By Jack Clinton
Although she said she didn’t approve, Anita was there on the dock, in the grey light, slipping a touring kayak into the green water, loading it with a fly rod and bags. She like the richness of estuaries, so she didn’t complain, and it was not like there was a morning chill. It was tropical, and the cool of dawn was the only reasonable time of day.
Anita had her binoculars in hopes of spying rare birds flying out to hunt. Always the dedicated husband, Tom watched birds with her for a few days, excited that she had seen some rare species like the roseate spoonbill and the anhinga, the snakebird. He was glad she had seen them, and enjoyed birding with her. But, he wanted more of a conquest than birding, so he came looking for game fish. He wanted either tarpon or snook, and he had hooked both, but none were quite right— too small, or too many spectators.
“Well, that’s fine,” she said. “It will give us another day. I believe there are night herons in the mangroves and I want to be sure they’re not bitterns.”
“No hurry,” he said, “The fishing is good, and all this takes time.”
“I know he’s an old friend, but Charlie isn’t stringing you along?”
“No, he has all the money he’s going to get. He’s no choirboy, but he does what he says he’ll do. He told me to get my cast together, or he’d dump me and return the money.”
Anita gave her thoughtful grunt and said, “Well, you trust him, and I trust you.”
“You won’t lose the house to him.”
Anita snapped her head to retort, but it never left her lips. Instead, they stood quietly, one leaning against other in their identical sun shirts and broad-brimmed hats, turning as they heard the boat. Tom could see it through the morning mist, running without lights. Charlie stood in the tiny cockpit, and Andy on the bow with a short bight of rope in his hands, surly, with a cigarette in his mouth. Charlie was Andy’s antithesis, with a warm smile, bright blue eyes beaming in the haze, saluting with a traveler of coffee in his free hand.
Charlie made eye contact with Anita, and she held his gaze as he brought his skiff to dock, both nodding mutually. Andy looped the pier deftly and cinched the boat in smoothly.
“Tom?” She said with a catch.
“I know,” he said. “I know… all the discussions are done.” His voice hitched.
Tom kissed her, Anita clung for a moment, then he was aboard. The line slipped free, and they headed out with the tide. Tom waved and put one palm to his heart.
“Tom,” Charlie shouted above the engine, “we’re going to the edge of the mangroves, the small barrier islands to fish for snook in the backwater. We’ll only have an hour or two before the sun’s too high. Then we’ll probably go for tarpon along the drop-offs and flats, or we’ll go look for baits further outside.”
Tom knew it’d be a while, and so he took a seat out of the wind, on the cushioned bench behind the helm. Andy was already in the bow working on the leaders and tippets for the quiver of fly rods. When he was done, he reverently slipped each rod in the plastic tubes fixed to the squat spotting tower above the cockpit. Charlie was an excellent Capitan, and his boat was spotless and his gear very good. Tom had seen better, but every piece of Charlie’s equipment simply fulfilled its function.
Tom watched the birds along the tidal river, wishing Anita could see them. Egrets and herons rose from their roosts in the mangroves, and he saw an enormous wood stork and petite ibis pecking for fiddler crabs in the tidal mud. Occasionally, quick clouds of gulls, terns, and pelicans dove for pods of baitfish that leapt and skittered across the swirling water. Charlie pointed at the activity and shouted, “It’ll be a good day.”
As the boat ride lengthened, Tom remembered similar rides in his dad’s open skiffs, out where feeding fish sent anchovies and silversides leaping into the beaks of wheeling birds. His father was from a commercial fishing family in Maine, but he had come south after earning a degree in engineering. His mother had his sister, Cloe, but Tom was forever his father’s accomplice. He often worked with his father, rebuilding and selling used boats or painting houses. Tom loved listening to his father’s lively banter while bartering for parts and prime boat lumber, his father squeezing every dime when he found himself between jobs.
Whether in New York or Delaware, they always lived within a few blocks of docks or piers, where Tom grew up renovating and maintaining their modest sailboats and fishing skiffs. He waited all spring and early summer, watching for shivering skitters of bait fish on the glassy surface of the estuaries. He listened to fishing reports and harbor gossip for news of bluefish and striped bass coming close to shore. That was the only time his dad would be “sick” from work, or even quit one job for the uncertain prospects of another. Tom and his dad would always be there though, out with the frenzied shoals, in screaming clouds of herring gulls, casting plugs and live baits into the swirls of blues and stripers.
“Here,” Charlie said, rousing Tom blinking from his reveries. “This is a good island. Cast along the current and then strip it through the dead backwater. Let it sink to the dark blue.” Tom could see it was good water. His father would have been magnetically pulled here from miles away. “Fishy water,” his father called it.
Andy passed the rod to Charlie, who inspected the leader and tippet rig, nodded and passed it to Tom. “This is the place.”
