the pole. Pretty boring stuff. I growled a few times, as though she was kid and I the parent...mistake. I hurt her feelings and she let me know immediately it was the experience that mattered, not the fishing. I didn't listen. I was a captain that ran big boats, and surely she should understand the fish, itself, was the purpose for being on the water...mistake number two.

On the way back home, she asked me what a "flat boat" was. I explained it wasn't a "flat" boat, but a "flats" boat. I pulled into a marina to show her a shallow-draft skiff with a poling platform and attempted to explain what the function for each element of the skiff was used for. I also let it be known, if I bought another boat, it would be a Hewes, not the wanna-be skiff we were looking at. She wasn't impressed. I was too technical, and got a wrinkled up nose from her as we retuned to the truck... mistake number three. I finally lightened up and stopped making repeated mistakes. I dropped the subject.

Being that I worked late at night, I always slept a little late, but I was always up by nine the next morning. That Saturday wasn't any different until I walked into the family room, and there sat my future bride, coffee in hand, watching Flip Pallot sight-fishing red fish around Pine Island from a Hewes Redfisher. Flip's show, "The Walker's Cay Chronicles," takes him all over the world, and the Pine Island show just happened to be on that morning.

Linda was completely involved watching Flip, and hadn't noticed me standing behind her, and wouldn't have noticed then if it hadn't been for Max, our dog, wagging his tail and looking in my direction. Linda looked up and said, "Now I can do that!" An idea popped into my head.

Monday morning I went to work as usual, with an idea in mind that would change our lives. I called Scott Deal, the owner of Hewes Manufacturing, down in Fort Pierce, Florida. I had known Scott for several years, as we both had volunteered with Florida Conservation Association (FCA) for quite some time (FCA is now known as the Coastal Conservation Association of Florida).

I explained to Scott I needed a Hewes, but not just any Hewes. I went on to describe colors, on-board equipment, engine requirements and so on. I was ordering an expensive, custom skiff without consulting my future wife... was I nuts? Scott went on to tell me he would have one of our local dealers call me, since he couldn't sell me the boat from the factory (some kind of legal contract stuff). A few minutes later, Mark Myers, the owner of Central Florida Marine, called me. Another FCA buddy. Seems as though Mark and Scott had put that particular skiff together to take to the local boat show; I went down to take a look at her... I bought the boat. I didn't tell Linda, but that's a whole 'nother story.

That Thursday, Linda called me again and said she was coming home at lunch and was bringing two wedding rings home, for me to get ready, we were going to the courthouse and get married, it was leap year, Yep, February 29th and I had a brand new wife, she knew nothing of the skiff, and I was probably in more hot water than I could bail myself out of. We picked up the boat the following Tuesday, and she was more excited about it than I was...whew!

My Hewes flats boat

It was March 15th when I first launched the skiff in saltwater, after what seemed like an eternity waiting on warmer weather to teach Linda how to sight-fish for reds. Not only had she never been in a boat, she had never used light tackle. We had picked her out a couple of outfits, rigged them with eight-pound class line, and in that first few minutes of being in one of my favorite spots, I gave her a bit of instruction and turned her loose.

Linda and redfish The first day was iffy, and she practiced casting to any movement on the water. I was hit a few times from the tower, as the half-ounce Johnson spoon flew over her shoulder in more than one errant cast. By the end of the day, she could hit a six-foot circle, sixty or seventy feet out. Not bad for a novice. I caught three reds that day; she caught a small jack. But her enthusiasm didn't wane, and her question of, "Can we come back tomorrow?" let me know we were on the right track. The next day, she spotted a red tailing, cast to it and she and the fish were hooked; she, more than the ten-pound red.

Over the next several years, Linda caught many reds, big trout, learned to drive the boat on and off the trailer at crowded ramps, and in bad cross winds. She learned to pole the skiff, picked up the lingo of the water, and one morning, re-taught her old captain a lesson in patience he will soon not forget.

