On a wet and windy day a few years back, as Gilbert Drake walked along a street in Palm Beach, Fla., an otter crossed ahead of him and disappeared behind a house. Good furs are common in Palm Beach, but an otter wearing its own skin is a rarity. Drake followed the otter around the house and on the back lawn came face to face with it. As Drake approached, the otter sat upright, fixed a nervy eye on him and began snorting in a way that suggested it was ready to take on anybody.
Realizing that an otter putting on such a gutsy act might have rabies, Drake retreated. The otter followed him. When Drake quickened his step across the lawn, the otter bounded after him. On reaching the street, Drake started sprinting all out, but he could not shake the otter. At this point, when all seemed lost, Drake suddenly remembered that he was carrying four one-pound mullet in his hip pockets. He wheeled and dropped a mullet in the path of the on-rushing otter. While the animal gorged, Drake made his escape.
How can a man pursued by an otter possibly forget that four large mullet are sticking out of his pockets? For Gil Drake it is easy. He is a fisherman, a devoted one. Mullet is not his favorite bait, but he sometimes carries one or two just in case. As he points out, "You never know when you are going to need a mullet." Over the years, by carrying mullet, Drake has attracted a few dogs and, by putting away his clothes without searching them for leftover mullet, has occasionally created a stink at home.
As best Drake can remember—dimly now—he caught his first fish, a sheepshead, with a cane pole at the age of four. He has been fishing with constancy and joy ever since. He has used hand-lines and long lines. He has still-fished and drift-fished. He has cast, trolled and jigged with all kinds of gear and bait. Using shrimp, mullet, bunker, crab, shiners; spoons and spinners; streamers and poppers; pork rinds and dough balls; tin squid and plastic squid and real squid; and various hanks of hair and feathers, he has taken more than 180 species of fish from the fresh and salt waters of North America.
For some reason, possibly a vagrant trace of Hiawatha in his genes, Drake was destined to be either a hunter or a fisherman. He grew up in Palm Beach, a town entirely surrounded by fish, and as a boy collected many walking, crawling and flying pets. He bought some; more he caught by hand in vacant lots. (After escaping from the family garage, one of his green snakes turned up four months later in the attic, bleached almost white.)
When he was old enough to think of other things, Drake's parents sent him to The Asheville School in the North Carolina mountains. At Asheville he learned to appreciate Shakespeare (the English playwright, not the American tackle manufacturer). He also learned to factor A-square minus B-square and other academic monotonies that are reputedly useful in later life. Of all the cadences and sounds still echoing from his school days, the one Drake remembers best is the solid, orgiastic "splut" of the lever-action Daisy air rifle that he kept hidden in the woods on the Asheville grounds. He fished the small lake on the school property, but he hunted more. He was the scourge of the local rodentry. When the little furry folk holed up for the winter, Drake pecked away with his Daisy at the behinds of ice skaters on the lake. The other nasty adolescents at The Asheville School put preset alarm clocks and similar devices in the master's desk in study hall. Drake loaded the master's desk with snakes and frogs. He ended his academic tour at Asheville with dubious honors and a lasting love for its woods and waters.
As a boy and teen-ager—and to a lesser extent later—Drake took fish in ways that would appall a priggish angler. He netted fish, and he hunted them with assorted weapons: above water he took fish with a bow and a lily iron; underwater he went after them with Arbalete, sea lance and Hawaiian sling. He caught live fish for his aquarium with nets, bags and a slurp gun. When he needed bait, he sometimes bagged jumping mullet and flying fish with a shotgun. He has blasted at sharks now and again with a bang stick and, just for the fun of it, has horsed a few into submission with a lariat.
As might be expected, after 20 years of intense and—God knows—diverse fishing, Drake gravitated to fly-fishing, the ultimate art. Although without question he today takes the greatest pleasure in elegantly presenting a speck of fluff to a fish with a fly rod, Drake is no purist. His curiosity about fish and his zest for fishing far exceed the limits of a specialist. He is Piscator unconfined. If he wanted a fish to eat tomorrow, Drake would just as soon go after it with a broadax.
Fishermen who are bored with orthodoxy should try using a machete, as Drake will do, to get edible mangrove snapper. With machete in hand Drake walks at night along a beach at the water's edge. Suddenly he flashes a light into the water beside him. If he catches a snapper in the beam of light, in a trice he swings the machete, separating the fish's head from its body. Any fisherman interested in taking snapper with a machete a la Drake should keep two things in mind. First, there is little chance of success unless the snapper are abundant and also fairly stupid, which mangrove snapper seldom are. Second, it is wise to practice with a machete in daylight before sallying forth in the dark. An unpracticed machete swinger is apt to miss the snapper altogether and take off his foot.
Ten years ago, after absorbing enough knowledge for a secondary diploma, Drake went to the University of Miami where he concentrated on marine biology and commercial art. Some of the art appealed to him. Curiously, marine biology did not. With mask and fins, Drake often dived on reefs where oddball fish abound and in open water through swarming acres of pelagic species. Occasionally, while roving, he came upon the strange ritual of lobsters marching in rank and file across the barren bottom—thousands of lobsters trekking from somewhere to somewhere for no known reason. Around jetties, while anglers flailed the water in vain, he dived and found schools of snook riding to and fro in the surge, ignoring the bombardment of lures overhead.