Sporting Life, Waterways // 5 min Read


Written by David Sewell

Jun 11, 2021

It’s the end of the world as we know it… and I don’t feel fine.

December 31, 1999. The world stands on the precipice of the much-hyped Y2K millennial shift. I, however, stand on the bow of a flats skiff staked out on a channel pass in Belize waiting for one of the most elusive fish on the planet. I imagine the intensity to be akin to hunting German U-boats in the Caribbean during World War II. My expectant wife sat in the jump seat eating delicious peanut butter cookies. How we got here is a long and winding story that started in Montana. The guide stands disinterested on the poling platform staring into the azure middle ground. Time inches by painfully slow.

“Feesh . . .
“There . . .”
“Where exactly is there?”
“11 o’clock coming toward you . . .”

(Could we have not just started with the clock hand designation?)

The “feesh” were a pair of large permit cruising through the channel. The sickle rapier of a dorsal fin and an all-knowing eye that resembles the moon. Multiple years, flight transfers, and boat rides had brought us to this moment in time. I held the crab fly between my thumb and forefinger feeling the punch of the hook tip. Some epoxy, deer hair, silly- looking bead eyes, and crazy legs were going to fool this thing into eating? Apparently, the imitation of life. All I had to do was make the cast as they slid into range. So very simple in theory. Like lassoing a submarine.

“Cast, NOW.”

False cast, set up the double haul, feel the rod load, the leader unfurls behind, apply the power, drop the line hand, shoot the line, and . . .

What happened next still remains one of the greater mysteries of my life. I did not see the crab gently touch down as anticipated in 2 feet of clear water 3 feet ahead of the lead permit. I, instead, felt the crab find purchase in the small of my back in my expensive fishing shirt as I completely blew the cast. The “feesh” didn’t care; they glided by in a phantom-like suspension, and I think one rolled his or her eye up at me. I looked at the guide. He looked away and simply said, “beeg feeshes.”

“What now?” I asked.

“Nothing, they leave. Now we leave.”

Blame it on the wind, blame it on a myriad of things. I simply screwed up the cast. And, I am okay with that.

Peanut butter cookie? We caught multiple permit the next day, but not on a fly rod. Not quite the same, and they weren’t big “feeshes” like these behemoths.

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Just as with water fowling, I can offer no true advice except to maybe not take up the sport of fly-fishing, with the exception that it will probably lead you to some great people to spend time with on a boat or wading in a stream or saltwater flat, either in your own backyard or the far reaches of the world.

Fly-fishing is an equally awful obsession as water fowling. All the pretty colors of fly lines, gaudy saltwater and bass flies, subtle trout flies, shimmery graphite rods, the sheer artistry of bamboo fly rods, unimaginable colors of trout and tropical species, mid-Atlantic false albacore, local redfish, and backyard bass and bream. The sunrises and sunsets, the pastel and gray skies, the endless big skies, calm water, tepid flats, and angry inlets. Salt spray, humidity, wind, heat, rain, cold, and more wind. Insects, snakes, windburn, sunburn, chapped lips, cramped hands, fatigue . . . it’s all there. Road trips and trailering boats, blown transmissions, clutches and trailer bearings.

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I grew up fishing the way I imagine most young boys raised in the South did: a bamboo rod in the form of a cane pole, a piece of 20-pound test monofilament, cork, worms, and crickets to fool the sunfish that lurked in the shadows of boat houses and tree branches. That tackle collectively may have cost $3. Then, the bream lost favor to the bass that inhabited the same waters. Field & Stream magazines filled my head with all sorts of things that I thought I both wanted and needed. Slowly, catching fish on worms, crickets, bread, hot dogs, and dog food paled in comparison to all sorts of tempting artificial and plastic lures. I could ride my bike to catch these fish with my friends. People to the feesh.

Soon, the seductive action of topwater fishing would become a lifelong obsession and would lead into the dark underworld of fly-fishing. It’s visual and audible and savage and subtle. The strike leads to a spray of water, an audible slurp, and sometimes a heavily hooked lure hurtling back toward you at an unexpected high velocity. Then, there is the hookset, jump, tail walk, color display, drag sing of the reel, head and shoulder shake, final surge, wallow, and submission into the net or hand. Then the release if you so choose. And I, for the most part, do.

