When we headed to sunny Florida on vacation last week, I packed more ambitiously than I had on a similar trip the year before. Added to the flip-flops and T-shirts, I also toted a fly rod and some saltwater flies, and planned to put them to good use.
The vacation rental was on the beach, you see. New Smyrna Beach, to be precise. You might have heard of it: It’s known as “The shark-bite capital of the world.” And the year before, I’d taken frequent walks down along the water, and chatted with plenty of anglers who were having a grand old time.
None, I noticed, were fly fishing. But that didn’t matter: I do most of my fishing with a fly nowadays. Back in Maine, it doesn’t matter if I’m on a pond or river or stream; a fly rod is likely in my hand. Florida? What could be different? I figured I’d give it a try.
And fly fish I did. Kind of.
For two days, as a steady 30 mph wind whipped in off the Atlantic, I waded into the frothy water, tried my best to cast while remaining upright, and hoped a stray fish might participate.
“You know, most people down here just use bait,” one of our party pointed out.
I knew. But I also knew that if the fish weren’t biting, I’d rather be casting a fly than staring at a surf-casting rod that I’d planted in the sand, waiting for action that might or might not come.
“I am a fly fisherman,” I said, in retrospect sounding quite pompous. “I’ll catch those fish on a fly.”
I was, it turned out, quite an oddity on that stretch of beach. I finally realized that one morning when I noticed that an entire construction crew had crept onto the rocks on the beach, and were watching me quite closely.
I’d like to think that this crew was impressed by the sheer power and grace of my casting. But I suspect that wasn’t the case. Instead, I now realize that they were likely waiting to see if the stupid tourist was going to get washed out to sea before a shark bit him, or after.
After two days of getting pummeled by waves and catching no fish, I sheepishly made an announcement.
“Um … I’ll be back in a bit,” I said. “I’m going to drive over to the … uh … bait shack.”
Yes, I gave up. Fly fishing wasn’t feasible, it seemed. So I did what I had said I’d never do: I threw myself at the mercy of Bait Man. and start using the large surf-casting rod that the owners of our rental left behind for their guests.
Bait Man had a storefront a half mile away, and he seemed an amiable, if ominous, sort. He told me what I needed to buy (sand fleas, as it turns out), and gave me a few tips.
“Pompano love ‘em,” he said. Then he paused and leaned closer, as if to pass along a dark secret.
“Of course, when you get a fish on, you’ll want to reel as fast as you can,” he continued. “Sharks love pompano. And if you don’t reel fast enough, you’ll end up with half a fish on your line. The shark will have the other half.”
Needless to say, I was a bit alarmed.
“So there are really sharks this far down the beach?” I asked. “I thought they were all up at Ponce Inlet.”
“Oh, no,” Bait Man told me. “They’re everywhere. Even in ankle deep water.”
Then he leaned forward to share another secret.
“I’ve got a guy who comes in here, flies planes that haul the advertising banners,” he said. “He told me if I ever saw what he sees flying over the beach, I’d never go back in the water again.”
Bait Man also told me about a man who’d taken eight stitches a week or so earlier after a bluefish mistook his wristwatch for a snack, and about another swimmer who’d lost his ring finger after a bluefish tried to munch on his wedding ring.
Then he sold me my sand fleas and wished me happy fishing.
And that’s what I did: I fished. Happily. (Carefully, but happily).
For a bit, family members watched as I cautiously waded into waist-deep water, threw my bait rig as far into the surf as I could, then scampered back to terra firma to plant my fishing rod in the sand.
After several hours of fish-free fishing, they stopped paying attention. I was left on my own, with only a couple of fishing buddies — snowy egrets looking for a sand flea or two — to keep me company.
And that’s when I finally hooked a fish.
As I grabbed the rod, I heard Bait Man’s voice: “Reel in as fast as you can … sharks love pompano.”
So I reeled. And reeled. After a few frantic waves toward our rental, which I hoped would attract the attention of my wife or one of my step-children, I realized I was on my own.
Eventually, the shiny pompano was at my feet. Luckily, no shark had followed it ashore.
After releasing it back into the water, I proudly walked up the stairs and shared the good news.
“I caught a fish!” I said. “A pompano!”
Skeptical — my family knows my track record — my wife asked me the question I knew she’d ask.
“So … where is it?”
It was, of course, back in the ocean. I had no photo. I had no proof.
All I had was another fish tale.
That, I figure, is better than nothing.
John Holyoke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke