learning at the feet of the sensei

Steve, the goateed one from Ohio, and I, the Old Road Peddler, waited on the Maximo Park boat ramp. We were tight, nervous – two guys inhaling their last smokes in a WWI trench, ready to go over the top. We had assembled our fly rods from the tip section down. Check. We had lined up the ferrules with the little dots. Check. Our reels weren’t on backward. Check. “Think It’ll be rough out there?” asked Steve. I, the more battle-scarred, responded “Yeah, but we can do the job.” 

We had prepared for this moment. I had taken Steve out to North Shore Park and watched him practice his fly casts as people stared at us, waiting for their dogs to poop, wondering what, exactly, we were doing. I knew that practice was important. My mind reeled back to age 14. I was on my first date with a female person – the beautimous Linda. We were at the movies, watching Sophia Loren in Boy on a Dolphin. I had seen older guys make this excellent move where they pretended to yawn and casually (note that word) dropped their arm around their date’s shoulders. Totally cool. It had to be easy. I judged the right moment was reached when Linda leaned forward in her chair over her popcorn. I did the yawn thing, extending my right arm up. It was only a glancing blow, but enough to knock her glasses off and send the popcorn flying.

The cause of our nerves came swinging into view around the mangrove point where Frenchman’s Creek opens out into the bay.  It was Capt. Pat Damico in his Maverick Master Angler. In an earlier life, Capt. Pat had been a dentist, out of Hazelton, PA, via Villanova and Temple Universities. He tossed his lidocaine syringe aside 20 years ago and retired to Tampa Bay. He became a Certified Casting Instruction Master, a respected guru of fly fishing and a wordsmith for the Tampa Bay Times. Capt. Pat could tie a Homer Rhodes loop knot in a raging storm, in the dark, using only his toes. He was the real deal and now would check out our fly casting. It was Steve’s virginal experience; for the Old Road Peddler, it would be only the latest public display of his so-called fly flinging technique.

Adding to the tension was the fact that Steve and I were determined to score the much-sought-after Inshore Trash Grand Slam, catching three of Tampa Bay’s most infamous fish: the teeth-intensive and ferocious lizardfish; the googly-eyed, acrobatic, leader-fraying ladyfish; and the Bucky the Beaver- toothed pufferfish that lives entirely on eating the tails off rubber jigs.

Capt. Pat took on his paying cargo and we proceeded to a flat with a four-foot drop-off. He tied rust-colored Clousers to our leaders, and Steve and I lurched into action, fore and aft. On Steve’s third cast a young and impressionable sea trout gobbled his slow and deep offering. A Chinese fire drill ensued as Steve tried to figure how to deal with the slack line at his feet. He hadn’t read the memo with “How to Actually Land Fish” on the subject line. Capt. Pat coached Steve. “Keep your line tight!” “How, how?” “Pinch the line!” “Where, where?” etc. The trout was considerate and hung around long enough to be swung on board and then released with a sore lip.

As the morning progressed, Capt. Pat held class: we learned to cast backwards in order to go forward into the wind;  we learned how to retrieve our line, stripping direct to the fly; we learned to tie Mr. Rhodes’ loop knot. Trout interfered with lessons, kept getting themselves on the ends of our lines. Where were the lizardfish, ladyfish and pufferfish? Happily, a pod of ladyfish came careening through like commuters trying to catch the last bus out and noshed on the Clousers.

We saw less and less of Capt. Pat as he eased into full fishing burka mode, only his eyes appearing. You will not find Capt. Pat in a dermatologist’s waiting room soon.  The sun got up, the wind got up and the fishing got skinnier. Time to head for the barn. It was true that we had fallen short of accomplishing the legendary Inshore Trash Grand Slam. But we had learned at the feet of the sensei and there would be other opportunities to go mano a mano with the ferocious lizardfish and the cruel-toothed puffer.

The Sensei enlightens Steve

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