Seeing Snook THERE IS SOMETHING TOUCHING ABOUT SNOOK, THEIR FUNNY-FACED STRIVING, THEIR SNEAKINESS, THEIR LAZY TRAVEL TURNING INTO SERIOUS SPEED, THEIR SLEAZINESS

July 04, 2004

I started fishing around Boca Grande as a boy. My father brought
me here when I was 11 years old to fish for tarpon: I caught my
first one in Boca Grande Pass. For years my father and brother
fished here with a redheaded guide who died from the
complications of skin cancer. My father and his friends, all
clients of the redheaded guide, came to pay their last respects.
The old guide was laid out in the living room of his small
clapboard house, surrounded by family and friends. In the middle
of it all, supported by her sisters, was his grief-stricken
widow. When my father and his friends walked in, she looked up
blearily, adjusted her focus and cried, "There's the sonsabitches
that killed my husband!" My father and his pals, in coats and
Countess Mara ties, clutching Dobbs hats, made humble obeisance
until escape was possible. "I thought those crackers would jump
us," my father commented in a grave voice as his group headed for
the Pink Elephant bar for an eye-opener.

You reach a point at which you have to view your life through the
things you've spent so much time doing. The alternative is a
perilous feeling of waste. Cancer and gulag survivors alike
treasure their experiences for reasons best known to them. The
rest of us have logged more platitudinous days, and it takes an
effort to assign their place and value. I've spent as much of my
life fishing as decency allowed, and sometimes I don't let even
that get in my way. Especially when it comes to snook.

Snook remind me of brown trout--something in their covert nature,
their eccentric choices in safe harbors, their sensitivity that
seems designed to humiliate the angler when less dramatic options
would get the job done. In short, snook are sleazy.

They are also hard to see, hard to hook, hard to land and,
because they are so good to eat, hard to release. But release
them we do. Cold weather reduces them to torpor, colder weather
kills them. When they're at the threshold of death, a translucent
window appears in the top of their heads. Sometimes, when a snook
follows your fly, then takes, you notice a quick roll up on its
side, as though the fish were bringing the target in for close
vision. The snook refusal has a quality of its own: a long
cross-eyed follow, then a turn off. Snook just leave when
suspicious, or change their swimming rhythm. They can also crash
bait as well as jacks or bonito. There is something touching
about snook, their funny-faced striving, their sneakiness, their
lazy travel turning into serious speed. Their heedless jumps fill
us with aesthetic merriment.

The truth is, I have always had trouble catching them and felt
that this was something I was going to have to work harder at. I
decided to fish with a guide at least once a week, and I called
on Austin Lowder, who guides here in the winter and in Montana,
where he's from, in the summer. I'd heard he was effective but
very demanding, and I thought I could stand a little
embarrassment, as long as I learned something. I soon confirmed
that Austin is not the guide for the angler who is comfortable
with his bad habits or who has lost the ability to learn. As we
approached a group of redfish our first day
together--brick-colored tails turning slowly, a pink, wavering
shape below the surface, grubbing out baby blue crabs--I adjusted
my stance to face them and cast. The tails disappeared, and I had
no targets. "Don't move your feet," Austin grunted, and we looked
for some new fish.

There was a single fish tailing at the edge of the mangroves. In
the branches above him, a dozen wood storks watched my
performance. This would take a long cast. As I began, Austin's
cellphone rang in his pocket. I made the throw but a loop caught
under my shoe. Fish gone. I heard Austin say to the caller, "Just
missed a fish. Guy with tennis shoes."

If you fish away from your home waters, guides are an excellent
investment although, after a pleasant day together, they will
describe you to the other guides as a complete idiot. There are
two kinds of clients, the meek and the proud. The former are
happy to be insulted and abused, the latter regard guides as
indentured servants. I'm a mixture of the two. I can accept a
certain amount of abuse if I'm learning something; then
indignation sets in and I become disagreeable. Austin's belief
that a successful day on the water consists of doing a lot of
little things right was a useful regimen for me. Among his
assertions: Don't move your feet when approaching fish; don't
talk (they can hear you); don't trail a loop in the water; don't
cast overhead unless you're a long way from the fish; watch all
low-flying birds (they spook fish); and so on, in an
ever-lengthening list.

Austin assumes you're trying to get better, but he's a strict
instructor. Your first impression from fishing a few days with
him is that you have suddenly acquired attention deficit
disorder.

Reaching into my tackle bag for my binoculars to look at a hooded
warbler that had just appeared in the mangroves, I heard Austin
say, "Put them back. You don't need binoculars." He dinged away
at me for days on things like this, and eventually I conformed,
though a few remarkable things stopped us both: a peregrine
power-diving in perfectly still air creating a searing sound of
attack; an immense stork, a jabiru that had drifted away from its
Central American home--from 50 yards away we could hear it
crunching crabs with its colossal beak. In any case, back to
work.

