SI Vault
Thomas McGuane
July 05, 2004
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July 05, 2004

Seeing Snook


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I marvel at people discussing depression, gnawing the topic of their own malaise like dogs on a beef knuckle. My experience of it was a disinclination to speak at all. I had the feeling of being locked in a very small and unpleasant room with no certainty of exit, and I recall thinking that it was the sickest you could possibly be and that my flesh had been changed to plaster. My business at the time was flight from expectations.

It was spring in Montana, and two old friends quite wisely arrived in my yard with a drift boat to take me to the river. I managed to say that I'd go if I didn't have to talk. As I was manifestly off my rocker, they were quick to agree, perhaps relieved at not having to hear my present thoughts. Once gliding silently down the Yellowstone, oars dipping, lines arcing out from either end of the boat, I began for the first time to picture better days, and it proved a turning point. I thought of incessant-angler pal and novelist Richard Brautigan, who relinquished his fly rod as he spooled up for suicide. Fishing, for many, is an indispensable connection to earth and life, and it matters little that the multitude that practices it is incapable of translating its ambiguities to another idiom.

A lingering, cool blow out of the Northeast dropped water temperatures again, spread foam lines across green whitecapped waters and shrank the broad pallet of local angling geometry to a gerrymandered world of lees around islands and oyster bars. Each jaunt meant donning oilies and the continuous sting of saltwater on sunburned skin.

Mark Phillips—an Alaskan guide—and I went fishing anyway, taking a good spanking as we ran northeast to hide from the wind among the small mangrove keys scattered along the mainland. Mark told me a defining snook story as we poled out of the wind, staring into the water. He had cast to a huge snook, and the fish had followed his fly intently. Just at the moment he hoped for a strike, his cellphone, which he had set on vibration mode and placed on the gunwale, went off, and the buzz put the fish to flight. He threw down his rod, answered the phone and endured an unpleasant conversation with a despised ex-girlfriend. Another sleazy snook moment.

We caught a couple of small fish, anchored the boat in eight inches of water and split up to wade, barefoot for maximum stealth. We had seen so many stingrays that I spent half the time watching the bottom in front of me and the remaining half looking for fish. A cluster of juvenile wood storks were scattered on a sandbar not far in front of me, and when I stopped to watch them, a snook blew up bait in the mangroves behind them. I stole over to look, but there was no sign of the fish, and the storks spooked nothing when they flew out over the place I'd hoped to see him.

Then, farther back in a small bay, another blast. This time I was sure I could find the fish because the fish fed in a very shallow corner of mangrove shoots. I crept over without a ripple and looked into every crevice: no fish. So I waded out of the shallow bay and was looking for new water when I noticed a faint wake leaving the area I had just inspected. This time it headed for an isolated clump of mangrove shoots which stood like a small, flooded island away from shore. Back into the bay on tiptoe and expecting only to be fooled again. Standing in perhaps six inches of water, I peered into the mangrove roots and there, nearly perfectly hidden, was my chameleon green snook.

I could only stand motionless and flick the leader into the maze of shoots. It landed a couple of feet from the fish, and as it sank he turned and struck. After several moments of close range snook pandemonium, I seized him by the lower jaw and the barbless fly fell out. I kept the fish in the water and ran my finger along his topside, feeling the thickness through the shoulders, the rigid upright fins. I then released him, and he swam off with cross-eyed, lazy insouciance. With the tops of the mangroves and wild palms tossing in the wind, the low-tide mud banks plowed up by wild hogs, this one was special.

In the end, I occasionally saw fish before Austin saw them. "Good eyes," he even said once. "I didn't see that one." It had been weeks since he'd last told me I needed a prescription. And then for the rest of the season, with new spring breezes arising in flowering trees, I fished alone, daily. I was catching more fish than I did formerly and getting a bit complacent about how much I'd improved. There was even time to crawl around and peer at the queer, nameless fauna of the shallows. I followed a scarce banded puffer fish, a piggy-looking football with a tiny propeller of a tail that motored him along at such a slow pace that only his spines, or his benign herbivore face, kept him from being chow for some apex predator.

I looked through my binoculars whenever I felt like it. I listened to the conversation of wild pigs, quit fishing to gather oysters, took naps in the skiff and made more elaborate lunches in the morning, sometimes at the expense of an early start.

There was no doubt about it: I was getting worse.

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