A Guiding Memoir

A Guiding Memoir

A portrait of the retired guide as a young man

I am in my skiff at sunset, skimming over the flats where two decades of memories were made during a period of my life when I was a Florida Keys fishing guide. With this final charter completed, I am due to return the skiff to the boat manufacturer who has provided this magnificent ride for the past 20 years. I'm taking the long way home. This is a moment of pride and accomplishment, but it is not without a passing stab of regret. Guiding the flats of the Florida Keys is a young person's game.It takes the abilities of a professional athlete to do this job at its highest levels. While many of us who are pushing 50 years old would like to think that we still have the strength, balance and endurance of a 20-year-old, the reality is that there is no stopping the clock. Running the skiff over glassy water has always been one of my most productive venues for contemplative thought. On this day in particular the memories flow like a flood tide. Key West was still a little rough around the edges in the early 1980's. Drug smuggling was rampant. It was not uncommon to see bales of marijuana floating onto the flats with tailing bonefish and rolling tarpon. Skiff captains would sometimes return to the dock with their limit in square grouper. My wife, Ginny, was a busy prosecuting attorney earning $18,000 a year. Her salary was a bonanza for us. It allowed me to begin "living the dream," as kids now like to say. I became a non-income producing college-educated fishing guide without a clue. It was the smartest thing I had ever done. Tourism in Key West had not yet boomed and fishing clients were hard to come by. I thought if I started my day early and fished late into the evening that the extended hours would make up for my lack of experience. This did not sit well with the established guiding community. On my first day at the guide docks of the city marina I was welcomed into the club with a punch to the face that sent me cartwheeling into the water. My anglers that day had inadvertently parked in another guide's unmarked parking spot, and that apparently made the other guide angry. I emerged from the water with a closed eye, a bloody nose and an extended hand to my bewildered clients. "Welcome to Key West," I said. "I'm your captain." It got worse before it got better. Another established guide resented the fact that I was "fishing his fish in his water" because I made early morning runs to the Marquesas. I thought that since the tarpon were nocturnal feeders the fishing would be better at daybreak. Most of the other guides were starting at eight or nine in the morning; I was fishing at 5:30 am. The outcome was an explosive and ugly incident on the water, in front of clients, that resulted in a permanent court-mandated restraining order intended to keep us a quarter of a mile apart at all times. Writer Jim Harrison sent me a note afterward saying, "It's life imitating art," referencing Tom McGuane's Florida Keys fishing-guide saga, Ninety-Two in the Shade, and he advised keeping the firearms holstered. There were also some glorious moments during those early days. I established a deep friendship with John Cole, who acted as my client-mentor. He did not have the money to book a guide and I did not have many clients who wanted to pay me to take them fishing. It was a match made in heaven. When the fishing was slow John would sometimes bellow out from the bow of the boat, "Jeffrey, Jesus Christ, what are you doing back there, [nodding] off? Find some [freaking] fish!" He could be difficult, but I loved him. My apprenticeship with John lasted until a few months ago when, with his family, we dropped his ashes into the water off the Montauk lighthouse. It was in part because of his advocacy for the conservation of striped bass that the fishing at Montauk has returned to epic levels. As his remains swirled under the lighthouse I remembered hearing him, just a year earlier in this same spot, say to the stripers that were rejecting his flies, "[Freaking] bass, eat it. You guys owe me." During those early years in the Florida Keys, fly-fishing was still an aberration. I clearly remember the decisive moment when I made the transition from spinning rod to fly rod. I had been casting with spin tackle to rolling tarpon using a MirrOlure plug armed with three sets of treble hooks. I was sharing the bow of the skiff with my loyal buddy, Mango, a golden retriever. A big tarpon, well over 100 pounds, took the plug at the side of the boat and came out of the water in a magnificent, head-shaking jump at eye level. The next thing I saw was a blur of yellow; Mango was leaping off the bow to retrieve the tarpon. He landed squarely on the fish and was impaled by the trailing treble hooks. The other set of hooks were still attached to the tarpon. Together, dog and fish vanished underwater connected to one another like Siamese twins. My spinning rod bent double and I stood frozen in terror on the deck. Do I break the line and risk having the tarpon swim away with my dog? Do I dive in after them? Do I try to land them both? After a few long moments, I watched a dull yellow glow rise up from the depths. Mango had torn free of the treble hooks. And he was pissed. After that, I rarely fished with plugs and spinning rods. And Mango--he'd run for cover every time he saw me open the door to my tackle