Tom stretched as he clambered to the front of the boat and took his place on the casting platform. Andy had tied on a standard streamer, green on top, white on the bottom, long and weighty. He flipped the streamer forward and paid out a length of line, made a few false casts until he could feel the flex and action of the rod. He shot the streamer out to the nearer end of the current, stripped in a few feet of line then made a longer cast to the point of mangroves. He saw a flash on one retrieve and then hooked up on the next. It was a good fish. He played it, and Charlie laughed, “This is gonna be a day.”
Tom brought a nice amberjack to the side of the boat. Andy was there with his pliers and tugged to hook free and the fish disappeared into the deep blue.
“Good fish. Maybe we’ll keep a bigger one,” Andy said, slapping him on the shoulder.
“Good fish, Tom,” Charlie repeated, “a bit deeper on the retrieve. The snook will already be looking for darker water.”
Tom worked the eddy line, letting his fly drift deeper before his retrieve.
He caught a small snook after a few more casts and then the water went dead.
They wasted no time pulling the anchor, motoring off to find another island with swirling waters and a good drop.
“The last hurricane really carved up these islands and dug some good trenches,” Charlie said. “The island ahead was cut completely in half. I’ve never fished it, but I noticed there’s deeper water. Sit and relax until we’re there.”
“It’s all good to me,” Tom said with his toothy grin.
They swung in downstream, and Charlie quietly dropped anchor, letting the skiff drift while Tom took his stance on the deck. Charlie hand-hauled the boat up the anchor line until they were within casting distance. On Tom’s second cast he was into a great fish. Charlie and Andy were there beside him. “This is it, Andy, this is the one. Easy Tom, play him, let him run, use the rod, give him line! He’s heading to open water.”
Charlie pulled up the anchor to follow the fish. Andy hung close behind Tom.
The snook came to the surface twice and they could all clearly see its great size. “I’m saying fifteen pounds!” Andy spoke into Tom’s ear.
“It’ll do,” Tom shouted over his shoulder.
Charlie had his eyes on Andy. “Lower the transom deck, “ he said with an air of gravity. The fish was in the air once more, throwing spray across the sun, as Andy unfolded a tiny platform off the stern so Tom could bring his catch to hand.
A motor roared out in the glare of the morning sun, and shouting came from the starboard side. A rabble of tourists gave hoots and thumbs up from the deck of a bouncing charter heading to the deep water outside the islands.
Charlie and Andy rose from their crouched positions, shocked to have missed the motor in the silent morning.
“That’s it, Andy… That’s it… We’ll go for another fish a little farther out.”
Tom was still whooping, lost in his moment as he stood on the transom platform, water sloshing up over his canvas shoes.
“Jesus,” Charlie said. “That’s a big damn snook.”
“I haven’t seen many bigger,” Andy said, handing Tom his skinny hook pliers.
Charlie quietly supervised as Tom brought it to hand and worked the hook free, stnding aglow in the early sun as the fish swam lazily away, stunned from the exertion it spent.
“That was perfect, just perfect,” Charlie said shaking his head.
“Charters,” Andy grumbled.
Tom turned, smiling, “No worries Boys, it’ll be a good day.”
Tom had turned pale from the exertion, sweat beaded on his brow and ran from his temples.
“Take some shade, Tom, there’s water in the cooler — eat some fruit.” Charlie moved to his side. “Easy,” he said with a hand on Tom’s elbow, “you gotta last all day.”
“Sure, I’ll take some shade,” he said to quietly to himself, ducking under the canopy, handing the rod to Andy.
Tom sat and thought of Anita and his father as the boat skimmed and bounced on the open water. His father would’ve liked the diversity of the fish and birds, and the topography of the water. The New England coast was so limited, and the fish were either Blues or Stripers, and the birds were either gulls or terns, and they never expected anything different. But when surprised by the occasional heron or ibis, his father would stop and look up reverently, “Will you look at that, Tom! I’ve never seen one of those around here.” That was the last thing his father said to him in the hospital, looking up from a nest of tubes and wires that sucked away his life, his savings, his house, and dignity. “Will you look at that!” his father said.
That was the same fatal day his father told him, “I wouldn’t go if I were you Tommy, not down this road.” And then — like father, like son, there he was, fifteen years later, with his father’s cancer.
Instead of hospice, Tom was riding along on the deck of a small skiff, hiding from the sun, waiting for the next patch of good water. He reached for his insulated lunch bag, resting its coolness in his lap. He pulled out the ice pack and settled it against his stomach for relief, and opened his pill organizer, swallowing a few of each. Anita would be watching and counting if she were there. Andy eyed the box hungrily, and Tom gave him one of the big, powerful painkillers, which Andy swiftly stashed in his shirt pocket. A moment later Charlie was looking over his shoulder from the wheel. “Go easy, Tom. Don’t get goofy on me now. There’s still a lot of water ahead.”
