Capt. Gary Henderson, Florida

November 29th, 2004

The River

By Captain Gary (Flats Dude) Henderson

I have visited her shores hundreds, perhaps thousands of times, both mentally and physically. She's so familiar that I have her memorized; the sand bars, shallows and obstacles and mangrove shorelines. She is home, in a sense. I know her residents and a few of her secrets, though not many. I have sat quietly on the deck of my skiff watching her as the sun begins to peek above those mangrove shores. I can visualize her smoothness and hear her sounds as she wakes. I have served as her amusement when her angered waters have sprayed over my vessel as I've attempted to out-run the storms that collect in the nearby Atlantic, then move inland to her shallow waters, causing placid waters to turn ugly and dark and dangerous.

Here, I find solitude. I find peace, just she and I.

Tomorrow, I will introduce her to another. One that has never seen or felt her the way I have. I hope he finds her the way I have seen and imagined her many times. I hope she is in a good mood.

My friend doesn't live far from me, and we agreed to meet at my house very early Wednesday morning. I scurried around Tuesday evening gathering the seven weight and nine weight rods; cleaning lines, tying flies, fetching the necessities we would need for our rendezvous with the river. Linda even remarked that I was never as nervous about a trip when she and I went. But, she had been introduced to the river a long time before that, and I reminded her of what I was like back then. She didn't remember, but I got a faded, "Oh yeah" from her in a display of sympathy, I suppose.

I didn't sleep Tuesday night. I never do before a special trip; an introductory trip. And just before the alarm clock was to wake me, I, of course, fell into a deep sleep for seemingly, fifteen seconds. I got to the alarm before it sounded, dressed and met my buddy in the driveway.

"You ready?" I whispered so as not to wake the dogs. "Let's go and meet her."

We arrived in the dark and drove the winding dike road to my special place where, for many years, I had poled the Hewes into the very waters we would now wade. I had sold my flats skiff less than a year before and now missed her more than ever.

Awaiting the "blue in the east," as Dad always called it, I could hear the river awakening, even though I couldn't see it. A few leopard frogs sang in the freshwater pools opposite the river's brackish waters, perhaps giving thanks for the previous night's rain. I could hear big, sow trout exploding through schools of six-inch mullet in the far distance. Some sort of night-visioned heron swished his wings as he flew within feet of my truck. "It's happening, the river is waking up."

My friend had fallen asleep and was missing the moment when the magic was about to happen; the moment I lived for. I wondered if he knew the importance of all that was about to take place, and I felt a little smug believing I had the upper hand in all of this.

"Wake your sorry butt up! You're going to miss all of what I've been talking about for the last ten years!" He yawns and looks at me with that "huh" look, and then looks past me and spots her in the blue dawn, no more than ten yards from where we are sitting. The yawn stops half way through, and he is now clamoring around inside the truck, then outside, as I had the night before at home. I got out and leaned against the fender to enjoy the moment. Patience young man, patience.

I had pre-strung the rods the night before, and I must admit, I always feel that yearning to run down the dike's bank and begin rippin' up the water with a 2/0 deer-hair slider. But today was meant to be savored. It was a day for slowing down the fast tempo the earlier part of the week had dealt. It was a time for learning, and lessons to be taught by the river.

I was still at the rear of my truck when he entered the river's edge with the grace of a Labrador Retriever puppy. I saw it coming, or going, I guess I should say. The wake appeared to be a red fish of at least twenty pounds. The fish had been in the reddish grass that grows there, resting in the quiet waters. He didn't hurry; just slowly swam away leaving the submarine-like wake, as though he wanted my buddy to get a glimpse of what was to come. "What in the hell was that?" I motioned for the "rookie" to come back to the truck. The Lab pup returned. I took a few minutes to explain why we were there.

