The Gift of a Bonefish

To celebrate Father’s Day, all week long we’ll be publishing a series of stories all about dads—about their companionship in the outdoors, about them teaching or encouraging us to hunt and fish, and about how we wouldn’t be where we are, or who we are, without them. Fittingly, we’re calling this series “Thanks, Dad.” 

How my father came to regard bonefish as the greatest of all gamefish, I can’t recall. It wasn’t from experience. He had grown up casting plugs for smallmouth bass in Appalachia, driven north to fish Michigan’s AuSable River for trout, but had never pointed the nose of our Chevy south. In fact, I don’t recall him ever having fished in saltwater at all. The bonefish—he called it a bonefeesh—was a dream like so many fathers’ dreams, put on indefinite hold as life intervened.

With my graduation from college, Dad’s ambition inched closer to attainment. Tired of adults asking about my plans, I had conjured a stock answer: I would work my way across the country for three years, then return to graduate school, where I would… Well, I wasn’t sure how the story ended. What I was sure of was that my first stop would be the Florida Keys, where I would guide my father to the fish of his dreams. He and my mother planned to visit me in early summer, leaving about a month after my arrival to develop a strategy. 

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My first priority was to secure a place to sleep, which I found in a roach-infested shack on the bay side of Tavernier. Second was a job, and there I got lucky, for my first day in the islands I landed one selling fishing tackle for World Wide Sportsman in Islamorada. One of my first chores was to polish the brass corners of Jack Nicklaus’s tackle box. The famous golfer fished with the store’s manager and co-owner, George Hommell, who had been a flats guide. Other notable anglers came through the door—the loudest and most profane being baseball great Ted Williams, the Splendid Splinter. A giant of a man, he never once mentioned baseball in my presence, but declared to anyone within earshot that only God was a greater Atlantic salmon, tarpon, and bonefish angler, because He created fish.

For a boy from Ohio, this was heady stuff, but my brush with the royalty of the sport got me no closer to the quarry. Clearly, I needed a boat. Problem was that the only one I could afford was a tri-hull driven by a 40-horse Johnson with a starting mechanism that consisted of a handful of metal pieces held in order with a paperclip. When the paperclip broke, the outboard spit all its parts into the bay. That’s a long story cut short. Suffice it to say, the Bonefish One, as I had christened her, never caught a bonefish.   

With one day remaining before my father’s arrival, I was drowning my sorrow at the tiki hut at the Holiday Isle marina, where I struck up a conversation with a party boat captain. His pale eyes and ruddy cheeks gave him the appearance of a raccoon. He listened to my woes, then drew a map on a napkin. “Go to this flat an hour before dark,” he instructed. I asked about the tide, as tide is the ball game with flats fishing. He assured me it didn’t matter. What was important was the hour. 

Dad’s RV arrived the following afternoon and we wasted no time driving to the flat. It looked featureless, but like all flats came to life when you stepped into the water. Midget barracuda scattered like darts as we waded out. A bonnet shark with a head like a shovel swam by, a cowfish looked like a sidekick in a Disney cartoon. It was Dad who spotted the bonefish, a small school wagging the lobes of their tails like schoolmarms waving fingers at naughty children. The fish weren’t nervous but they were leaving the flat. Dad’s first cast fell short. He tried again. Still shy. I’d seen him drop a Light Cahill dry fly into a teacup, but distance-casting was not his forte.

“You try, Kam,” he said.

I took the rod and made the cast, and way out there a nose went down and a tail came up, and we were tight to one—the line shearing off the surface as the bonefish made its first run.  We had a minute’s panic when the fish turned and raced toward us, throwing slack that resulted in a snarl of backing between two guides. Dad tried to clear it while I held fast to the fish, but he was ham-handed after a lifetime of driving diesel locomotives and his blunt fingers lacked the dexterity. We switched off, Dad holding the rod while I cleared the line. We were free and the bonefish was off again. Finally, Dad brought it close, where it began to circle us, each circle a little tighter. We had him. Dad cupped his hand under its belly, and I roughly measured the fish against the rod. George Hommell would later say that it was one of the biggest bones he’d heard of that year, 11 or 12 pounds, but it would be disqualified from any kind of tournament because I had been aided by another angler. 

To us, the size was immaterial, and the fact that we had collaborated only made it that much more special. Years would pass before it dawned on me that this was mid-June, Father’s Day, give or take a week.

Dad shook his head. “What a feesh, Kam. What a feesh.”

At the 25th latitude, night falls in a heartbeat. I slipped the hook, and Dad’s dream vanished into the purple dark sea.

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