I wasn't to uo show at Harold Hattaway's home
until four-thirty or five on Thursday afternoon.
I had everything packed with the assistance of
Linda, my wife and "finder of all lost things."
(Well, with the exception of the now-famous,
watermelon-colored flats shirt. That will be
mentioned later, perhaps).
Filled with anticipation of putting faces with
names and nicknames, I left earlier than expected,
but planned to stop in Anna Maria, a tad north of
my destination. I wanted to visit one of my old
haunts and visit with some of the "pier rats" I
hadn't seen in a few years. I only found one still
there, and wondered where the rest had gone. I
found that two of my old buddies had passed on,
and the "Rod and Reel Pier" wasn't as I had left
it five or so years earlier. Sad. Just tourists'
cars, marked with out-of-state license plates,
crowded the parking lots and sides of the small,
quaint roads. I left, muttering to myself and
shaking my head.
I drove around the island listening to a new CD
Linda had burned for me to listen to on the way
down to Bradenton. The CD was Tim McGraw's new one,
and the song I listened to, and I mean, really
listened to was, "Live Like You Were Dyin'"
The artist's words got my attention and brought
a surge of emotions to the very realm of my
existence. I thought about friends that had
passed, I thought about friends that I hadn't
seen, or contacted, for far too long. Mistakes
I had made and the apologies I needed to make.
Then I thought about Harold; how he had fought
back a terminal disease. I had a question for
him. Had he lived like he was dyin'? The doctor
had given him little hope of surviving this
cancer that had infested him, but he licked it,
and as he admitted later, he licked it through
self-preservation, the love of others, a good
doctor, and prayers from the FAOL family. A stage
in his life had passed, and now he was living life
to the fullest. He said he knew he would live from
the very first word of the bad news. He did.
I listened to the words of the song, then hit
the "repeat" button, and listened to it again.
"He said I was finally the husband,
The words shook me, and I drove a little faster
to my destination. I arrived slightly earlier
than was expected, and there, parked in front
of Harold's home, was an ambulance, and it
scared me. A sick feeling engulfed me. What
was I to do if something had gone terribly
wrong? I nervously dialed his number, only
to find out the guy across the street was
an EMT. I think that moment in time, as brief
as it was, changed my life as I thought of the
words Tim sang. If you get the chance to hear
the song, listen to it. It's a life-lesson.
That most the time I wasn't.
And I became a friend a friend would like to have.
And all the sudden goin' fishing,
Wasn't such an imposition,
And I went three times that year I lost my dad.
Well I finally read the Good Book,
And I took a good, hard, long look at what I'd do."
Keeping the words close, I met Harold Hattaway
for the first time face to face.
A brief introduction took place. I met Sue,
Harold's wife, and they showed me where to
stash my gear. I felt it very important to
explain to Harold that I had planned on
wearing the famous shirt on the way down.
Sadly, and I had no doubt forgotten, Linda
reminded me I had gained a little weight and
the shirt didn't fit anymore, and while we
were moving into the new house, I had given
it to my son-in-law (I still think she buried
it in the backyard of the rental house). I
hadn't gained that much weight. But the shirt
did exist, and I have pictures to prove it.
After settling in, it was as if I had known
Harold all my life. We shot the bull until two
in the morning, knowing full-well we were to
meet Stev (slenon) for breakfast before stepping
into a rather chilly, Gulf of Mexico flat, just
north of the Skyway Bridge.
Harold and I drove to a quiet marina to meet Stev
and have breakfast around seven in the morning.
The two of us sat outside, near the Manatee River,
continuing the conversation from the night before,
as we waited for Stev to join us. Harold then spots
a sign informing us they won't open for another hour
just as Stev pulls up. Again, another introduction,
long-awaited, and Stev's face seemed familiar.
Not to be deterred from early morning coffee and
food, Stev knows where another place is. As we
pull up, we all notice the sign, "For Rent,"
hanging in the empty building. This was starting
to become humorous. Off we go again. Third time
the charm, as we sat in the local café, Popi's
Place II, and consumed coffee, iced tea, huge
biscuits and gravy, and omelets. Good food, good
company. The fishing was becoming less important
as we shared a few stories before heading to the
Sunshine Skyway Bridge flats in search of snook,
trout and other salty species.
The wind was a good ten knots out of the southeast.
