Thursday, February 24, 2005

rejoice and regret; the fish that would be dinner

Does a picture say a thousand words?

Does it tell you that I snuck out of the cottage after Kate fell asleep to go to the pier, in a balmy, sharp, chilly, harsh, warming-to-the-fishermans-soul wind, hoping that the rough weather would incite the mighty snook, a hard to catch, smart fish that I didn't catch for years until I paid some attention attention to the people that were, and then most of the ones I caught were out of season or a quarter inch too short to keep, or so big I never could turn their head and they broke me off, and that I walked out to the pier carrying only one fishing rod with one lure tied on, no live bait, no tackle bag, only the ruler and pliers in my pocket, and that three people were there that had been fishing hard for hours and not caught anything at all and that I threw only five casts and on the fifth I caught the biggest snook I have ever caught in my life, and that I fought it with my screaming arms and aching back while it tried to pull me into the pilings to cut me off on the sharp barnacles but I actually somehow managed to keep control and how the only guy on the pier with a landing net was so disgusted that I caught the fish after only a minute that he wouldn't help me and another guy ran over to help with the net, and that I brought it to the truck with my heart pounding and adrenalin pumping, giggling like a schoolgirl and grinning from ear to ear, and I was the same way when I woke Kate to take a picture and she was so groggy I had to wake her twice and in her sleepy stupor she exclaimed how big and fine my fish was then promptly, immediately fell back asleep within a millesecond, and how I laid the fish in the big sink basin and it didn't fit, and while I was looking at it, not for the first time, but a rare thing, I felt sorry for it, because it was so big it transcended being a fish and crossed that line to being an animal, and I had a temporary angst that passed and I felt like I should have some ritual to thank the gods for it but instead I underwent the difficult task of cleaning it, understanding why so many people who eat meat somehow dissassociate themselves from the fact that whatever they are eating was once frolicking somewhere, and okay, frolicking might be a strong emotional word, but you know what I'm saying, and could the picture, despite my last words, describe how buttery and firm and rich and delicious it was when we had it prepared at a restaurant the next night, covered with 3 different sauces that had us moaning with delight?
Did you get the picture?

Thursday, February 17, 2005

mr. sticks

Ft. Myers Beach feels like a sad little beach town at night. Lots of bars and restaurants that I remember as bustling nightspots years past but no-one in them. Rumor has it that Hurricane Charlie had his way with some of the big gulfside hotels, but even the small oldstyle Florida motels were near deserted. Super brightly lit beach-junk stores light up the night you can see from space but no-one is shopping.

I like to visit "The Beach" every once in awhile because Sanibel is so quiet at night and sometimes I need a dose of bright lights, the sound of bad rock sung to a karaoke machine and an ice cream cone. And you know me, I like to walk down the fishing pier over the gulf and look at the water.

At the foot of the fishing pier there is a little square, bordered by a few outdoor cafes' and ice cream shoppes. In the evening, a continuous program of street performers amazes and annoys passersby, us included, like a mini key west, a mini mini key west.

Somehow, to Kates chagrin, I get fascinated by the pitch of a street performer. His voice is raspy, high pitched and annoying and he has a pronounced lisp. I don't know what he does, but he has a golf bag full of things that he's handing to volunteers, a stick, a paddle, a tube and a pitchfork. He has the prerequisate short ponytail, black greasy hair tied back hard, a black outfit with flames on it, and a microphone clipped to his lapel that crackles on and off. The crowd is small and he tries his best in his annoying way to get more people in to see him.

We stand on the edge of darkness, away from the small circle, on purpose, so we can get out of there when it gets ugly, whatever gets ugly. He is "The Stick Man" and he announces that he doesn't usually do this show for such a small crowd...tells passersby not to stop, as it's the "small" show and there's no room. Wisely, they pass by. His pitch is abrasive. He pulls people physically and roughly from the outskirts of the circle. He tells abrasive unfunny jokes. He claims he holds world records (at whatever it is that he does) and that he has performed in "fifteen to twenty" countries. At some point he asks a woman to stop videotaping because "cirque de soliel wants this routine but I won't give it to them...I am the only one who knows this and I'd like it to stay that way".