I felt older than I was, as I explained why we were there. I thought of my dad as he explained intangibles to his kid, hoping he was being understood, but knowing that it may take decades for me to get it. "We've got all day. We have no other place to be. Slow down." I could hear my dad's voice coming from me, forty something years later. I remembered when Dad had told me the old joke of the young bull and the old one, and running down the hill to have one of those cows, and the old bull said to walk down the hill and have them all. I almost laughed aloud, but kept it to myself. At this point, he wouldn't have understood.

We entered the water together this time; quietly, slowly as if by ceremony. I stopped in calf-deep water and looked around, observing with reverence, my surroundings. He stood and watched me closely. "Good morning, Old Lady. And thank you for being in a good mood."

My friend said nothing as we waded out there where red fish tail. He finally said in a low voice, "I think I understand it now, this place. It really is your religion." I didn't say anything or even look his way.

I knew he wasn't experienced in fly fishing, being only exposed for a few weeks to my casting lessons. I wasn't sure he was ready for what the river was about to do to him.

I had tied one of my best golden bend-backs to his shock leader. I checked the fly to be sure it was the best one, well balanced, just the right bend in the eye of the hook. We waded to where the Brazilian pepper tree juts from the mangrove shoreline. Reds always feed there. And, without fail, they were there, nine tails. I pointed to where I wanted him to cast and moved him closer to accommodate his lack of distance. "Remember what I've shown you. No pressure, but you've only one shot. Make it good. Two feet in front of, and six feet past them. Are you ready?" He landed the fly perfectly, then three strips. The red whirled and plastered the fly and was off to the far side of the river, unattached to the rod. In his excitement, he set the hook before the fish closed his mouth. Sight fishing at its finest, I thought. "Next time, close your eyes when he charges the fly." It took a few minutes for the school to settle down and resume feeding. I explained to him he had watched the fish open its mouth, but hadn't closed it and he had set the hook a split-second too soon.

The reds came back to the same spot and tailed. "Slow your cast; look at the spot where you want to place the fly. Strip and close your eyes. Become the rod." The next red followed the fly for fifteen feet before he nailed it. He struck the fish and all hell broke loose. Doin' the red fish tango...

When the fight was over, I walked to the shoreline, lit a smoke and sat down as the "puppy" cast to numerous fish. I watched him for a few minutes, then faded off mentally into the river. It was early. Spoonbills waded for breakfast, trout were still bustin' bait. The surface of the river reflected the early morning sky and the horizon became as one with it. An osprey crashed through the film of the river some distance away, coming up empty-handed. "That's got to hurt." I thought out loud. I watched the bird of prey dive again; persistence and the pay-off. Again he returned to flight with the shadow of a fish gripped in his talons. This is the place where magic happens. The place where waters turn to mirrors; where I'm at peace alone or with friends. It is a pact I have with her. I will be cremated and my ashes are to be scattered here. Linda understands my relationship with this river.

I have watched in sadness, a dolphin push its dead mate for hours along the flats, then swim in tight circles around it, slapping its tail on the surface to wake the other. Then swim away, looking back...weeping, I think. Linda and I said a prayer for the two. We've enjoyed the antics of 056, the retired military dolphin that has a tattoo on his dorsal fin of "056". He will respond at boat-side to beg for handouts, and then spit them back at you if he doesn't like the offering.

Here, on the river, life is as I want it to be.

We took five reds apiece that morning, could've caught more, but that is unimportant to me this day. I showed my friend the beauty of digging through the sea grass, and the critters hidden in it; baby shrimp, and tiny fish. In the sand, just beneath the surface, live small clams and other crustaceans, too small to be noticed by the jet skiers and the weekenders. They pay no attention to the finer details of this place.

My friend had returned to the bank a little ways down from me. I didn't see him leave the water and, for a few seconds, was a little concerned that something was wrong. As I sat watching him, I noticed he was staring off into the river. I realized he was now where I had been most of the day.

Here, I find solitude. I find peace, just she and I...and a friend.

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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