Capt. Gary Henderson, Florida

November 8th, 2004

An Old Man And A Lure, (Fiction)

By Captain Gary (Flats Dude) Henderson

He sat in the corner of the restaurant; the lighting etched him out as if he were sitting patiently for Norman Rockwell to finish painting him. It was late in the afternoon and I had just sat down at the bar sipping a beer, waiting for my dinner.

My company had sent me on a week-long seminar to the southwest coast near Fort Myers, Florida. What a deal! I was near some of the best snook fishing waters in the state, and the thought of several nights of snook fishing took away the bitterness of the long and drawn out days of sitting in a sterile room, listening to some monotone voice drone on and on.

I studied him. The wrinkles on his leathery face, I bet, could tell many a story. I could just tell he was from around these parts. He appeared alone, maybe even lonesome. I barely could see him through the bluish wisps of pipe smoke, and the aroma of Prince Albert was unmistakable. He was studying something in his hands; something that, from across the room's distance, I couldn't make out.

The bartender sat my hamburger and fries in front of me, asked if that would be all; I barely heard him. I sat mesmerized staring at the old man in the corner. His old fishing hat held a few small plugs and was stained with what appeared to be ages of layered salty spray, and the unmistakable dark impression on the bill where, maybe a thousand times, he had adjusted the hat to block the glare of lights as he cast to unseen snook in the waters around Sanibel Island or out in Redfish Pass, years before the ritzy shops and fancy motels and boutiques had appeared.

"He's one of the old locals." The bartender had noticed I hadn't touched my supper.

"Who is he?"

"Don't know. He kinda showed up one day after they turned this place into a restaurant."

"What did it used to be?" I never took my eyes from him as he fidgeted with whatever he held in his delicate, but aged hands.

"An old tavern. Many of the old guys used to hang out here. A water'n hole where they told their fishin' tales. I reckon it don't matter much anymore. He's the last of 'em. I remember it back when I was a little kid, then it burnt down."

"Too bad. Can you wrap that up; I'll take it back to my room."

Just as the sky to the west was turning into that purplish deepness, I began to cast a large, dark hair-bug into the gentle swells. I wondered if the old man back at the bar had ever stood here, and if he had, had he ever hooked into a "nice one." I stared up at the stars. There was no moon out that night, and I was far enough from the glow of the town's street lights that I could see the Big Dipper and the Milky Way. "It would have been a lot better place back then" as I thought out loud.

I didn't sleep well that night in the newly decorated motel room; smelled like fresh paint. I rolled over and wondered where he was. Did he live around here someplace? Where was his family? I bet he could tell a few whoppers.

Sunlight became my alarm clock the next morning, as I realize the young man downstairs didn't call the room to wake me. Hell, it didn't matter. I dreaded the six hours of droning, and, if I was late, I sure wouldn't miss a thing I had heard before. I hated these things.

That evening I went back to the eatery, hoping the old man was there.

My eyes adjusted to the darkness of the bar area. A few folks were there sipping colorful cocktails, dressed in the typical, print shirts and Bermuda shorts, a sure sign of tourists; their legs pink and sore from a day of collecting shells on a crowded beach. I found a sense of humor in their pain. "Damned Yankees," I whispered a chuckle and found my place at the bar.

"You back again?" The same bartender from the night before sat a cold Bud in front of me, sliding a coaster between the varnished wood and my frosty glass.

"Yep. Is the old man here yet?"

"Naw, he doesn't usually come out 'til around six."

A few minutes before six, the door opened and he slipped to the back of the room; same table; same old worn hat with the lures. He never looked up. His back bent by old age, and a slight limp in his right leg. But he seemed to belong here; a fossil in a changed world that somehow managed to pass him up. The new surroundings didn't fit him, but somehow accommodated the man with the leathery hide.

"Whatcha havin'?"

"I'm sorry, what?" The barkeep snapped my attention from the old man.

"Not yet, maybe later. I'll take another beer, though. Does he drink?"

"Scotch...he drinks scotch."

