My good friend “Cornelius” is a fisherman par excellence. His loves are God, fishing, and “Gertrude”, his wife (what order that list is in I do not know). Cornelius knows the Horseshoe Beach area of flats like the back of his hand. His ability to catch fish is truly amazing. He is renowned for his skills upon the water. And I’ve always liked taking fishing trips with him – he lets me drive his truck towing his pontoon boat from Jonesville to Horseshoe Beach.
Recently, however, Cornelius has not been able to get away from his job. Two weeks ago he called to tell me that he finally got a break; that the following week we’d be able to go fishing. And from the time that he told me, I looked forward to our fishing trip on the Gulf.
When I arrived at his house at 6:00 am on the appointed day, I immediately noticed (Geez, I’d have to be blind not to notice) that he did not have attached to his truck his pontoon boat, but rather a small aluminum bass boat. His boat was in the shop being reupholstered he told me, so he borrowed his son’s boat.
Last Wednesday was a picture perfect day: breeze light and variable, not a cloud in the sky. Cornelius wore a t-shirt, shorts, flip-flops and a fisherman’s floppy hat. I wore both a long sleeve and short sleeve cotton shirts, full length denim jeans, leather shoes and a long billed ball cap, all meant to protect me from the sun.
As we moved out of the channel into the open water, I felt a distinct difference – the pontoon boat cut through the water while the bass boat did not. The slight chop was compounded by the speed at which Cornelius drove the boat. We were often airborne after hitting a wave, and we’d land with a solid bang, only to repeat the process again and again. As I looked to the stern, all I could think of was “Apocalypse Now”; Cornelius looking every bit the Viet Nam soldier maniacally cackling with delight at every wave we hit, and every body slam we absorbed. At some point my hat flew off my head, and was quickly out of sight and lost. I started by sitting on the floor, but after many hard jolts, I chose to stand with my knees bent and try to ride the waves like a horse. I avoided the body slams but it really tired me out.
When finally we stopped to fish, I took the bow platform while Cornelius remained at the stern platform. Although there was a chair on the platform, I did not think that I could effectively cast my line while seated. As I cast out the jigged line, for some unknown reason I followed – a header right into the water.
That I was not expecting. I uprighted myself and broke the water, further from the boat than I hoped to be. Cornelius told me to hand him an end of the rod, which was still in my hand, and he’d pull me in. I got him the eye end and he pulled – and the two part rod separated. He tossed it aside and reached out to grab my hand. I tried to reach his but I couldn’t seem to touch it. I tried swimming to the boat – I know how to swim, having learned how at about age nine; water did not frighten me. (The last time I actually swam, though, was in 2000. I hate getting water in my ears!) I was not making any headway.
I went under but kicked myself back above. DON’T PANIC I told myself. That was a sure way to drown. Just keep calm, keep my head above the water and I will be okay. I thought I’d try the “dead mans float”. That was an easy way to remain alive. I could not, however, bring the rest of my body to the surface. It weighed too much, the cotton clothing absorbing water like a sponge. I should have kicked off my shoes, but I didn’t want to lose them. I couldn’t take off my jeans without losing my shoes, and I could’t take off my shirts without temporarily disabling my arms – and they were the only things keeping my head above water.
Cornelius threw out a life jacket to me, but I missed catching it and it quickly disappeared. I bobbed under again. Man, I was getting tired. As the boat and I drifted further apart I became heartened. Good, I thought, now Cornelius would not be afraid to get the motor started and drive the boat right to me. He was afraid because he thought that if he turned toward the motor he would lose sight of me.
Cornelius decided to go for it and he turned to start the motor. I went under but fought my way above the surface again. “Today is not the day that I am going to die” I told myself. In the light chop, the aluminum boat was not so easy to control. Cornelius did not want to run me over. He was able to get the boat close enough, however, that I was able to finally grab hold of the side. Cornelius grabbed my arms and kept saying: “You’re ok. You’re not going anywhere.” Then I thought: why isn’t he pulling me into the boat? He must have read my mind because he said “you’ll have to move to the back of the boat.” Dang, I was already exhausted. All I could do was hang there and huff and puff like a locomotive. Hanging there wasn’t going to get me into the boat, so I started the hand by hand maneuver to the gunwale at the stern. I made it around to the gunwale and tried to pull myself up, but I just couldn’t do it. Cornelius said “there is a step on the motor. Stand on that. I could not bring my feet up high enough to reach the step. By default, I got a knee on the step and tried to lift myself into the boat. Cornelius got a hold of my waistband and between the two of us I flopped into the boat.
Cornelius asked me if I wanted to head in. “Hell no” I said “we came out here to fish, and that is what we are going to do.” I caught exactly one trout, while Cornelius landed at least a half dozen. I don’t know how he does it. We are casting the same bait, and we are at the same location. He’s got to be doing something different (and underhanded!), I just can’t figure out what it is. While fishing, we saw some sea turtles, some skates/rays, and a small shark.
Retrospection: Why wasn’t I wearing a life preserver? Cornelius, who has been fishing these waters for years, repeatedly told me that the flats are so shallow, one can be two miles out and walk all the way to shore. I can say with certainty, however, that there is a least one spot on these flats that is deeper than I am tall. Will I wear one in the future? No, I just won’t wear anything long and cotton, and instead wear nylon shorts and protect my skin by slathering myself with sun block SPF 500.
When I got home, my wife asked me what I was thinking during the experience: Did I see my life flash before my eyes? No I did not. Did I pray for deliverance? No, I did not, although as soon as I hit the deck I thanked God for letting me live. The only three thoughts that I had were DON’T PANIC, keep those arms and legs moving and my head above water, and today is not the day to die.