The air temps were in the upper seventies. Rods
un-sacked, lines into guides, and flies of bright
colors adorned the leaders, then into the chilly
waters. I hate cold water, and I could hear them
behind me snickering. Once in the water, it became
quite comfortable and thoughts of large, predatory
fish took away the sting of waters less than tropical.
Few fish were enticed by our offerings, even
though a couple of nice snook cooperated, along
with a few small sea trout. We were separated
fifty yards apart as a pod of bottle-nose dolphin
began a drag race. It was though they had lined
up two by two, and then sped toward a sand flat.
Then another two would repeat. I didn't look
back at Harold and Stev, but I knew they had
stopped casting to watch Mother Nature's
animals play. It's part of being there. To
stop and observe all that is alive and well
around us, all that adds the necessary color
for our type of existence. The fishing was
shortened by a swift, outgoing tide that
brought bales of washed-up grass. We headed
for the shore to sit and rest, and have a cold
drink in the warmth of luxurious, Florida sunshine.
As we sat near the saltwater, conversations
led to laughter, sadness, life-lessons and
stories from faraway places. We spoke of
fly-fishing waters of salt and fresh; meetings
and relationships. It was then it dawned on me;
the same gathering had taken place months prior
when four different fly-fishermen met on the
eastern side of the state for different purposes,
but somehow the two unions took the same route.
I also felt the joining of others, past and present,
who stood watching from afar. The fishing was
unimportant, the camaraderie had upstaged it,
and I believe the three of us hated to see it
end. I certainly did.
After bidding Stev farewell 'til morning, Harold
and I continued the conversation as we spanned
Tampa Bay over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. He
told me stories of days gone by, and time spent
with his dad, much in the same way as I did with
my dad. I saw the similarities of both men. We
reminisced about Bradenton, Tampa Bay, and family
and changed lives.
Arriving back home, Harold and Sue offered up
barbequed pork, mixed veggies and warm rolls,
and after supper, it was time to spin deer hair
and more yarns, while we anxiously awaited the
arrival of Ed Mercado (FloridaFlyer).
Ed came over from the east coast, also. Fort
Pierce; a place I've fished and enjoyed for
many years. Ed arrived around ten that evening.
The same feelings of knowing Ed were evident,
and conversations of foods and fishing were
shared well after one in the morning. Flies
were exchanged as if they were gifts on a holiday.
Five in the morning and the smell of hot coffee
filled the house. We were to meet Bill (PureBS)
and Stev at the same café to have food and
introductions. And, once again, the anxious
anticipation was felt.
In the parking lot, we shook hands and talked,
as we burned a few minutes of precious daylight.
The little café was filled with mostly locals
and I think we upset the proverbial apple cart
as we boisterously began sliding tables together
to make room for the five of us. Our waitress
threatened to go to the back and fetch a whip
to settle us down, but she was looking straight
at the others, not at me. Loud conversation and
laughter filled the somewhat subdued place, brought
through the door by the band of pirates that we
had become; a true and fine raucous display. A
breath of fresh air that was appreciated more by
staff than the patrons.
Then it was back to the same flats the three
of us had fished the day before, this time,
however, five were there sharing the same
waters as we cast colored, heavy lines above
the waters. The sun had gone away and had been
replaced by spitting rain and brisk, cool wind.
The tide had ebbed and shallowed the flats. The
water had lessened in temperature, and the sun
never came out to greet us. A few small trout
pecked at the flies and Harold was cut off by
a wise, old snook. The rains became heavier, and
in my true form, I caught a chill and Stev's medical
background saved me from hypothermia. Hot chocolate
was fetched from the rest area to warm me.
Fun, laughter, casting and trading flies. Thoughts
on principles and life-lessons. Ghosts and memories,
love of the salt and love of our sport. Most
importantly, the warmth of new friendship fires
that fond memories will stoke for years to come.
As I sat alone in Harold's van sipping the warm
chocolate, I again thought of Tim McGraw's song.
We did that, you know? For two days, a group of
five strangers, known only to each other through
wires and connections from an invisible place in
Washington State, gathered somewhere on a saltwater
flat on the west coast of Florida, and, for a few
days, lived like we were dyin'.
See y'all next week. ~ Capt. Gary
Editors Note: These are the things that make
it all worthwhile. JC
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.