“Just staying even, Charlie.”
“Good. Stay cool and drink water – A breeze will come up soon, maybe some cloud cover later on. It’ll be cooler outside the shoals and mangroves.”
“Why are we going outside?”
“Because there’s good baits and birds. Plus, the fish outside won’t be as picky as tarpon and snook. Andy and I are gonna bottom fish a bit, put some in the hold to sell.”
“It’s all good.”
“The rods are all strung up, just stay cool till we find a good patch of water.”
Andy stood on the bow with binoculars in hand, watching intently, and then went up the tower. He shouted down to Charlie, and the boat swung hard to the north. Tom could tell it was north, even with his eyes closed. He could feel the angle of the swells, the angle of the wind, and the angle of the sun. All of them said north.
“Ok, Tommy boy, this is you! They’re skipping on the waves!”
Tom opened his eyes and stood too quickly. He swooned and staggered, falling hard against the hold. Andy was there, concerned with the tumble. Tom felt the sweat on his brow, and he saw blood on his knuckles.
“Give me a second. I just got up too quick.”
Andy held Tom’s belt as he washed the blood from his hands in the sea, and splashed water on his face. Tom focused on the water and saw the seabirds screaming and plummeting to the sea. Pelicans dove off the bow and terns plucked smaller baits right off the surface.
Charlie was beside him on the deck, pushing the rod into his hands. “This won’t last all day, Tom. Come on, just start casting! Were right in the middle of ‘em!”
Tom was surprised by the size of the swells and the deep blue of the water. He was amazed at the boiling, slapping and snapping as larger fish pushed baits up into the mouths of waiting birds. A large fish randomly launched into the air and cart-wheeled head over tail across the waves.
Tom was casting and Charlie yelled at him to keep it away from the birds. He landed the streamer at the edge of the boiling water and felt the shuddering surge of a striking fish, and there was a tuna skipping across the water.
“Ho, ya got a Tunny. Yeah, that’ll keep ya busy for a while.” Andy shouted above the screech of the birds and the whine of the reel. Charlie pursued the fish with the boat, careful not to crowd the feeding school.
Tom swooned with nausea in the open sun; its rays pierced him through and through, but fighting the fish was like holding on to lightning. He could feel every pulse of its tail and every thrust of its fins. Tom shouted and whooped every time it came up tail-walking across the waves.
The birds had attracted other skiffs, and Charlie grew morose watching them approach. They landed the fish and Tom gave his consent to have it dumped in the hold. “Release three, keep one, that’s not bad. That’s a bonito! It’ll sell and keep Andy in beers tonight.” Charlie winked.
He took the rod from Tom and sent him to the shade of the cockpit. Andy stowed the rod in a tube and they headed off away from the crowd. When they found some space to themselves, Charlie anchored in deep water and handed out sandwiches and chilled fruit from the cooler. Andy bottom fished for a couple of hours, filling the hold with a grouper and several large snapper, which made them happy. “That’ll all sell well,” Charlie said.
The sun was now in the west and Charlie stood on the tower. “Birds are all gone.” He said, lowering his binoculars. “Those damn charters are just thick today.”
“I thought that bonito was it,” Tom said, standing, stretching, feeling better after food, rest and water.
Charlie and Andy looked at each other, considering his words.
“Well, let’s head back to the islands to fish the evening.”
Tom went up to sit in the cool wind of the tower, watching for dolphins and sea turtles as they plowed the chop on their way back towards shore. He wondered where Anita had gone and worried if she had found any shade in the heat of the day. Tom closed his eyes and pretended that his father was at the helm. He thought of the white yarn and Christmas tinsel streamers his dad had tied to troll for the smaller blues that came up into the estuaries.
He remembered his dad standing on a skiff’s bench seat, telling Tom to take the helm while he fought a huge striped bass, the thick rod doubled to the water, the wind in his hair, flapping his shirt. “Come on Tom, we gotta chase this one!”
As they neared the green islands, Tom came down from the tower and took up his rod. He looked at the tippet and the knot attaching the streamer. He ran the line through his fingers to feel for nicks or abrasions. He was happy with it and had finally shaken the residual miasma from his last chemo treatment.
“Tom, we’re gonna on keep moving. I’ll pull within casting distance of the mangroves and let the engine idle as we drift by. You know the water you want. If you don’t get anything in a couple of casts, we’ll move on.”
He had good sea legs and cast well at any water that appeared to hold fish.
At the third island, he hooked a great snook and worked hard to keep it from tangling in the oyster-crusted mangroves, then it ran with the reel screaming. Andy ran up into the tower and Charlie put a hand on his shoulder, “This is it, Tom, this is the one.”
