We removed our shoes and socks, put on shorts and waded in. The mud was surprisingly cold and quite firm, like wet cement. There were piles of worms everywhere, and white gulls circled about, occasionally plucking out a worm. The mud itself, which appeared nearly black from a distance, was actually copper-colored and streaked with yellow and green. And it was not silent: The mud groaned and gurgled like an empty stomach, and whenever you lifted your foot, the loss of suction created an amusing flatulent noise. It was a quarter-mile slog to the river channel, and we each left a line of sunken, distorted footprints.
We waded into the water until it was about waist deep and officially began the tramp. I clasped my hands behind my back and made small, distinct strides—"soft steps" Kirk had called them—lifting my foot a few inches and moving it forward a few inches, trying to disturb the mud as little as possible.
Tramping is done entirely by feel; the water is so dark that you can't see more than an inch below its surface. As we walked—side by side, a few feet apart—Ellis described what to do if I actually stepped on a flounder: "If you feel a fish, put your foot down firmly. It'll squiggle for a few moments, but as soon as it realizes it can't escape, it freezes. Then reach down, hook your fingers through its gills and pull up the flounder." During the championship each fish is weighed and then released, unharmed.
I was not informed about the dangers of tramping until I was actually in the mud. It turns out that flounder aren't the only creatures living in the estuary. There are scores of jellyfish, stingers at the ready. There are millions of crabs, pincers poised. "If you tramp often," Ellis told me, "crab-bite scars on your toes are inevitable." There are sharp rocks and pointy shells and slithering eels and myriad UFOs—unidentified floating objects. And because the water is opaque, there is no way to predict what surprise each step will bring. For all I knew, there were giant sharks lurking in the mud, ready to swallow me whole.
It quickly dawned on me that I did not want to step on anything—not a crab, not a jellyfish, not even a flounder. Why would anyone want to step on a flounder, I thought, when they were for sale at the local market for about a pound and a half? And if I did happen to step on a flounder, how would I know it?
"You'll know," said Clanahan, a preacher of tramping Zen. "Standing on a fish feels like standing on a fish."
"But I've never stood on a fish."
Sure enough, Clanahan was right. It wasn't long before I stepped directly on top of one, and instantly I knew it was a flounder. It felt like a sponge, a thick, heavy, slimy bathroom sponge, and I pressed my left foot upon it. I felt a wiggle, tentative at first, more like an exasperated shudder. Then the fish began to thrash violently. It was the single most ticklish moment of my life: Every receptor in my brain urged me to lift my foot. I held out for a moment, though, tensing the muscles in my legs. Then suddenly, with a loud shriek, I jumped as high as I could, both feet clearing the water. By the time I landed, creating a tremendous muddy splash, the fish—the only flounder I would ever stand on—was long gone.