Coleman

It’s the hardest thing, losing a dog.

I was just reminded of that truth.

We’d had a good day.  A good walk that morning.  A leisurely nap together on the couch.  He’d eaten the last of my roast beef sandwich for lunch, just the way it should be.

For 16 years, he was my constant.  I’ve known him longer than I’ve known my wife or my son.  When I was single, I had a twin bed that he was always in – me, 6’3″ and full-figured, and a 45 lb puppy.  He never left my side, day or night, never out of ear-scratching distance.  Any knock on the door was met with barks that belied his stature.  My wife.  My kids.  He was our dog, and we were his people.  That was indisputable.

I carried him home from his last walk.  It was time.  His fight was over.

What you’re never ready for is the little things.  I don’t want to vacuum, little tufts of his hair in the corners.  I don’t want to change the sheets.  I absentmindedly saved a piece of cheese when making Will’s lunch this morning – I always gave him a piece of cheese.  I came home last night and went to check on him, only to catch myself halfway down the hall . . .

There’s never been a dog who had such infectious joy.  He was truly happy, all the time, unless you were scolding him for his latest counter surfing shenanigans.  He once broke into my office and “retrieved” my mounted ducks, the room looking like a malfunction at the world’s prettiest pillow factory.  His grin melted my anger in a moment, a look of “Dad, you’ll never believe what I found in here!”

Sedatives settled his angst, and he looked up at me with his faded, whiskey colored eyes, still smiling.  I tried telling him it would be okay, even though it most certainly would not, ever, be okay.  I laid on the floor holding his head and talking in his ear.  I made sure he knew he’d done his best.  I made sure he knew I was there.  I made sure he knew he was a good dog.

It was over in a minute.  The vet looked at me, misty-eyed herself.

I scratched those amazing, floppy ears one last time.  I smelled his wonderful head, and closed his eyes, rubbing them the way he loved.

I stood up from the floor, and for a moment, so many memories flashed – playing in the snow and chasing deer and fetching doves and swimming pools and ice cream cones and stealing muffins from the kids and snuggling my wife, a furry wedge in our bed every night for 7 years.

And I came back to a simple memory, of he and I sitting on a borrowed couch in our empty house, right after my divorce.  We were watching TV, in as much as any dog watches TV.  We had no food. We had no money.  We were sharing a jar of peanut butter – I’d take a bite, then let him finish the spoon.  At that second, I wasn’t sure which way life would go; I mean, it pretty much sucked right then.  And clear as day I can remember looking at his head as he smiled, almost as if to say “hang in there Dad – this is the best day ever . . . “

That’s the thing I remembered as the vet handed me his effects.

16 years is a lot to lose in a moment.

I stuck his empty collar in my pocket, and stood there alone in a vacant room, and sobbed, a 41 year-old man heartbroken over his dog.

Just the way it should be.

The Old Man

An ode to Ruark.  And also our grandfathers.

The Old Man watches as the steam rises off his coffee mug, just poured from the old rusty thermos his wife gave him so long ago.

He drinks his coffee black.  No cream.  No sugar.  It’s just easier that way.

His pale, grey eyes scan the darkness for the faintest flicker of movement.  His hands caress the checked wood grain of his father’s Remington, each scar and carving familiar to his touch.

The Kid is drifting in and out of sleep at the other end of the small boat.

He drew the short straw among his brothers and cousins and Grandpa picked him up at 3:30 this morning.  He’d piled into the cab of the old truck, next to the greying Labrador, barely awake but knowing it was his turn.

They’d launched the boat by moonlight, loaded with heavy cork decoys and an outboard older than both of them, kicking them along to an unnamed oxbow just upstream.

The Old Man scratches the labs ears, causing that unmistakable thump in the bottom of the boat.  The dog whimpers his appreciation, anxious for the hunt to begin.

The sun begins to win, and nature begins to stir . . . Egrets and ibis and herons and hawks . . .

