I started fishing around Boca Grande as a boy. My father brought me here when I was 11 years old to fish for tarpon: I caught my first one in Boca Grande Pass. For years my father and brother fished here with a redheaded guide who died from the complications of skin cancer. My father and his friends, all clients of the redheaded guide, came to pay their last respects. The old guide was laid out in the living room of his small clapboard house, surrounded by family and friends. In the middle of it all, supported by her sisters, was his grief-stricken widow. When my father and his friends walked in, she looked up blearily, adjusted her focus and cried, "There's the sonsabitches that killed my husband!" My father and his pals, in coats and Countess Mara ties, clutching Dobbs hats, made humble obeisance until escape was possible. "I thought those crackers would jump us," my father commented in a grave voice as his group headed for the Pink Elephant bar for an eye-opener.
You reach a point at which you have to view your life through the things you've spent so much time doing. The alternative is a perilous feeling of waste. Cancer and gulag survivors alike treasure their experiences for reasons best known to them. The rest of us have logged more platitudinous days, and it takes an effort to assign their place and value. I've spent as much of my life fishing as decency allowed, and sometimes I don't let even that get in my way. Especially when it comes to snook.
Snook remind me of brown trout—something in their covert nature, their eccentric choices in safe harbors, their sensitivity that seems designed to humiliate the angler when less dramatic options would get the job done. In short, snook are sleazy.
They are also hard to see, hard to hook, hard to land and, because they are so good to eat, hard to release. But release them we do. Cold weather reduces them to torpor, colder weather kills them. When they're at the threshold of death, a translucent window appears in the top of their heads. Sometimes, when a snook follows your fly, then takes, you notice a quick roll up on its side, as though the fish were bringing the target in for close vision. The snook refusal has a quality of its own; a long cross-eyed follow, then a turn off. Snook just leave when suspicious, or change their swimming rhythm. They can also crash bait as well as jacks or bonito. There is something touching about snook, their funny-faced striving, their sneakiness, their lazy travel turning into serious speed. Their heedless jumps fill us with aesthetic merriment.
The truth is, I have always had trouble catching them and felt that this was something I was going to have to work harder at. I decided to fish with a guide at least once a week, and I called on Austin Lowder, who guides here in the winter and in Montana, where he's from, in the summer. I'd heard he was effective but very demanding, and I thought I could stand a little embarrassment, as long as I learned something. I soon confirmed that Austin is not the guide for the angler who is comfortable with his bad habits or who has lost the ability to learn. As we approached a group of redfish our first day together—brick-colored tails turning slowly, a pink, wavering shape below the surface, grubbing out baby blue crabs—I adjusted my stance to face them and cast. The tails disappeared, and I had no targets. "Don't move your feet," Austin grunted, and we looked for some new fish.
There was a single fish tailing at the edge of the mangroves. In the branches above him, a dozen wood storks watched my performance. This would take a long cast. As I began, Austin's cellphone rang in his pocket. I made the throw but a loop caught under my shoe. Fish gone. I heard Austin say to the caller, "Just missed a fish. Guy with tennis shoes."
If you fish away from your home waters, guides are an excellent investment although, after a pleasant day together, they will describe you to the other guides as a complete idiot. There are two kinds of clients, the meek and the proud. The former are happy to be insulted and abused, the latter regard guides as indentured servants. I'm a mixture of the two. I can accept a certain amount of abuse if I'm learning something; then indignation sets in and I become disagreeable. Austin's belief that a successful day on the water consists of doing a lot of little things right was a useful regimen for me. Among his assertions: Don't move your feet when approaching fish; don't talk (they can hear you); don't trail a loop in the water; don't cast overhead unless you're a long way from the fish; watch all low-flying birds (they spook fish); and so on, in an ever-lengthening list.
Austin assumes you're trying to get better, but he's a strict instructor. Your first impression from fishing a few days with him is that you have suddenly acquired attention deficit disorder.
Reaching into my tackle bag for my binoculars to look at a hooded warbler that had just appeared in the mangroves, I heard Austin say, "Put them back. You don't need binoculars." He dinged away at me for days on things like this, and eventually I conformed, though a few remarkable things stopped us both: a peregrine power-diving in perfectly still air creating a searing sound of attack; an immense stork, a jabiru that had drifted away from its Central American home—from 50 yards away we could hear it crunching crabs with its colossal beak. In any case, back to work.
A big snook lay like a black arrow in the clear water atop an oyster bar that glowed yellow in the afternoon light. I was rigged for redfish but cast anyway. The fish rushed the fly, took hard and ran. I was forced to play him gently to keep from breaking him. After a heedless jump, he made a run for the mangroves. I had to pull hard to stop him, and I got away with it. I landed the fish and kept him alongside long enough to admire the peculiar beauty of a grown snook—the upward cast of the eyes, the beautiful undershot mouth with its sandpaper interior, the boxlike shape of the body between its ventral fins, the slight greenish cast overall and the amber fins.