Story and Photographs by Greg Thomas
Sometimes I feel like a puppet in a greater being’s play, with everyone else in on the joke except me. If I ever see a hand coming out of the clouds, pointing at me, I’ll know my concerns are real.
Take July, for instance. I was invited to Florida’s west coast, near Stuart, to hike the white sand beaches searching for snook. A friend had performed the recon a year prior and reported casting to 30-pounders. He also told me, when asked, to leave the flats boots at home in Montana; he assured me I’d regret bringing them.
A couple weeks later, as we strung rods and prepared to hike our first beach, he said I wouldn’t even need the flip-flops presently attached to my feet. Said, “This beach is heaven on the feet, the best pedicure you’ll ever get.”
We weren’t 40 yards into our hike when we realized a major mistake—the sand was surface-of-the-sun hot, hotter than my saltwater-addicted friend had ever felt, and we were too far committed to turn back. My friend yelled, “Run for the water!” The next time someone at a party says, “You fly fishers are so not cool,” you’ll know they were in Stuart, Florida on July 10, 2015, when two albino-skinned men from the Rockies charged through a cadre of sunbathers, spraying sand across towels and impressive implants, while screaming like boys who’d been stung by bees.
Once in the water we wandered quickly away from the sunbathing and splash-happy masses, who were still brushing off sand and pointing at us. And just a hundred yards down the beach I felt the telltale signs of a bad burn on the bottom of my feet; blisters had already risen and each step was awkward. I knew the pain would soon follow.
I met this friend, Frank Smethurst, about 20 years ago in Telluride, Colorado. I can’t remember the name of the river we fished at that time, but I do remember it being fringe trout habitat where there weren’t many browns but the ones you got were big. We caught a couple, none as large as we’d hoped for, but the scenery was classic Desert Southwest, and we shared a similar motto—if it swims, it can and must be caught with a fly rod.
Somehow Frank and I never fished together again until this past July. But we’d stayed in contact, mostly because we’ve stayed in this fly-fishing industry all along, hitting the same trade and consumer shows, showing up at the same fly-fishing film premiers and parties, and trading notes on fly patterns and possible fishing locales.
You might know Frank; he starred in a cult-classic fly-fishing film called Running Down The Man, and he hosted Trout Unlimited’s TV series On The Rise. He’s also a rep for several fly-fishing manufacturers, including Scott Fly Rods. If you’ve attended many shows, especially in Colorado, Frank’s probably handed you a rod to cast and then told you how to cast it in his professorial voice and manner.
Snook have the reputation of being snooty, by which I mean they often refuse flies even when conditions are perfect. This behavior never makes sense to me. Why wouldn’t a fish eat another when it has the opportunity, if that’s exactly what its existence depends on?
They are especially difficult to catch, I learned, when you can’t even find them.
That was the case during our hike down that skin-scalding beach. Where Frank found them the year prior we saw empty sand. And, by the time we reached the remnants of a pier, far down the beach, we wondered if snook would ever show up. That’s when a few spear fishermen, who’d told us they hadn’t seen a single snook while diving in the area, pointed at a few shapes in the water, moving left to right. I was standing on an elevated rock wall, directly in their path, and saw them clearly, just five yards off the beach. I false-cast, then landed the fly ahead of the fish, hoping it would sink to the bottom before they arrived. This is the challenge when the waves, wind and tidal action take your fly wherever they want, with the fish changing course whenever they choose.
Fortunately, the fish stayed on course, the fly sank to their level, and then . . . nothing happened. The fish swam right by. That became the norm, even when I spotted three giants, 20- to 30-pounders for sure, cruising just feet off the shoreline, slowly and confidently enough that I must have made 20 casts before they rounded a corner and slipped into deeper water.
There was an exception to the failure, however, when Frank wandered to the farthest end of the beach, cast into a small lagoon, and let his fly sit on the bottom until a four-pounder sauntered over and sucked it in. Frank held that fish as if I might want a photo, but I didn’t even take a shot, still believing we would experience a windfall of big fish. That was a losing bet. When the tide changed, the snook disappeared and the show was over.
“Snook have the reputation of being snooty, by which I mean they often refuse flies even when conditions are perfect. This behavior never makes sense to me. Why wouldn’t a fish eat another when it has the opportunity, if that’s exactly what its existence depends on?”
I’ve run into this “lockjaw” problem in other places. Bull trout in British Columbia, for example, actually moving out of the way of my fly; and Alaska’s sockeye salmon are notorious for not eating flies, even when a big wave of them, thousands and thousands, passes within yards of your boot tips, close enough that you could easily spear one if it were legal to do so, or you chose to out of spite; even steelhead can give you the cold shoulder, although they usually cave if you run a fly in front of them often enough. But that’s the problem—somewhere along the way casting to spawny fish seems less like sport and more like harassment. At least in this case, the fish were on the move, unrestricted by the boundaries of a river, able to charge into deeper water whenever they chose. It was a fair game.
