Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Sustenance and Manatees

This morning’s 5:00am alarm goes off a little sooner than I’d like. I wanted to take in a quarter or two of playoff basketball before calling it a night. Not having cable at home, it’s something I don’t get to see very often. Between writing and doing a little tube time I finally turned in around one. Although not needing much sleep, my late nights are catching up to me. Numbly going about my predawn preparation I’ve no room to complain, after all I’m soon to be tarpon fishing. It’s going to be at least a three cup starter this morning so I head for the kitchen to get my first fix. If needed I can get a fourth at the Gas an Go later on.

After John dropped us off yesterday, we hit the City Market (that’s a whole story in and of itself) for lunch and some good chum. The chums for our mate Captain Ohearn. Since our first meeting and day on the water it’s a rarity when he’ll eat anything of substance. We use to take him a box of Fruit Loops, those being his cereal of choice. Since then we’ve bagged breakfast and moved on to desserts.

As we’ve gotten a little more acquainted we found that John definitely has a weakness for cookies. The more chemically enhanced the ingredients the more delectable they seem to be. It would appear that goes for a lot of the things John seems to be fond of when it comes to the major food groups. The last several years our chum of choice was a favorite weakness of mine, Oreo’s. This year, since it’s so hot, we went with something little more refreshing, creamed filled ginger cookies. We’ve grown fond enough of these little munchies that were eating them by the row, rather than by ones or twos.

This is our fourth season with Captain Ohearn. During that time I only remember one time when he took a moment to eat, his brief reprieve being manipulated by a numbing morning of infamous Key West nor’easters. Less than ideal conditions compounded by a layer of dense clouds. Shots that day were few and far between. Those we did manage were futile at best, especially given our ineptness under such ridiculous conditions. I guess more sane individuals would have taken the day off, but a day on the water regardless of the fishing always bears some merit.

He drinks water much like he eats. Where Ken and I manage a transfusion of liquids throughout the day, Captain Ohearn swills just a single small bottle of water. I think he does it not out of thirst, but in response to his better senses. Yet he defies us as to how he exists, given how hard he works, on such little sustenance.

His answer comes in a little 8oz can of sugar and caffeine. In his early days Red Bull was his fluid of choice. Now that he’s had a kid it’s whatever is cheaper by the case. Over the years we’ve come to judge his days by the number of super caffeinated drinks he intakes. A three drink day we’re all working overtime, however mostly John. One or two of these syrupy elixirs and things are generally going pretty good. Obviously we shoot for those one drink days, but there’s a lot about tarpon fishing that can easily lead to those two and three shot days. Enough of our Captain’s culinary critique! If he reads this, I’m sure he’d appreciate this coming to an end.

Today kind of starts out like one of those days. I’m chilling with that fourth cup of coffee, Ken’s up trying to figure it out. It’s another beautiful morning with dawns eastern horizon glowing an unusual burnt orange, intensified by the annual burning of Cuba’s sugar cane fields. The morning airs again notably sweet. First morning’s mystery, if you’ve been reading along, now commonplace with this mild southerly breeze.

Like the morning before we both jump a fish, but mostly fumble away a number of good opportunities. At this hour, one doesn’t see the eats. The lack of visibility complicates what appears to be rather simple. Unlike the previous two mornings, once the suns high enough to actually see one of these little ladies all goes quiet, those small pods of dawn rollers vanishing silently slipping into deeper waters before continuing their migration north.

This flats sudden calm has us running oceanside to the Tower Flats. Yesterday we gave these popular migratory flats a brief drive by. However, there were too many guide boats to make it worthwhile to stay. Today there are far fewer and our timing, not that I would know, appears to be better. John kills the motor and silently begins to pole us onto the flat. He asks, “who’s up”? Me being the last off the bow relinquish the duty to my partner.

You ever get a feeling that you know what’s about to occur? On this change over I did. Ken was going to do the deal, and with some angst I new it. Ken barely has the line from the reel when John’s on them, “tarpon”. From a long way off their silver sides glow as they lazily roll our way. Even at this distance we can all see it’s a fairly good sized group. As they near, our Captian begins to get a little more animated, “Shit, come on ladies. Dam that’s one big wad of tarpon. Come on ladies, come on ladies”.

“Whatever you do, don’t throw your fly line over them” John gives his final instructions before Ken gets his first shot. I’m down in the cockpit trying to get film in my camera to document that which is about to unfold. I have no recollection of Ken hooking up I was so fixated on the backs, eyes, dorsal and tails of so many happy tarpon gently rolling by. That infamous sound that a Tibor makes as backing vanishes from the reel finally diverts my attention. After a long battle the shock tippet eventually wears through.

I’m back up, and much like the earlier part of my day, the planets just don’t quiet line up for me. A second ball of tarpon comes within casting distance, yet they don’t seem near has happy. John puts us on the clock as all again quickly goes quiet before we “reel up”. Moving back into the braided labyrinth of mangroves they call the backcountry my partner, gracious as he always is, gives me my fair share of time on the bow before we hit a little secret baby tarpon hole.

Now one would think that after gaming for Key West giants that laying the wood to a 10-15lb baby tarpon would be that exciting, but oh contraire! John’s about as animated as he gets, poling silently along the brackish mangrove edge. There’s an electricity to the moment that has all of us on edge. Although we don’t gear down to a smaller weight rod, which we should have, the 15 pounder that Ken eventually sticks is as acrobatic and energetic as any tarpon gets. Were like three kids in a candy store.

As fun as this is, we are allowed only one fish. Since it’s been a little on the slow side, our Captain offers up another, but we pass hopefully appeasing the fish gods. It doesn’t take much to unsettle nature’s delicate balance. Everyone here is cognizant of that fact, saying thank you, before silently moving on.

Although we are here to pit our skills, or lack there of, against one of fly fishing great game fish, there are other diversions that add to this incredible experience. For me, the saltwater flats of the southern tropics provide a brief window into a unique and foreign wilderness, where emerald fertile flats flow from horizon to horizon filled with a cornucopia of intimidating and intriguing marine life. These pleasant visual distractions add to each daily venture especially during those periods of drought.

Two years ago on a chance run to the Marquesas we stumbled upon several hours of amazing fishing, made even more memorable by a rare Key’s Manatee that came up to the boat while we were hooked to a nice sized tarpon. In all of John’s guiding days he had never encountered one of these docile creatures this far south. For the second time, and again with us, we come across this unique mammal just as we’re finishing an oceanside flat. For at least the next hour all three of us are lying on the deck of the skiff in an attempt to become a little more familiar with our adopted family of six manatees. Eventually we quietly depart and like newly hatched ducklings, the group slides silently in behind the skiff to escort us off the flat. This was awesome!

Of this day I remember little other than our visit with our friends. Their acceptance of our intrusion into their world a memory for years to come. Yet their scared backs remind us of an encroachment into a world we’re just beginning to understand. For these guys, possibly such infringements have driven them south, their northern habitats threaten or lost. Wherever they are bound I wish them a safe journey. They are truly a long way from home.

Although we fished a little more, we should have called it a day resting on those good fortunes we had already had. Fishing was good, and far better than many a day we have had here, but the nature tour is what will be remembered the most.

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