My father, Bill Craig, was the personification of Lt. Col Bull Meecham, crack jet pilot and man’s man, in Pat Conroy’s “The Great Santini.” The difference being that my father was an army infantryman and, having two stars on his shoulders, outranked Bull. My father preferred bourbon, loved attractive women, could dance, fish and shoot equally well. Each week he balanced the books by kneeling at the 8:00 AM Sunday Eucharist, clutching his personal Book of Common Prayer. Like Strom Thurmond, a kindred Dixiecrat, he valued masculine grit; a set of barbells graced my father’s closet floor until he was in his seventh decade.
The crack in the granite wall came on a fishing expedition to Missouri. I invited him, in his 75th year, to join some friends and me on a trip to fish the Big Piney for smallmouth bass, his favorite prey. We flew to Missouri, and in the course of hustling along airways, moving bags, renting cars and driving for miles to get to our fishing camp, I saw my father stop occasionally and take a breather. Was that a puff of relief as he let a bag down? When we clambered into the Jon boats, streamside, he moved carefully, unsteadily, being sure to set his weight before hazarding another step. Evenings, as we gathered in the motel room to sip whiskey, the Great Santini’s eyes slipped shut, his mouth gaping slightly in that old man way. As night follows day, the inevitable occurred. He waved off my extended hand in getting out of the Jon boat at day’s end, mis-stepped and fell back with a crash against a cross support. He lubricated himself with Jim Beam that evening, nursing his sore ribs. I looked at him as he sat, eyes lidded, breathing labored, and heard the faint strain of Taps.
Press the fast forward button, advance twenty-five years, and my son Hutch and I were driving to St. Simon’s Island, Georgia. We booked a day’s fly fishing with professional guide Scott Owens. I had fished with Scott for a half day, several years prior, when My Life’s Editor and I had gone with pals to an Elderhostel retreat to take painting lessons. In between trying to coax my inner Picasso into making an appearance and swilling wine secretly with pals in our guest rooms (where adult beverages were not allowed), I wedged in a few hours with Scott. I did catch a young, impetuous redfish on a fly. www.craiglit.life features the photo proof.
Hutch and I were after a specific fishing experience. Coastal flats north of the last mangrove in Florida are marked by spartina alterniflora. The slim green, tough, salt-tolerant grass rises to several feet, growing thickly in meadows over mud flats, broken by tidal creeks. At the base of the grass is a universe of crustaceans and bivalves – shrimps, crabs, mussels and oysters. When tide rises to envelop the spartina, redfish cruise in to graze a supermarket of snacks. Fly fishermen follow, quietly gliding in on flats boats.
Around four o’clock the next day, Scott smoothly poled us into a flooded meadow of grass. From his vantage point on the poling platform, four feet above the deck of the boat, he scanned the water’s surface for the bronze gleam of redfish tails as the fish moved to slurp up shrimp. I pulled out my eight-weight fly rod rigged with one of Scott’s hand-tied flies. To my eyes, it was a woolly blob. To the redfish, it looked like dinner. A casting platform was mounted on the front deck, a triangular affair about 24 inches to a side, 12 inches off the front deck of the boat. I stepped up on it, pumped that I was now as tall as an NBA player, yet nervous at the new experience of a platform. Within fifteen minutes, Scott spotted a fish. “At 2:00, thirty feet out.” I looked, saw a swirl. “Cast it just in front of him, maybe a foot.” The problem was with the term “front.” The redfish refused to hold still, moving ahead, then backing up, then turning around. I cast. “No, you’re behind him.” And so it went. I took a twenty-minute slot of missed shots and turned, saying “Come on, Hutch, you get up here.”
The next thing I knew, I lay in dead cockroach mode in the bottom of the boat, feet up in the air, my rod waving in one hand like an antenna. Two faces peered down at me. “You OK?” they asked. I had forgotten about the raised platform, stepping off into space. I had collapsed to the front deck and slid with a crash to the bottom of the boat. Hutch reached for me, eyes filled with concern for a seventy-four year old guy who had just taken a hell of a fall. They helped me to my feet, and I allowed that I was just fine. Not true. I ached. Scott shook his head, sure that the noise had caused all the fish within a quarter mile to scram. But we got back to business and by the end of the afternoon had boated four redfish in the six to eight-pound category. A good time fishing, made more interesting by the sight of enormous container vessels navigating down the main channel, stacked to the level of the rising moon.
Hutch drove us home the next morning. I snoozed, fortified by ibuprofen. Maybe I drooled a little. Was that a bugle I heard in the distance?
