One of my favorite authors, regardless of genre, is John Geirach. If you’ve never read his stuff, do yourself a favor and pick up one of his books — “Death, Taxes & Leaky Waders” being a fine place to start. Mr. Geirach contends that most anglers don’t want to hear lots of details about other people fighting fish, since they already know what it’s like to be on the other end of the rod. It’s a solid point that I often disregard.
Seven or eight years ago, on the tail end of a memorable summer, my good buddy Adam and I hooked up my skiff and dragged it down to the tiny fishing town of Chokoloskee, FL. The morning air was brisk but not quite cold, a welcome reprieve after many months of heat. I don’t recall how many fish we caught, though it was more than a few. I do remember the slow, languid pattern of looping fly line, the sound of spun deer-hair flies dropping at the water’s edge, the sparkle of plugs bobbing and weaving in the shallows, and fish after fish materializing in clouds of silt and shell.
In the late morning, we chased a moving tide back into narrow creeks choked with run-off from recent rains. The tea-colored water was cool and so absolutely clear we could make out every feature of the dark, mottled bottom. At one point we glided over a large, ripple-backed alligator pressed tight to the creek bed, its amber eyes glinting like new pennies. Some 200 yards in, Adam backed off the trolling motor and tied the bow of the skiff to a bleached tree limb. We both picked up spinning rods and armed them with unweighted soft-baits, hook points imbedded to render them snagless. Belt-necked kingfishers flitted from branch to branch, and the mangrove trees dampened a steady breeze and muted all noise. At our feet, the dark water was slick and roiling, the sky above a brilliant, unbroken blue. It was all vaguely eternal.
We were now casting within a creek that was 20 feet across at its widest point, and lined with gnarled mangrove roots and fallen trees — tight quarters offering a small margin of error. I hooked a small snook on my first cast, and carefully played it to the boat. Adam answered with another. As I worked my next cast back to the skiff, I noticed a knot in the line, untangled it, worked the slack line back on the reel and began a quick retrieve. The line stopped abruptly with a dull, electric jolt. I pointed the rod to the side, snapped the tip back to set the hook and then leaned into the fish. But there was no frantic, retaliatory response characteristic of a motivated snook, nor the tell-tale headshake of a redfish. It was more fundamental, more imposing; just a surging, ponderous weight. In my mind’s eye I saw the huge alligator we had passed over, a shredded lure fluttering between rows of yellow teeth.
The light-tackle rod and small reel felt wispy in my hands. I turned to look at Adam, the creek’s narrow walls now seeming to close in around us. He said nothing, but moved quickly toward the bow to untie the boat. With a glance, my eyes told him all he needed to know. They said: “I’m in a tiny creek hooked up to something roughly the size of a kitchen appliance, and I really wish I’d taken up golf.”
My line began to move against the current. Not quickly, but deliberately. Adam was straining to see through the sun’s glare on the surface. He glanced at my reel, the drag surrendering foot after foot of pinging line. And then whatever I’d hooked picked up speed. “Look” was all I could muster before the surface water parted mid-creek and the glistening head of a giant snook slowly emerged. Often, at such moments, anglers only catch a brief glimpse of The Fish That Will Haunt Them The Rest Of Their Days — enough to nick the memory, but not enough to capture solid details. I see that now as a form of mercy. But this fish was so massive that leaping was not an option. It muscled its massive head above the surface then shook it back and forth several times slowly, hanging in limbo for a frozen moment before slipping out of sight. The encounter was vivid yet surreal. At its highest point, we could see the olive back, the thick copper-tinged sides, the wide stripe, the angry eye and my hapless soft-bait — which vaguely resembled a small harpoon — firmly embedded in the side of its impossibly large mouth. Adam made a strangling noise and fumbled with the trolling motor.
I could re-tell the details of the blurry few minutes that followed: the scrambling up and down gunnels, the inverted rod, the line holding despite multiple hang-ups, and the big snook’s final, pulsing run to freedom up a tiny feeder creek. I could also prattle on about the truly large snook I have landed, in part to assure readers that I have enough perspective to label this fish a latter-day Leviathan, and in part out of an age-old temptation to boast. But maybe Mr. Geirach has a point. I’m not above regaling folks with stories about big fish, but the hulking linesider I hooked in that winding creek is the most epic encounter of my inshore angling life, and it would be a pity if I diminished it somehow with a less-than-fitting account. Suffice to say that I came in a distant second that day, and that the memory of those glimmering flanks furrowed a deep and lasting line in my brain.
Author Norman MacLean addressed the agony of losing big fish in his classic work A River Runs Through It. He wrote: “Poets talk about “spots of time,” but it is really fishermen who experience eternity compressed into a moment. No one can tell what a spot of time is until suddenly the whole world is a fish and the fish is gone. I shall remember that son of a bitch forever.”
Like most anglers, I’m vulnerable to the fits of rage and despair that accompany lost fish. But in truth, I owe that big snook for a lasting impression. When I’m back on dark-bottomed bays or in sweetwater creeks, the shadows of overhanging trees take on more solid form, submerged logs sprout fins and move of their own accord, and unseen creatures that fall upon my lures make my heart knock out a double-time rhythm that’s increasingly hard to muster otherwise.
If there’s more you can ask of a fish, I’m not sure what it would be.