We are considering an escape to walk up the pier but I can't move from my spot in the shadows...until he moves me. He rushes me and insists I come to the circle. I shrug my shoulders as if I don't know what he's saying. He says something else and I grunt some russian sounding sylables as I look at Kate, speak a gibberish question and shrug. "What language do you speak?" he asks..."sprachen ze deutsch? habla espanol?" I shrug in innocent nonunderstanding. "Where are you from?." he asks, and I reply in multisyllables that sounds like eastern european mush. With this, he grabs my wrist hard, physically, roughly, pulls me towards his arena. I yelled "polizia!" to no avail.

He is still working the passing and peripheral crowd for audience. We are to stand at the edge of the circle and as we edge back and yells at us to get back on the line. While he is working the women in the crowd he calls them "hon" and does innapropriate physical things, little face hugs and forehead kisses. You could see the discomfort, not delight, in every victims face and the way they fended him off, but it didn't matter. At one point, he saw a teen boy on the outskirts and ran to him, picked him up and literally flung him over his shoulder and carried him 30 feet around the circle and plopped him down. The kid, with surfer skateboard duds was obviously embarrassed and pissed.

The act, when it finally arrived, was pretty good, except that he was so annoying and abrasive. It's hard to describe, but he twirled and flipped large items with dowel sticks; a stick, a paddle, a pitchfork, claiming world records, telling us when to clap and when to cheer, trying to generate the enthusiasm he might have had, had he maybe been a less caustic person.

After we threw a five into his bag, we took a walk. Later, like the only two cars in Kansas, on the empty streets of the Beach, "Stick Man" is walking our way. Kate says "oh no, there's stick man". I see only a dark shadow approaching us, but it's him. I forget his moniker and I call him Mr. Sticks. He doesn't correct me.

Curiosity forces us to asks questions. He tells us how it's hard to find a shirt with flames that isn't polyester, because polyester melts during the flame portion of the program. He says he wants to do fire and bed of nails but the chamber of commerce won't let him yet, but it's in the works. He is hyper and "on" as he brags and lisps with a heavy canadian accent . His world records are all things he invented and he is the only one who does them.

We bid farewell and he walks darkly towards his camper which is parked in a bars' parking lot. We walk away stunned. My wrist hurts, a memory of a special special evenings entertainment.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

reports of his demise are

I spend a lot of time in the J.N.'Ding' Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island. The birds and reptiles and other critters are thick and fascinating. You can't turn your head without seeing a spectacular display of plumage, a leaping fish, a lumbering gator, sun-drenched subtropical vegetation, a big feast for the senses all. And I see it all while I fish, like I get two hobbies at once.

I've been coming here for years, as do many people, and I tend to eventually run into the same bunch of characters.

One such fellow is a real pistol. In there almost every day, maybe 70 years old, driving a yellow, rusty 20 year old van, puttering around in a canoe with a little motor. He chatters non-stop, with a slight new england accent, swears like a longshoreman, always busy, never seems to stop except to eat a sandwich or drink a beer. Typical of his diatribes.....
"I caught a goddamn trout, and that goddamn thing must've weighed, I don't know, 3 pounds, and goddamned if that thing didn't get the line tangled around my prop. Goddamn!...spent 20 minutes trying to untangle that goddamn thing!"
A character, local color, always friendly, albiet a little selfcentered in his conversations.

Me and Kate were in the refuge yesterday, talking to some other fishermen, some toothless hoosiers who went on about how they were going to the race this weekend (daytona 500) and the locals didn't appreciate when they go to the race and root for the indiana boys and proceeded to yell the first names of a bunch of race car drivers that I can only assume were Nascar drivers from Indiana.
Anyway, they saw the kayak on top of my truck and told us that someone had died in their kayak in the refuge a few days before, an old man in his 70s.
"A kayak or a canoe", I asked. They were sure it was a kayak. "they had search boats all over the bay but they couldn't find him, but finally they had the coast guard out in helicopters and they spotted his body from the air.

I didn't give it much thought, but in the back of my mind I was thinking about my old buddy in his canoe.

We came in the refuge today, and as we passed the gate, asked about it.
She told us it was an old man in a canoe, went out from the boat launch, didn't show up when the park closed but his car was still in the lot so they sent out a search party, eventually found him.

As we drove around the wildlife drive, we wondered, could it be him? We passed all the fishing spots, for two days in a row and hadn't seen him. He was usually in there every day.

