Zen and the art of Key West flats fishing

When I first started fishing in Florida in the mid-1990s, I’ll confess that I kept score: if I was trying to land a monster tarpon in Boca Grande Pass or hit a school of snook in the mangrove fringe in Charlotte Harbor and I didn’t succeed I was disappointed. Yes, I knew it was “fishing” and not “catching,” but I approached it more as a competitive sport than as a relaxing pastime.

Perhaps it’s the natural mellowing of age, but I’m more focused on the experience now, not the results—the delight of spending a day on the water has become enough. I’m thankful when I get a chance to escape and go fishing, and I find myself more observant of all that’s around me, now. Call it Zen and the art of flats fishing? By Zen, I mean the relaxed, meditative pursuit of enlightenment. (Which reminds me of that old joke: How many Zen masters does it take to change a light bulb? None. A master can only point the way…a light bulb must find the roots of change within itself.)

I had a chance to practice this mellower approach last week, when I went flats fishing in the shallow waters on the Gulf of Mexico side of Key West last week with my oldest son. I hoped to catch some bonefish (a species I hadn’t encountered before) or tarpon. Our good-natured fishing guide, the cigar-smoking Captain Lenny Leonard, took us to a series of shallow-water spots near the Mud Keys and Snipe Key, where we fished from his flats boat with spin rods.

Sharing the Zen

We found clear blue skies and the unrelenting southern Florida sun awaiting us as Leonard let his boat drift over the flats, where the water stands only two or three feet deep. For the first several hours we were alone—no sign of other boats or people in our line of sight, the landscape looking much as it must have when only the Calusa inhabited the Keys. We cast jigs and plugs, hooking (and releasing) a number of jack crevalle. The lingering shoulder bursitis that’s robbed my tennis serve of whatever power it once had has also forced me into casting side-arm instead of overhand—leaving my casts well short of my son’s (to his amusement).

There was much to contemplate. Around and above us, the birds: a bald eagle sitting proudly in a nest on a mangrove islet, the pelicans, herons, terns and gulls soaring and diving; in the water, an occasional jellyfish or small shark floating over the turtle grass bottom, and on the floor, loggerhead sponges.

We had no luck with the bonefish—their typical haunts along the mangrove fringes were barren of the Gray Ghost, perhaps because of the slightly cooler water temperature—but we finished with a flourish–my son caught a barracuda with light tackle, bringing the fish to the boat for a quick picture before releasing it. Then, back to Key West Bight, with a resolution to return to the flats (sooner rather than later), and the hope that the Babylonian proverb is true that the gods do not deduct from man’s allotted span the hours spent in fishing.

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
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