Just another walk on the beach
My primary tactic for snook in South Florida revolves around what my friend, Bear, calls “people avoidance.” It’s become a mantra that leads us toward, through, and past things—not only what river-section to float or campsite to choose, but when to pick up or set down certain hobbies, learn new ones, or abandon old ones entirely. It can sometimes be easy to forget about the people variable. But then you whip into a beach parking lot and find the lot full of minivans and the beach crawling with unrepentant shoobies.
Tom McGuane wrote, “I look for two things mostly, trout and solitude, in that order.” It’s an acceptable policy, assuming the latter isn’t a requirement of the former. In my experience it often is. And even if it isn’t, I’d still rather stand in the middle of a dusty field by myself than do anything involving a crowd. So I bomb out of the parking lot, rear tires spitting bleached-shell gravel, tip of a strung-up eight-weight wagging out the back of the borrowed convertible.
I rarely have to worry about other fishermen. The beach fish aren’t typically large or particularly dense, and definitely not easy, even when it’s good. It’s a bit like hunting bonefish— a more solitary, more spooky, more moody, all around less accommodating target. Sometimes things come together, like one magical evening at low tide when the dapple of baitfish and wakes of hunting snook broke the glassy, sunset-stained surface as far up and down the empty beach as I could see. I quit when I ran out of tippet and light, and walked back up the beach in a cloud of no-see-ums wondering how I could possibly be the only one out fishing. But that was an exception; most of the time it sucks—which is the saving grace of any modern fishery.
A few hundred yards down a passably quiet beach I come across an older guy putzing along just off shore in a weathered Carolina Skiff. I believe he was looking for bait, but either he wasn’t finding any or wasn’t real interested in it, because when he saw that I was a fisherman he turned toward the beach to say hello. In South Florida it’s so rare to run into somebody who’s actually from there, that when you do, the distinctive accent rings foreign. It sounds almost Cajun, a half-beat quicker than a syrupy Georgian drawl, only with something else around the edges—some symbol of the culture that’s been bleached out by tasteless Americana. If, as they say, the world is an oyster, then the born-and-bred gladesman is a splash of Tabasco, and the suburban sprawl, chain restaurants, and golf courses are the cheap white napkin sitting beside the plate.
I’m not thinking about any of that as I’m standing on the beach listening to the guy in his skiff. Instead, I’m balancing between amusement and disgust as the guy, with the directness typical of old fishermen, delivers an improvised op-ed about the state’s fisheries management, its willful subservience to corporate interests, and the insincerity with which it manages the crown jewels of its tourism economy—estuaries, beaches, and nearshore waters. It’s a diatribe I’m familiar with, knowing the risks Michigan has taken with its freshwater resources, and from watching the Northwest’s salmon fisheries spiral down the shitter as its communities erect statues of the fish they’ve neglected to death. I try to tell the guy as much, but when he takes a breath and I begin to speak, I can tell from his face that the last thing he needs is the added weight of someone else’s problems. So I let him unload: about sugar-cane subsidies, land developers, the closed redfish and trout seasons, and the ignorance of the general public. Mostly he talks about what South Florida used to be like before it was diked, drained, filled in, and made to look like just another vinyl-sided, landscaped American suburb.
It’s a lot to consider as I continue down the beach, clear water against my ankles and the wash of a light chop rolling bits of shells over rippled sand bottom. I’ve been a few places and found that people are all mostly the same, so it’s not really a surprise that their problems are as well. The strangling grip at the neck of wild and beautiful places is not from hands that can be relaxed; it’s the jaws of a pit bull, a zip tie. Every tightening is permanent, and cannot be undone without killing the dog or cutting the tie. Are we willing to kill what we have for a shot at what might be? Probably not. And it’s not up to me anyway. So I simply keep walking, barefoot, with the sun at my back, scanning for a ghost-like fish, a wraith of illusionary scales and shadow, sliding beneath the waves.
NICK PRICE is a flyfishing guide living in Hailey, Idaho, with his wife and two sons. His photos have appeared in many flyfishing publications.