A big snook lay like a black arrow in the clear water atop an
oyster bar that glowed yellow in the afternoon light. I was
rigged for redfish but cast anyway. The fish rushed the fly, took
hard and ran. I was forced to play him gently to keep from
breaking him. After a heedless jump, he made a run for the
mangroves. I had to pull hard to stop him, and I got away with
it. I landed the fish and kept him alongside long enough to
admire the peculiar beauty of a grown snook--the upward cast of
the eyes, the beautiful undershot mouth with its sandpaper
interior, the boxlike shape of the body between its ventral fins,
the slight greenish cast overall and the amber fins.

Austin wanted a picture of this fish. "Hold him like a man!" he
commanded.

The next day Austin and I fished together turned out to be when a
stormy northwester was rolling down the Gulf Coast. I assumed
we'd have to cancel, but Austin laughed at the suggestion. We
tossed gear into the skiff while the north wind tore through the
usually placid bayou, rattling the palms around us. As we got
into our foul weather gear, I found it hard to be optimistic.
Austin called to Bill, the collector of ramp fees, "I know it's
no fishing day! I just want to get paid!"

I hoped this was merely the grim joke it appeared to be, but I
was ambivalent about our prospects, and my pessimism increased as
Austin powered his Hells Bay skiff over an angry gray chop. After
repeated lashings of 40-mph cold saltwater, I moved back to the
downwind side of the boat. I tried to look where we were going,
but I was soon reduced to cowering in the noise of the two-stroke
Yamaha, the hammering separations between the seat and my
backside, and the sheets of wind-borne seawater.

We ran into a broad bay that narrowed and finally disappeared
against a wall of mangrove swamp. Here there was no wind. Clouds
scudded overhead, but we were in a place that was quiet as a
church, and how very nice it seemed. Austin anchored the boat,
and we got out, entered a winding creek much like a prairie trout
stream, with a sandbar on one side and an undercut bank on the
other. I lost count of all the snook we caught and released.

It wasn't really a story you could tell without ruining your
credibility. Angling often requires eluding your fellow anglers
and discovering opportunities others don't want, and here is
another lesson I'd learned from Austin: Go fishing when only a
fool leaves his house.

You know, Austin, I'm thinking of writing about fishing this
winter. I learned a lot. I suppose you'll be in it. Might do some
good."

"I don't care. I've already got everything I want."

"Well, then let's use a pseudonym for you."

"If you're going to do it, you might as well use my name."

"I was thinking of Captain Marvel."

"Captain Marvel.... Hey, I like it!"

In the early years that I fished the shallows, we poled our boats
from the bow; poler and angler were at the same level. Now the
poler--the guide--is on an elevated platform and generally can
see much farther than formerly. This should be an advantage to
the team, not an opportunity for the guide to humiliate his
angler, but this principle is frequently violated by a
physiosocial disorder known by its acronym,
PIMP--Platform-Induced Moronic Phase-out, and anyone who mounts a
poling platform is in jeopardy of contracting it. I've had it
several times. Standing up there with the graphite push pole in
hand, with all its feeling of thrust and weaponry, you stare down
at male-pattern baldness and sunburn and can't help but cry out,
"What're you anyway, blind?"

Big snook, nine o'clock, 70 feet going left!"

I looked all over the brown-and-gray-mottled bottom for a
gray-and-mottled snook.

"I can't see him."

"He's right there!"

"I don't know where the f--- he is!"

"He's right in front of you! He's right next to that little
island!"

"I don't see any little island!"

Austin's shoulders slumped. The push pole knocked against the
platform. "He's gone."

"I just couldn't see him."

"He was right next to that little island."

I was getting hot. "What little island?"

"It was just this little floating island."

"Show me the little floating island."

Austin laughed, somewhat guiltily I thought. "Forget it," he
said.

"I want to see the little floating island."

Austin ruefully poled the boat backward and pointed to a scrap of
floating moss perhaps the size of my hand. I let on that it
wasn't much of a landmark. I turned back to scan the water ahead.

"Let me offer this," said Austin from behind me in an abraded
tone, "You didn't see the fish."

This left me speechless. But I was prepared to admit that I
needed to work on seeing. Whether fishing with Austin or fishing
alone, I strained to see better, and at the end of the day my
eyes were worn out. Later, Austin, perhaps feeling he'd been a
bit hard on me, said, "You need a prescription." I knew he wanted
me to get glasses. He told me a kindly story about a citrus
grower, a lifelong snook man, who had acquired prescription
glasses. "Now, when I say nine o'clock, 70 feet"--a reference to
my missed snook--"he says, 'Got 'im.'"