closet. I learned much about being a Florida Keys guide by fishing on drift boats in Montana. Twenty years ago there was not much summer business in the Keys once the tarpon migration ended, so I would climb into my Volkswagen van and head west for several months of trout fishing. If the season had been a good one I'd have a few bucks to hire my own guides. With my money at stake I tended to be hyper-critical of the guides' performance. What I discovered was a surprisingly high level of customer service. The guides didn't berate an angler for a lousy cast; they offered encouragement and practiced a catch-and-release ethic that was foreign to some saltwater anglers. The trout guides even provided lunch. What a revelation! Eventually, those same trout bums I spent the summers with in Montana became some of the best Florida Keys fishing guides. They would migrate to the Keys in the winter, fish through the tarpon season, and then be back in their Rocky Mountain watersheds by mid summer. The highs for me during those years of guiding were euphoric. I remember the first time I held a 150-pound tarpon in shallow water, walking it back to life after an angler had yanked on it for three and a half hours. I lived for those pre-dawn runs to the Marquesas, twisting and winding around the flats and the islands in a complete blackout with only the stars to guide me. One year, I logged 350 days of fishing in the Marquesas. I just couldn't get enough of it. I remember being asked, because I was a Florida Keys fishing guide, to speak to the students at the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire about my "alternative lifestyle." Outside, the cobblestones on the school walkways were icy and the temperatures below zero, but inside the chapel at Exeter, accompanied by the glorious background music of Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring," I spoke of hammerhead sharks and frigate birds, of tropical coral reefs and tailing bonefish on miles of pristine sugar sand. I saw in the eyes of those kids that however alternative my lifestyle might be, it was one that also was truly privileged. I am often asked if I have seen the fishing change in the Keys over the past two decades. The fish have been resilient. There are as many tarpon, bonefish and permit as ever on the flats west of Key West. But there are also many more guides now than ever, too. Because guides in the Keys do not work under an outfitter's license as they do on many trout streams, all it takes for anybody to become a saltwater fishing guide is a captain's license, a drug test and a course in CPR. No apprenticeship is required. There is no obligation to learn customer service or courtesy on the water. A fishing guide does not even have to know how to fish. During tarpon season in the Keys, there are 10 times as many anglers who want to go fishing as there are guides available to take them. And while most guides have paid their dues and are seasoned pros, others are instant fishing guides--just add water and they think they're good to go. My biggest regret in these years? It would have to be writing about the Marquesas, and in particular a secluded corner of the atoll I called the Green Room. It was here in this rare and beautiful corner of the Key West National Wildlife Refuge that I had some of my happiest moments, alone and with clients. It was a special place that required an angler to tread very softly, and often, not at all. Now, the narrow entrance to this mangrove enclave is ravaged with propeller scars. Twenty-foot flats boats with 175 hp engines roar through the narrow channels. The baby tarpon have fled. The bird rookery is disintegrating. Fishing is about discovery, and some discoveries, I have learned, are best left unspoken. I have these final words to write about the Green Room: Memo to the Feds: All it would take to restore this rare estuary is to post it as a No Motor Zone. Make it difficult to access. Those who are in a hurry will not bother to make the effort. Those who have a true appreciation of wild places will. In a wildlife refuge, after all, the priority should be given to the wildlife and not the users. My finest moments as a guide through these many years were not the tournament victories or the TV shows or the world-record fish. They were instead those moments I spent with the people who asked me to take them fishing. There is an intimacy to a 17-foot flats skiff that gives a guide the opportunity to briefly walk in the world of his clients. For me, those clients were rocks stars and blue-collar workers. They were everyday people affected by personal tragedy and triumph. They were magnificent fly casters and hopeless duffers. Among my clients were other professional athletes. I fished extensively with one who was no longer competitive in his sport because, at age 64, his body had begun to fail him. I remember watching him, discouraged, at the end of a major, nationally televised sporting event. He had been at the pinnacle of his sport for decades, but now he said it was time for him to leave the game. And what's next, asked the interviewer? "I'm going fishing," he said. He was my last client. So what's next for this over-the-hill fishing guide? I think I'll call up that former client, the one who spent tens of thousands of dollars to have me take him fishing. It will be interesting to see if we can still catch fish without any money changing hands.