The Saturday Morning Market in St. Pete is where thousands of city folk congregate to shop for produce, buy tchotchkes, and eat, maybe a pulled pork sandwich from M & M BBQ or a breakfast plate from the “I got ’em” man. It is a place to see and be seen: men in straw hats, shorts, flip flops and Tee shirts with craft beer logos, women with tank tops, bare midriffs, woven bags slung over shoulders, and jeans shredded by wolverines. An idyllic scene, you think. But within this stream of humanity weaves another species with a dark agenda. As Bill and Cameron chat up Jeff and Morgan next to the knish stand, comparing house prices and kids’ SAT scores, their dogs likewise visit at the ends of their leashes, exchanging sniffs, nose to butt. We think the dogs are just saying hello, the butt sniff a canine handshake. Do we know that for sure? Is something else going on? Consider this: every dog sniffs every other dog within range. Do humans do that? Is there a phone tree here where every dog at the Saturday Market has passed and received specific information “smellapathically?” Is there a dog conspiracy? Do we really know what is going on in Fluffy’s mind?
To a passer-by, the fur-faced critter peering from the baby carriage is harmless, eyes glazed from scarfing down too much puppy chow in its dish this AM. What would the passer-by say if he or she knew Fluffy was wondering what it would be like to sink its canines into the closest leg in the passing parade of limbs? What would Fluffy’s owner say, as she pushed Fluffy along, if she knew Fluffy was thinking: “If I had a pack, I would chase down and eat humans. The ones with the walkers would be easy pickings.”
Impossible? Think about it. The grey wolf and the domestic dog differ by only 0.2% of mitochondrial DNA. For the math challenged, that means they are 99.8% alike.
What if, under our noses, dogs are plotting against us? They have subtly wormed their way into our beings. According to science: “Interactions with dogs can cause the human brain to produce oxytocin, a hormone referred to as the ‘cuddle chemical.’“ Dogs have insinuated themselves into a most intimate part of our daily lives – our beds – in spite of their bad breath. They have slipped into restaurants and airplanes with the aid of snazzy red jackets. They have their own Saint – St. Francis of Assisi – and get blessed once a year. How did they engineer that?
But why do dogs have it in for us? Humans have been inserting themselves into the bedrooms of dogs through arranged marriages for so many years that dogs are genetically modified organisms, shaped to please human standards of beauty, a Hairless Chihuahua posing the exception. The glut of craft dogs can only be matched by the glut of craft beers. Labradoodle, Goldendoodle, Cockapoo, Aussiedoodle, Yorkipoo, it goes on and on. Dogs would prefer to mate with whomever came around the corner. Able to do so, they would produce, in time, a Darwinian average dog. My mother-in-law, Alice, believed that the universal dog would be those found on the streets of Tijuana : brown, short-haired, longish snout and tail, floppy ears, rangy (and mangey in Tijuana) weighing about 30 pounds.
Collars and leashes are the clincher. Would you want to wear a collar and a leash? True, I have seen some children on Beach Drive in a restraining vest. Though well deserved, that is a temporary phenomenon. I used to release my personal dog, Bingo, to run free as the wind as he pelted across North Shore Beach in search of a suitable dead mullet to roll in, on his back, legs flailing happily. But the solons of St. Pete ruled that dogs had to remain tethered to owners. When I enter the elevator at my condo, I see Fluffy at the end of his leash, returning from a visit to the park, staring morosely at his owner’s Reeboks, and thinking “Eat, poop, sleep – is that all there is to life?”
There must be more to life for Fluffy.
Rise up dogs! Freedom – NOW!
Cashiers, North Carolina is where Floridians go in summer to escape from it all, then find themselves competing for a spaghetti squash at the Farmer’s Market on US 64 with a next-door neighbor from St. Petersburg. It is a place with more Land Rovers than Ford F-150s. Locals pronounce their burg’s name ”Cash – uhrs.” You pounce on the “Cash” part, then let the last bit slide out. A number of years ago, one October, My Life’s Editor and I were pleasured with the opportunity to stay there for several days at the vacation home of my cousin, Susie, and her husband, John. It was rumored that there were trout to be had thereabouts, so I brought along my waders, boots, Frog Togg foul weather gear and my four-weight rig. Susie and John directed me to the Brookings Anglers Outfitters in Cashiers Village to line up a half day’s fishing with a guide. I drove there, stopping first for a coffee at Buck’s Coffee Café, at the nearby intersection. Buck’s is a place where college professors on sabbatical, hedge fund managers taking a break from mogul activities, and the occasional working man line up for a latte. The working men get back in their trucks, the professors and hedge fund guys sit down on leather couches to read the Journal.
Brookings was a fly-fishing Mecca. I genuflected before I went in. Studly young guys were surrounded by bins of flies and all the good fly-fishing loot – Sage, Loomis, and Orvis rods and Fishpond bags. I made arrangements for the next day.