"Pour me his favorite, I'll take it to 'im."

The walk over to where the old man was sitting made me nervous. It seemed to take me a while to reach his table, but it gave me a few seconds to figure out how to introduce myself. I noticed he was still holding something in his right had, but his hand was kind of cupped and I couldn't tell what it was.

"Mind if I sit down?"

The old man noticed the scotch in my hand, then slightly touched his lips with his tongue, then slid the opposite chair out from the table with his foot. His eyes were gray-blue, matching the smoke that curled from his pipe. The wrinkles upon his face begged to tell their stories.

"Take a load off, son. That drink for me?"

I found warmth in his voice. A deep voice that had been steeped in many a glass of good scotch over the decades while sitting in bars telling fishin' lies that I hoped he would relive for me.

"Boy, you look familiar. You from around these parts?"

"No sir, a few hundred miles northeast. Up around Orlando. But I've been here a few times. Here on business and a little fishin', I hope." I found myself a little embarrassed by far too many words.

"You a snook fisherman?" He peered from beneath the brim of his hat, squinting his eyes at me.

"Well, I try to catch 'em, but I switch to reds and trout whenever I'm on the other coast."

"Huh. I used to go after 'em. Every night. Let's go out on the deck out back. Got a nicer view of the Gulf. Quieter out there, 'sides, I ain't too much into watchin' them sun burnt people drink them sissy drinks."

I followed the old man out the rear door to a wooden deck that had a full view of the setting sun over the Gulf of Mexico. He paused just before he sat down, breathing the sea air deeply; then looking over the Gulf, seeming to see the fish he used to hunt.

"Gonna be a pretty one tonight." He spoke of the sunset that was beginning color the evening's horizon. I wondered how many he had watched, as he stalked the beach in the late afternoons searching for a bite. I could hear the whine of the old, level-wind bait-caster, and taste the salty spray as the black-silk line back-lashed and spit the residue of seawater.

"You lived here all your life?" I tried to read his face as he sipped his scotch and began to answer my question.

"Pretty near, 'cept when I went off overseas to fight the Germans. Other than that, yep, born just up the road from here in North Fort Myers. You been there?"

"Yes sir, but not in a long time."

I wanted hear him tell the hundreds of stories I knew were hidden behind those piercing, and somewhat spooky eyes. I wanted to know the man. From the "get-go" his surreal appearance in the shadowy lights of the restaurant caught my attention. Not too many of the old natives were left, and folks like him were my only connection to a Florida that was slowly vanishing.

I watched him as he meticulously packed the canned tobacco into the bowl of the nicotine stained pipe, then struck a wooden match on the side of the matchbox and took in deep puffs. The orange glow lit his mysterious face in the evening's twilight.

"Started fishin' for snook years before anybody figured out you could eat 'em. Most people just buried 'em under their grapefruit trees for fertilizer back then. They tasted like a goddam bar of lye soap. I just happened to skin one out one day and the Mrs. fried it up in some hot grease. Been eatin' 'em ever' since. 'Course, not too much anymore, got too old to fish. Bad knee and the shakes. Hell son, I can't even tie a knot anymore, damned cataracts. If'n it weren't for that..." His voice faded, as he seemed to drift away; as if he was remembering when the knots were simple, even when he would tie them in the darkness of the beaches where he fished, and did so still in his memories.

"God, I miss her."

"Who's that?"

"Miss Sadie," then he withdrew again to a time before my years, it seemed. His jaw muscles flexed as if he was somehow pissed at the world and me sitting in front of him, asking personal questions.

"Was that your boat?"

"Hell no, boy! That was the Mrs. No finer woman in the world. She didn't fish much, the skeeters and the sand gnats drove her crazy. All the bitin' and buzzin', I reckon. But that woman tried for years to pick up every shell on the beach. Yes sir, she did enjoy that."

"Y'all have any kids?"

"Nope, she had some sort of female trouble. No young'uns."

