Seeing fish is the essence of shallow water angling. Anglers who see fish exceptionally well can fish successfully in less productive water than anglers who don't. Fishermen love equipment and are always looking for mechanical advantages, but there is nothing to compare with learning to see well; if you see well enough, you can walk out in the mud with no boat and catch fish. I wasn't seeing well enough.
Not long ago, in response to a spell of insomnia, I learned some of the principles of meditation, to empty my mind piece by piece. It was like the old game of jacks—cautiously lifting each jack clear of its neighbor until only the empty background remained. I began to use this small skill to see better. Seeing fish well is usually assumed to be the result of concentration, but concentration bears too much of the deliberate—too much willpower and too little intuition about the way wild creatures use surroundings and how they exploit willpower into lies for the credulous predator.
Instead of longing for sleep, I longed to see better. I began to identify the things that kept me from seeing fish—motionless fish, slow-traveling fish, fish concealed in mangrove roots, fish up light, fish in glare, fish in shadows. I continued to scan ahead as the bottom flowed toward me to the gentle lap of the push pole, and when some thought about an unreturned phone call or some e-mail tried to elbow its way in, the old insomniac let it all out the backdoor. I learned to sail through thoughts as though they were clouds, and this relieved me of direct combat with intrusion. I sailed through clouds and looked into the water.
Before any real progress, however, I had another prod from Austin. We were standing on Tarpon Street in front of my little railroad house, the sun glinting off the tin roof, through the grapefruit tree. Leaning on his trailered skiff, Austin pointed down the street. "Read that sign. I think you need a prescription." It was a Realtor's sign with enticements in small print I read it aloud. He looked confused. "I still think you need a prescription." He got into his truck and drove off.
My wife said to me one evening after Austin and I had fished 10 hours in a 20-mph wind, "This fishing you and Austin do just sounds like work." It gave me pause. My bones ached, my eyes were red, my tendinitis was aroused. There were no physical benefits—no aerobics, no stretching. It was actually probably bad for anyone who did it. Hemorrhoids, varicose veins, fallen arches come to mind. After a decade or two your dermatologist pleads with you to give it up. You consume a world of fossil fuel trying to get close to nature. A poet says to you, "I ask the fish permission to give herself to me, for I am hungry. I become the fish. The fish becomes me." The twisted sister within says, "I just want to kick fin."
I also have issues with the sun. It raises water temperatures to the point that snook want to come out of their winter hidey-holes and start busting bait. But snook are perhaps better suited to its effects than I. My wife found on the Internet some discounted bedsheets of "thousand-count cotton." I wasn't sure what that is, but they're right smooth, and we were right proud to have them, but by the morning my bleeding lips had ruined them. I moved from 45 SPF to white gobs of zinc oxide and then to a kind of tube sock for my whole head, surmounted by a broad straw sombrero from a saddle shop in Alpine, Texas. I had become a cross between a fool and a leper, staring at tide tables. When I ran the skiff at anything over half speed, the sombrero folded back and I became a child's nightmare of Deputy Dawg, a macabre heat-seeking cartoon of not easily understood motivation.
Mostly, I fished alone.
One of the last days Austin and I fished this spring, we ran down south in Pine Island Sound to a creek with several shallow bays appended to it, left the boat tied to the push pole, which was staked into the soft bottom; and walked a bay that was almost, at this tide, dry land. We stood there silently for a long time, and nothing happened; nothing could happen because there was no water for it to happen in. The wind rustled the mangroves; egrets came and went. Off by the boat, a group of pelicans had surrounded some bait and would flap forward without taking off to scoop up a meal; tucking their chins to swallow, they looked polite and bashful. However, nothing was going on at all as we gazed at little more than bare ground. I was using all my mind tricks to keep looking and to avoid potential commentary on my eyesight.
The flat began to moisten. Austin stood beside me with his unrelenting thousand-yard stare. What are we staring at? I wondered. Austin wasn't saying. The tide had turned, and over time the flat flooded, at first with an inch or two; at about half a foot of depth, the snook, lazy pikelike shapes, began to come. They came steadily, and we both caught them in a string of explosive battles. They came in such volume that it became necessary for us to stand back-to-back to manage the onslaught. We lost count of the fish we released, and Austin actually admitted it was the best day he'd ever had. My arm was lead.
I once had an episode of serious depression, and its onset was marked by a loss of interest in fishing. I believe I gave away tackle. I sold cheap my cherished Bogdan reel, which was presented to me 30 years later at a usurious price.