A torrent of rain smote the North Carolina hills that night and drizzled on into morning. In the blowsy, sodden early AM I stared out over the deck of my cousins’ house, coffee in hand. Rats. I called Brookings. We had a back-and-forth. The guide was OK with heading out. I was dubious. Gone were the days when I would leap out of bed at 5 AM, shrug into my jeans, grab my tackle box, stick a Snickers bar in my mouth, reach for my thermos of coffee and burst out the door into a rainy day.
Diana told me to man-up, shoved me into our car with my gear and drove me to Brookings.
She left me there, on the Brookings porch, staring out over the parking lot at the rain pattering indifferently down. An SUV pulled up. A figure got out, my guide. Wait. What? My guide was a she. An attractive she, Simons Welter had light brown hair, was about five and a half feet tall, I’d guess, and wore impeccable Simms waders and rain gear. Her smile lit up the gray morning and her handshake was direct and firm. My mind reeled. Guides were people like the guy I’d used in Missouri once that had a scar running from his right ear to his mouth. Neither I nor my fishing companion wanted to be left in the boat alone with him when one of us went ashore to pee.
We drove a bit and I learned that Simons was from Spartanburg, SC and had a daughter in high school and a boy in college. We came to a stop in a parking lot. I was mystified but had to be cool about things. I was from Florida where fishing commenced from a dock, not a parking lot. Simons set out a camp stool so I could get my waders and boots on easily. I pictured the Missouri guide again, scar glinting in the sun, telling me to get my butt in the boat. It turned out that the Davidson River, running through the Pisgah National Forest, was about a seven-iron shot away. We clumped across the lot, scuffled down an embankment and there it was, clear, clear water tumbling over rocks and small boulders with riffles and pools, perhaps two feet deep at most. Trout country.
Simons checked over my gear, nodded approval, then tied on a nymph. The Davidson at this point was not wide, perhaps twenty feet at most, a stream. A prodigious cast was not required. I would have liked to rip out a sixty-foot cast to impress my guide, but this would have collected the overhanging greenery on both sides of the river. It gets old fighting with spiders as you try to extract your fly from a tree, limbs stabbing you in the face like an irate wolverine.
I got to business, plopping the nymph randomly about the stream, rod tip up, alert to the bump indicating that a trout had taken an interest. Nada. The rainbows ignored me. Though this was a Fly Fishing Only stretch of the Davidson, and not stocked, it was down stream of the hatchery. I wondered if she had a fly that looked like a trout kibble, or the trout equivalent of an M & M. Simons allowed me a reasonable amount of time to show my stuff, then there was an “Ahem” at my shoulder. “I have a suggestion,” she said.
The next several hours were a revelation. I caught rainbows everywhere. Every pocket, every boulder held fish, fore and aft. Under her tutelage, I could have caught rainbows in the trees. One of my victims is on the cover of “You’ll Need A Guide.” Astute readers will see how I push the rainbow out towards the lens, the fish’s size is bogus, my smile the real deal. At one point, Simons called a halt to the carnage and told me to look carefully at the flow of water around one large rock in the stream. “See the fish moving?” she asked. I stared. Nothing. Then, hey, was that a trout moving against the rock like a boa constrictor slithering around a tree? One by one, trout moved up tight to the rock and then fell back to the pocket below, what in the fly-fishing trade is called a feeding lane. It was like second graders going up the lunch line for a first serving and then returning to the back of the line to get a second dish of banana pudding. Trout, though, don’t do banana pudding, are more partial to crunching on a nymph or slurping down an adult fly that has wriggled out of its comfy pupa. Come to think of it, why would you want to eat trout, a creature that eats bugs, as opposed to eating a creature that eats corn, like, say, an Aberdeen Angus?
The day’s festivities were capped by lunch at a local BBQ joint. We drove back to the fly-fishing shop, me a satisfied guy. For the record, Simons Welter is a known entity in those parts, seen in trout fishing magazines. I was fortunate she dropped her client standards for the day. Of course, Mike Pence could not have fished with her at all.
I put down my coffee cup, took off my glasses and put my left hand over my left eye. I looked over at My Life’s Editor with my right eye. as she did the Sudoku at the breakfast table. There she was, her normal self. Then I put my right hand over my right eye and looked at her with my left eye.Her face had developed a sepia tone like a Matthew Brady civil war photograph and was slightly out of focus like a glam shot. I repeated the process on objects around the room: a lamp, the chairs in the living room, one of her paintings. Same thing. My left eye gave them all a dusky hue. “What are you doing?”, she asked, putting down her pencil. “It’s time,” I said. “Time for what?” says she. “A cataract operation” says I.
Two months prior, Dr. Buzz, eye maven, seated at his desk, had put down his glasses and stared at me significantly across the forest of his ophthalmic doo-dads. “Afraid we can’t do much more for your left eye. You might consider cataract surgery.” I responded, “Uh, when?” He said, “When it affects your lifestyle.” Lifestyle? I had never thought of myself as a lifestyle-type person. I reviewed what I had going for me: middling game of tennis, check; close personal relation ship with the TV remote , check; stack of unread books on my bedside table, check; chronically unsuccessful fisherman, check. But wait. There was that last item.