The Kid awakens, wiping the sleep out of his eyes.  He looks at the Old Man, grizzled, leathery, his face stoic as his eyes sweep the landscape . . . He wonders how many times the old man has done this . . . How many ducks has he shot, how many mornings has he set decoys . . . In a rare moment of awareness, the Kid finds himself wondering how many more times the Old Man will be able to do this . . .

The Old Man sees them from a hundred yards out . . . Even at his age and this distance, he catches the glint of green signaling an impending landing.  He taps his duck call, cementing the mallards into his trap . . .

The Kid grips his gun . . . His mouth feels dry, the wood stock cold and strange . . . He fingers the safety, nervous he’ll forget to push it when the opportunity comes . . . He reminds himself to breathe . . .

The Old Man calls the shot, the Wingmaster coming easy to his shoulder, a motion perfected by a thousand rehearsals over dozens of years . . .

The Kid rushes his gun up, unsure of what’s happening until the first recoil pounds into his shoulder . . . Aim . . . Pull . . . Pump . . .

The echoes harmonize as the ducks splash into the creek, both brought to hand shortly by that old grey lab . . .

The Old Man holds his aloft, admiring the iridescence in the now high sunshine . . . The Kid takes his duck and mimics the Old Man . . . He notices the hidden purples in the green, the brilliance on the speculum, the sharp lines and the subtle shading.  He notices the smell of the recently fired shells, the lab happily panting, the other ducks moving up and down his field of view . . . He hears the clucks, the chirps, the swirl of a fish, the sound of a distant road . . . He begins to take in the feel of his gun in his hands, the smell of the coffee, the rattle of shells in his pocket . . .

The Kid looks at the Old Man again, now with admiration . . . Maybe this is why he does it . . . Punishing himself with middle of the night wake ups and laborious decoy spreads . . . To come to this, this sort of “church” out here in the middle of nowhere . . .

The Old Man sees a small pod of birds turn their way.  The Kid has seen them too.

The Old Man smiles.

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To the Hunt

Here’s to 2 am alarm clocks and ice on the windshield.

To us not being sure why our hands are shaking – is it the bitter cold, or the monstrous 10 point that just stepped into the clearing.

The sound of a wood duck whistling his way unseen through the darkness seconds before shoot time.  The rattle of the dog boxes as the pointers bang their tails against the side, desperate to find their next quail.  The snap of a twig behind you in the tree stand – Unknown yet full of promise.  The whistles, of bobwhites and pintails and dog handlers . . . The clucks, of hen mallards and hen turkeys . . .

Here’s to the game we respect and pursue . . . The bucks and drakes and Toms and boars . . . The shots we take, the shots we miss, and, sometimes more importantly, the shots we pass on completely . . .

To the old-timers, here’s to one more fall in the field . . . To savoring the moments with friends and family . . . Hunting the same bend where a long gone retriever made an unbelievable fetch on what was thought to be a long gone mallard . . . Walking the same trails you walked with your grandfather so many years ago, now with a grandson of your own in tow, a legacy and heritage prayerfully safe for another generation . . .

Here’s to the kids . . . 5 year olds and 12 year olds and 20 year olds, bribed with powdered donuts and packs of Twizzlers and the promise of unlimited Mountain Dew . . . That sense of wonder in their normally iPad-glazed eyes as they see the indescribable colors in an Osceola as he steps into the sunshine . . . Their enlightenment to the “edges” of the hunt – the snakes, the palmettos, the birds of prey soaring overhead, memories that will grow and shrink through the years but placeholders nonetheless of a world unplugged . . . Their pride in their first harvest, be it a squirrel or a dove or a deer . . . And to a hope that they’ll think nothing and everything of being standard bearers for a new generation of sportsman, ethical and honest, future evangelists of conservation . . .

Here’s to those gone to soon, but never forgotten, in this chapel lined by pine trees and sun rays trying to burn off a fog, while a chorus of cardinals and chipmunks and cicadas raise their voices in song . . .

