A kid turning twelve years old usually asks
for many things for his birthday. His
imagination runs wild, and he commonly asks
his parents for video games, a new bike, roller
blades, etc., etc., etc...
Chris was different. He was already hooked on
fishing the salt from numerous trips he had taken
with his folks and little brother. He didn't ask
his dad for any of the usual toys mentioned above,
but asked for a guided trip on the flats of the
Mosquito Lagoon. This kind of baffled his father,
and at the same time, swelled his dad's heart
with pride, knowing this kid was on a path that
would probably keep him out of trouble in the
Tom was an acquaintance of mine at my real job,
and I only knew of Chris through conversations
with his dad. Tom owned a large, pontoon type
of boat, but the vessel wasn't conducive to
sight-fishing, and surely wasn't capable of
fishing the twelve to eighteen inch waters of
the flats where reds roamed and fed.
Chris' dad came to me one afternoon and asked
about me chartering a trip for the boy and him
to the Lagoon in a few weeks on Chris' birthday.
I looked at my calendar and realized I was busy
for the next few months and couldn't book the trip.
I told Tom I would contact a few of my other buddies
that chartered the same area, and I would be careful
not to call any of the guides that had surly reputations
that may lead Chris to assume all guides were the same.
It was to be his first chartered trip, and I surely
wanted nothing to go wrong. Luck wasn't on our side,
as my three favorite captains were either busy, or
I remembered back on my youth, and understood
the disappointment in the child's eyes as I
spoke to Tom concerning the bad news, and that
I could find no one that could even nail down
a date to take the father and son on the
birthday trip. I could see how important this
wish was, and I was at a loss for words. I tried
to explain to him, as he asked about other guides,
and why they wouldn't take him fishing. It wasn't
that they wouldn't, and, as I said, I didn't want
some snarly, egotistical, know-it-all guide leaving
a bad taste in an impressionable kid's mouth.
I studied my calendar again, trying to somehow
squeeze a trip out at the last minute. Most of
my customers were from out of state and had already
bought their plane tickets and made arrangements way
too far in advance to change them. I felt horrible.
The following week, the week before the big birthday
trip was to take place, the weather turned foul.
Southwesterly, hot winds of fifteen knots came
from nowhere and decided to take up residency on
the east coast of central Florida. My already-booked
customers met me and a crisp, snapping American flag
at the ramp at Parrish Park in Titusville. They were
there and wanted to fish, no matter the conditions.
Mostly they were live bait guys, or light tackle
fishermen, and I didn't have to battle the almost,
gale-like conditions, attempting to pole the
eighteen-foot Hewes against the windward side
of the Indian River. A southwest wind is the
worst wind I ever have to deal with, since the
western side of the river is mostly commercial
sites, and I've never done well on that side that
lies nearly a mile from the east shoreline.
I kept thinking of the disappointed kid as I
accepted the checks and cash from grown men
that had booked my services. It was three
hundred bucks a trip, but the kid's excitement
had been priceless, then rinsed away with the
bitter pill of grownups' schedules. It just
wasn't fair, he said, and I fully agreed with
Maybe fate had something to do with one of my
customers calling and canceling his trip. But
the wind was still howling across the State,
causing the east coast to become quite warm
as it blew over land, not sea.
I often ask for my dad's spirit's advice when
I'm perplexed with situations that are troubling
me, and somewhat out of my control. His wisdom
and understanding was what I needed, and his
guiding voice usually comes through. I thought
of the many times he promised me we were going
fishing, and the disappointment I felt when adult
things would come up that were out of his control,
and he would have to cancel a trip. I could always
see the regret in his eyes; sensing my dismay.
Since the customer had to postpone his trip, I
called Tom and explained the situation. I could
book the trip, but the stubborn wind was the
obstacle. I watched the weather reports and they
stayed the same throughout the week. Maybe I could
find somewhere on the leeward side where I could
get out of the breeze. Tom agreed to go ahead with
the trip. To just get Chris on the water would be
good enough...but not for me. I had to get the
belated birthday present to work; to get him on
I agreed to set the date two days later, and
decided it was to be a free trip, and all Tom
had to do was show up, pay for the fuel and
take care of food and drink for the day. The
deal was done, and I heard Chris asking, "Are
we going, are we going" over the phone, as his
dad and I discussed the plans.
School was in session, but the trip was so
important to the kid, his dad decided to let
him go, since I could only fish on a weekday.
They both showed up at the ramp at Haulover
Canal at six in the morning. Chris' eyes were
lit up like running lights, and his anticipation
could be felt somewhere in Canada. He asked no
less than a million questions as I backed the
Hewes down the ramp and we idled out of the small
lagoon that protected the launch area.
It was just barely "blue in the east" as we crept
through the "No Wake" area that was designed to
protect the manatees from being struck by
high-speed boats. It seemed to take forever to
go the mile where the "Normal Operation" sign
waited for us on the east end of the canal. Chris
drilled me with questions continually; eyes wide
open, taking in the scenery that abounded on the
shorelines of Haulover Canal. I pointed out fish
striking at the baitfish, blue herons, a nice gator
swimming silently against the light current, in hopes
of plucking a wading bird from the bank. The sunrise
hadn't happened yet, and then I noticed there was
absolutely no wind, his spirit had heard me. All
was quiet, except for the idling engine that was
ready to propel us down the Intercoastal at the
posted speed of thirty miles per hour...manatee
zones, strictly enforced.