Eventually we wound up at the boat launch and inquired, and it wasn't a yellow van, it was a camper, not from New York but from Oregon. They speculated he'd just had a heart attack and died out on the water. Not my cranky friend.

It's funny. I barely know the guy. He's a chatterbox fisherman who has barely ever asked me much other than what I'd been catching, but I was a concerned after him. I hope to see him this week, but I certainly won't mention this.

I've been coming here long enough that I seemed to have outlasted a lot of the people who I used to see...not that I outlived them, just that my habits and fishing spots and times have been consistent for years and years and other people have died, moved, been injured, got too old to be out at night on the pier, lost interest or whatever. As occasional and casual my relationships with these guys has been, it must mean something to me, if only a representing part of my own consistency here. But it must be a click more than that.

Friday, February 04, 2005

solo blogtrotter

They should call Marco Island the Windy City. Partly because of the wind and partly because half the winter population is from Naperville and Lombard.
I've only missed a few nights of fishing in 4 weeks, many nights alone in the cold wind, but tonight I may not even go take my evening pier walk. I think the wind just wore me down. Yet, even though it's midnight, I don't know if I can stand to sit and watch TV or read in my room when I know the water teems with life.

My fascination with salt water stands unabated. I spend hours just staring at the water. Last night, a Manta Ray cruised by me like a u.f.o., followed by a flock of stingrays maybe 20 thick, flying like birds underwater, spooked by something, scattering like an explosion went off between them. Minutes later, something I'd never seen before, a spotted stingray, like a flying leopard bird u.f.o.. Snook and trout were feeding in the water lit by the streetlight on the bridge. They come up from the bottom in flashes of gold and bronze and silver, smash and grab, but you can't see what they're grabbing, as the food of choice seems to be glass minnows, so tiny and transparent that the water could be thick with them and you wouldn't see it. Some nights the water is a bubbling cauldron of fish; minnows, ladyfish shooting all over the place like exploding firecrackers, the rolling trout, the skipping and hopping shrimp, the shimmery, wiggly ballyhoo, the squid floating gently in the current until they attack something, fatheaded mullet scared at the slightest movement, crabs floating by on the current, all their legs churning franticly as the tide forces a change in location for them. On the railings of the pier stand great blue herons. A stunningly beautiful bird, huge, posing in the audobon classic regal bird way, natures perfect model, tasteful in slate grey and brown and white, watching the water with cocked head with the grace of a princess. Until you walk too close and they take off, honking like the smokers hack tinged guteral ejaculations the goose of a baritone bombay taxi bicycle horn, it's flight starts with that noise and a clumsy liftoff, it's huge wings taking a few long agonizing seconds to get up to speed, just to circle around and land 20 feet further away.

And then there's the fishermen. Talk about regal and clumsy and smokers hack and quiet grace and kindness and selfishness and generosity.

The tourists come in the daytime, pulling up to the bridge in cadillacs and lincolns and conversion vans with Illinois and Wisconsin and Iowa plates. They won't come at night or stay late because the hispanics and asians and banjo players and snook fishermen come at night. Then, at 11pm, when most of the beer drinkers and social fishermen go home, the serious fisherman come in, the tires of their pickup trucks crunching on the gravel along the bridge at the hours when decent people are asleep. Me? I stay for all night shifts, watching people come and go as I stay rooted in my spot on the railing, casting over and over, waiting, very tense and really relaxed, wild with anticipation whenever my bait starts drifting through the lit up area of churning activity. And every 50th cast, something slams it and fuels my presence there for another hour. It's tough work but someone has to do it.

Not worth mentioning are the drunks and the surly and the snobby. Worth mentioning are the kind and generous people. Last night I had no bait and the nearest was 20 miles away. Everyone was catching fish on shrimp and I had none. A guy I met last year, a black man originally from the bahamas, told me to take as much as I wanted. Shrimp here are the most expensive of anywhere in the state, 4 bucks a dozen compared to 2 bucks most other places, so this was no small offer. I offered to pay him to no avail. I caught a huge trout. The night before there were two retired guys from boston. They were catching fish on a certain type of jig and I was catching nothing. They insisted I take one of theirs, showed me some new knots to tie it with and coached me on the proper technique. Relationships out there are temporary, but it felt really good to have some pals, even if for only a few hours, to fish with.