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However, one of my earliest memories of fishing involved a glorious fall weekend at Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. The bluefish “were in” as they say, and my father had us in the right place. Two heavy surf rods—one baited, the other armed with a hammered silver Hopkins plug—brought what seemed like a hundred bluefish to the beach, which I was then instructed to bury in the sand to keep cool and fresh. I grew tired of reeling fish and resorted to simply running backwards up the beach, in essence extracting the fish from the water. We put them in buckets and rolled newspaper and dragged them back to a Volkswagen Bug. Then, seemingly hours of cleaning and burying guts in the garden, then baked bluefish, hushpuppies, slaw, and grits for a week. However, what I still recall most vividly about that experience is not the quantity of fish in hand but the sight of hundreds, if not thousands, of fish chasing bait and free jumping. Each time a wave crested, the water turned into a shimmering mass of silvers, greens, and blues, of fins and scales. Fish intend on only one thing: eating to the point of gluttony and completing the circle of life as they migrate down the coastline. And the resultant frenzy of birds marking every school. And the sound of predator and prey locked in combat. I see it still; it will never leave me.

There is a hotel now at the site where we stood so many years ago—reddened from October sun and wind, exhausted from dragging bluefish across high dunes that I wish I could now attack on a motorcycle. No one was wearing any specific technical fishing clothes that breathed or provided UPF protection. My dad was wearing khaki pants, an oxford cloth shirt, a windbreaker, and canvas tennis shoes with holes cut in them for drainage. I was wearing Toughskin jeans and a Washington Redskins sweatshirt. Once sufficiently wet, that outfit translated into a chafe-inducing suit of armor. It was a simpler time. There wasn’t another person in sight. But I was with my favorite person.

Then, during college, came the job in an outdoor retail store that sold fly rods and a friendship with a true duckaholic and fly-fishing master. I eyed the graphite offerings daily, sold them to other unsuspecting fools, then finally gave in. That first fly rod led me to Piedmont North Carolina bass and bream and Western North Carolina trout. I foolishly traded it like I have done so many times with guns and now want it back.

Then “the movie” arrived and suddenly everyone wanted to be Brad Pitt and fish in Montana. Since I find myself equally as handsome as Mr. Pitt, there was no envy there, but I did want to experience Montana. Somehow—and I still am not sure how this transpired—I managed to marry extremely well and then dupe her into a honeymoon in Montana. On day three of that trip, we met one of the most special people of our lives. Luck and fate had led us to a friendship that has spanned decades and generations. We returned for several years and had the greatest of times: I witnessed my bride dive into a frigid alpine lake to retrieve a drift boat that slipped out of the collective grasp of a world-class guide and less-than-semi-competent angler (me). Our yearly trips were suspended by 9/11, work, life, and raising children, but years later, we found ourselves sitting on the porch of his home with his children, our children, and another guide we met on our honeymoon.

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The funny thing is, I really don’t remember the fish now, but I remember lunch on the spring creek, the photograph that sits on our bathroom counter to this day, the wine, the strawberry chicken salad, the chocolate chip cookies, and the tea with milk. I remember the teal that flew up the spring creek, the geese that winged over Paradise Valley, wandering into an art gallery in downtown Livingston, helping the artist set up for a sidewalk art show, and the artist giving two newlyweds a couple of lithographs. (I knew who the artist was and am still somewhat star-struck by that occurrence.) I remember the cheeseburgers at The Sport and the gazpacho at Livingston Bar and Grille. All because of the feesh and the people.

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Those days and relationships fostered in Montana led us to Belize on the cusp of a new century. We have also been fortunate to fish with other really good guides (one in particular in southeastern North Carolina) who have become friends. I always come back to the experience rather than the take—the conversations, the musings, the complaining, the food, and the hope with a new tide. Sometimes you forget the fish entirely. You get to step on a boat or into a stream or flat and step away from everything else.

I have been fortunate enough to experience a fair number of fish successfully on a fly rod, from saltwater flats species to trout, bass, local redfish, and the humble bream. They are all different and all the same: the colors, the feel, the smell. We are fortunate that we can experience really great fly-fishing right here in our collective backyards—either saltwater or fresh. I will offer no tackle, knot, boat, or casting advice other than to choose wisely, whether it be a cane pole, a graphite fly rod, or a $3,000 bamboo fly rod. The feesh won’t care. But more importantly, choose your feesh people well. •

Read the original story in the Spring / Summer edition of the bluff.