Fishing With Family

Fishing With Family

'Thanks, Dad. This is VERY cool.'

As I approach a half a century of life on the water, I find it fascinating how strongly nostalgia plays a role in where, how, and with whom I choose to go fishing. Fishing priorities change for every angler. It often begins with a desire for more fish, and then the objective is bigger fish, and somewhere along the line, especially for a fishing guide, the priorities become sullied by dollars and cents. Ultimately, none of that is as important as the rivers and oceans where we find fish, and the people who share that water with us.These are my thoughts on a rare day when my daughter Lilly will be at my side in the Marquesas Keys. Lilly and I always seem to have the best intentions of going fishing together, but it is not too often that it works out that way. Her studies interfere with our plans, or my job does (imagine that). It does not help that she spends most of the year 1,700 miles away from Key West. But we are going fishing today, just the two of us. We discuss the weather, the tides and the fishing possibilities. I respond to Lilly's questions in a robotic fish talk recited as if by rote. There may be some early tarpon in the Marquesas. It is a transitional season so we can expect shots at permit and bonefish, maybe barracudas, sharks and other predatory species. I ought to remember that I will not be guiding my daughter today; we are just going fishing. But really, who do I think I am kidding? The reality is that with my only child on board, this is going to be a day that will have everything-and nothing-to do with catching fish. In the early morning darkness, with Lilly sitting next to me in the skiff, my mind drifts back to other days. There is a well-worn yarn in our family that Lilly's birth was induced a week prematurely by an especially rough Marquesas crossing that my wife, Ginny, and I made late in her pregnancy. If I remember correctly, that was a good day of tarpon fishing, too. Later in my life, as a fishing guide with a busy schedule, I often spent more than 300 days a year making this run to the Marquesas. Those were the glory years: grand slams, record-size fish, endorsement contracts, celebrities. In the cool air of this early morning run to the islands, I huddle a little bit closer to my 17-year-old daughter and look at the soft features of her face. Oh, how I wish I had done a little bit more of this during those 300 days a year that I spent chasing fish. Daybreak in the Marquesas is breathtakingly beautiful. We shut down the skiff on the outside edge of the atoll. The café Cubano we sipped at 5:30 AM on the Key West waterfront still pulses in our bloodstreams. But there is something more than caffeine that has elevated our sensory awareness. Standing on the deck of a bonefish skiff at first light watching the Marquesas Keys emerge from the darkness, I understand why this is one of the great anticipatory moments in saltwater fly fishing. Still, I seem to be having difficulty focusing on the fishing part of this exercise. As we drift along on the flood tide, my instincts as a dad preempt those of an angler. I take out a camera to photograph my daughter in the warm morning light. Through the viewfinder I see a reflection on the water. And then I see another one. It becomes quickly apparent to me that these reflections are tarpon rolling on the surface, and that our skiff is drifting through a large school of laid-up fish. The megalops seem to mock us with their giant eyes. Of course, we have no fly rods stripped out and ready. In fact, the rods are still unrigged and stored under the gunwale. Early season tarpon are usually automatic eaters; we could probably throw one of Lilly's hair scrunchies on a hook and get a take from one of these fish. We watch the tarpon roll past at an arms length to port and starboard, and Lilly can do nothing but laugh. That makes a pretty picture, too. It does not take long, however, to get a tarpon fly rigged on the 10-weight rod, and now we are on for the chase. The school of tarpon just as quickly sinks down along the edge of the flat. With glare on the water it is impossible to know what direction they have taken. Lilly and I crouch into a stealth mode and wait for a surface indication to give away their location. At six o'clock off the back of the skiff, there is a crease on the surface and a blip of a tarpon face. The fish have moved well away and behind us. No matter. We make a spirited stalk around the pack and I position Lilly for an easy downwind shot. I can almost visualize the grab and the jump. Can it possibly get any better than this? Well, yes, it could get better. It would be better if the tarpon would stay visible. They do not. A period of quiet falls over the glassy water. The tarpon show again, this time 100 yards away at 12 o'clock. We make another long stalk, although somewhat less spirited because the fish again vanish then reappear in the opposite direction. We spend a couple of hours doing this yo-yo fishing. Lilly's patience for it begins to lag. There is a sigh. Her shoulders droop. And then there is this tapping sound on the fiberglass casting deck. The sound is barely noticeable at first, but as the tapping continues it pings into my head like a ball peen hammer on the brain pan. What-is-that-tapping!? And then I realize what it is-and is it so wrong of me to be just a little bit sensitive to the sound of my 17-year-old daughter's toe ring tapping on the deck while we are trying to stalk fish? Perhaps it was something I said, but the next time I look to the bow of the skiff, my dear Lilly has stretched out on her back across the casting platform. Her fly rod lies askew across her torso. The fly line is overboard, and the fly drags across the flat snagging upon