Seeing fish is the essence of shallow water angling. Anglers who
see fish exceptionally well can fish successfully in less
productive water than anglers who don't. Fishermen love equipment
and are always looking for mechanical advantages, but there is
nothing to compare with learning to see well; if you see well
enough, you can walk out in the mud with no boat and catch fish.
I wasn't seeing well enough.

Not long ago, in response to a spell of insomnia, I learned some
of the principles of meditation, to empty my mind piece by piece.
It was like the old game of jacks--cautiously lifting each jack
clear of its neighbor until only the empty background remained. I
began to use this small skill to see better. Seeing fish well is
usually assumed to be the result of concentration, but
concentration bears too much of the deliberate--too much
willpower and too little intuition about the way wild creatures
use surroundings and how they exploit willpower into lies for the
credulous predator.

Instead of longing for sleep, I longed to see better. I began to
identify the things that kept me from seeing fish--motionless
fish, slow-traveling fish, fish concealed in mangrove roots, fish
up light, fish in glare, fish in shadows. I continued to scan
ahead as the bottom flowed toward me to the gentle lap of the
push pole, and when some thought about an unreturned phone call
or some e-mail tried to elbow its way in, the old insomniac let
it all out the backdoor. I learned to sail through thoughts as
though they were clouds, and this relieved me of direct combat
with intrusion. I sailed through clouds and looked into the
water.

Before any real progress, however, I had another prod from
Austin. We were standing on Tarpon Street in front of my little
railroad house, the sun glinting off the tin roof, through the
grapefruit tree. Leaning on his trailered skiff, Austin pointed
down the street. "Read that sign. I think you need a
prescription." It was a Realtor's sign with enticements in small
print. I read it aloud. He looked confused. "I still think you
need a prescription." He got into his truck and drove off.

My wife said to me one evening after Austin and I had fished 10
hours in a 20-mph wind, "This fishing you and Austin do just
sounds like work." It gave me pause. My bones ached, my eyes were
red, my tendinitis was aroused. There were no physical
benefits--no aerobics, no stretching. It was actually probably
bad for anyone who did it. Hemorrhoids, varicose veins, fallen
arches come to mind. After a decade or two your dermatologist
pleads with you to give it up. You consume a world of fossil fuel
trying to get close to nature. A poet says to you, "I ask the
fish permission to give herself to me, for I am hungry. I become
the fish. The fish becomes me." The twisted sister within says,
"I just want to kick fin."

I also have issues with the sun. It raises water temperatures to
the point that snook want to come out of their winter hidey-holes
and start busting bait. But snook are perhaps better suited to
its effects than I. My wife found on the Internet some discounted
bedsheets of "thousand-count cotton." I wasn't sure what that is,
but they're right smooth, and we were right proud to have them,
but by the morning my bleeding lips had ruined them. I moved from
45 SPF to white gobs of zinc oxide and then to a kind of tube
sock for my whole head, surmounted by a broad straw sombrero from
a saddle shop in Alpine, Texas. I had become a cross between a
fool and a leper, staring at tide tables. When I ran the skiff at
anything over half speed, the sombrero folded back and I became a
child's nightmare of Deputy Dawg, a macabre heat-seeking cartoon
of not easily understood motivation.

Mostly, I fished alone.

One of the last days Austin and I fished this spring, we ran down
south in Pine Island Sound to a creek with several shallow bays
appended to it; left the boat tied to the push pole, which was
staked into the soft bottom; and walked a bay that was almost, at
this tide, dry land. We stood there silently for a long time, and
nothing happened; nothing could happen because there was no water
for it to happen in. The wind rustled the mangroves; egrets came
and went. Off by the boat, a group of pelicans had surrounded
some bait and would flap forward without taking off to scoop up a
meal; tucking their chins to swallow, they looked polite and
bashful. However, nothing was going on at all as we gazed at
little more than bare ground. I was using all my mind tricks to
keep looking and to avoid potential commentary on my eyesight.

The flat began to moisten. Austin stood beside me with his
unrelenting thousand-yard stare. What are we staring at? I
wondered. Austin wasn't saying. The tide had turned, and over
time the flat flooded, at first with an inch or two; at about
half a foot of depth, the snook, lazy pikelike shapes, began to
come. They came steadily, and we both caught them in a string of
explosive battles. They came in such volume that it became
necessary for us to stand back-to-back to manage the onslaught.
We lost count of the fish we released, and Austin actually
admitted it was the best day he'd ever had. My arm was lead.

I once had an episode of serious depression, and its onset was
marked by a loss of interest in fishing. I believe I gave away
tackle. I sold cheap my cherished Bogdan reel, which was
presented to me 30 years later at a usurious price.

I marvel at people discussing depression, gnawing the topic of
their own malaise like dogs on a beef knuckle. My experience of
it was a disinclination to speak at all. I had the feeling of
being locked in a very small and unpleasant room with no
certainty of exit, and I recall thinking that it was the sickest
you could possibly be and that my flesh had been changed to
plaster. My business at the time was flight from expectations.