Here’s to the hunt . . . To pursuing our game, our way, be it with bow, or gun, or spear, with dogs or decoys or by ambush.  To gas station hot dogs and four wheel drives and campfires and more stars than you ever thought possible . . . To pheasants and puddlers, divers and deer . . . To the men and the women and the youngsters . . .

May your straps be heavy, your campfires surrounded by laughter, and your thermos never empty . . .

Here’s to the Hunt!

 

Together.

I’m sick of this mess.

I’m sick of Big Sugar, and Discharges, and Red Tide and Mosaic and Cyanobacteria and Septic Tanks and Glyphosate.

We’ve ravaged Charlotte Harbor, the Indian River Lagoon, Florida Bay, and the Kissimmee Watershed, from Shingle Creek all the way down . . .

We’ve posted up our allegiances – BullSugar, Captains for Clean Water, The Rivers Coalition, Everglades Trust . . . “Vote Water” is the chant . . .

We adamantly defend our choices – Desantis was at this rally, Levine really seems to have a handle on things, Graham’s family didn’t really want to destroy wetlands for a mall, maybe Chris King or Andrew Gillum can find Clewiston on a map, Putnam is a mult-generational native . . .

Yes, our water is bad.

Yes, this is a lousy political cycle.

But the worst part is us.

We allow ourselves to be divided.  To attack and wheedle at narratives that don’t fit our agenda.

Sugar’s at fault.  Sugar is innocent.  The Army Corp is in cahoots with Big Sugar. South Florida Water Management District just wants to keep the EAA happy.  The Fanjuls have paid for the election.  Blow up the dike.  Stop the discharges.  #senditsouth.

We’ve lost a huge part of what makes Floridians special.

We’ve never seen eye to eye on guns or marijuana or immigration or religion . . . But surely we can all agree that we all want better water.

Is the answer simple?  Of course not.

SFWMD.  The Department of the Interior.  The Seminole Tribe.  The Army Corp of Engineers.  SWFWMD.  Florida Wildlife Commission.  National Parks Service.  There are a million moving parts to this.  Not to mention, we’ve placed 20 million plus people on a peninsula that’s supposed to be a swamp.

“The way nature intended” left the conversation the second we swapped out our horses for F-350’s.

So.

Which politician wants to talk about limiting the capacity of the state?

Oh – that’s right – none of them.

Which one wants to address growth and the thousand new residents moving here each day?

I’ll wait.

Just kidding.  Because it’s none of them.

Do I like all the candidates? Of course not.

But I don’t think Putnam or Graham or Desantis or King or Levine is hellbent on destroying our way of life.

I don’t think they’re interested in growing green slime and charging up the red tide to better destroy their constituents.

Meetings around the CERP and all the other funny-sounding “RP” plans have been going on for decades.  The Kissimmee River restoration began when I was in high school.

Which is all my way of saying:

Be nice.

We’re losing our way more and more each day, feted by a social media mob and fertilized by content.  We are a different kind of Red Tide and Blue Tide, intent on destroying way more than our beaches and rivers and waterways.  We’re intent on destroying each other.

Are there real issues that need to be addressed?  Absolutely there are.  And water is at the top of my list.  But so is my kids’ school.  So is my wife’s job, and my town’s infrastructure, and my aunt’s healthcare situation.

There is nuance in life.  I can’t pick anyone in the world and say “See that guy, right there – his name’s ‘Pete’ and his life matches up to mine exactly down to the second . . . “

Yes, there are moments, and causes, and for me this is absolutely one of them.  For a hotel operator, a sugar farmer, a fishing guide, a snowbird, a transplant, a computer engineer, a nurse, a lawyer, a retailer – this moment and their moment may look drastically different, there are nuances and splits that shape our discourse and visions.

This election is important for Florida.  It is important for you.

Just remember it’s important for other people, too.

And tomorrow, we’ll all still be Floridians, no matter the outcome.  And we’ll all still have our same issues that need to be fixed.

Together.

Graduation

Today’s the day.