He grew quiet as he looked longingly at the sunset, perhaps trying to imagine what it would have been like to teach his very offspring to follow him down some deserted, west coast beach. To pass the snook fishing tradition on to them, but there was none to inherit this wonderful place where tides of emerald waters meet the purest of white sands.

"That woman could skin a fish and have it in the fryin' pan afore I could bury the guts. They don't make 'em like that no more. You got a wife?"

Recently divorced, and still feeling the sting of some lawyer's callousness, I shook my head, no. "Divorced." I could sense his disapproval in the failure of my matrimony. Old folks like him married for life; better or worse, 'til death parted 'em.

"Yep, I was married to Miss Sadie for goin' on fifty-six years. She was my best friend." His voice began to crack, and a wet film of misery glazed his eyes and the words of being alone stuck to the rim of the nearly empty scotch glass. "Damned breast cancer killed her, and nary a son."

"Well, boy," grunting as he rose from the deck chair, "I need to get on to the house. You comin' back down here tomorrow night?"

"Before you head out, what's that in your hand you've been guardin' for the last two nights?"

He sat back down, as if for the first time that evening. Reaching out in my direction, he opened his right hand and there, clutched as if were a secret treasure, was an old, red and white, wooden lure. Its paint cracked and marked with many scars from scaly, toothy critters. The white paint turned a yellowish-tan from years of being worked in the salt currents of many decades. The hooks weren't rusty, but several were warped opposite the bend of the treble. Several chips in the red front of the plug told of mishaps, as it danced among barnacle-crusted pilings.

"Oh hell, it's just an old Creek Chub, but it's the only one of its kind." He, again, began to rub the paint with his thumb. I could see where it had been caressed so much the once white paint was missing from the left side.

"Miss Sadie made this one, 'specially for me. It seems I ended up in Garrett, Indiana many years ago. Had a stop-over on a bus. That's where I fell in love for the first and last time. You see, Miss Sadie worked for a man named Henry Dills. He made these here Chubs. Most of 'em were kinda greenish, but I wanted a red and white one. She painted it for me, and I married her."

"Damn, just like that?" I laughed aloud at his abruptness.

"Yep, just like that. Moved her down here, much to her daddy's dislikin', but he warmed up to me a few years later. I reckon it keeps me in touch with her, somehow. I gotta go, it's past my bedtime. I'll meet you tomorrow if you want to. Long about six okay"?

The next afternoon I waited anxiously in the bar for the old man. Six came and went without his entrance. I left, figuring something had come up.

It was nine o'clock, just after sunset. I cast the dark fly westerly. I couldn't see the fly, only casting by feel. The exaggerated sounds of a quiet evening allowed me to "see" in the dark. A thunderous explosion in the direction of my fly, followed by a sudden rip of the nine-weight line through the water caused my heart to skip several beats; the unmistakable run of a fat snook heading toward Texas was enough to almost give me a heart attack, especially in the dark.

"I never did use one of them fly poles." I damned near jumped out of my skin. The old man had slipped down the beach and stood quietly to my left as I cast into the dark waters of the Gulf.

"Christ! You scared the hell out of me!"

He kind of chuckled and lit his pipe. "Always used an old Pflueger Supreme and Miss Sadie's plug. Caught a many of 'em right where you're standin'." I waded out and lipped the fish from the water, held it a second and released it. "How 'bout me buyin' you a drink, boy?"

It was a short walk to the stairs that led from the sand to the deck of the bar and grill. I leaned my "fly pole" on the wooden railing, went inside and bought a beer and a glass of scotch, neat.

We sat there as he talked about the island. He spoke of narrow streets lined with bungalows where he knew each of his neighbors; an island less of shops and "tourist traps," as he called them. He spoke of the war and some of his buddies that never came home. And Miss Sadie and the hours they would sit on the white-railed porch of their house on the opposite side of the street that overlooked the beach, as she fiddled with her collected shells, and he with his rods and reels. He spoke of the old ferry they would board to get to and from the mainland. He said he always hated to leave the island, even to buy groceries.

