Jun 30, 2016

He Who Exalts Himself

I have been fishing for as long as I can remember.  I don't mean to brag, but I consider myself pretty good at it -- at least for the species that populate our freshwater lakes in Wisconsin, Canada and the many other places I've fished.

If you've read my columns before, you know I often cite a Bible verse that has some bearing on the topic. This column's verse is found in both Matthew and Luke's Gospels: "He who exalts himself shall be humbled." I was recently humbled while fishing in Florida, and I thought I'd share the story to prevent the same from happening to you.

We arrived in Florida this past Holy Thursday and drove to a beautiful home along the Caloosahatchee River in Fort Myers that some dear friends own. I went to bed that evening in excited anticipation of fishing the river the next morning.

I walked down to the river at first light to get the lay of the land.  I had barely stepped on the dock when I saw a large school of silver fish in the 14 to 18 inch range.  They were everywhere and were obviously spawning.  I thought, "This is going to be a piece of cake."

So I drove to the government tag store and bought my license. Then I headed straight to a bait shop to buy some frozen shrimp from a southern guy named Bob.  Bob and I would get to know each other pretty well over the next week, and the best way I can describe him is that he was like 10 miles of really rough road.

I returned to the dock, rigged up a simple jig and attached a shrimp.  I just knew we would be eating whatever the heck those spawning fish were for dinner.  In fact, I promised my wife just that. So I fished, and fished, and fished -- but didn't catch ANY of the countless fish swimming just feet away.  I removed the shrimp and tried a spinner bait.  Still no fish. Then I tried crankbaits, and spoons, and topwater lures and everything else I had.  Still no fish. This was humbling experience number one.

So I went back to the bait shop to ask Bob how to catch the fish I'd seen.  After I described them he said, as only a southern boy can, "You ain't from around here, are you, boy?"  I said, "No, sir, I'm not. How could you tell?" He replied, "Well, first of all, you talk funny.  And second, those are striped mullet, and everyone, except apparently you, knows that the only way you catch mullet is with a cast net.  They only eat plankton, not shrimp." This was humbling experience number two. 

He then said, "Why don't you fish for sheepshead? They're plentiful on the Caloosahatchee, and I'd bet even a Yankee could catch some." Apparently Bob was still ticked off about the Civil War. But I didn't want to pick a fight with him, so I acquiesced and asked what sheepshead in Florida are like to eat.  He told me that most guys use shrimp and fiddler crabs.  Since I already had shrimp, I asked for three dozen fiddler crabs.

He looked at me with that, "This guy is REALLY dumb look" and asked what I planned to put them in.  I assumed he'd hand me a bag of frozen crabs since, on my previous stop, he’d handed me a bag of frozen shrimp.  Wrong: He informed me that these little critters were alive and although I could probably carry three or four out in my pocket, I might want to buy an overpriced bucket from him to carry the rest.

So I went back to the dock with my bucket of fiddler crabs and followed Bob's advice to jig along the dock -- since southern sheepshead like to eat the barnacles that attach themselves to the pilings.  So I started jigging and immediately started getting hits.  I lost the first fiddler crab, and the second, and the third, and eventually the 36th. This was humbling experience number three.

So I went back to see Bob and told him what happened.  Since I was now becoming more interested in picking a fight, I said, "Bob, I may be a Yankee, but everyone knows that normal humans don't eat sheepshead.  For the life of me, I can't figure out why I'm even back here talking to you, and will probably get fleeced again by buying more of your overpriced bait and tackle to fish for something that Wisconsin sea gulls won't even eat."

Bob replied in that drawl of his, "Son, you might want to buy this here book that tells you a little about what you're fishing for.  In fact, if you'd bought it the first time you came in here, you might have caught at least ONE fish by now. I've often wondered if southern fish are really smart, or northern fishermen are really dumb.  I think I now know the answer." This was humbling experience number four.  I told Bob he should read Dale Carnegie's book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”

So I bought the damn book called “Sport Fish of Florida,” and three dozen more fiddler crabs, and went back to the house to read up on mullet, sheepshead and other saltwater fish I knew nothing about. 

I learned that saltwater sheepshead are nothing like our Winnebago sheepshead.  They are in what's called the Porgy family and are one of the best eating fish around -- thanks to their shellfish diet.  They are also known by two other names. The first is convict fish, presumably because they are adorned with black and white stripes that look like a convict’s garb.  Probably similar to the clothing I'm guessing Bob wore at some point in his rotten life. The second alias is bait-stealer. This came as no surprise, as they'd already stolen 36 of MY fiddler crabs.

So I went back down to the dock to give it another shot.  For the first time in my life, I was determined to catch at least one sheepshead -- although of the supposedly good-eating saltwater variety.  I lost one fiddler crab, then two, then 12 and then, finally, I hooked one of those little buggers and after an awesome fight, I landed him.

I was so proud of my little Yankee self that I texted the picture of my prized catch to a whole bunch of my Badger Sportsman friends.  One of them, Chris Golem texted back, "So why are you holding it like a girl?"  This was humbling experience number five. First, I had to deal with crazy Bob challenging my manhood and now it's one of my own fishing buddies.

But then I redeemed myself and texted a picture of the teeth that all sheepshead sport.  One of my friends said, "I was wondering what happened to my Uncle Joe, who disappeared years ago. He must have fallen into the river and turned into a fish.  Seriously, it looks just like him."

So the moral of the story is this: When fishing in strange waters, for strange fish, you might just want to make a friend named Bob at the nearest bait shop. Don't assume that just because you can catch freshwater fish you can catch saltwater fish.  Buy Bob's damn book and overpriced bait and ask him a zillion questions before you drop the first shrimp or fiddler crab in the water.

By the way, we did not enjoy a fish dinner that night.

Humbling experience number six.