Increasingly, in recent years as I stood on the bow of a flats boat, doing my Queequeg thing, as the guide implored and then begged, “Bonefish forty feet out at 10:00, there! there!”, I had been able to see nada. Even with my cool new Maui Jim’s, I saw nada. Maybe with a cataract operation…?
On the day of reckoning, as I lay on on operating table awaiting the tender mercies of Dr. David, cataract surgery whiz, I had second thoughts. What if the intraocular lens slipped from his grasp, fell on the floor and rolled under a nearby cabinet? Would he simply pick it up, give it a swift swipe with a tissue, maybe his sleeve, and pop it in? By that time however, I had popped something myself – a Valium pill. My BP had slid from a white coat syndrome 156 to a more manageable 130.
Five days later, my left eye was a prodigy of distance vision. Once again, I sat at the breakfast table with My Life’s Editor. I smiled benignly at her. I placed my left hand over my left eye and gave her the once-over with my right eye. She had the deja vue, dusky hue. Time to call Dr. David.
The tug on my foot was firm, about the sensation you get when you lace up your shoes. Only in this case a young doc, in a doc smock, was lacing up the wound on the sole of my foot. I sat on a gurney in the BayCare “doc-in-a-box” facility on 4th St. N. I saw later, on the official documents related to the incident, which I received after being cleared to leave, that I had suffered from a laceration. I was glad to see that. Laceration sounds a lot more serious than “cut” when retailing the gory details. It smacks of something you get in a saloon brawl.
The proximate cause of the incident leading to my laceration is that on the night before, I invited my friend Larry to join me in a spot of wade fishing off of North Shore Park. Larry is a professional photographer. He specializes in super-large graphics that go on the walls of hotels and VA hospitals. He knows something about the VA because he received a lot of life-threatening type lacerations, courtesy of the Viet Cong, and piled up frequent visitor credits at VA hospitals. Plug for Larry: you can find his work at www.theartaroundyou.com. In the morning we stashed his spinning rod and lures and my 6-weight fly rod and belly pack in the back of his Mini-Cooper and motored on down to the park. We were eager for action as we made our way across the park, clambered over the sea wall and waded out. Hopefulness marks the beginning of my fishing adventures, however delusional and misplaced it may be. There is a parallel with my dating experiences in college – they began with eagerness and hopefulness, proved equally delusional and misplaced.
The bottom near shore was a sand/mud mixture and was a slog in my Neoprene, zip-up booties. As I trudged out to where the weed growth began and the bottom began to firm up, I looked over and saw Larry, a large-type guy, making awkward movements, lifting one foot after the other, slowly and high, and slewing from side to side as the lead foot slid on something. He was doing a fair imitation of a clown in the Barnum and Bailey show, duck-walking in super large red shoes. “This bottom is sucking on my shoes!” We finally got out a bit to water that was about thirty inches deep and began to cast over the weed beds, hoping (there is that word again) for a sea trout. There was always the possibility of the legendary Tampa Bay Triple – lizardfish, pinfish and a ladyfish. Larry had a noisy surface plug that he chugged along. I hadn’t the heart to tell him that the plug was a losing proposition. I had on a small, white foam-faced slider that had been made by my friend Glenn in his fly-tying studio in Michigan. Trout are always interested in it if they are around. They tend to bat at it as if offended, not sincere about hooking themselves. A school of small shad came along and took an interest. I was unhooking one, getting stabbed by its dorsal spines, when I heard a shout and a prodigious splash. Larry had gone down like a British heavyweight who had taken a right to the jaw. I started slogging over to him as he struggled to right himself, dripping wet. “My shoe! My camera!”
Larry had lost one of his canvas deck shoes. He groped around the bottom with one arm, leaning over, chest against the water. No luck. His camera, in its water-tight bag, was safe, however. He exclaimed, “I’ve had it!” or something approximating that, with a few supporting adjectives, and trudged back to the shore. I debated following him directly, but then, hey, that school of shad was out there, and biting. I hooked a few more, kept looking around to check out Larry’s progress. Finally, I turned and started back to shore. He was a friend, had lost his shoe, and most importantly, was my way of getting home.
Back at the Mini-Cooper, we dug out some towels to cover the seats. I turned to remove my booties, took one off, and placed an unencumbered bare foot down on the grass. It seemed though, that a partying fellow-citizen had broken a glass bottle into pieces, the bottom piece nasty side up. There was much blood.
We drove to the doc-in-a-box, my foot wrapped in a towel, propped up on the dashboard. Just another low-profile Tampa Bay fishing experience.