"After they built that bridge, things changed. More and more people poured in here and bought up the place. Oh, I got offered a lot of money for our little piece of paradise, but it didn't seem right to leave here. Me and Miss Sadie thought about it a few times, but just couldn't imagine where we would go and find what we had here. I made a few folks mad at me for not sellin'. It's home; I reckon it always will be."

The place was closing as we headed out; me to my motel room, him to his paradise.

"See you tomorrow?"

"Naw, I got a doctor's appointment. Don't know if I'll be here. I never got your name. Funny, all the talkin' we've done and never properly introduced myself. I'm John Sellers."

"Never thought about names, really. I'm Mike, Mike McCoy."

Before he offered his handshake, he shifted the old, wooden plug he had been holding the entire time to his left hand.

"Well, Mr. Sellers, I've a few nights left before I head back home. Hope I see you before I leave."

"No need to call me that. I'm just John. Write your phone number down. We just might need to go fishin' sometime. Catch a few snook."

I jotted my name and number on the back of a napkin from the bar, knowing I would probably never see the old gentleman again. Sadness filled every course of my being as I watched him walk down that empty street towards home, that very sadness I felt back in the early seventies when my brother in law, Paul, called me to tell me my dad had passed away.

I sat at my fly tying table catching up on tying much needed flies for an upcoming trip to the flats with a few buddies from out of town. They would be here in three days, and my supply of flies was miserable. Just one more golden bend-back and two more deer-hair bugs, and that would be it. I was exhausted from tying all day and half the night. Bed sounded good, as I clicked off the TV and got the coffee pot ready. Two more days at the office and the party would begin. The boys would be on the flats, together again.

It was around two thirty am when the phone woke me out of a deep sleep. A stranger on the other end was asking me if I was me..."What...Who is this?

"Do you know a Mr. John Sellers?" I shook my head, rattling the sleepiness away.

"You must have the wrong...wait, yes...I know Mr. Sellers. Why?"

"This is Dr. Fitzgerald at the Veteran's Hospital in Tampa. Mr. Sellers past away last night and the only name and phone number we could find was yours written on a napkin in his wallet. Are you a relative?"

"No sir, just a friend."

I had almost forgotten the old guy. It had been almost two years since that eventful trip to Ft. Myers. Suddenly, it all came back. I remembered the warm and colorful conversations John and I had on the deck of the bar; the snook and the sunsets, Miss Sadie, neat scotch and a cold beer shared in conversation. I suddenly felt ashamed and saddened.

"Doctor, when's his memorial service?"

"Not sure, but here's the number for the funeral home, they can tell you. Sorry for the loss of your friend."

The following morning, I made the call to the number and was shocked to find out the folks at the funeral parlor knew my name. They gave me directions to a small, Baptist church on the outskirts of North Fort Myers.

The colorful flies sat on the table in my apartment, seeming to have little meaning now. The rush to tie them had become less important, and the phone call was made to my buddies to let them know I wouldn't be making the trip so looked forward to for six months. I had to meet an old friend once again, and this meeting was dreaded. I should have stayed in touch, but work had somehow wedged its way between, once again, the most important parts of life...life itself. The importance of work caused the divorce several years back. Something that John didn't understand. He told me so.

"Marriage is forever, boy. Just like them eagles. They just stay together until one of 'em doesn't come back one day. Forever, just like me and Miss Sadie."

I arrived at the little church around six that afternoon. I thought for a while I had the wrong place. No one was there.

I hesitated at the front door. God only knows I hadn't been in a church since I was a kid. But there, in front of the pulpit, was an urn sitting on the small table. An old preacher with graying hair stood behind it looking over some words, perhaps. He looked up at me and walked from behind the podium towards me.

"Are you Mr. McCoy?"

"I'm Mike."

"Mr. Sellers wanted you to have this."

The preacher handed me a small, pasteboard box and an envelope. I took notice of the box and its old, tattered appearance, the label on it almost worn invisible. "Creek Chub". I knew immediately Miss Sadie's lure was inside. I tucked the envelope inside my jacket pocket.