I had fished my entire life; fresh, salt, deep and shallow. I've fished cane poles, spinning, bait-casting, offshore, unlimited tackle, light tackle and fly-rods, but I've never been witness to anyone who picked up our sport as quickly as Linda has over a short time span. I tried to teach her without directing her, and a lot of things she learned on her own; poling the skiff, being one. She has caught red fish over fifty-three pounds on eight-pound tackle, many numerous large "'gator" trout, and tells her own fishin' stories at the tackle shop. But there's one trout that wrote the story, and I helplessly watched from a distance as the two came together one morning on the Indian River's flats.

It was ten in the morning, or so, when I staked the Hewes on a point that normally held red fish. It was mid-May, a time when trout fishing is at its best. Linda hates fly-fishing; she doesn't like the "clicking" of the spool as line is stripped from it. But, she loves the sound of a screaming drag, as line is peeled from the tip-guide of a medium-light rod.

Linda and trout

The Hewes was staked on a northern point of land where we have caught many reds and large spotted sea trout. I had left her on the boat so I could fly-fish a flat to the north of the boat. It was just too shallow to pole.

I was five hundred feet to the north, when I heard that shrill whistle she does so well (those Kentucky gals learn that at an early age). I knew a few reds had moved out of the area where I "staked out," but we had cast to them a few times, but they seemed uninterested in our offerings. As I looked in the direction of the whistle, Linda was standing on the casting deck of the skiff and had hooked up on a seemingly good fish. I figured it was one of the reds we had "spooked" from the point.

I was stuck in ankle-deep mud and was in no position to get back to the boat quickly. I yelled, asking her what it was, and her reply was, "I don't know, but it's big!" The water was inches deep where I had secured the boat by trimming the foot of the engine down into the soft, sandy bottom. The push pole still hung in its holder from the platform, dangerously dangling out from the aft twenty feet, and I knew if the fish was as big as she said it was, it would surely find the prop or the pole and break her off, but I wasn't even in good yellin' distance. I kept thinking, "Get out of the boat...get out of the boat." I had taught Linda a lot, including going overboard in the flats to fight a larger fish. Now was the time to do so, but I could only stand there and hoped she remembered. I had also instructed her, never to wade barefoot in that area where many stingrays live. She was barefoot when I left the boat.

I slowly began heading back toward the boat, but knew I had ventured too far and wouldn't reach her to assist. Suddenly, she went overboard in the knee-deep water, rod tip up, all the while fighting the large fish.

I was still two-hundred feet from the boat as she lifted the fish from the water. "It's a huge trout!" she yelled. She had caught trout six to eight pounds on numerous occasions before, why was she so excited about this one? Linda has little respect for a saltwater trout, and seldom releases one. The little trout tick her off, and she likes eating the big ones; they seldom get a free pass overboard if they are legal.

As I pulled each foot from the quagmire, I watched her lift the fish to examine it. It didn't look all that big, and she had certainly caught much larger trout than that one. "What should I do with him?" "It's your fish, keep it or release it, it's up to you!"

"He won't fit in the cooler!" (The cooler is a forty-eight quart).

As I finally got to the boat, she was sitting on the gunwale, out of breath and a little shaky. "Where's your fish?"

"In the cooler."

"I didn't think he would fit."

"Look in the cooler."

Linda had pulled the cooler to the side of the center console, and I couldn't see it from the port side. I walked to the other side of the skiff and peered in. There was more than a half-a-foot of trout sticking out from underneath the lid. We measured the fish and it was just shy of thirty inches. The fish weighed in at nearly ten and a half pounds.

I stood there listening to her "fish story," as she went through each and every detail. She remembered not wading barefoot and had put her wading shoes on, all the while fighting the big trout. She left out no detail, and I thought of the many fish tales I had told, but none as grand as this one. Linda had taken all that was taught to her, and those things she had learned from experience; put them all together; did battle and won. I was very impressed, and she was quite proud; rightfully so.

Linda's big trout

So, I raise my glass of coconut rum..."Here's to the two that didn't get away."

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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