You’ll walk across the stage, and shake the principal’s hand, and we’ll eat all the seafood and laugh and cry and take a million pictures. This is the tipping point, the entry into adulthood. Everything is in front of you. But, if you’ll allow your dad a few minutes, I just want to press pause for a minute to reminisce about what’s behind us.

I remember the steps up to Watson Clinic Pediatrics. I had been a father for 3 days. I didn’t understand car seats or copayments. Did you know there was a room for “well” kids? Not this guy. I’d say I was braving it alone, except I wasn’t, a tiny little girl in a Noah’s Ark blanket somehow surviving alongside me. Everything she did was amazing, from her toothless grins to the way her little fingers would seemingly tangle around mine. It was perfect.

Your first steps were more of a tumble, a bullfight with gravity that you never seemed to lose. I can remember the dress you wore, and your hair in a pigtail that only a dad could’ve arranged, cackling with your raspy voice as you bounced from couch to chair.

Do you remember the Longhorn Song?

Longhorn, food long on flavor
Steaks you can savor
MOOOOooooooOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!

Every day, as we’d careen into the HCA parking lot, you’d say “Daddy, I’m glad you didn’t sing the Longhorn Song” and I’d sing it in my absolute loudest voice, and you’d feign anger and outrage until the giggles won out.

Man, do I miss that.

Fishing. We’ve fished about as much as a dad and daughter could fish. Dock lights and mangroves.  Snook and redfish, snapper and catfish and trout. Every time the boat would leave, you’d be on it. Every fish that came over the side was met with the question “is it a keeper?”

How about Harry Potter? I’ve always believed Harry and Ron and Hermione and Snape helped both of us through the divorce . . . there’s not a week that goes by that I don’t think about the time we went to Universal, and the wand choosing you somehow in that shop, and how you believed, if even for a moment, that it was magic. And how I never had any doubt.

Road trips to Alabama . . . Duck hunts and goose hunts and Exploding Kittens . . .  Midnight movies and The Incredibles . . . Band concerts and Art shows . . . Talent shows and Hurricanes and Pixie Hollow . . . Up and The Grove City Motel . . . Space Camp and Gary’s Oyster Bar and Little Gasparilla Island . . . Sundresses and Sunsets, Georgetown and Charleston . . . Tornado warnings and first ducks and fishing in the rain and Pub Trivia and Knowledge Cards and Science fairs and Beymer town and Cinnamon rolls “the size of ya head” . . . Meg and Brittany tangling your hair in a fan . . . Gilly taking you shopping for clothes for school . . . Emy babysitting you over summer vacation . . . I remember boat rides, and birthday parties, and trick-or-treating and church . . . bunk beds and room makeovers . . . school dances and radio sing-a-longs . . . Horse drawn carriage rides and looking at Christmas lights every night . . . running around DC with your $2 flip-flops . . . being snowed in and snowball fights and “a ragtag army in need of a shower” and Hamilton and Broadway . . . shrimp boils and peanut boils and frying more chicken and crawfish than should be allowed, just to see your face light up . . . making you clean your room and do yard work and wash cars and load the dishwasher and say “yes ma’am” and write sentences . . . Linkin Park and Hannah Montana and Taylor Swift and High School Musical . . . teaching you to swim, and feigning disapproval at your bathing suit choices . . . taking you for a ride in a convertible and in the bed of the pickup and teaching you to drive in the woods . . .

You’ve conquered the hardest high school program we could find. You’re taking college and life by the horns. My little girl will hold up her diploma and smile a smile of accomplishment and pride.

And I’ll smile too, but more from the sidelines, your biggest cheerleader and fan . . . a dad with no clue, just like so many years ago in that doctor’s office, the little girl in the Noah’s ark blanket replaced by a young lady in an electric green cap and gown. A dad unsure of what’s coming next, but still certain that everything you do is amazing . . .

Congratulations Livjos!

Love,

Dad

Who Killed Waterfowling?

Does it seem like everyone is grumpy these days?

