Thursday, March 6, 2014

Stalking Snook

Fishing with a guide is a very rare extravagance for me. I really can't afford it. However, after more than a few failed attempts at catching a snook on the fly in Florida this past year, I vowed to invest in the expertise of a guide when I returned. I saved up for months, sold some old gear on Ebay, and spent some time looking for just the right guy to fish with. I've only fished with a guide on a couple of occasions before and had walked away both times wondering if I should have spent the money on gear instead. One of these trips didn't even produce any fish until I went out on my own after our time was up and the guide was long gone. I didn't blame him for that though. It's not completely about catching fish- what I really want and need in a guide is some serious instruction and constructive criticism. Not to mention, an experience I couldn't produce on my own. It's a tall order, I know. I had recently read a great story by Thomas McGuane about snook fishing with a known Florida guide who pushed him to the limits and made the experience closer to hard work than a leisurely pursuit. They also happened to catch fish. A lot of fish. This was exactly what I've been looking for. I tracked down this guide and booked a day with him.

The day finally arrived last week and after a nearly wordless introduction, we were in the boat and on plane- flying over clear water that seemed about a foot deep. He took us deep into the back country, away from any other boats or anglers. Or anything at all, really. Eventually he killed the motor and we sank into stillness and quiet. He handed me a rod and we jumped out and set off on foot, leaving the boat anchored in the shallows. We waded barefoot through a passage in the mangroves that felt like an overgrown tunnel, sloshing our way through the roots. Eventually, he turned around and said it was time to be stealthy and not make a sound. "These fuckers will hear you and feel you move, believe me." I did believe him. I tried my best to creep through the knee deep muck without splashing or tripping. Before long we entered a slightly more open area, surrounded by mangroves and dead silence. I saw some large, ghostly wakes cutting through the middle of the water. Every few minutes there were massive splashes in the mangroves and tiny baitfish would explode from the surface. Snook were definitely here. He gestured to walk at his side and told me to pull out some line and be ready to cast. We painstakingly made our way through the still water towards the middle as he scanned the water like a hawk. All I could hear was my heart pounding as my bare feet sank into the muddy bottom.

"Right there. Cast! Cast!"

I spun and clumsily cast to where he seemed to be pointing. Then I saw the black back of a massive snook turn away, several feet from my fly, kicking up a cloud of silt. "Chris. You HAVE to get it right in front of these motherfuckers. And don't turn or move-just cast when I tell you to. He's fuckin' gone." We moved on. Slowly. A missed cast is a missed snook and this fish was now impossible to catch, even if I could find him again. But there were more. The next one was cruising in the shadows of the mangroves, about thirty feet away. "Cast. Now!", he hissed. This time I didn't shuffle into position, but my cast fell short. Not even close. I had been secretly worried that my limited casting abilities would be a setback and it was proving to be true. He told me to let my back cast straighten out more and stop my forward cast higher. "That's your problem". I needed to hear this, clearly, and it helped.

The next target came into sight and I desperately wanted to get this one right. I made the distance this time, but the fly landed too far to the left. "Leave it. Wait. Strip! Strip! He ate it!" I instinctively lifted the rod when I felt the fish and then saw the now familiar turn and a huge puff of silt underwater. It was gone. "You have to strip, don't use the rod". I knew this, but habit and adrenaline had overridden my mind. Classic saltwater rookie move. Now I was really starting to worry. The sun started feeling a little hotter on my neck. If he was frustrated with me, and I'm sure he was, he kept it to himself. And despite my mistakes, he genuinely seemed as excited to be there as I was. "Let's go get these fuckers. They're smart, and they're sleazy, but we'll get 'em."

We moved on and silently pushed through the labyrinth of mangroves and skinny water. I occasionally saw the lazy black torpedo shapes cruising through the shadows up ahead, but his eyes usually found what I couldn't make out at all. "There. Cast. Right there." I put the fly roughly where he pointed. "Strip. Strip! He saw it. He's coming. He's on!", and I felt a jolt go through the rod to my hand. One of most powerful fish I have ever hooked on a fly rod was suddenly on the end of my line. The stillness became chaos as the hooked fish tore up and down the edges of the mangroves. I struggled to keep it from getting to the gnarled roots that would allow escape. A few minutes later I landed my first snook and relief coursed through me. Both of us, probably. "That other one you missed was bigger. But you caught your first snook!" I got another one shortly after that, maybe as big as that first one. The three runs it took were unforgettable. The speed and power of a snook is unlike any fish I have experienced and sight fishing for them made it even more of a thrill. We spent more time on improving my casting and fished hard for the rest of the day. Those would be my only fish, but I didn't care.

This was exactly the experience I had hoped for- some unvarnished instruction and an opportunity to stalk and catch a fish that has eluded me for a while. And there was absolutely no doubt that I couldn't have done this on my own. It was a fantastic day, one I'll remember for a long time. And more importantly- I learned enough that I might even catch a snook on my own some day. If I see one anyway. And I have a new goal: cast better. Way better.