"I guess I'm the only one around here that knew John. I married Miss Sadie and him many years ago. I was a younger man then, so was he. I lost contact with him after Miss Sadie died. I guess he's with her again. He missed her immensely, you know? How do you know him?"

"I only knew him for a brief time. Met him over at a little bar and grill on the island. I do know he was an old salt, snook fisherman. He must have lived a good life. He and I, well... I hoped to fish with him one day. I got too busy."

The preacher, still fumbling with his words, looked up with a smile on his face and a tear in his eye. "John was older than me, a decade or so. I met him on that same beach one afternoon while he was wrestling a snook too big to handle, it seems. He took me under his wing when I took interest in fishin'. Taught me to catch 'em. I'll never forget my first. 'Course, I reckon nobody forgets their first snook."

"No sir, I remember mine. Up the coast a' ways. Anna Maria Island."

"I suppose you ought to read that note in the envelope. You want to say anything over the ashes?"

I'm really not good at those types of things, especially being put on the spot like that. Didn't seem right, now that he was in that little urn. He was much bigger than that to me. So, I just shook my head and sat down on the front pew with the preacher and opened the letter...

"Howdy boy,

I reckon if you're readin' this, it means I ain't here any longer. I thought about you many times down there on our beach whuppin' that snook with that fly pole. Me and Miss Sadie sure had a good time there. I sure hope this letter finds you well, and I hope this finds me sittin' in that old rocker on the front porch right beside her.

Something I never told you. That place I sat that night, well, I used to own that place before it was what it is now. Old man Edwards always wanted to buy it from me. Said it was prime property...offered me up a lot of cash for it, but I didn't budge. All the old fools that fished around those parts needed a place to hang out and tell lies about fishin' over a cold drink.

Problem was, it burned down one night. Kinda figured Edwards did it, couldn't prove it, though. Oh, he came around shortly thereafter and offered me money again. I held on to that piece of sand, 'til one day a nice couple came down from Sarasota. Offered me and Miss Sadie more money than we had ever seen.

They opened up that motel you were stayin' in and that bar and grill. Told me I could stay as long as I wanted.

Me and the Mrs. bought us a little house on that empty street right up the road so we could be close to the sand and salt. It wasn't much, but it was home for almost fifty years. It withstood a couple of good blows and I tried to keep it up.

Well, here goes. As I told you, we never had kids, and for you to come along when you did, and was willin' to come over and talk to an old fart about, none the less, snook fishin', well, here's the deed all signed up proper. She's yours.

See you in the funny papers.
John"

I sat there stunned. I looked up at the reverend and asked him if he knew about all of this. He nodded.

"Funny thing about John. If he took a likin' to somebody, he'd do anything to see 'em happy. I reckon he went out of this world keepin' up his tradition."

The ride out to the beach was quiet and peaceful. John's wish was to have his ashes spread on Sanibel's western shore so he could always be close to home and see the sunsets. That's where Miss Sadie was placed.

I'm still living in that little house, goin' on six years now. I've kept it as it was. I find a lot of serenity sitting out here on this porch. I keep the railings painted pure white, and the rest of it a light, shell color; just like Miss Sadie liked. The old rods and reels still hang on the living room wall where John kept them, and the Creek Chub sits on the mantle over the fireplace where many a conversation took place between the two. I've been offered more money for it than I'll ever see, but it boasts no price tag...never will.

And, every once in a while, I think I can smell fresh snook fryin' in the kitchen as Miss Sadie calls for John to come an' eat supper. I keep a bottle of fine scotch under the counter; one just never knows who might show up. I still venture down to the surf in search of those elusive snook, I even catch one now and again. Every sunset is different, and I think about the old man and the lure as I stand there with strangers watching the sun kiss the Gulf. The two, old green rockers on the front porch sit side by side, must have ten coats of paint on 'em. And, that's the way things will stay. That's how they wanted it.

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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