That afternoon a couple of Frank’s friends picked us up off the beach with an offshore boat and we ran for 20 minutes to a hump, where all sorts of species, including pelagics, gather. In fact, five minutes after we set the anchor I saw a fin carving the surface about 75 yards away and yelled, “Sailfish, right there!” A second quickly appeared. Frank and I cast as far as we could against a strong wind, but couldn’t reach them. They made a circle around the boat and disappeared. On our 8-weights, those fish would have been a challenge, to say the least, but we’d already discussed unclipping from the anchor line and charging after them.
Shortly after, all sorts of fish arrived at the back of our boat, attracted to a steady supply of small, live bait being tossed off the stern. Those poor baitfish had nowhere to go, so they schooled close to the boat, with mullet and rainbow runners in pursuit. And just below, acting shy but definitely gaining confidence, was the man in the brown suit, meaning five big bull sharks, the biggest of them perhaps nine feet long.
I haven’t spent a great deal of time around sharks, but I know bulls can be aggressive, and I couldn’t help but wonder if we’d make shore if forced to swim for it. Say, if we took on water, or a fire started, and the boat either sank or burned. I wasn’t expecting this to happen. But I like to play out lethal scenarios prior to being thrown into the situation, visualizing myself as the sole survivor who goes on the evening newscast and says, “I always hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. I don’t know what the others were thinking.” When I asked Frank, “Could we make it to shore?” he responded nonchalantly, as if there are problems more troubling than our own deaths, “Probably not.”
After we’d landed some rainbow runners, Frank’s friends tied a runner’s carcass onto a rope and played it out behind the boat. Then, when the bull sharks became interested we slowly hand-lined the rope in until these enormous beasts were nearly touching the transom. They were difficult to entice, but once committed it was shear power and chaos, with teeth and fins and backs thrashing the surface. If you fell off at the wrong moment, we all understood, those fish wouldn’t be able to stop themselves.
That made me wonder about the sanity of a new breed of spear fishers. These are people who hunt artificial reefs off Stuart and elsewhere, diving in among those bulls when cobia are present. They try to spear the cobia, then race to the boat with their catch before the bulls can tear the cobia away from them. One error by the shark, one time mistaking a leg for a cobia, and it’s probably all over for the spearfisher. Sometimes when fishing steelhead in the snow and sleet, or grinding over high-mountain passes to catch golden trout, or flying in Cubs and Beavers in Alaska’s bad weather, I feel like a true risk-taker, an extreme athlete. But, when considering people who compete with sharks for the same meal, I realize I’m nothing more than an ultra-careful father who just likes to fish.
Later that evening, just after dark, we swapped out the offshore boat for a skiff and motored around the St. Lucie River, window-shopping for the greenish glow of snook lights. Frank’s friends knew which lights would produce, and we were quickly anchored just off a dock watching shadows slicing here and there. Once we cast a fly under the dock the shadows darted around and then fell in line to follow the fly toward the boat. I don’t know how many snook we caught under the lights, but the fishing was easy enough to try a variety of patterns just to see what might happen. Poppers, we found, were the best, nothing else really comparing to the “pop” that the snook made when they finally decided to take.
Later, well after midnight and back at a friend’s house, Frank sliced one of our rainbow runners into sashimi and grilled another. Even with wasabi powder that may have been in the cupboard since 1952, the sashimi was outstanding. And that made me think about the time I’ve spent in Florida, up to a month at a stretch in some cases, where the abundance of quality fish—and the ability to take many of them without compromising a fishery—makes me think that catching-and-releasing Rocky Mountain trout might be a little overrated. It’s not that we can’t release those trout and later trot down to the grocery to buy and grill a salmon, but there’s a connection to the fish and a place that can’t be replaced without whacking a fish on the head and eating it. You could live off fresh fish here and die happy and probably old. That’s where Florida wins in the which-place-is-best category.
Where Florida loses is in the numbers of people who live and fish there. I sensed that over the following few days when we shipped off from Stuart and drove across the state to Boca Grande, on Gasparilla Island, to fish another beach for cruisers, a place where Frank assured me we’d find more snook than we had on Florida’s east side.
By this time my feet were a real issue. All the blisters had burst. Sand, seaweed and seashells infiltrated the wounds and rubbed against raw and bleeding skin. Worse, we weren’t finding any more snook, fewer in fact than we’d seen on the east side. That evening, to lessen one of those pains, I commandeered Frank’s fly-tying scissors and cut all the damaged skin off my toes. Then I scooped and scraped away the debris. It wasn’t like pulling your own tooth with a pair of pliers, or sawing an arm off because it’s stuck between two rocks, but each time I cut too close to the living skin my fishing partners, which now included two more Coloradans, endured my winces. At the end of these daily surgeries, I stuck my feet into a bathroom garbage can that we’d lined with a plastic bag and filled with iced water. It was the only sweet relief I found for days on end.