At 3 a.m. this morning, out there alone in the cold and the wind, an old man limped down the catwalk, pulling a shopping cart behind, with tackle boxes and rod holders and 8 fishing rods, more than I own, and he's bringing them all with him. He was stooped and weathered wrinkled and could barely walk, but at 3 in the morning, as my back and shoulder were screaming at me to stop, he was starting his fishing day. "ha you see enna snook"?, he asks as he walks by and I reply in the affirmative. "gon' fish fo snook until daylaht then go fo sheephead" he explains after I remark on how many poles he had. Moments later, a dark tanned old man with a thick european accent races up the walk. "haf you seen any ladyfish?", he asks in a rush. Ladyfish are a pest. Big, voracious, inedible fish that strike hard, then race in every direction at lightning speed, smell bad and crap all over you when you pick them up to take the hook out. I assume he wanted one for bait. He told me to leave it on the pier for him if I caught one. A rusty old ford pickup pulls up. A guy wearing a t-short and shorts gets out and comes down to get some bait. It is in the 40s with a 15 mph wind coming out of the north. He yells sharply,"F**K, it's cold! All my clothes smelled like shit so I washed them and I ain't got shit to wear".

I have casted for hours, trying to get another big trout to match the one I got much earlier. Finally something strikes and strikes hard. It takes me under the bridge and somehow I turn it's head and he shoots out into open water again. I see it and it's a big snook, only in season for a few days now. I see him as somehow I get the upper hand. My line is light, as I was fishing for trout, and I'm an idiot, which might be the most important point. Snook is the real reason and the season and I wasn't prepared. He shot for deeper water and broke me off. "F**K!" I yelled to no-one at all as the waving tendril of my broken line flutters in the breeze. Everyone all night was trying to catch a snook and they all walked away emptyhanded. I somehow floated a shrimp into his face on one of my thousand casts and blew it.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

assorted bird plumage

A great Blue Heron stands about 4 feet tall, about 20 feet away from me, trying to act nonchalant. He's eyeing a trout which I caught which flips on the walkway, shining in the glow from the yellow lights of the bridge above. The heron stands in profile, pretending to look out into the bay and not at my trout, but every few seconds he inches closer.
He was there earlier. Somehow, I didn't notice him land behind me as I was casting, and he was picking live shrimp out of my bait bucket, live shrimp that cost $4 a dozen here. I walked towards him and he flew away, bleating and squawking.
The trout looks good enough to him that he stays put, even as I walk towards him. He stands his ground defiant, showing no fear, until I get too close for comfort and he flies.
I caught a ladyfish, shiny, silver, flopping, flapping, flipping on deck. I got nervous about my trout disapearing so I took them to the truck. I saw the heron on the catwalk out of the corner of my eye from the parking lot and when I returned, the ladyfish was gone.

This afternoon I was wade fishing. My bait bucket was on the beach. A little egret, with his lacy feather tendrils puffed in the breeze stood vigil next to my bait bucket, wisely closed.
In the history or nature, over thousands, millions of years of evolution, shore birds have somehow put together in their mind that good food comes from white and yellow buckets near fishermen. When I came to shore he was still there. I sat down and he stared me down, not five feet away from me. He was so white and beautiful. I wanted to give him a shrimp but I didn't want to encourge the vicious circle of feeding wild animals, bad for them, bad for us.
I pulled my line in and took the shrimp off and threw it into the water, nonchalantly myself, just innocently throwing it away into the water where it belongs. My egret friend lunged after it, picked it up in his beak and strutted away. In thousands, millions of years, humans can't resist pretty and cute.

On the sanibel pier, two egrets were mating, I think. They knocked and locked beaks while leaping. The wind was ferocious, so every time they leaped up in the air, the wind carried them over our heads, like crouching egrets and hidden herons magically zooming over our heads, looked in some gravity defying combat.

and speaking of old I shook hands with George McGovern. He was larger than life, eating a ceasar salad on a windy afternoon at an outdoor cafe, wearing a black pinstriped suit.
It's funny how famous people are so distinctive. There's probably hundreds of old men who look just like him, but no one looks like him, even years and years after I last saw any image of him.