by Ed Nichols
The two men had fished for three days straight and caught only two grouper, and some trash fish. It had been disappointing to the young man. More so than to the old man. The old man knew that everything runs in cycles. There will always be good days and bad days, he said to the young man. Everything in life runs in cycles. You got to get through the bad days, so you can enjoy the good days, he said. The weather had been fine and the Gulf had been calm. Grouper just weren’t biting, right now.
Coming back to the dock late afternoon of the third day, the young man said he needed to go back to carpenter work for a while. The old man told him it was all right — he understood. Besides, he said, fishing for grouper and having to stand up so much made his legs ache. The old man told him he would go out in his skiff and fish for trout and redfish in the flats, and if he was successful he would bring the young man a good mess for him and his wife. Maybe two or three messes, the old man told him. Then he laughed, and said, “If I’m lucky!” He told the young man if he needed some cash for food and bills to let him know and he would advance him some. Hopefully, soon the young man could catch grouper again and make good money selling them to the seafood market and to restaurants.
Two days later, early in the morning, alone, the old man headed down the Steinhatchee River in his small boat. Mist was lifting off the river. He felt a familiar eagerness and sense of anticipation. He inhaled deeply, smelling the river odors. A slight breeze working its way up the river from the Gulf brought ocean smells that mixed with the river odors. He felt good, but was sad because the young man had to go back to carpenter work. They made good fishing partners. The young man was learning. It wouldn’t be too long before he could make his living fishing. His big boat was almost paid for, and that was a good thing for a young fisherman.
The old man planned to fish close in. He only wanted trout and redfish — anything else he would throw back, except a mackerel. He didn’t need bait fish. He had bought two dozen shrimp at the marina when he filled up with gas, and he would also cast plastic grubs for trout. For the reds, he had gold spoons and jigs in his tackle box.
The Gulf was smooth, and the temperature mild — an excellent day for fishing. A mile after leaving the mouth of the river, he cut the motor and let his boat drift. The tide was going out and the boat floated southwest. If he got into a school of trout, he would drop anchor. He wouldn’t drift out over two or three miles. His wife didn’t like for him to go out alone anymore. Years ago, when they had first moved to Steinhatchee from Atlanta, she never said anything about him fishing alone. And she used to go with him sometimes. She didn’t like to fish, so she’d bring her knitting and would knit all day, or read a book. He had enjoyed her company. It was good to be able to go fishing, even by yourself, but it was better to have someone to talk to. She had not been out with him in a long time — maybe two years, he thought.
The old man was using his light-weight rods and reels. On the first one, he rigged up a popping cork with a sinker and small hook. He pinched the tail off a shrimp and pushed the hook into its stomach. Then he set the cork about six feet from the hook and flipped it overboard. He let the cork float behind the boat about twenty yards. Years ago, when he first started fishing in Florida, a guide had explained that pinching the tail off would let juices inside the shrimp seep out and it would attract trout, and other fish too. The old man believed it; he had caught a lot of trout in his time. On the second rig, he tied on a plastic grub with a weighted eye. He stood up in the boat and cast the line out. Then he reeled it in slowly, twitching the rod tip every other time he turned the reel.
After three casts, the old man hooked something. He could tell it was a small fish. He reeled slowly, letting the fish move around just under the surface. Finally he brought it alongside the boat. He eased the fish out of the water with his net, removed the grub from its mouth, and placed it carefully back in the ocean, watching it swim away. It was a trout, but at least three inches under the minimum length. He drifted awhile longer, and then as he was drinking coffee from his thermos, he watched the cork floating behind the boat disappear quickly beneath the surface. It didn’t pop back up. He removed the rod from its holder and gave a hard pull on the line. It was a bigger fish. The pressure and tenseness on the rod and in his arms felt good. He let the fish do as it pleased, but all the time gradually reeling it to the boat. He netted it, and figured it to be eighteen inches. He placed it in the live well. It was a really nice fish. The old man had a good feeling about his location, so he dropped the anchor.
That afternoon, he cleaned his catch at the cutting table and sink on his boat dock, tossing the heads and entrails in the river. His wife sat in a lawn chair watching him. He told her about his day and how good it had been. Later, they took some of the fish fillets to the young man’s wife who lived just down the road. The old man’s wife had placed the fillets in plastic containers, and she and the young man’s wife covered the fillets with water, and then put the containers in the freezer.
The young man got off work one Saturday and he picked up the old man at his boat dock just as the sun was coming up. They left the river and flats behind them and headed out twenty-five miles in the young man’s big boat to fish for grouper. Before they got too far out they stopped and caught a couple dozen small sea bass to use for bait. They had also bought some squid when they filled up with gas at the marina.
The young man’s boat was long and they had plenty of room to stand up and fish. They anchored at a location where they had caught grouper before. Within a few minutes, the old man reeled in a nice grouper. They put out the anchor and fished all morning. The old man could only stand for a half hour or so, before his legs would start hurting. The young man situated a chair for the old man so he could sit next to his rod and watch it. They caught their limit before noon, and decided to rest and eat a sandwich before heading back in.
The old man asked, “How long before you think you can start fishing full-time, commercially?”
“Maybe by next summer. I plan to get my commercial license this spring.”
“You’ll do well at it,” the old man told him.
“If I do, many thanks will go to you. For all you’ve taught me.”
The old man nodded and rubbed his knees. For a brief moment, he wished he was fifty years younger and just starting out in life. He knew the young man would become a successful fisherman. He had that manner about him: an eagerness to learn, and to listen to others’ opinions. And, more importantly, he understood and respected the ocean.
The next summer, the young man was making good fishing commercially. He had hired a young Mexican to help him. His specialty was grouper, and some red snapper and mackerel. Once a week he would drop off some fish at the old man’s house for him and his wife to enjoy. Sometimes, on weekends, the young man would bring them smoked fish. When he could, the young man would catch some mullet and smoke them, too. The old man loved smoked mullet.
By the end of the summer, the old man’s cancer in his legs had spread to his lungs. He could no longer fish, and he moved about with his wife’s help in a wheelchair. She would push him down to their dock, and they would sit and watch boats coming and going. Many of the people in the boats would wave, and sometimes pull over to their dock; all of the full-time river residents knew the old man and his wife. They would sit on their dock for long periods and listen to river and swamp sounds, punctuated every few seconds by a ping from the old man’s portable oxygen pump. One day, with watery eyes, he said to his wife, “This river is one of God’s greatest creations.” He told his wife to give all his fishing equipment and his boat to the young man when he died. She told him she didn’t want to think about such a thing. And she didn’t know what she would do if he left her. He told her when it happened he wanted her to get on with her life. The young man and his wife would be a real comfort and help to her. He smiled, and reminded her that everything runs in cycles.
The old man died in late fall, just when speckled trout started moving into the river. His wife had him cremated. Then, on a warm, bright Sunday afternoon, the young man and his wife took the old man’s wife and the urn with the old man’s ashes out into the Gulf. They didn’t go too far out, about where the old man liked to fish. Several other boats were already there and they circled around the young man’s big boat when it arrived. Everyone stood up in their boat and watched as the old man’s wife turned the urn upside down and let the ashes fall onto the water. Then they all drifted silently for a long time, remembering how the old man loved to drift in his little skiff.
Ed Nichols lives outside Clarkesville, Georgia. He is a Journalism graduate from the University of Georgia, and is an award-winning writer from the Southeastern Writer’s Association. He has had many short stories and poems published online and in print.