Capt. Gary Henderson, Florida

September 13th, 2004

The Birthday Present
By Captain Gary (Flats Dude) Henderson

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 future.

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 on vacation.

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 him.

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 a red.

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, "!" 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

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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