Capt. Gary Henderson, Florida

October 31st, 2004

The Kid

By Captain Gary (Flats Dude) Henderson

The early morning was still; everything quiet. I hunted tailing red fish with a seven-weight rod on the flats just east of Anna Maria Island on the west coast of Florida. I thought to myself, the rod is a little light for that particular area, I had seen snook with mouths as large as five-gallon buckets nail white bait in that same spot a few days before. The summer doldrums were winding down, it had cooled off a few degrees and the salty, Gulf waters left a perfume in the lazy, morning air.

I was alone in a thirteen and a half-foot Boston Whaler skiff that I had converted into a fairly comfortable flats boat, unless, however, the waters became a little choppy, and then the boat would loosen one's wisdom teeth.

Within minutes of letting the waters settle from my traveled path, I cast a deer-hair slider just past the turtle grass and outside of a sand pocket. He was there and nailed the hair-bug. A nice red was netted for supper.

Red fish have a slot size limit between eighteen and twenty-seven inches and a one per person per day bag limit, and I just wanted supper, so I left the flats a little earlier than usual that morning, besides I was hungry.

This was a ritual that had started some fifteen years prior. The end of the summer; Labor Day weekend, and snook season opening. Two weeks of nothing but fishing day and night.

The Rod and Reel Pier was a stone's throw from where I rented the same, small bungalow each year, and the pier had a bacon, egg, tomato and lettuce sandwich waiting for me.

Most of the tourists had left; the kids had all gone back to school, and in the heat of the day, nothing usually bit. Except when the tide was coming in, and that usually meant the bigger red fish in the thirty to thirty-six inch range would soon arrive in schools of hundreds and would cruise right out in front of the pier. Some would even join the resident snook to feed on the thousands of sardines and pilchards that wadded up under the structure's pilings.

I probably knew more people on the island than I was acquainted with where I lived on the mainland. Some of them took their vacations when I took mine just for the incredible snook fishing around that area. Bobby was no exception.

Bobby lived in Bartow and was a dragline operator for one of the phosphate mines in the Polk County area. He was a relatively large man with bad knees, and a colorful language to boot, and never seemed to mind who was around when he went off on one of his tirades. Other than that, he was funnier that a barrel of monkeys, and thought I had some sort of mystical powers that allowed me to conjure up the big reds at any given time. I never told him it was just knowing the time of the year and the tidal conditions. That was kind of fun, though. So, I let him keep thinking I was some sort of fish god.

One particular afternoon, Bobby was there when I showed up for lunch. The tide was slack and low and I took my time shootin' the breeze with the pier owner and Larry Sweeten, the bait shop attendant.

Since all the kids were back in school, I thought it strange that one boy was hanging around, maybe skipping school, but had been at the pier when I arrived. I sat in the shade of the roof's overhang watching as the kid kept looking underneath, around the pilings. I figured he was looking at the many snook and mangrove snapper that hung there.

I had one of my medium class spinning rods with me when this kid came up out of the blue and asked if he could use it. Strange. He went on to tell me a plastic bag had blown into the water and it was hung up on one of the pilings. Then he blurted out, "Sea turtles eat those things and they die from it." Hmmm, smart kid. He appeared to be around eleven or twelve, and I asked him why he wasn't in school as I went to the bait shop to ask Larry to use the long-handled gaff to retrieve the bag from the water, instead of my favorite Shimano rod. "My Dad dropped me off while he went to town. We just moved here and I wanted to stay at the pier while he was gone." That made sense, and I thought it pretty cool the kid would rather hang out near the water than mess around in town. I handed the kid the gaff and he gathered the plastic and tossed it in the trash with a sort of grunt of disapproval directed at whoever littered.

"Where you from, kid?" He went on to tell me they had just moved here from Michigan and he wanted to learn saltwater fishing. "You ever caught a red fish?" The boy shook his head, no. "Wait for a little while and we'll see what we can do about that. When's your dad coming to pick you up?"

"In a few hours, sir." Polite kid.

I brought the young man out in front of the pier and introduced him to Bobby, and of course, Bobby asked me when the reds would arrive. "Oh, in about forty-five minutes, I reckon." Fish gods know these things...right?

I spent the next half-hour catching three inch pinfish from around the pilings and fish cleaning station, the kid close to my side asking questions. When the bigger fish move in, all of the pinfish will hide, besides, the bait shop sells them for a quarter apiece but I never get charged, because I help stock the tank.

"Come on, it's time."

The rod is rigged with twenty-pound class line, a shock leader of forty-pound line, a 3/0, Mustad 3407 hook, and a three-ounce pyramid weight to keep the pinfish from drifting with the now, incoming tide.

Just like clock work. I tossed the spiny bait a hundred feet out, let it settle to the sandy bottom, then proceed to explain to my new fishing buddy what, why, how and when, including a stern warning to not drop my rod in the drink. The kid was absorbing each word, and responding with his usual, polite, "Yes sir."

The baitfish had only touched the bottom and the 4500 Bait-Runner's drag went nuts. "Okay, just like I showed you; rip his lips off!" The kid reared back on the rod, and the graphite rod bowed as the red tore the line from the reel, Bob and I coaching the kid the entire fight.

Larry showed up with a long-handled net to scoop the thirty-two inch red from the water and get a Polaroid shot of this grinning kid and the big, bull red. "Can I keep him?" We went on to explain the slot limits, and the reasons for those limits, as the kid kissed the red on the nose and released him back into emerald waters, listening with intensity as we "high-fived" the new angler. "Can I catch another one?"

Red fish suffered a near extinction several years prior due to an over-harvesting, commercial industry. Then named the "Florida Conservation Association," we went to battle in our State's capital to save the reds and to change their status to game-fish, taking them away from commercial sales. A long fight ensued and a new law was passed in favor of the recreational fishers.

By then, the lunch crowd had showed up, and we repeated the process, this time letting the boy, with more instruction, cast the next bait to probably hundreds of reds that had turned the waters of the incoming tide a brownish-bronze color. And, once again, the scene repeated itself, only this time with a crowd of observers cheering the kid on. Another photo op, another release without argument, and another pinfish went off the eastern end of the pier...and again, and again, and again.

The sixth fish was a twenty-seven inch, top of the slot, red. "This one you can take home." But to our surprise, the kid turned to us and repeated the sermon he had received concerning the plight of the reds. He turned to the water, kissed the red and said, "Go make babies."

In the kid's possession was six Polaroid pictures, each with a smile brighter than the sun itself, and a larger than normal red fish. I'm not sure who was more proud, the kid or his coaches.

Within minutes after the last release, I heard him yell, "Dad, I caught six, huge red fish!" Dad had returned from his business trip and was retrieving, or so he thought, the same kid he had dropped off that morning on the Rod and Reel Pier.

As the rest of us confirmed the story to his dad, the kid was now lecturing his dad about why he didn't keep one to take home. Our words flowed from the child's mouth. The dad walked over to me and asked what gear I was using, and began to write down, on a small piece of paper, what he would need. They both thanked us and left as the kid was still showing off his photos to Dad.

The next morning, I went to have a little breakfast and there the two were, father and son, sitting side by side out on the eastern side of the pier, sporting two new rods and reels, a new tackle box full of stuff, and a kid teaching his old man how to catch a red fish. I got a sandwich to go, and quietly walked off the pier. The kid didn't need any of my help, he was now the teacher.

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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