Not enough ducks, not enough land, too many hunters – the list is longer than a goose gun in the 40’s.

It felt like, maybe, it was time to lay out who, exactly, is to blame for the state of our waterfowling.

Is it Duck Dynasty, and Duck Commander, and the entire Robertson crew, spreading waterfowling from the swamps and speakeasies of rural America into 10 million living rooms every Tuesday? Or is it Social Media, a medal-less competition to see which Instagram account can post the most dead ducks each season?

Was it too many wannabe pro-staffers, stacking piles upon piles on top of their Yeti’s and tailgates?  Or was it too few guides taking a personal responsibility and a stewardship view of the resource, trading a few bookings for a generation’s future hunts . . .

Maybe it was all the Duck ID posts, driving folks like me up the wall as we answer, for what seems like the billionth time, whether that’s a Mottled or a Mallard . . . Or maybe it was too few of us taking the time to answer, thoughtfully and respectfully, which choke is best, or which gun is best, or, maybe, just maybe, actually identifying the Mottled in that picture . . .

Kids, there was a time not that long ago when you went waterfowling, shot ducks, and the only folks who may have known were your friends at school and your family, maybe 10-15 people.  Now, we don’t get out of bed for less than 250 likes . . .

Was it motorized decoys, and e-callers, and e-collars?  Was it surface drives, or maybe longtails, or airboats, or all of them?

Is it the number of hunters at the ramp, or in the blinds, day in and day out?  Or is it the number of ramps, too few to accommodate the growth, leaving swaths of public land completely unreachable?

Perhaps it’s the sale of hunts in previously unmanaged fields north of wherever you are . . . the lease rights to a cornfield driven up by a second crop of bands and bills, leading to short stops and slower migrations?  Or landowners de-icing ponds that should’ve been frozen solid by early December, convincing the mallards that, hey, snow ain’t that bad . . .

Was it the $28 boxes of shells, or the $2000 guns, or the $40k boats?  Maybe it’s all the brands with their logos stitched and hashtagged and @ symbols on the side of their truck wraps . . .

Can we blame the Game Commissions doing a lousy job of managing your state’s resources, or would it be better to blame one of the non-profits for spending your money somewhere else entirely, making sure that only the upper echelon sees the fruits of their labor?  Or maybe the Federal system for making a mess of the NWR’s all over the country?

Is it YouTube, and Vimeo, and Facebook, and Snapchat?  Or was it the podcasts and TV shows and magazines and books?

Who, exactly, is to blame for the state of our waterfowling?

Maybe we should all take a look in the mirror.

Dogs I Have Known

I’m not exactly sure how or when my infatuation with hunting dogs began.

I came by this naturally, I suppose . . . My maternal grandfather was a quail hunting tour-de-force, almost always with a pointer or 3 leading the way.

My dad raised beagles when we were very young, so gun dogs were abundant.  There were always 2 or 3 in the kennels, until a litter came along.  Toby and Max and Dutchess and Bear wandered through my adolescence with their tri-colored saddles and soulful howls.

But somewhere, and I don’t remember the switch exactly, we ended up with a Brittany.  Abracadabra was her name on paper, which we shortened to Magic.

Magic was an appropriate name for her, as she promptly disappeared anytime there was gunfire.  She had those piercing green eyes that come standard issue on Brits, and I was determined to cure her of gunshyness.  My plan was two fold – I took my portable electronic drum sticks, complete with belt attached speaker; I would crank the lawnmower up, and have it idle in the background so my parents would think I was mowing, plus it added to the noise.  Then I’d stand over poor Magic, that speaker precariously close to her ears, and bang on those imaginary drums.

It didn’t work.

Copper was a natural, another Brittany who pointed a covey of quail his first time out.  He was dad’s dog, really, orange dappled with style on his points.  A freak accident took him from us before his time . . .

