The saltwater curse

The first taste is free
flats fishing aerial - mexico
Photo: Chad Shmukler

They say the first taste is free, right?

It doesn’t matter what it is. Could be that first bag of jalapeno potato chips or a spicy bowl of perfect Cajun gumbo. Or it could be something more insidious and life-wrecking. There’s always going to be somebody out there who will do whatever it takes to set that hook and send you down a lifelong spiral of hopeless addiction.

For me, it was flats fishing. I know. I got off easy. But before you wipe that sweat from your brow, know this. I’ve never heard of a 12-step program for bonefish anglers and permit hunters. All we get is more encouragement. More emails and devious little ads delivered, suspiciously, I might add, to our phones and social media feeds. Come to the Bahamas! Experience the Mayan Riviera! Belize is the bomb! The Seychelles are calling!

Holy hell, the Seychelles.

It’s been more than a decade since I was invited to fish the wide, sweeping flats of Long Island in the Bahamas for a writer’s week at a small lodge in Dead Man’s Cay – I had to buy a plane ticket and leave a tip. And I had to buy my own rum. But, for the most part, I was just expected to write about my experience.

Not exactly free, I guess. But then, what else was I going to do? So I wrote. And then I went back the next year. And then to Mexico. And back to the Bahamas. And then, because I needed a fix, I doubled down on flats fishing for carp in the gooey, gross waters of a Snake River back bay. And then to Louisiana and Texas for redfish. And to Florida for more redfish. And sheepshead. And then I saw my first daisy chain of giant tarpon.

Listen … I’m not poo-pooing real-life addiction. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen the damage it does. It really does ruin lives. It’s one of the most painful things I’ve seen families go through, and so many of us are either directly or indirectly impacted. But I’m also serious about the pull of the salt, particularly from the flats of the Caribbean that are generally easy to get to if you can muster the means. And rarely, if ever, do you leave the sand and the salt totally sated. There’s always more to do. Another country to visit. Another lodge to check out.

And then some wise ass says, “Hey, dude. Have you ever caught a GT?”

Oh, damn.

So you dive in and feed the dragon. It starts with a lot of internet research and ends with your finger over the mouse, which is hovering over the button that reads, quite innocently, “book trip now.” The sweat beads up on your forehead. You know there’ll be buyer’s remorse … but will it be as bad as the regret you’ll feel if you don’t click?

So you stand up. You walk around a bit. Maybe do another hour’s worth of research. Knowledge is power, right?

And then you walk over to the keyboard and you deliberately push that button. It’s done. The money magically disappears out of your checking account. The cheerful confirmation email arrives before you’ve had a chance to think aloud, “What the hell did I just do?” and “What will she say when she sees that charge?”

And then you realize what you’re missing to make this trip work. You’ll need a new saltwater line. At least one. And leader. And wire leader (barracuda!). Oh, hell, that old 8-weight is … well, it’s just old. Time to upgrade. And you can’t put the new line on an old reel, for Christ’s sake. And you need a few new sun hoodies and at least two new face gaiters. Oh, and new flats boots. Gotta have those. And that old hat? Yeah … it’s got some luck on it. And God knows what else.

You’re in the throes of the beast by this time, and the adrenaline is what’s keeping you upright and functional. Over the weeks ahead, as the trip approaches, you’ll pack and repack in your head. You’ll pick up a new pair of stainless steel pliers because you have no idea where the last pair that you purchased right before your last trip ended up. And that little speck of potential skin cancer the dermatologist removed from your knee? Yeah. New quick-dry pants. No more wading the tropical flats in shorts for you. And, that second little speck of potential melanoma that was sliced off your ear? Time for a floppy hat to replace the ballcap.

Soon, it’s adding up to an uncomfortable conversation with your significant other. And when that happens, trust me. Just openly admit to the mid-life crisis.

So, yeah … that first taste wasn’t really free at all, was it? Think back. Who was your flats dealer? Who was that insufferable lout who connected your fly-fishing spirit with the tropical shallows?

That person — that deviant — deserves a glare over the rim of your brand new polarized sunglasses (because you’ve stared at too many things that look like they might be bonefish through the old pair over the years, and they’re just plum worn out). And, of course, they’ll get that glare from the seat next to you on the plane. Or in the flats skiff or the panga.

Because misery loves company and flats addicts can’t function by themselves. That’s why they said, “Hey, you wanna go to the Bahamas?” all those years ago. And that’s why they’re sitting next to you at the lodge bar, bemoaning the conspicuous lack of permit on the flats and taking comfort in the fact that they’re not alone, sipping Kalik or Sol while the humidity sucks up whatever hope of a better day on the flats come sunrise.

Because if it was good all the time, then you’d think you had it down. That you were good at it. Then, just maybe, you’d beat the addiction.

It’s never free. Not ever.

So, uh, listen. You wanna go to the Bahamas?


I just got back yesterday from the Riviera Maya. I'm sad to inform you that I'm now a saltwater Bone addict. I also really like Jack Crevalle and Permit, too.

I think my Scott Tidal 8-wt needs to be replaced with a new Scott Wave for my next trip.

I need to find a saltwater fly support group, ASAP -- as I live 600 miles away from the Pacific!