Tempting Fate

July 1, 2007 by John - No Comments


Lightning can quickly lend perspective to a great angling opportunity.

It was a hot day in late September, the time of year when I can be found once or twice a week stalking the shallows of a favorite flat. Big redfish tend to school up then, and the fishing can be sensational. When the (rare) opportunity presents itself, I check local radar, hit the door running at closing time, fly home to grab my gear and head toward a local bay just as the heat starts to wane.

After unloading the skiff I took a circuitous route to a favorite flat. The sun was dropping lower and the shadows lengthening, a precedent to the hour or so before sundown that is often the best time to fish. I cut the motor before bottom showed under my hull, trimmed it up so the skeg acted as a rudder and lowered my trolling motor. As I went through my pre-casting routine, I heard a menacing rumble in the distance. By that time the water on the flat had slicked out, the sun had fallen low toward the horizon and big wakes were starting to show off my bow. I clicked the trolling motor onto the slowest speed and scanned for signs of tailing or cruising fish, turtle grass flicking softly against the underside of the hull. I was in my element.

On most summer evenings the dipping sun sets everything in its path ablaze, transforming sections of billowy cloud into clumps of purple, pink and orange neon. But this night the light had a strange cast to it, an unhealthy, flat yellow that brought to mind migraines and stomach bile. The slanting sunlight reflected off the thin cloud cover overhead, and the boiling clouds to the east seemed to suck the color from the sky. Still, I could see no immediate threat.

I was in very shallow water now, and signs of fish on their feed were everywhere. My first retrieve resulted in a billowing follow. As I set up for a second, the dense air around me began to thin and cool. I had a decision to make. A storm was obviously closing in, and I knew I was in water far too shallow to get on plane. I uttered a choice word or two, and put my rod in the holder. I’d fished in Florida too long to fool around with lightning — this could wait. As I turned toward the console, I gazed across the bay one last time. And I could not believe what I was seeing.

The depth on this particular stretch of water is about two feet, and I could see right through it. Not like you can see through the surface with polarized glasses, guessing at shadows and sighting the odd fish clearly. No, I could make out every individual fish within 75 yards. We’re talking X-ray vision. Superhero stuff. The effect of the weird light was magical — I was staring at a flat full of big fish, each a vibrant reddish-orange, all oblivious to my presence. It was just too tempting. I reached for my spinning rod, and fired off an inaccurate cast. I cranked the line in and flicked the rod back for a second try…and that’s when I heard the buzzing.

Behind me, the extra rod in the holder was hissing like an angry snake. I’d been in a few bad storms and heard rods hiss with static electricity, but this was different. It was a loud, high-pitched whine. Mesmerized, I raised the tip of the rod I was holding, and it literally vibrated in my hand. I felt genuine, old-school fear.

The first brilliant strike smashed into a mangrove island to my left, the accompanying thunder resonating through me. I dropped the rod and fell to my knees, instinctively trying to become one with the deck. Within seconds another strike shrieked down, momentarily blinding me. I shuffled on my knees toward the console, stopping abruptly as I remembered the shallow depth. It was the trolling motor or nothing — the trolling motor mounted up on the bow, exposed to the heavens. A third strike was followed almost immediately by a fourth, and the pungent smell of ozone filled the air. My hair was standing on end and my hands shaking as I steered the motor toward deeper water. Another report seemed to turn the world a vivid pink, and the sound of the thunder never really registered. My ears were ringing and I had to shake my head to clear the cobwebs. No more than a few seconds would pass between explosions, several seeming to come back-to-back, like the discharge of some otherworldly weapon. I felt utterly alone and completely vulnerable, a reluctant firing pin under a series of falling hammers.

It took me several agonizing minutes to reach deeper water, and the run back through the rain was an interminably long one. Heavy drops came hard and fast, popping against my skin like pellets, but I gunned the motor all the way to the dock. The walk across the open parking lot to relative safety was even longer, a host of dark thoughts playing out during the long pause between blasts. I sat in my vehicle, soaked and exhausted, and as thankful to my God as I had ever been. I remember feeling a sincere empathy for hapless ants that perish under magnifying glasses wielded by merciless little hands.

Shortly after I returned home a local news station reported that lightning had killed an unfortunate tourist on a local beach. It brought to mind the many related stories in my memory bank: the blast that hit my family’s home years back, destroying every major appliance and setting carpeting ablaze; a friend and I watching our fishing lines float toward the sky prior to a lightning storm, held aloft by electrical energy; my uncle losing his best friend in an open field; the 13 Criollo cattle on my dad’s ranch lying peacefully on a river bank, downed by a single bolt; the monstrous live oak that disintegrated before my eyes; the poor soul paramedics tried to resuscitate at my dad’s company picnic; the side of a gashed pine tree oozing sap that bubbled like scorched oil.

It would be an easy thing to turn my experience into an object lesson, prattling on about safety and caution and common sense. But I won’t. I’ll leave it at this: Buried deep inside each of us is a primal understanding about the dangers of the natural world. Don’t let an angling opportunity — no matter how rare or compelling — lead you to ignore that age-old voice when it speaks.