Gunsmoke and the bonefish

Finding your calm on the flats
Photo: Chad Shmukler

Years ago, when I worked as a journalist on the North Coast of California, I got into the habit of falling asleep to the sounds of old-time radio.

Stan Freberg—a Radio Hall-of-Famer—hosted a nightly show on one of the AM stations we could pick up in remote Eureka, and my sleep began to depend on the tinny voices blasting from the clock radio on the nightstand. Half-hour series like “Our Miss Brooks,” “The Life of Reilly,” “Boston Blackie,” “Dragnet” and my favorite, “Gunsmoke,” would put us to sleep, often before we could get through an entire episode. It was comical for a while—a novelty (I think it would be akin to my 17-year-old son putting his Xbox aside and taking up a game of River Run on the old Atari 2600).

Now, it’s no longer a novelty. It’s a necessity for sleep, and thanks to the Google Play Store, my phone is chock full of mp3 files—I’ll wager I’ve listened to every Gunsmoke episode ever recorded. Twice. And, now, with a monthly Audible subscription, I can throw in all the books I’d ever need to listen to, as well.

What does this have to do with fishing?

Many years back, I spent a blustery week on the flats of The Bahamas’ Long Island—the weather was miserable and the fishing was slow. I had never hooked a bonefish before, and when the week expired, I still hadn’t. I watched a few being caught, but took solace in the fact that the wind and the rain made for slow fishing among the experienced group of anglers.

My friend Kirk Deeter, I recall, caught a bonefish while listening to his iPod (it was years ago, when iPods were still the thing)—I don’t recall the music, but I remember thinking that such a distraction might be just the ticket to prevent me from thinking too hard … from consciously working too hard against the wind with my hapless trout-fishing fly cast. Overthinking or overanalyzing anything in the sporting realm tends to add complexity to an endeavor, and by the end of a long and frustrating week, it was clear that I let the details that accompany chasing bones on the flats get in the way of actually fishing.

When I made it back to the Bahamas a year later, my phone contained not a single musical track. But it did have about a decade’s worth of Marshall Dillon’s adventures with Miss Kitty, Chester and Doc filling up its memory card. I borrowed a pair of Disney earbuds from my buddy Marc Payne—who had borrowed them from his daughter back in Tennessee—and I hit the flats of Long Island with “a U.S. Marshall and the smell of … Gunsmoke.”

William Conrad—who later gained a buttload of weight and played the fat man in “Jake and the Fat Man”—blasted his way through those earbuds and through the streets of Dodge City, and I was sufficiently distracted to become, over the course of a week, a fairly competent bonefisher. I didn’t overthink my cast or my double-haul. I walked stealthily and I zoned in on fish that a year before I had no hope of seeing. My brain was otherwise occupied—the old-time radio tilted it just a bit on its axis to allow a small-stream trout angler to essentially do what comes naturally to most anglers who like to spot and stalk. I found fish and, with my obvious casting handicap, I compensated and found ways to catch them—all without thinking too hard.

And all the while I listened along as Marshall Dillon foiled “the killers and the spoilers” with regularity. As Dillon and Chester beat back crooked gamblers, rustlers and murderers on the Kansas frontier, I honed my skills on the quiet flats of Long Island, far to the south of Nassau and the spring breakers on New Providence.

Since that first fateful bonefishing trip, I’ve chased flats fish several more times. I’ve managed to catch permit and tarpon and snook. And bones aren’t nearly as daunting as they once were.

And, no, I don’t always plug in and listen to old-time radio to recalibrate from the mountains to the ocean, but it’s always an option I keep open.

Now, as I fall asleep to the raucous sounds of a gunfight in the Alafraganza, or if I just happen to doze off to the sounds of a narrator reading a new-release novel to me, a little part of me is transported to the cyan flats of the Caribbean, where bonefish tails glisten in the tropical sun and where the salty breezes somehow make rum taste so much better than it really is.

Could I give up on old-time radio and still catch fish on the flats?

You know ... I'm not about to take that chance.