A bit for Father’s Day

Originally published in the Tampa Bay edition of Creative Loafing.

When I was 8 years old, my father moved the family from Montgomery, Alabama, where he was stationed at Gunter Air Force Base, to Homestead, where he’d been assigned to the AFB there. (If you’ve heard of Homestead, it’s likely due to its being demolished by Hurricane Andrew in ’92 — it’s now an Air Reserve Base.) During our very first night in our new house in the Miami suburb of Perrine, someone broke into our RV. Welcome to South Florida!

Not long after that, Pop’s father, Papa Jack, came down to visit the family. Pop had spent much of his young life fishing the freshwater lakes of rural Arkansas with Papa Jack, so he decided that we three generations of Harrell men should spend a day acquainting ourselves with Florida’s famous saltwater angling. He borrowed a little metal flat-bottomed johnboat and electric trolling motor from an Air Force buddy, and that weekend, the three of us headed down to where the mainland ended and the keys began, stopping at the side of the road by a little waterway colloquially known as Jewfish Creek and putting the boat in the water by hand.

Cruising silently through the shady tunnels created by overarching mangrove branches, I experienced a world I never knew existed. Seabirds alighted in the trees and giant barracuda floated ominously motionless in the warm, clear water while pinfish darted between the chunks of oyster bed that littered the creek’s bottom.

I was terrified every time the boat drifted too close to the tangles of mangrove roots on either side — I could see little crabs and chitinous bugs scuttling along the branches, and knew I’d be asked to reach out and push off of that ropy mess of alien life. 

More than anything, though, I was excited. I’d wandered Virginia beaches, Utah mountainsides and tame suburban forests, but never before encountered wildness like that. Floating on the same water sharks swam in! Under a canopy of exotic foliage! In a tiny boat!

Plus, I was one of the guys that day. I listened to Papa Jack quietly tell stories about my Pop as a kid while he baited my hook, his steady anecdotes broken by the thrill of a bent fishing rod or the splash of a hooked fish.

We caught mangrove and young yellowtail snapper, grunts and croakers, ladyfish. Not exactly bonefish or bruiser snook or tarpon, but they kept us busy all day. Papa Jack even caught a nice, hard-fighting jack crevalle, which he landed in the style of his beloved largemouth and smallmouth bass, by slipping his thumb into its mouth and lifting it by its lower jaw — unaware that jack crevalle possess a wicked set of teeth. He bled quite a bit.

For my part, I caught the Florida saltwater fishing bug, and have had it ever since. I’ve since fished lakes and rivers from Texas to Spain, and it’s always a blast, but there’s nothing quite like wading a Pinellas shoreline or paddling a canoe across some Tampa Bay flats or drifting shark baits behind a boat in the Skyway shipping channel in the small hours of the morning — whether I’m catching anything or not. 

Because the fishing part is only part of a bigger experience. When you take a kid fishing at a young age, more often than not, what they really fall in love with is the great outdoors, and the feeling of being in it, a part of it. And that love and respect can last a lifetime.

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