“I know,” Tom laughed, “I know it is, Charlie.”
Tom whooped as the fish dove; the tip of the impossibly long rod dipped to the waves. “Let it be the last.” He laughed between deep breaths, “My arms are tired. My legs are tired. I’m tired.”
“How is it out there Andy?”
“Well, Tom, this is all you,” Charlie said dropping the small transom deck.
“Yes, this is me,” Tom said, but he wasn’t listening. He had the reel resting in the palm of his hand, breaking against the long, steady runs, laughing like a child at the wild tail-walking leaps.
The fish turned and headed back to the Mangroves. Tom held the rod high and palmed the reel hard to stop the run.
Finally, from the transom deck, he knelt panting and sighing beside the exhausted fish and he slid his hand under it. He guessed that it was twenty pounds. He got his hand firmly on its lower lip and pried up a bit to paralyze it while he freed the hook. Some baits shimmered on the surface a few feet away and a tern floated just above the water to pick at them. “Will you look at that!”
The two quick pops of Andy’s .22 were no louder than firecrackers snapping at the endless, darkening sea. Tom floated face down in the water, a rose-colored halo spreading out from his gray hair. Charlie hooked his belt with the fish gaff. “That was great, Andy. That was perfect.”
Andy flung the small, black pistol out into the blue water and then slid out of his t-shirt and deck shoes, dropping quickly into the warm water with a length of netting in his hands. He wrapped Tom in it and cinched it down with short cords he had clenched in his teeth. Charlie fed Andy a length of heavy chain, to wind tightly around Tom’s waist, passing it tightly through loops of netting. He pulled the last few inches snug and fixed it to a middle link with a length of wire. Then Charlie handed down an old thirty-pound anchor, which Andy fixed to the chain.
He hauled himself up back on the transom deck as Charlie pulled the body tight to the skiff with the fish gaff. “Good job, Andy. Nice work. That’s how it has to happen.”
“I know. That tern, just hovering right beside him…, kinda religious.”
“Could’a been,” Charlie said, passing the gaff to Andy. “Hold him alongside ‘til we get into to the current of the trench.”
Andy nodded and surveyed the empty horizon, looking into the low, western sun, wondering if it had ever seemed so encompassing. Charlie eased the boat until it caught the current of the green water and then into deep, deep blue, well past the tidal cut. Charlie nodded and Andy slipped the gaff from the netting. Tom sank quickly in a subtle spiral, losing color and then definition, disappearing into the depths.
Andy held Charlie by the shoulder as he raised the transom deck. Charlie nodded and crossed himself and then swung a bucket into the sea to swab the decks.
They motored up the tidal river until they reached the mangrove bay to pick up Anita who was sat unmoving in Tom’s sea kayak. She stared straight ahead as they pulled alongside. Andy dropped the transom deck and helped her aboard. Her legs were stiff as she struggled while climbing over the stern. “I had to wait quite a while.” She fought to control her voice.
“I know. I ‘m sorry, Anita,” Andy said. “It just takes as long as it takes.”
She patted his hand, which was still linked through her arm.
“It was beautiful, Anita.” Charlie said. “It might have been the best thing we’ve ever done.”
“I know that Charlie – I know that. I know that it happened just then… Tom trusted you, and considered you a good friend.”
Charlie nodded silently, his forehead furrowed. Andy looked west at the gold edge to the purple clouds.
She squeezed Andy’s hand at her elbow. “Thank you, Andy. You were so patient.”
“It was a pleasure Anita,” he looked timidly down at the water, avoiding her eyes.
The motor purred along at slightly more than an idle, moving the boat quietly, without running lights, towing the kayak to the drift of the falling tide. Andy tangled the fly line to a tiny deck cleat and dropped the rod in the cockpit with Tom’s life vest. Anita took a vial of painkillers from Tom’s insulated bag and handed them to Andy, who then cinched the pack down to the kayak’s tiny cargo deck. They considered the tiny boat for a moment, as if it were a manifestation of Tom. Charlie flipped it and let go of the line, letting the current take it to open water.
“Now I have to report him missing,” Anita sobbed a few times and wiped her eyes. “I have to go back home without him.”
After a long silence, she said, “I would like to see the colonies of glossy ibis some time.” Anita was nodding her head to agree with herself. “Charlie,” she said, fixing his gaze, “I would like to see them come in to roost. If I were sick, you would take me? Would you do the same for me?”
“Of course, if there is the need,” Charlie said nodding. “When you call.”
Jack Clinton lives in Montana. He has written on environmental issues and has also on two fiction awards at a state level. Jack published my first novel, Clovis, which won the best LBGTQ novel at The American Book Fest.