Daisy was an English setter – a Llewellyn, to be exact, with blonde feathering beneath the silky white.  Daisy was another born natural, minus a couple of quirks . . . She covered so much ground that she’d be on point in the next county before you’d get near her; also, she hated me.  This one is still baffling, as when she was small she slept in my room, my hand in her crate all night.  But, for some weird reason, she would not come near me.  My sister, who never spent any time with the dogs, Daisy would lick her in the face; me, begging to show her affection, nada.  She would run in circles, just outside of arms reach the whole time I was in the yard.  In hindsight, Daisy was like a prep course for my first marriage.

Ozzie, the gigantic liver and white Brittany who towered over my mother but had no interest in hunting.  Swish, the ill named and incestuously bred Brit that yelped every 4 seconds for 7 straight days.

Toby.  Sport. Penny.  Ginny.

Alf and Chuck.  Max and Ace.  Kasey.

Even today, my house is alive with the clatter of nails on hardwood as two French Brittanys clown their way through life.

I’d love to romanticize the idea – a cold, rainy, winter’s night; the hunter sits in his chair, in front of the fire, reading a Ruark novel, the Brittany asleep at his feet, worn out from the morning’s hunt.

In reality, though, I’m probably watching a rerun of the Office, one dog chewing on my shoes while the other dog lays in front of the fire, but not too close in case he farts and ignites the entire scene.  Having just taken them out to pee in the rain, the smell of wet gun dog mingles with the smell of the fire, some mystical humidifier from hell permeating the room.  My wife, like a million wives before, will come in to chastise the pups for some trash can they’ve overturned, or bed they’ve unmade, or chew toy they’ve destroyed, and I’ll watch as they cock their head and look at her, trying to understand, and I’ll smile, and I’ll think . . . there’s just something about huntin’ dogs . . .

Waitin’

You had to wake him up 3 times just to get in the truck to head to the water.

You bought him Pepsi, but it turns out he prefers Coke.

You swing through McDonald’s, and he orders a chicken biscuit, but it’ll be 10 minutes before they’re ready.  You talk him into a Sausage McMuffin and head down the road.

At this point, you realize you really should’ve filled up the the truck night before.  10 minutes at the gas station, call it 15 after you track down an attendant to unlock the bathroom door.

You pull into line at the boat ramp 9 boats deep.  Any urgency usually put into getting the thing ready to launch is lost on today’s partner; he’s dozing in and out of sleep in the backseat while 15 guys wearing high end sunglasses and driving high end boats are muttering cuss words under their breath at you holding up the line an extra 2 minutes.

You finally get the boy into the boat, the boat into the water, and begin idling out of the marina.

The fishing stinks.  2 short trout, a few “trash” fish . . . One decent bite and run, but whatever it was broke him off.  He may have cried.

Boats break down.  Lines snap.  Reels fail.  Ice chests get stolen.  Pliers get misplaced.  Engines sputter.  Winds shift.  Barometers rise and fall. Weathermen make stuff up.

All these things, on these trips, go “wrong” or “imperfect” – you just want something, anything, just one thing good to happen.

As you pull back into the driveway that night, sunburned and probably riddled with the Zika virus, this is the question you ask yourself: when is something good going to happen?

The boy has been asleep for the entire trip home.  You look back to see his Mountain Dew spilling onto the leather next to him.  You sigh as you turn onto your street.

You back the trailer into it’s spot, and you hear his door slam shut as soon as you put it in park.  You do a quick rinse of the boat before slipping your shoes off and stepping in the back door, the one that leads him into the kitchen . . .

“And daddy triiiiiiiied to get me a chicken biscuit but they were all out of them so I ate a sausage one instead and it was. So. Good. And Dad let me steer the boat and we hooked something really really big but we don’t know what it was but Daddy thinks it was a shark or a redfish or a gigantic megladon – don’t laugh – he really thinks that – and then we caught tons of fish but none of them were keepers and Daddy got sunburnt but he didn’t let me get sunburnt ’cause he brought my special floppy hat and guess what? He brought Mountain Dew AND Pepsi and he let me drink as many as I wanted and we saw a dolphin and a manatee and I heard the oysters clicking under the boat and Dad thinks we may have seen a school of redfish but they just wouldn’t bite today and . . . ” On and on.