Each morning, however, I’d stick my feet back into salt water and feel the jolt again. At this point I was holding everyone back. I couldn’t move fast and was mostly limping along the beach, standing in one place for long periods, lamenting my feet and wishing I could charge at my usual pace. Then, suddenly, everything was fine because the snook arrived on flood tides and they passed within casting distance every five minutes or so. These fish weren’t as big as those we’d seen on the east side, but I did spot one hen that might have gone 20 pounds. Most of the fish looked like three- to seven-pounders, although I couldn’t tell for sure because I never did beach one. In fact, in three days I never touched a snook, and only hooked a couple snappers.
In desperation, Andy Dunn and I visited Boca Grande Outfitters to ask where we could find some “willing” snook, and to buy some flies they might actually eat. Just after asking a few questions, an older man walked in, got right in between all of us and asked, matter of factly—or out of desperation—“Do you sell athletic supporters?” It was clear he wasn’t a fisherman, but had obviously exhausted all options on the island. I didn’t really want to picture this in my head, but I could see a man and wife on their sixtieth-anniversary vacation, wading the beaches, the man wearing a pair of rough, wet shorts, the canvas working in tandem with years of gravity, thoroughly spoiling his need for that prescription bottle of little blue footballs. When the shop owner said, “No, we don’t carry jock straps,” I saw the man’s shoulders slump a little. Considering my feet—and my equally unsuccessful search for a powerful ointment—I should have shot out the door after him and shouted, “I’ll trade you a big bottle of Gold Bond for a tube of Neosporin!”
By the final day, understandably, the boys ditched me and worked far down a difficult beach, meaning they scaled breakwaters and crawled under docks to locate fish that may not have seen many flies. During this time—and this is a bonus when fly-fishing Florida’s beaches—a young, bikini-clad woman sidled up to me and asked if I’d caught anything; truth be told, I don’t think she cared about the fishing. We chatted for a while as I noted her fine figure; I really tried to keep my eyes at or near horizon level. Again, a losing bet. I was even more intrigued when she asked if I would be staying in the area awhile, with a tone that made me think, So, you’re telling me there’s a chance. But what really grabbed me was this: She told me she was a nurse. I was thigh-deep in the salt and said, “Follow me, let’s go to shore, I want to show you something.” Then, on the beach I said (and who knows what she thought I might say), “I know this is going to sound strange, but do you mind checking out my, um, feet?” There may have been a hint of disappointment on her face, or maybe that’s only what I want to believe, but when I lay down on the beach and she lifted my right foot she said, “What did you do? You need to see a doctor. You’re going to get infected.”
I wanted to ask her if she’d take me there, and then maybe to her place to recover, but post-divorce I almost always pick more fishing because, well, it’s just easier that way. And fish don’t share their feelings.
My friends were gone for hours before one, Andy, who works at Anglers All in Colorado, returned. It was dark now. The shark fishers had arrived and my nurse had long ago drifted into the shadows. I could barely take a step, even while wearing my flip-flops. So Andy and I drove to our hotel to find a cold beverage and microwave some nachos. Another friend, Jake, showed up later when I was blowing debris out of my wounds with a hairdryer. Frank was still MIA. I wasn’t exactly worried about Frank, because he’s a fish freak who can handle himself no matter the situation, but dark on the water, alone, is dark on the water, alone, and the signs at the beach warned against getting into the water. Had Frank swum out and around the breakwaters? How far in did he wade to get around the private docks at flood tide? Bull sharks and hammerheads were around for sure. Ripcurrents in Boca Grande Pass are world famous, and they often form just yards from the beach. And, in general, it hadn’t been an easy week for Frank—he and his brother were on the phone each day, trying to determine when they needed to be in Atlanta to spend some final hours with their ailing father. Judging by the tone, that meeting was imminent. Could Frank, I wondered, with his mind wandering, have made a mistake?
A couple hours later Frank showed up, wild-eyed and cackling excitedly about what had just happened. Apparently, the snook arrived in droves. And unlike the fish we’d chased on public beaches, these guys were “eaters.”
I asked, “How many did you land?” and Frank just shook his head. “Lots, lots of them,” was all he could manage. I don’t like to get out-fished. Especially if I’m skunked. But here I was happy, very happy for my friend. It just seemed right.
The following morning Frank was up early and told us he was leaving for Atlanta, immediately. Andy and I loaded up, too, and headed to Orlando for the annual ICAST industry show, a huge gathering of fishing manufacturers and media at the Orange County Convention Center. Along the way I bought some Nikes with giant, spongy soles on them. They were the cushiest kicks I could find, equally distinctive in the ugly department. Herman Munster would have looked right at home wearing those all-black brutes. I limped around the show in those shoes, enduring the jokes, including a comment from a PR woman who said, “One thing is for sure, you’re never getting laid when you’re wearing those things.”
Fair enough, I thought. What didn’t seem quite fair, however, is that Frank lost his father the day he charged to Atlanta. I couldn’t imagine being in that situation, didn’t even want to visualize it, but I was happy that he had that night with snook under his belt. We’d be back next year, all agreed, myself with functional feet, Frank with no stress overhead, and—with luck—with a bunch of eaters cruising the beach.