It was spring in Montana, and two old friends quite wisely
arrived in my yard with a drift boat to take me to the river. I
managed to say that I'd go if I didn't have to talk. As I was
manifestly off my rocker, they were quick to agree, perhaps
relieved at not having to hear my present thoughts. Once gliding
silently down the Yellowstone, oars dipping, lines arcing out
from either end of the boat, I began for the first time to
picture better days, and it proved a turning point. I thought of
incessant-angler pal and novelist Richard Brautigan, who
relinquished his fly rod as he spooled up for suicide. Fishing,
for many, is an indispensable connection to earth and life, and
it matters little that the multitude that practices it is
incapable of translating its ambiguities to another idiom.

A lingering, cool blow out of the Northeast dropped water
temperatures again, spread foam lines across green whitecapped
waters and shrank the broad pallet of local angling geometry to a
gerrymandered world of lees around islands and oyster bars. Each
jaunt meant donning oilies and the continuous sting of saltwater
on sunburned skin.

Mark Phillips--an Alaskan guide--and I went fishing anyway,
taking a good spanking as we ran northeast to hide from the wind
among the small mangrove keys scattered along the mainland. Mark
told me a defining snook story as we poled out of the wind,
staring into the water. He had cast to a huge snook, and the fish
had followed his fly intently. Just at the moment he hoped for a
strike, his cellphone, which he had set on vibration mode and
placed on the gunwale, went off, and the buzz put the fish to
flight. He threw down his rod, answered the phone and endured an
unpleasant conversation with a despised ex-girlfriend. Another
sleazy snook moment.

We caught a couple of small fish, anchored the boat in eight
inches of water and split up to wade, barefoot for maximum
stealth. We had seen so many stingrays that I spent half the time
watching the bottom in front of me and the remaining half looking
for fish. A cluster of juvenile wood storks were scattered on a
sandbar not far in front of me, and when I stopped to watch them,
a snook blew up bait in the mangroves behind them. I stole over
to look, but there was no sign of the fish, and the storks
spooked nothing when they flew out over the place I'd hoped to
see him.

Then, farther back in a small bay, another blast. This time I was
sure I could find the fish because the fish fed in a very shallow
corner of mangrove shoots. I crept over without a ripple and
looked into every crevice: no fish. So I waded out of the shallow
bay and was looking for new water when I noticed a faint wake
leaving the area I had just inspected. This time it headed for an
isolated clump of mangrove shoots which stood like a small,
flooded island away from shore. Back into the bay on tiptoe and
expecting only to be fooled again. Standing in perhaps six inches
of water, I peered into the mangrove roots and there, nearly
perfectly hidden, was my chameleon green snook.

I could only stand motionless and flick the leader into the maze
of shoots. It landed a couple of feet from the fish, and as it
sank he turned and struck. After several moments of close range
snook pandemonium, I seized him by the lower jaw and the barbless
fly fell out. I kept the fish in the water and ran my finger
along his topside, feeling the thickness through the shoulders,
the rigid upright fins. I then released him, and he swam off with
cross-eyed, lazy insouciance. With the tops of the mangroves and
wild palms tossing in the wind, the low-tide mud banks plowed up
by wild hogs, this one was special.

In the end, I occasionally saw fish before Austin saw them. "Good
eyes," he even said once. "I didn't see that one." It had been
weeks since he'd last told me I needed a prescription.

And then for the rest of the season, with new spring breezes
arising in flowering trees, I fished alone, daily. I was catching
more fish than I did formerly and getting a bit complacent about
how much I'd improved. There was even time to crawl around and
peer at the queer, nameless fauna of the shallows. I followed a
scarce banded puffer fish, a piggy-looking football with a tiny
propeller of a tail that motored him along at such a slow pace
that only his spines, or his benign herbivore face, kept him from
being chow for some apex predator.

I looked through my binoculars whenever I felt like it. I
listened to the conversation of wild pigs, quit fishing to gather
oysters, took naps in the skiff and made more elaborate lunches
in the morning, sometimes at the expense of an early start.

There was no doubt about it: I was getting worse.

COLOR PHOTO: DALE C. SPARTAS CAPTAIN MARVEL Austin is a strict guide; your first impression after fishing with him is that you have suddenly acquired attention deficit disorder. COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JACK UNRUH TWENTY FOUR COLOR PHOTOS: LURE PHOTOGRAPHS BY WARD YOSHIMOTO

Another lesson from Austin: GO FISHING WHEN ONLY A FOOL LEAVES
HIS HOUSE.

My wife said, "THIS FISHING YOU AND AUSTIN DO JUST SOUNDS LIKE
WORK."

I became a macabre, HEAT-SEEKING CARTOON OF NOT EASILY UNDERSTOOD MOTIVATION.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)