You wake before the alarm sounds, moonlight through a window reducing the room to muted grays and blacks. You lay still for a moment, adrift in that vague place between sleeping and waking, your mind on the trip ahead. Everything was prepared carefully the day prior — batteries charged, cooler loaded, charts studied, leaders tied, etc. — so there’s time to snooze, but you roll onto your feet anyway, driven by an old, familiar excitement.
You step out into the brisk air in layered clothing and lock the front door. The skiff is already secured to the truck, its white sides visible even in the dark, the liquid lines conjuring up memories of trips past. Within minutes you’re on an almost-empty highway, yellow streetlights flicking by in a steady sequence, classic country music a fitting score for a new adventure. Twenty minutes later you’re on U.S. 41, a long ribbon of two-lane that cuts across the fabled Everglades. The sudden absence of streetlights — and the resultant dark — signal the beginning of a vast wilderness.
You reach the boat ramp just as the first hint of light betrays the sun’s intentions in the west. You nod to the handful of anglers and guides in attendance, drop the skiff in quickly, and tie it to the outermost piling. Within minutes, you’re idling toward the end of the No Wake zone, the outboard noisy and cranky, the eastern side of the bay now taking vague shape. And then the skiff is on plane, the motor’s note now high and steady, the glimmering water ahead glossy and smooth. It’s seriously cold now, the wind finding chinks in your padded armor, your ears and nose beginning to ache. You throttle back to cruising speed, then slide into the first elbow of a dimly lit back-country river, watering eyes peeled as you face the first challenge: a winding group of submerged sand bars that require tight turns and a bit of luck to navigate. You carve through without incident, swinging tight to the mangroves at speed to avoid a ragged oyster bar. A select group of anglers have paid the dues required to learn this slice of fishing paradise, but they know it’s never to be trusted completely. You hear the concerned voices of friends and family who believe these solo trips are risky and even foolish. As if to punctuate their case, a bull alligator materializes off your starboard side, it’s ridged back sliding beneath the water as you pass. They have a point, but a sensible approach would rob you of this crisp air, and the quickening in your chest that only happens out here in the half-light.
Rounding the corner into Sunday Bay — the first in a series of open waters connected by narrow creeks and cuts — an orange sun juts above the treetops, its radiant light a strange contrast to the flat black shoreline. Gradually, the scene takes on color: jade green mangrove trees of almost uniform height, their roots like knobby fingers in the black mud; the striking grays and pinks of lanky shorebirds, heads turned sideways to catch the glint of bait fish; the dirty browns of curious raccoons seeking breakfast along the waterline; the stark markings of an osprey in flight, its wing tips flecked with light; the deep amber tint of the water, its placid surface rippling with the skiff’s rude wake. You goose the motor a bit more, and then come off plane to navigate the twists and turns of a creek that churns with a strong tide. The bays roll by rhythmically, as do the turnoffs to the big rivers that roll westward to the Gulf.
A long run in open water leads to another narrow, winding creek, and finally — after almost an hour of run time — the bay you intend to fish is near. It’s a gem of a spot, a shallow bowl fed by a narrow cut that surges with rich, tea-colored water. It features qualities that, once seen, play upon the mind in quiet moments. It’s bordered on all sides by green-and-yellow mangrove walls, punctuated here and there by the rigid trunk and leafy pompadour of a sable palm, or the bleached white remains of a tree killed by lightning. It holds juvenile tarpon within the deep section at its mouth, snook along its southern shore and redfish on its clear flats.
You’ve never hit it quite right. On the first trip you saw fish everywhere but managed to blow several casts and waste the tail end of a falling tide. On the last trip wind was whistling out of the north, and a cold front conspired to give every fish in the area a mean case of shut-mouth, leaving you distant and black-hearted at day’s end.
You cut the main motor well before you reach the mouth of the bay. With stiff legs, you clamber onto the casting deck and drop the trolling motor, inching forward slowly to get a feel for the place again. As you creep along, you run the new leader line through your palm out of habit, then test the knot connecting the slick new plug. You cast once into open water to get the kinks out, adjust the brim of your hat and insert a fresh plug of tobacco in your cheek — a deferential nod to the old timers who plied these waters long before the advent of poling platforms and 300 HP outboards. You also shed the bulky jacket, despite the fact that it’s still far from warm. In a show of restraint, you glide past the gnarled tree at the bay’s mouth without casting, even past the first 50 yards of shoreline where you’ve seen bottle-nose dolphin rip through schools of big mullet with wanton violence. It’s early and there’s plenty of time. Move slowly. Stay quiet. Listen.
Patience pays off. Sixty yards or so ahead, a good 10 feet out from the northern bank, a flicker of movement leaves a slow, roiling boil on the surface. You cut the motor to stop the skiff’s forward progress, open the reel’s bail and swing the plug in a slow arc to get a feel for its weight. A yellow fin appears suddenly, glinting like glass in the angled light. Then a rounded tail some two feet behind joins it, and your alert mind registers “Big fish. Really Big Fish.” For a moment you consider switching to a fly rod — the sweet little 7-weight already strung with a deer-hair slider. But it’s not the percentage move with a target so close. You flex the spinning rod and snap it forward, the plug whistling in a soft arc parallel to shore. It sails well past the fish as you feather the line softly, dropping it silently on the surface. A moment to let it sink, maybe two, and then you flick the bail and start the retrieve, your brain now in overdrive, calculating the distance at which the lure will intercept the dark form. Almost unconsciously, your eyes scan the mud bank for submerged tree limbs or clumps of sharp oysters. Because it’s almost surely a big snook, and they fight dirty.
The plug, a bright orange job with glittering sides and a black back, is working perfectly, flashing side to side just under the surface. It’s impossible to miss in the clear water. 10 yards and closing. Now five. The big shadow turns slowly away from shore, its sloped head facing deeper water. Your lure dances within a few feet of the dorsal fin, now parallel to it, and then past it. You wait for the sudden rush, but the shadow never changes course. Not even slightly. It just glides toward deeper water, unaware of — or uninterested in — your offering. Far off in the trees you hear an osprey cry, a sound both piercing and mournful.
You cast again, hurriedly, and this time your lure flies high and long, sailing into low-lying branches. Uttering a few choice words, you pop the rod back quickly, and the plug flies off the branch in a shower of leaves and falls loudly in the water. Sumbich. But the big shadow maintains its steady pace, the last tip of its tail disappearing under the slick surface. You’ve lost some composure now, but you clench your teeth and fire one last shot toward the middle of the cut, a few feet ahead of the fading ripples. Twitch. Twitch. Twitch. Nothing. OK, relax. It’s a big bay, and it’s still early. With a sigh, you crank the reel quickly, your gaze moving down the shore as the lure skitters back toward the boat. And then a thick-backed missile with close-set eyes breaks the surface, hovers in the air and crashes down upon the plug, shattering the silence and spraying water across the skiff’s deck. You freeze for a moment, shaken by the naked violence of the act. Then you fumble at the reel handle, open-mouthed, eyes wide to see where the fish has gone…until line hisses across the water directly toward the skiff, the rod bends sharply at an awkward angle and your reel makes a series of pained noises. As you palm the spool in desperation, something clears the water on the other side of the boat, the leader parts with a crack and you’re standing in numbed silence, water dripping off your face, a lifeless rod pointed under the boat and a small piece of your manhood or your soul or your self worth or something else pretty damn meaningful lies in tattered shreds upon the wet deck.
But you can’t stay down for long, not out here. Because a warm sun is climbing in a blue November sky, the fish are active, and you’re gloriously and magically alone, deep within the heart of God’s Green Everglades.
And hell, it’s still early.