How dare you | The Adventures of the Saltwater Cowboy

I watched George as he sat across from me, his elbows on my office desk, his weathered face lined with a thick white mustache, twisted in thought as he made his mark. When he finished, he got up, handed me the painting and said, “Here, Bo.” South Florida native cracker, he said, “snuke”, instead of “snook”, more like “nuke” than “book”.

You see, George Smith was one of the greatest sportsmen I ever knew. His list of accolades is too long for a short story, with the invention of the willow leaf spinnerbait being among the least impressive. For George, sharing this knowledge with me was huge.

Many years later, I understand that this painting is one of the most beautiful gifts I have ever received. I still have it somewhere, with a slate turkey call with a wooden striker attached that he gave me. The marks George made were like pieces of a life-size jigsaw puzzle. Each place I learned made the picture a little clearer. Those were my directions for the 10,000 islands.

I studied it, memorized routes and landmarks – everything is downloaded into my head. Armed with the Golden Scroll tucked under my leg, referencing it along the way as a “slide rule” version of the modern GPS map, I ventured out. When GPS mapping systems became standard equipment, I found that I barely used them. Since then, I’ve used technology to expand my knowledge, but I’m learning the land.

Anyone with a lean water vessel can follow a GPS track anywhere. That would take a bit of the fun out of me. There is nothing more serene for me than to move freely through this maze of mangroves without having to think about which direction to take. Negotiating hidden chipper oyster bars at high tide and dodging hazards at every turn by memory, not glued to a screen, is liberating. I tell people they will never learn the area until they turn this thing off – part of the time.

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There are several thousand acres left to learn…I don’t know if anyone can learn all 10,000 islands. But the small passages here and there that are still a little uncomfortable, I make it a point to travel as much as possible, adding another piece to the puzzle. I’ll try to find my way, and if I turn around – a slightly lesser version of being lost – I’ll refer to the GPS. Well, my GPS hasn’t worked for about eight months… I didn’t worry too much about it. If I ever need to know my location, I use my phone. This finally sets the stage for what happened a few weeks ago in what ended up being the Dismal River.

This instance was particularly confusing in its simplicity, just a slightly different route from point A to point B than usual. Once you start questioning your location, things get disorienting; perception is distorted – depth expands and contracts, and time is distorted. Soon the only way to know where the path is is to follow the bubbles, a fail-safe for SCUBA divers. However, I knew that I knew where I was. I didn’t know that yet. My position was on the tip of my tongue like the lyrics of a song you can’t think of the title. So I kept driving, looking for my bearings. After a good try, I backed up to idle in a wide body of water – a river. I took out my phone and pinpointed my location. I looked left and right, then behind me…I’m going to be dang. I knew it! In an instant, my bearings returned to the Dismal River. In this dizzying state, I had traveled twice the distance it seemed to me.

Suddenly I heard a ship approaching from behind and moving rapidly. I made sure I wasn’t in any blind spots and was safely on the right side near the entrance to a small bay that had a mudflat at the mouth. Suddenly the boat was on top of me, passing too close to my starboard side. As they passed came a muffled scream through a neckerchief. I didn’t understand what the operator said, but I didn’t need to. I heard the arrogance and sarcasm rise and fall in the wind and the sound of our outboard motors as it sped by, a fly fishing guide outfitted in all the latest clothing in camouflage d assorted salt water. I can always spot the guides. They will look a bit different from everyone else on board, in this case just the one passenger, appearing slightly out of place.

The comment had something to do with me looking at my phone; Put down your phone, you idiot, watch what you’re doingsomething like that. As if I was among the hordes of personal watercraft that launched an amphibious assault on Marco Island with reckless abandon and nonexistent marine courtesies. This topic deserves its own story.

I looked around to see who he was talking to. There was no one else. “I know he’s not talking to me…he mustn’t know who he’s talking to.” This is MY Point Break.The Hell’s Bay Luxury Poling Skiff settled in its wake well inside the bay, presumably in search of rockfish. “Someone should tell him,” I thought as I followed him, leaving an ugly wake.

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I wasn’t on Instagram, or FaceBook, or TicTac, or Slipchat. What if I was? How about I text my high school girlfriend, who I met at the Marriott the weekend before, reminding me of things only first loves can do? Who is this guy to bludgeon my serenity? Wave runners are pretty bad.

As the distance got closer, I started seeing red, fighting like crazy. “What was that?” I screamed once I was within earshot. He lowered the buff and said something about letting me know he was passing. I could tell he wasn’t used to being called out for being rude; most people who tend to be holes aren’t. I kept telling him that he was full of S’s and that he was a smartass. The conversation got heated, so I moved closer, thinking, “Damn, this is gonna turn into a good old fashioned dusting like on the Homosassa Flats during the 70s tarpon disc craze…” Stories of Billy Pate and Tom Evans came to mind. He screams, I scream… Then my forward momentum stopped. I looked back and saw mud in my wake.

In my restless state, I hadn’t noticed that I had drifted onto the sandbar; a good thing insofar as the confrontation has been blocked. I’d like to think it wouldn’t have gone any further, but that was up to him. I was attached to my ignorance; we are talking about pride and ego here. I adjusted the motor and lift plate and backed off not as fast as I had come, going up the bottom. I must say that the prospect of running aground after such a display was by far the worst. I’m not afraid of any man, but humiliation scares me.

Players of the same game just on opposite sides; I would bet that if we met again, we would share a good laugh. I’ve made more than a few friends through conflict, trivial varieties in particular. In fact, Captain Saltwater Camo, if you’re reading this, contact me at [email protected] Let’s go have a beer.

At the end of this story, it occurs to me that I should probably go ahead and get my GPS fixed.

Jon Edward Edwards is a local author and avid sportsman.

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