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.
My college classmate Jeff called from California. He was coming to Florida with his wife Diana to compete in a croquet tournament in Venice. We offered to provide a pull-out and relatively clean sheets at Casa Craig for a few nights. When I hung up, I thought “A croquet tournament?” Croquet was something we used to do on a slow Sunday afternoon when the kids had been inside, getting squirrelly. I would fetch the moldy, water-stained box of croquet implements from off a shelf in the garage. When the box came open, cockroaches the size of Volkswagens would clamber out from the tangle of hoops, stakes, balls and mallets. Rules of engagement were made up on the fly. Direction of ball travel was arguable, clockwise people holding out against counterclockwise people. Before we started, the field of play had to be sanitized by removing goodies left in the back yard by Molly and Bingo, our dogs. On one occasion this resembled an Easter egg hunt since they had eaten an entire box of multi-colored Crayolas the day before. The fun part of play was holding down your ball with your foot right up against the opponent’s ball and then whacking your ball, sending the opponent across the backyard to land under the air conditioning unit.
On the Saturday we went to see Jeff compete, there was no whacking being done, no poops being removed. The Sarasota County Croquet Club was part of a county sports complex. Frisbee golf competitors and baseball players practiced nearby as a crowd of white clad, suburban types went about their business on a manicured greensward. A bevy of BMWs, Audis, Mercedes and similarly upscale motoring plunder was in the car lot. The event was the “USCA Florida Golf Croquet Regional Tournament.” Jeff said there were at least 50 competitors. His home club logo, “Sonoma Croquet Club,” stitched on his white Polo shirt, Jeff anchored the west coast representation.
Six croquet courts were laid out at the SCCC over a green expanse of Bermuda grass, about two thirds of a football field. Players were scattered everywhere, bending, stooping, lining up hits, chatting in clubby clumps. At one side was the SCCC club house, buzzing quietly as folks went in and out. A homemade lunch buffet and beer drew my attention.
The “Golf” Croquet business puzzled me. I saw no putters or sand wedges on the upright racks that held the mallets. The mallets were three-feet long with three-pound block heads that looked like something a medieval serf would use to clobber a knight from off his horse. Jeff said there were two types of croquet, Association (or International) and Golf. With the former, the player has two balls in play at a time, with the latter, one ball. Turns out that Golf Croquet is a newbie upstart. Old-school Association players are in a snit. Zoning laws and cross words have not prevented the infiltration of Golf Croquet into dignified Association Croquet neighborhoods.
Croquet is not a spectator sport. No stands, no beer vendors. A scattering of spouses stood or sat in folding chairs and looked upon the field of play, each watching quietly as their player attempted to thrash someone else’s player by being the first to get through seven wickets (seven points). No fist bumps or shouts of encouragement. Other than hearing Jeff’s wife Diana emitting an “Oh no!” or an “Oh my!” I was clueless as to whether Jeff was the thrasher or the thrashee in the moment. He played thoughtfully, pondering his strokes. Jeff is a very organized guy, right down to his sock drawer. He started out as an engineer in college, as did I. He continued in engineering; I did not. I got on the Dean’s List, but not the one you might think of. Sophomore year, the Dean suggested I move my major to some area where numbers were not key to success, like finger painting.
The player who got through a wicket first, earning a point, attached a little colored clip, like you use on potato chip bags, to the wicket. We watched a lanky guy in a ball cap getting industriously hammered by an efficient, no-nonsense lady who was applying clip after clip to the wickets. He reversed his ball cap for rally mojo but in the end went down like a heavyweight with a glass jaw. This being a sport introduced by the Brits, who invented civility, play ended with hugs and handshakes. I thought of rugby, also a Brit sport, where opponents assault each other, pad-less, producing gushers of blood and broken noses, then shake hands when the mayhem is done, clap shoulders and go off to drink beer and get smashed together.
I pondered if NFL end zone dances would make croquet more attractive to modern folk as a spectator sport. I pictured a rhythm-challenged portfolio owner, doing hip thrusts and booty shakes over his winning wicket. The world is not ready for this. The world did take a gander at croquet as an Olympic sport in 1900 in Paris. The French teams crushed everyone. It was Olympic croquet’s swan song.
I saw that there was no winner’s trophy displayed on a stand outside the clubhouse, no three-foot tall sculpted rendition of a rampant mallet, done in bronze, suitable to be admired on an end table. I figured that a handshake and a “Well done” offered by the Prexy of the SCCC sufficed for the winner. I asked Jeff how he did. “OK, reasonably well,” he said, shrugged his shoulders. As my Life’s Editor and I drove away from the parking lot, I spotted a Miata with a “Coexist” bumper sticker and a Prius with a “Proud Democrat” bumper sticker.
My people had infiltrated.
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.