We reached the normal operation sign and I told
Chris and his dad to remove their hats unless
they wanted to loose them. Chris sat between us
behind the center console, as he watched each
and every movement of my right hand going toward
the throttle control. I brought the skiff on
plane and dropped her back to 3200 rpms.
The surface was as slick as honey on a cold plate,
and I itched to go full-throttle, but knew if I
was caught by the Marine Patrol, I would be paying
a health fine the following day. Then Chris'
statement..."I bet this thing will really haul!"
I scanned the areas where "they" hide; seeing
nothing, I grinned at Chris and nailed it! From
thirty to fifty in a split-second, and his eyes,
along with mine, laughed. That speed lasted less
that a minute and a sudden jolt sent the rpms to
zero and an immediate shut-down of the engine.
Something was wrong. I thought I had hit a manatee,
and I gazed into the disappearing wake to check
for parts and pieces. Nothing. But what did I hit?
I trimmed the engine from the water and the
stainless-steel prop was undamaged, the skeg on
the lower unit was fine. I had just scanned the
instrument gauges and the water temp was at 130
degrees; normal. The rpms were at 5800; normal.
I trimmed the engine down to remove the cowling.
I laid my hand across the block and it was barely
warm; normal. I checked the engine's oil reservoir
and it was near full, no warning lights or horns
or buzzers had sounded. I hit the starter, a rough
start, and then rough idle and she died again. Then
a "clunk," "clunk" as I touched the switch. I was
sick. I knew it was something either very simple,
or something catastrophic. And Chris asked another
question, very quietly. "Are we still going to fish?"
I looked into the child's eyes, and once again I was
reminded of my own youthful disappointment. I was
across the channel from where I was going to fish,
only not as far north as I wanted to be. "You bet!"
I had drifted into the shallows opposite the flats
and began poling to the channel's edge, then paddled
across it. Once inside the numerous spoil islands,
I settled the boat in knee-deep water and rigged
one of my best light-tackle spinning rods with a
new Johnson's gold spoon. I looked over the familiar
waters that were hidden between the islands and the
western shore of an area abundant with bottom grasses
and reds as long as my leg. I knew they were there,
they always were. Linda caught her very first red
fish in the same area four years prior. But my
thoughts and worries were in the direction of
the stern, where a very sick Johnson hung lifeless
on the transom. But I had a kid on board and his
only wish was to catch his very first red fish,
and I was going to do my damnedest to forget
about the engine and concentrate on making sure
he did so.
In less than two minutes, I spotted the first
tail of a nice red rooting for a crab or shrimp
one hundred yards at ten o'clock, tail waving a
couple of inches above the surface. I pointed
Chris in the fish's direction and began to give
him instructions on how and where to place the
half-ounce spoon. He nodded and I eased the
skiff within casting distance. I read Chris'
excitement and my heart was high in my throat
in anticipation, as was his, I'm sure. I held
my breath as he fired the spoon, but his
casting skills had not yet been honed, and
the errant spoon smacked down within inches
of the feeding red. He exploded in flight
and his wake blistered toward the now-rising sun.
"It's okay, there will be more, I promise." He
swallowed back tears as I reassured him next
time will be different.
A long span of time passed as I searched the
water's surface for another tail. My mind
drifted back and forth as I wondered what
had happened to the power source that was
beneath the platform from where I was working.
My thoughts had drifted from the water. I was
snapped into reality when Chris quietly, almost
whispering, said, "There's a fish over there!"
I looked ahead, another tail was just visible
above the film, two hundred feet; twelve o'clock.
Chris looked back at me, pride in his eyes from
spotting the red without his guide's help. I
whispered, "Wait...wait...wait...now!" The golden
spoon shot from the rod tip, touching down six feet
past the red, and two feet in front of his nose.
"Slowly...slowly," as I coached the twelve year
old. The red spun, exploded and nailed the lure,
drag screaming in harmony with the kid, his dad
and his skipper.
After several nice runs, the red was brought to
net. He examined the fish for a few seconds, a
handsome red of twenty-two inches. "Should I
keep him or let him go?"
"He's your birthday present, you decide."
With a big grin, looking up at his dad, Chris kissed
the red on the head and eased him back into his home
on the flats.
We had come to the end of the long flat, and no
power to run back up. I flagged down a boat that
agreed to tow us back to the ramp. The engine had
blown; totally destroyed. I knew my extended
warranty would take over and replaced the head
eventually, but that wasn't important right now.
Several years have passed since that trip. Chris
is probably seventeen or eighteen. I still remember
that experience as though it was yesterday, and
the twelve year old kid that got his birthday
present. That fish was released that day, but
also released into his memories, memories that
he will carry with him forever. Birthday presents
like that never wear out like video games and
bikes and roller blades and such.
See y'all next week.
~ Capt. 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.