There must be
Moments when we see right through
Although we say we can’t. I knew
A fisher who could lean and look
Blind into dazzle on the sea
And strike into that fire his hook,
Far under, and lean back and laugh
And let the line run out, and reel
What rod could weigh nor line could feel–
The heavy silver of his wish,
And when the reel-spool faltered, kneel
And with a fumbling hand that shook
Boat, all bloody from the gaff,
A shivering fish
— Archibald McLeish
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff on the grass flats of the Homosassa and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the last ten days a dog had been with him. (Hemingway)
To an unlucky fisherman, a dog is a great comfort. The dog had always lived with him but the man had not thought there was room for two in an unlucky skiff. Now that luck had abandoned him, the dog was invited along.
The dog took the early morning life seriously and each morning woke the man before daylight so as not to miss the sensations of the sunrise: the scent of dark waters lightly covered with rising mist, the sight of orange flame contained in gray cumulus low over the cedars, and the touch of wind and spray in his gaping mouth and wide open eyes.
This enthusiasm was contagious and the man was eager to share his experiences with someone so interested. The man would not raise an eyelash to help himself but would move the river channel for a willing pupil. With a new partner, the man was hopeful that his luck would change; but, if it didn’t, it did not matter. But the dog did not know this and did not care as long as the man was near and continued to pat the dog’s head and talk to him in reassuring tones.
Many days had past since the man had spoken harshly and the dog, always eager to please but often unknowingly provoking anger, lowered his wagging tail, dropped his head and rubbed it against the man’s leg to make sure the hurtful voice did not return. This always worked.
On this day, the tide was strong and fast and the man had only an hour of prime fishing time on his favorite flat before the water was so skinny that even his skiff would not be able to float above the sand. The full moon had just set and had pulled the water off the flat in a torrent that left the grass tips stranded on the surface, bent and twisted and brown and green. The falling tide also left the fish looking for water in which to feed and in which to hide.
A skiff is a small boat with low sides and an open cockpit that is used by flats fishing guides everywhere. The flat bottom and light weight of the boat’s hull allows the fisherman to push the boat with a long pole while standing in the stern while floating in four inches of water. This slow, quiet movement is needed when the tail of a bull redfish has been sighted flagging above the water from within a twelve-inch deep pothole in the middle of a thousand acre field of rocks, sea grass, sand, and gin clear gulf water.
The man never used bait and held in low esteem all who did. Not that using live or cut bait was really bad it was just easier. Casting a shrimp or pinfish to a tailing redfish was an art in itself but was less an art than throwing a plastic jerk bait or a Clouser minnow pattern and all agree that the sight and sound of a redfish boiling on a top water plug is only surpassed by the exploding chaos created by a snook on the same lure. This was the technique of the old man and it had not worked for a long time.
With the sun in his face, a redfish tail in the air, and the push pole gently propelling the boat, the man moved within casting distance to try his luck, again. Sensing the man’s excitement the dog worried that the harsh tones would return. To prevent this the dog slowly walked, nails clicking on the hard deck, back to the stern where the man had taken a knee and was pushing the boat with one hand and holding his fishing rod in the other. Licking his lips, a soft whine escaped, and the dog pressed his flank to the man’s thigh. Tender words where spoken but the dog did not dare leave as the man’s tension was still high.
The old man knew the fish was feeding and would not see him; but, fish have senses humans can not fathom. Very sensitive to sound and water pressure, the fish does not rely on its eyes for defense. Instead, the fish knows that the dull clunk of a heavy foot fall on the deck of a boat, or the sharp clank of a push pole on a rock, or the crisp slap of small waves on the side of a boat’s hull means predators are near. Sometimes even the silent, hulking, presence of the boat displacing water is somehow detected by wary fish – no shadow, no sound, just fish plowing the surface into furrows as they bolt in panic from an unseen, but definitely sensed, menace.
Almost within casting distance, the man calculated the wind and water movement, stopped pushing, and let the skiff drift the final few feet to within casting distance of the big fish. Clipping the push pole onto its bungee leash, it trailed silently in the boat’s wake; the man dropped down to both knees and quickly loaded his rod tip and fired his lure toward the tailing fish.
Not yet experienced in catching fish, the dog had only known the man to make these casts and then utter harsh tones and then slowly relax and then rapidly get tense again. The dog was confused as this behavior only happened on the boat and not when in the house where they lived in quiet and comfort and peace. Why the man was tense when on the boat, the dog did not know. But this time something happened even more frightening than the harsh tones.
The lure landed six feet beyond the fish and three feet to the right. The man saw the fish stop feeding and drop his tail back into the water but it did not run. Instead, the fish darted at the floating plug and smacked it with the side of its head. The plug bounced into the air a few inches and settled back down. The man did not panic nor did he even move until the ripples the fish and plug had made settled down. With a steady set of quick snaps of the rod tip, the man worked the plug toward the boat. The fish again noticed the plug and cruised rapidly toward the lure, water flowed over its back pushing a bulge of water that forced the man to focus more on his rod tip and less on the actions of the fish in order to maintain the rhythm needed to correctly walk the lure.
Pacing the deck in confusion, the dog whined and rubbed the man’s leg and hoped that the tension would end without anger. Not knowing how to help the man, the dog started to slobber and whimper and shake his head while bouncing on this front feet and staring intently at the disturbance in the water that so consumed the man’s attention.
Striking the lure the fish caused the water to boil and foam before turning and swimming away with its new prize only to be surprised that the morsel was not what was expected. Panicked, the fish stroked its powerful tail driving forward to the deep water and safety. But the hooks had done their job and were deeply imbedded into the fish’s jaw. Reeling as fast as possible the man rose from the deck and removed the slack from the line. The feeling of pressure from the fish through the line, into the rod and into the man’s hands, was wonderful. Line began to scream from the reel and further attempts to take in more line were impossible as the fish muscled its way toward safe water. Redfish are not fast but they are strong. The man did not pressure the fish but knew if he could keep the line tight the fish was his.
Seeing the water boil, the man stand, and the rod bend, the dog was confused and concerned. He knew that the disturbance in the water was causing his master pain. The dog felt it necessary to end the man’s pain and return them both to their normal quiet existence. The dog could see the problem. In the water, a creature was slowly moving toward the boat. Action was required and the dog leaped into the water and loped through the sea grass to within striking distance of the horrible creature. The dog lunged keeping his head underwater for several seconds. When his head reemerged, the dog had clamped in his powerful teeth the shivering, dripping, bulk of a twelve-pound redfish. The man slowly lowered his rod. Laughing until his side hurt, he watched as the dog calmly walked back to the boat and dropped the now dead fish onto the deck. Eighty-four days of bad luck had purchased, for the man, a little luck.