“Mama, I’m freezin’ (mama, I’m freezin’), I wanna go to the su-un (to the sun)
These icy winter breezes (winter breezes) are chillin’ all my fun (all my fun)”. Yes, Village People. F’ing yes!
When I was doing what I could in high school to fit in and attract “babes”, I was expected by my friends, my family, the entire town, and those babes to participate in every sport our dirt poor little school could support. I loved most of those sports and still do. The training, the excitement, and the comradery elevated my youth and for the most part, kept me out of trouble. But there was one extracurricular I was never built for. Running track.
Sprinting and jumping and hurdling, never placing in a single event. Track meet after miserable god damn track meet. To make matters worse, something deep inside me came up before every mile relay or awkward triple jump attempt. It was an overwhelmingly potent dose of nerves. And what ultimately, physically came up was my breakfast. Every. Single. Time.
Anyone who knows me at all also knows I’m one of those rare cool cats who pukes his guts up regularly and violently, sometimes even in public. Illness and booze, oh, and spinning carnival rides all do the trick. But with track and field, there was no reason for me to have butterflies. And certainly no reason to throw up after every race like a grass eating dog. I knew damn good and well there was no podium in my future so why the nerves?
I was once forced to run the two mile as a “jackrabbit” which meant it was my job to run a crazy fast first lap to trick the opposition into believing this would be my pace for all eight laps. This would smartly let my teammates maintain a normal first lap pace while gassing the rest of the field. Being a sacrifice felt slightly noble to my weak fourteen year old mind, so smiling slyly at the starting line, I crushed a 57 second first quarter mile outpacing the crap out of the field, then gasping for thin dusty west Texas air I pulled the reins hard while everyone glided past me, one by one.
At the pace of a shopping mall speed walker, I casually jogged the rest of the race as every other runner lapped me not once, but twice. As one foot fell in front of the other under the buzzing vapor lights, a storm moved in about midway through the race with 30 knot winds peppered with snow flakes that pelted my hairless cheeks like tiny ninja throwing stars. The mercury hovered around freezing without the wind chill factor (always present in the Texas Panhandle) so a teammate who had long ago finished the race (and was likely “lacking” on babes), felt sorry for me and grabbed my ridiculous three foot long stocking cap on one of my trips past the grandstands, handed it to me, and I pulled it on tight.
Other races needed to be run while I was slogging around the track, so the organizers requested I continue my final laps in the outside lane until I was finished (making my race even longer I immediately realized). Every time I passed the stands I’d raise my arms in triumph as if I were a track hero coming off an airplane from winning the Olympics in Greece. The few die hard parents waiting for their kids to run other events cheered me on until I finished that glorious eighth lap. Immediately I stumbled over to the nearest trash can and blew chunks which mingled seamlessly with the piles of discarded and now frozen Frito pie remains. Needless to say, with my puke breath and sweaty hormone musk, the bus ride home didn’t see me sitting next to any babes.
The reason I’m relating this piece of cruel adolescent history is to make sense of the anxiousness experienced the first time I went flats fishing in the Florida Keys. Before even stepping on the airplane in Denver I become a slave to my own grandiosity, self-doubt, panic, and ego. My day on the water was scheduled for the last full day of the trip, and I tried to enjoy the preceding days doing touristy things, enjoying the happiness of my children in the warm Florida surf, and not fretting about my strip set. I’d caught plenty of carp before, so what the hell was I so worried about?
The night before embarking into the calm ocean, I tried to explain to my wife over half a bottle of incredibly delicious Florida distilled rum what I was going through mentally. She brought it to my attention that my own ambitious goals (and money) on the line were antagonizing me, and I was putting far too much pressure on myself. Squeezing in a day of fishing on a family trip had me experiencing guilt in the first place, but in my mind, catching a gamefish in saltwater was now or never. The self-inflicted pressure of bringing to hand a bonefish, tarpon, permit, barracuda, or redfish on the fly with only a handful of hours to do so had me on a razor’s edge. The family could feel it.
First of all, social media displays dream fish on my feed so relentlessly that I have to believe every fish in the world has at one point had a hook in its face, so I assumed I’d at least land around twenty bonefish and a tarpon or two. But not being completely ignorant and also being myself a posting whore of only the great moments of my own life, it was assumed there could be disappointment hidden in the internet’s dark corners.
There is a certain level of honesty I keep with myself so the world can seem a little less disappointing. It was January, and there wasn’t a good report for the Keys in January of any year according to my friends at the Internet. But it also didn’t say catching fish was impossible, and I consider myself an underdog, and a decent fisherman, so I took the time of year out of the equation mentally. The wind had been gusty in the days leading up to my outing, but the tendonitis in my casting elbow felt almost nonexistent, so I took thrusting impossibly long casts into the ocean wind off my list of worries as well. What was it I couldn’t shake then? Was it that I’d eaten four pieces of Key Lime Pie the day before and might shit limey cream cheese all over a stranger’s boat deck? Nope. (although I should have worried about that in hindsight) No, the culprits of my angst were my old friends Inexperience and Time. Neither of which I could do a damn thing about.
That morning, I woke up early, and walked halfway across the island staring at the flats, full of anticipation and my old friend, nerves. I noted a small barracuda just off the sea wall across from McDonalds and my hopes rose. My guide was a very nice guy who I should have tried to get to know a little more, but I was oddly unfriendly, almost socially inept. Looking back now, he must have noticed how anxious I was. I forced questions like, “how long have you been guiding down here?”, and I forced statements like, “If I’m doing something stupid, please yell at me”. That was my idea of keeping it light. Other than that, I didn’t want to chat. Or throw up. We were on the clock and my eyes and brain were beyond ready to make that first cast, which didn’t come well until after noon.
There were a few shots at big barracuda late in the afternoon, and a lemon shark followed my streamer all the way to the boat, but we didn’t see any other fish to really cast to. That day on his boat made me realize how easy trout fishing actually is. The ocean in its vastness can spread fish for thousands of square miles, while in a river, they are between the banks with few places to hide. It made trout fishing immediately seem easy, which scared me a little bit. The world holds trout in such high regard, yet here I was staring at an endless body of water where one had to search for hours just to see a fish, while mountain fishing clubs can buy trout to stock their section of private water with, knowing they will be there for their clients in the morning. There is no stocking the Keys with bones. Which is why I tipped my guide well. It all seemed impossible.
My other realization was that I have become an okay trout fisherman because I’ve put in the work. You must put in the work. As Wendell Barry says “good work is our salvation and joy.” After getting windblown, cold, and wet, with the same amount of fish netted as babes on my high school bus rides, I stepped off the skiff and back into the reality, still puzzled by the endless ocean.
The reality being that if I wanted to ever catch fish in salt water I’d have to put in the work. Learn the fishery. Understand tides and temperatures, get sunburned, spend the money, and in a sadistic way, practice happiness. I thought back on the many fruitless outings when first taking up trout fishing and how many times I struck out. But also remembering being absolutely happy. Happy to be in beautiful unfamiliar surroundings, watching, and learning. It seems I’d forgotten those days, yet had I reflected on the lessons learned long ago on those beautiful trout streams before my Key West trip, the Fishing Gods may have smiled on me and my willingness to fail, happily.