It’s literally a 10-minute boat ride from the Westin at Cape Coral to the public boat launch where Jim Bandy’s truck and trailer needed to be. We’d planned a full afternoon of fly fishing, but work got in the way and all I could do was offer Jim a hand getting his boat from one place to the next.
It was the least I could offer after cancelling the fishing, right?
So we shuttled the trailer over to the launch, and then Jim hopped in with me for the ride back to the Westin. There, at the marina, his boat waited for the quick trip across the bay to the launch.
“We should at least bring a fly rod,” Jim said, maybe trying to salve my disappointment. “There are some mangroves we could hit on the way.”
I cracked a quick grin, opened the trunk of the rental car and quickly plucked the strung-up 7-weight out of “temporary” storage.
“Like this one?” I asked.
Jim and I were attending a series of meetings at the Westin about the state of the Gulf Coast fishery, but between speakers and over beers, we honed in on saltwater fly fishing. Jim’s a world-wise angler who’s chased trout in Montana and ventured across this great land in search of everything from salmon to bass. But he’s found a home in south Florida, where the redfish and snook compete with tarpon and barracudas for mouthfuls of pinfish and crabs. I’d be lying if I said my talks with Jim weren’t productive, and perhaps slightly sinister. You see, I had a problem. Well… more of an “issue.”
And I subjected poor Jim to the woeful tales of my little situation. See, I had my very own Ahab moment… the one that got away. While I’d been able to catch bonefish, tarpon and permit in places as grand and exotic as the southern Bahamas or Ascension Bay, Mexico, one fishy denizen of the tropics had managed to elude me.
Or, as I put it to Bandy, who serves on the board of the Snook and Gamefish Foundation, “Uh, I’ve never caught a snook. Think you can help me?”
I think I had him at “I’ve never caught a snook,” but it always pays to be polite when in pursuit of angling assistance. And I am, if nothing else, perfectly capable of pretending to be polite.
Even though with Jim, that’s not really necessary—he’s a good dude. He has a quick smile. He can drink a cold beverage with the best of them. He’s got the south Florida snook issue dialed in—that I can guarantee.
Oh, right. I did mention he owns a boat, didn’t I?
So we pulled out of the marina at the swanky Cape Coral Westin, and, knowing we were stretched for time, Jim put me on the bow of the flats skiff and motored casually across the harbor to a healthy line of mangroves.
“You can cast right up to them,” he said as he put the motor in neutral. I began to pull an ambitious amount of fly line from the reel, thinking for sure that I’d be making 80-foot casts and, knowing—just knowing—that this little wayward venture was an exercise in desperation. I had a conference call I had to be on, and we were just really on a quick little joy ride across the bay. This was a detour.
And, because we were in a hurry, we didn’t pole the boat along the line of mangroves. Jim simply left the outboard in gear, and I hastily loaded and cast, trying to flip the little Clouser up under the overhanging branches of the greenery. It was a lot like trout fishing, to be honest with you—the tide was running out, providing a bit of current, and I even saw a respectable needlefish give chase to the fly on the swing.
And then I did it. I managed to wrap the leader so tightly around a mangrove branch that it looked like I intended to do just that. Jim pushed the boat in just close enough for me to reach the hopelessly entangled fly, and that’s when I felt the line screaming my fly reel.
The motor was in gear, and about $80 of saltwater fly line was busy wrapping itself up in the prop. Snap! Ting!
Oh, Ahab… you had it easy, you son of a bitch.
And, of course, all you can do is laugh. Jim killed the motor and in a few minutes, he’d handed me three pieces of fly line that he’d managed to salvage.
“Not looking good, buddy,” he said. “We better get to the boat ramp. You gotta get on that call. “
There, holding the ends of the fly line across my hands like strands of flaccid pasta, I fought back against the fates. I live in Idaho, for Christ’s sake—when will I get this chance again?
So I began tying. As Bandy motored the boat out into the no-wake zone, I tied more furiously. And then, like a calf roper, I dropped the line and looked at Bandy. There, at my feet, three ends of RIO saltwater fly line had become one again—well, sort of. It looked like really good fly line held together by a pair of monkey fists, but what the hell?
I glanced at Jim with what I hoped looked like a thoughtful expression from behind the shades.
“Let’s give this a try, “ I said. I stepped up on the bow, and to his credit, Bandy eased the boat along the mangroves one more time. I took care to jettison my spent line in the boat behind me, and with every cast across about 30 feet of water to the edge of the mangroves, an audible “tick, tick, tick, tick” could be heard as the knot I fashioned in my fly line ran through the guides of my rod.
On my second cast, the Clouser landed just off the edge of the mangroves and with one quick strip, I was hooked up.
“You got one?” Jim asked. I nodded and he laughed. I started to smile, thinking what a miracle it must be to catch a snook this way… this ham-handedly. This accidentally.
And then the line went slack. The fish spit the hook.
And, oddly, I was okay with that. I’d come farther than I ever had before. I’d hooked up. I played the fish a bit. Beats the alternative, right?
“Keep casting,” Jim said, pointing off to the south. “We’ll fish this whole line of mangroves.”
I looked back at him, slightly defeated, but grinning anyway.
“No,” I said, thinking how tough it would be to explain to the boss that I missed a conference call because I was on a wild goose chase for snook. “We better get going.”
“Cast, damn it,” Bandy said, smiling. “It’s on the way.”
So I lifted the rod one more time, loaded the line and let it fly toward the mangroves one more time.
“Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.”
I stripped once, and the water exploded around the fly. The line pulled tight and I prayed that my waterside surgery would hold, that the fish that fell for my fly would make it to the boat, and that I could tell Ahab to piss up a rope.
And it did. As I cradled the stunning predator in my hands and posed for my terribly predictable grip-and-grin, Jim snapped the photo and then watched as I put the prized fish back in the tea-green drink.
“Hold it’s lip and just wait,” Jim said, as I held my first snook under the water. “When you feel like it’s sucking on your thumb, that means he’s ready.”
Moments later, the fish that inspired a foundation sped off into the salt.
Up yours, Ahab. I got mine. And I made my conference call.
Chris Hunt is the national communications director for Trout Unlimited and a regular contributor to Hatch. To learn more about Florida’s prized snook, redfish and tarpon, visit the Snook and Gamefish Foundation and consider becoming a member.