Touching Base

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From time to time, I succumb to some visceral need to walk across the Vilano Bridge to the mainland and then back again. When that occurs, I park my car in the Publix parking lot some minutes before sunrise—good lighting and only joggers up and about‑‑walk across A1a, and head westward along the pedestrian lane on the north side of the bridge. Once I reach the mainland, I re-cross A1a and walk east along the south side of the bridge back to the island. Depending on how fast I walk, how many times I pause and for how long, the trip takes between 45 minutes and one hour.

My goal is always to consider the early morning comings and goings along this stretch of the Tolomato River and to record those things that interest me visually: a visiting sailboat newly moored, dredging operations, fishermen in waist-deep water casting for sea trout, and so on. Accordingly, I carry my best camera with my most powerful telephoto lens strapped around my neck and cradled in my arm both, as it is a heavy combination.

From the north side of the bridge, I can see the Camachee Cove Marina ahead of me on the mainland and a few visible houses and docks at water’s edge to my rear, but my eyes tend to fix on the river itself and the vastness of the untouched marshland along its western bank and the canopy of live oaks stretching north to its east. Looking through my camera’s viewfinder, I enjoy seeking out in turn the three creeks I have fished, just to see if anyone is there now: Robinson’s Creek, the southernmost and across from where I used to live in a beachside condo on Ocean Hollow Road, then Poncho Creek, and finally Indian Creek, which is right across the water from my house on Third Street, where the island’s width narrows to less than half a mile. Unlike Robinson’s, Poncho and Indian Creeks are shallow, allowing only kayaks and light boats like my own to navigate them, which makes for more peaceful exploring, fishing, and observing. Because I find more comfort in the quiet of rowing and sailing in my current state than in the dependable power of my small but noisy outboard motor, I invariably head toward the more easily reached Indian Creek these days.

Returning along the south side of the bridge, I can make out the Castillo de San Marcos, the Bridge of Lions, and the lighthouse on Salt Run across Matanzas Bay. Closer at hand on the mainland side stands the Great Cross commemorating the spot where Pedro Menéndez first landed in 1565. Up ahead, of course, lies Vilano Beach and my car. As I near the bridge’s summit, my gaze is drawn to the line of houses along the river’s bank. They stretch south from the marina and the fishing pier to the small sand beach at Porpoise Point and the St. Augustine Inlet. From these houses, long wooden docks stretch deep into the river toward the edge of the north-south channel. At this time of day, a handful of boats power by in both directions, all heading to some favorite fishing location most likely. When I’m very lucky, I see one of the boats of our town’s fishing fleet—there are four, I believe‑‑coming home through the inlet after an all-nighter off the coast, its nets held up just above of the water and spread along the length of long spars that reach out from both port and starboard sides like wings extended for flight and swarming like gnats above them, an escort of gleaning seagulls and pelicans.

By the time I reach my car, the combination of all of these things: the river and its creeks, the houses and their docks, the boats, and the long history of this place all work together like ingredients of a therapeutic brew, making my mind a little less battered by troubling matters regarding my own sojourn on earth than it had been before the walk.

From my car, I gather my shopping bags and head toward the Publix doors. My step is light, and I am aware that will be short-lived, but I cherish it none the less.

ᚠᛁᛢᚴ ᛘᛁᛏ ᛚᚢᚴᛁ *

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So listen to this. I’m fishing on the beach yesterday, early morning in front of that house with the collapsed stairs – you know the one I mean, right? – and I’m trying to cast out past the sand bar instead of aiming for the slough because the water’s been warming – close to 70, I read – and I’m trying to reach cooler water. So anyway, I wade in up to the bottom of my trunks and cast – I’m using shrimp – and I walk the line back to the sand spike and slide the rod in. Then I do the same thing with the other rod – I only took two rods yesterday. So I’m waiting – maybe 20 minutes, long time, almost ready to quit – and I get a hard hit. I give it a few seconds for the hook to set and then lift up the rod and start reeling. From the fight, I’m thinking it’s a blue fish – you getting a lot of them lately? Some guys actually eat them. – but it’s not. It’s a pompano. A pompano! They’re supposed to be gone by now, right? Up to the Carolinas, right? Anyway, so I drag him onto the beach, and get the hook out, and hurry back to my mat and backpack cooler where I keep my tape measure.

 Well, there’s an egret standing by the mat, and he doesn’t move even when I get right next to him. I’m going fast in case I need to run back to the surf to release the fish, otherwise I’d stop to take this all in. Anyway, I get twelve inches and a little more. I’m good, I figure, but I reach into a backpack pocket for the size limit chart anyway because it’s been over a year since I hooked a pompano, and it says fourteen inches. That can’t be, I think, so I check again. Pal, I’m keeping my finger on the page so I’m sure I have the right minimum lined up with the right fish: fourteen inches. This is crazy, I’m thinking! This is a good-size fish, maybe two pounds. So, now I’m thinking maybe I’ll keep it anyway. I look up and down the beach: no one. I’m actually reaching for the cooler zipper when the egret catches my eye. He’s looking right at me, like right into me with those eerie yellow markings around the eyes, and it comes over me that I’ve got to release the fish. So, I run back down to the water and I do it. Actually, I feel better for it, good even.

 That’s when the second rod bends down and starts jerking. So I race over and grab it and reel. It’s a pompano! No kidding! And it’s got to be the same size as the first one, twelve, thirteen inches. Don’t ask me why. but I look toward the mat, and there’s the egret, halfway between me and the mat and he’s looking right at me with that yellow around his eyes. It’s like there’s an invisible beam cutting into me. And he’s still, totally still, like a lawn ornament. So, I bend down into the frothy water and let the fish go.

 But wait, I’m not done. So I fish some more without a hard hit until, with the last of my bait, I catch a third pompano, a really big one; fourteen inches at least, I figure. And what’s the first thing I do? I look for the egret! Crazy, right? But he’s not there! I look up and down the beach. He’s gone! So I go to the mat and stick the fish in the backpack ice. And, here’s the reason I’m telling you this: I’m collecting my things to go home, right? And, when I pick up the size limit chart to pack it away – don’t ask me why I do this – I look up pompano again – I can tell from your face you already get it – and it says eleven inches. Eleven! You can check it yourself!

 And that’s the story. Crazy, right?

 Beer? Oh, let me show you this welk shell I found in the sand yesterday. It’s perfect! It’s over here in the kitchen. Here, look!

*Fiske med Loki