Finally my wife directs him to the shower and turns to me, grinning from ear to ear.

Almost as though she knows, she looks at my face and says “Still waiting on something good to happen?”

It already did.

If you enjoyed this column, you’d probably like this one, or this one.  We’d also love it if you’d check out our weekly podcasts . . . We talk about stuff like our favorite Boat Songs or Bucket List Trips or Unwritten Rules of the Outdoors or, well, you get the picture!

Keep & Release

Every podcast recording session starts out the same way: Emily, exasperated, looks at Nate and I and asks, “Do you guys have a ‘Keep’ and ‘Release’ for this week?”

If you’ve never heard the show, a) consider yourself lucky and don’t click this link, and b) Keep and Release is the segment where we give a little shout-out to whatever the one thing is that we want to talk about this week in a positive light (Keep), and the one thing that irritated us or aggravated us in the previous week (Release).  A release could be leaky waders or faulty spinning reels or lousy internet service or duck ID posts on social media or any of a litany of things.

In fact, it’s become a bit of a joke behind the scenes, the rants that accompany release.  So much so that, while listening to the show last week, Will looked at me before we even got to “Keep and Release” and said “Dad, what do you hate this week?”

“Hate?  I don’t hate anything?”

“Dad – you hate EVERYthing . . . “

His exasperation hit me kind of heavy.  I took a breath, right there driving to school, and replied:

“I love a lot of things, too.

I love hot summer mornings when your shirt sticks to you before you step outside, and the chill of an ice-cold window unit AC when you get back home.  Fall mornings when there’s just a hint of crispness in the air, and winter days when they’re gloomy and overcast and your breath hangs around all day, and spring time when the greens are so bright they hurt your eyes.

I love duck hunting, and decoys, and dogs and hearing the birds before you see them and the way a wood duck whistles or a mottled grunts and the noise a huge flock of divers make, feathers and wings and air harmonizing on this weirdly deafening rumble.  I love the quacks and the tweets and the burrs, the kerplunk of a fresh shell, the chill in the air, how your hands can’t ever get warm once your glove gets wet, and ‘Take ‘em’ and ‘Cut ‘em’ and ‘Kill ‘em’ and ‘Shoot’ and ‘Fetch ‘em up’ and ‘last one’ and ‘think they’re done’ and ‘I got that one’ and ‘y’all wanna go get breakfast’ . . .

I love bird dogs, wacky and rangy and as distracted as a teen-aged boy at a cheerleader convention, locked up and birds brought to hand and sharing peanut butter crackers in between stops . . .

I don’t hate everything.  I love snook, and that glorious pop that sounds like someone launching potatoes into the shallows, the way they’ll chase your lure and tap it around and not commit, or the way they’ll over-commit and miss it entirely, big ones and little ones and in between ones right in the slot, and watching all of them swim away.  And I love redfish, the way they have to almost turn upside down to inhale a topwater plug, and the wake behind your bait right before everything goes crazy, and the tips of their tails signaling you on low tide to stop and hang out for a few.  And don’t forget tarpon, man, I love tarpon, cartwheeling and catwalking and somersaulting and basically doing things that would’ve gotten them burned at the stake in the 1600’s, 120 lbs of gills rattling and tail smacking fun, turning the beach into swiss cheese . . .

I love lots of things.  Turkeys and trout and teal.  Yeti’s and Yellowfins and Searks and Carolina Skiffs, the tackle department at Stone’s and gas station Cuban sandwiches and chumming for whitebait and Spanish Mackeral and under-slots and decoy bags and Zara spooks and picking up spent shells after the hunt and cutting down palm fronds for blinds; wet bird dogs and the way they smell, 2 stroke motors burning oil, cork rod grips and Cabelas catalogs and Mack’s Prairie Wings catalogs and podcasts and new waders and long lines and hi-vis PowerPro.