random detritus as I pole after her damn tarpon. She peers at me from beneath the lenses of her fashionable titanium sunglasses, and at the tail end of a yawn I hear the words, "Daddy, I'm not sure I can handle this waking up early thing." Now I sigh. I'm not sure that there is enough room in my heart for the love that I feel for her right now. Lilly has been away at school for nearly four years. Key West is a wonderful place to be an adult, but my wife and I did not feel that it was in Lilly's best interest to go to high school here; there were too many distractions. Ultimately, her long-distance schooling has been a very good decision in every respect except for the time that it has kept us apart and off the water. Until this day in the Marquesas, we had not fished together for more than a year and a half. Our last outing, however, had been memorable. Using the excuse that Lilly needed to work on her Spanish, we provisioned my beat up old houseboat Huck Finn for an epic journey across the Gulf Stream from Key West to Cuba. On this trip there were no close encounters with the US Coast Guard, no Cuban gunboats, no refugees fleeing the island. We did, however, get into a big school of skipjack tuna and had a marlin bite that stripped clean a 50-wide conventional trolling reel. Lilly caught her first bonefish on a fly in Cuba, a tribute to her fierce determination-and a school of about 10,000 fish. Still, it was a bonefish that made a lasting memory for her proud father. But ask Lilly about her lasting memory of Cuba and it will have nothing to do with fishing. Her most cherished thought will always be of our final evening in Havana when we were in a small audience for one of the last performances of 95-year-old Cuban musical legend Compay Segundo. Unlike her father, Lilly's life has not revolved around fishing. Lilly does, however, take great pleasure in the drama of fishing, and on the northwest corner of the Marquesas we get that drama in a captivating performance of comedy and tragedy. There is a muddy area in the water that indicates either bonefish feeding on the bottom or blacktip sharks feeding on the bonefish. Lilly is on her feet again, but blind casts into the mud produce no grabs. We fish across the area again, and then I sit down to re-rig the fly rod. But first, I have an idea. I skewer a dead jack on a big hook with wire, toss it out on a heavy spin outfit, and leave the rod in the cockpit, "just in case there is something big swimming by." Lilly chats with me while I tie knots. She talks about her college applications, her plans for spring break, a boyfriend… (!) I quickly change the subject and try to talk about something important-like lunch-but I cannot make the mental transition. (A boyfriend! She's only 17. She's not old enough to have a boyfriend!) And while I try to exorcize that thought from my mind, I hear the sound of fast-moving hardware and see the heavy spinning rod shoot off the deck of the skiff like a javelin. It is attached to "something big swimming by," and nothing else. The rod and reel is gone; it is lost forever, and I am drowning in a sea of humiliation. Surely my daughter can feel my pain? "Smooth move, Dad," she says with a yawn. "Now what?" It has been a full day. I am not certain I can take any more of this excitement. (Truth be known, I'm sulking a little bit.) "How about a walk on the beach," I ask? Reluctantly, Lilly agrees and we run to the other side of the Marquesas. Along the edge of Boca Grande channel, we watch an unusual flight of terns. Their numbers increase, and now the birds zero in on an area of flat water and begin diving. Up until this point, the channel was as calm as bath water, but now there are swirls and boils under the surface. Showers of majuga minnows are driven upward in the water column and become airborne. We continue watching as a full-blown blitz develops before our eyes. This is a common event elsewhere along the eastern seaboard, but it is extremely rare west of Key West. Now the swirls and boils become bodies of fish, and jack crevale tear across the surface attacking the bait. This horizontal assault by the jacks is countered by cero mackerel and Spanish mackerel launching vertically skyward. Some of the mackerel are jumping higher than the birds are flying. It is a remarkable sight. There is no yawning now aboard our skiff. Lilly is hooked up immediately to a jack the size of a permit on her seven-weight fly rod. The fish clears backing down to the reel arbor before I start up the engine and give chase. Now, this is fly-fishing! Forget about stalking pissy tarpon that don't let us get close enough, or permit that won't eat, or bonefish that aren't there. This is rap-your-knuckles, bend-the-rod-into-the-butt, immediate-gratification fly-fishing, and you don't have to be 17 years old to get a kick out of this. Forty-five minutes later, Lilly's jack crevale comes to the side of the boat, but she's not done. Nearly every cast she makes produces a strike. There is mackerel slime, jack poop, and regurgitated majuga minnows from one end of the skiff to the other. And from Lilly comes the ultimate compliment: "Thanks, Daddy. This is very cool." Very cool, indeed. My first 20 years fishing were spent making memories like these. It seems like the 20 years after that were spent trying to recreate them. And what of the next 20 years? I think I'll just quit counting and go fishing. Hopefully, more than a few of those days fishing will be spent with Lilly. Travel Notes Saltwater columnist Jeffrey Cardenas is no longer guiding in the Marquesas but his company, The Saltwater Angler, in Key West books a number of outstanding guides who fish there. Contact them at www.SaltwaterAngler.com or at 800-223-1629. Jeffrey can be reached by email at [email protected].