Capt. Gary Henderson, Florida

November 22nd, 2004

Live Like You Were Dyin'

By Captain Gary (Flats Dude) Henderson

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,
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."
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.

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

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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