I love taking you and your sister outdoors, and kids’ first ducks and dogs’ last ducks and limits of mangrove snapper . . . Sunsets on the boat, and sunrises on the boat, sometimes in the same day; wade fishing, and shrimp runs and mullet runs . . . Beagles and Berettas and bobbers and bream . . .

When you say I hate ever-“

“Dad” Will interrupted . . .

“You still hate Duck ID posts, right?”

We hugged.

Why are we Fishing?

When I pulled up to the school, I was ready.

The back of the truck had rods and reels rigged to go. I’d picked up earthworms from the local bait shop, and my buddy had given me a tip to a pretty solid bluegill bite.

As his art teacher opened the door, Will hopped in the truck . . . We made normal small talk about how each other’s days were, lunch, pretty girls, the usual. We stopped for an Icee, and it wasn’t until we pulled up to the bank of the creek that he exclaimed . . . “Dad, are we going fishing? WHY?”

Why? Why are we fishing?

I began to unpack the tackle and bait hooks as I answered him . . .

“Why are we fishing? WHY ARE WE FISHING???”

“To sit on the bank all afternoon with my son, watching the storms building and debating about whether or not it’ll head our way.”

“To watch to dancing of a bobber as an unseen bluegill or catfish or trout decides if it’s worth the risk . . .”

“We’re fishing because it’s part of who we are, a legacy passed down from fathers and grandfathers to their sons and daughters . . . A heritage of harvesting a few bream for the frying pan, or watching a big spawning bass swim away to make more babies. It’s getting skunked and realizing that great blue heron is a vastly superior angler. It’s the rattling of a kingfisher
doing acrobatics overhead. It’s the dolphins and the manatees and the snakes and the bobcat we saw that one time . . . It’s pitching a frog onto a lily pad . . . It’s skipping a greenback under a mangrove, just in the perfect spot . . . It’s earthworms and eagles and channel cats and stringers and tackle boxes . . . ”

“We’re fishing because of possibility . . . Because we have no idea what’s going to come tight on the other end of that line, or when . . . Because of a 5 lb redfish who thinks they weigh 50 lbs . . . Because of the bass that eats the breadball and puts on an aerial display to rival a tarpon . . . Because we love the idea of the drag screaming as line peels off, no idea what’s attached to the
pointy end of our rig . . . The sight of a topwater plug, worked beautifully across a point, knowing, just having absolute certainty, that it’s going to get slammed . . . And that feeling you get when it happens . . . And that feeling you get when it doesn’t . . . ”

“Why are we fishing? WHY ARE WE FISHING? We’re fishing because it’s romantic; it was the vehicle of Hemingway and Walton and Grey . . .We’re fishing because it’s nostalgic; we fish accompanied by the ghosts of our fathers and their fathers before them . . . Why are we fishing? We’re fishing because it’s a challenge, from crappie and carp to tarpon and trout, there is no lure in the world that can MAKE them bite . . .”

“Will, you may not realize it now, but we’re fishing for you . . . To ensure that you know that in this time of xboxes and iPads, that there is a REAL world outside, full of hope and wonder and beauty and nature . . . That somehow, by being disconnected you can actually be more connected, if that makes any sense.”

“We’re fishing because this is America, and that’s what we do. We’re fishing because it’s fun. We’re fishing because it was a cheap way to kill three hours this afternoon and maybe bring home dinner. We’re fishing because it’s a great way for a father and son to spend an afternoon, talking on a creek bank.”

“Son, what I want you to understand is . . . ”

“Dad,” Will interrupted me, staring wide eyed as my rant had gone on for several minutes . . .

I looked in his eyes, bright brown, the only reminder of him as a baby as now here stood a young man before me. I smiled, believing this was one of our moments, that he got it, that he understood what all this meant to me, and what all of it meant to him . . .

“Dad, what I meant was, ‘why are we fishing’ when today’s your anniversary? Weren’t you supposed to be at dinner, like, 20 minutes ago???”

Good talk, son . . . Good talk . . .