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There's a Hole In the Bottom of the Sea

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Reid TilleyIt's not often that my nearly grown teen son wants to get out on the water with me. Truth is I was so independent when I was his age that I left home, striking out on my own. I was too hard-headed to know any better. Thankfully, he has a better head on his shoulders - probably thanks to his mom. I left home not long before turning 18 and never went back. Looking in the rear view mirror, I'm not sure now that my mile-wide independent streak has served me well in life. What a blessing that he does not seem to have the same disposition.

Nevertheless, between school, work, girlfriend, church, hog hunting and chores, there isn’t a lot of time left in the day to kayak mullet fish with dear old dad. But, when we do manage to find the time, it becomes a day or evening full of memories.

Reid TilleyHis mom and I still laugh that one of the first fully developed words he ever uttered as a toddler was the word “out”. He was standing at the back door of our house in Pensacola, looking through the glass, when he turned and looked at us and said “OUT!”  It has been that way ever since. I have never had to worry about dragging that boy from in front of the television and banishing him to the out-of-doors. It’s been more of a problem to get him to slow down long enough to come inside and get a good eight hours of sleep.

We both saw about a week in advance that there was set to be a negative .7 tide in the harbor. We both knew what that meant. A negative .7 literally drains the water out of the bay.  Where we like to fish, the Harbor would be as dry as a bone. So we put in the kayaks early in the day, while the harbor was still flooded, and paddled across to the bars and marsh islands on the other side. Soon, we were seeing the telltale swirls of the fishy protests that mullet like to give when you enter their kingdom.

 

The day was beautiful.  It was late May. The air was warm and the water was still cool.  The fish had returned to the top end of the Harbor and were awaiting our pursuit. We had an afternoon to kill before the tide would really start ripping out, and with all the water that was in the bay at that moment, the fish were hard to come by. But right on time, the water began to roll out of the bay.

We positioned ourselves in one of our favorite places to intercept fish. It is a pinch point where the fish are required to scoot by us on their way out of one of the many channels. We would cast on swirls and miss.  We would blind cast and miss. It seemed as though Mr. Mullet was going to give his human pursuers a real run for their money that afternoon. In the space of three hours, we had probably only managed to catch three fish. We finally decided to move.

Alligator HarborThere is a very large creek channel that drains a good portion of that part of the Harbor. The creek empties out into the bay through a series of oyster bars that form a mouth that is two hundred feet wide. Directly between the two bars, the tidal action of the bay scours a fairly deep hole that can be over your head on a medium high tide. But a little further up, the water becomes characteristically shallow again and remains so for the half mile that it courses to the very top end of the marsh with one exception – a very large and very deep artificial hole that was dug by dragline years ago against the west bank of the channel. We began to work up that big creek.

The first fish of the day that I caught was a very nice red. I could immediately tell that I had a red in the net from its muscular thrashing. I fish with a pocket net, and as soon as I yanked the net out of the water, I could see the big fish in the pocket. I took him straight to the hill. The one thing you don’t want to do with a red is slide your fingers up his gills to hold him while you subdue him for the ice box. He’s got an organ inside his throat that is used for cracking the shells of crustaceans when he eats. If you slide your fingers in there, he’ll make you pay the price!

Once I had him up on the oyster bar, the fight was over and he was ready for the ice box on the back of the kayak. One tug of the string tether, and the kayak glided to me in the shallow water and red was packed away. One in the box. Reid, on the other side of the channel, was catching a few mullet. He had also caught a white trout. No such luck for me.

Reid TilleyAs the sun dropped lower in the sky, the water was barreling out of the bay. Just about dark, or a little after, the bay would be dry. We slowly began to work up the creek, watching and casting. The fish were still hard to come by. More than once, I commented to Reid that it just did not seem to be a good day for mullet fishing.  The fish were just not that abundant. We kept at it. We’d fished all afternoon, and we were not going to go home with just a handful of fish. Finally, things began to improve just a bit as we moved on up the creek. I got to where I was catching a mullet on nearly every other throw. Reid was starting to do likewise. As the sun dropped to the horizon, we probably had a total of fifteen in the cooler. That’s hard fishing for a day’s catch.

A bit ahead of me in the channel, Reid volunteered to go further up and investigate some activity in water that was only inches deep. It appeared that some fish up there might be stranded by the falling water. I decided to wait with my kayak in the deeper water while he trudged through the muck. He soon had a flounder laid on the hill and hollered for me to bring the kayak to get it. He marked its location with the red visor that he’d worn all day to keep the sun off of his face. He had another couple of mullet next to the flounder when I got there. Further on, he went.

By the time I loaded the flounder and other fish, he was much further up the creek, and he was now in the general location of what we had always known to be the “hole” in the creek bed. Whenever we have previously fished this channel, there had always been plenty of water present to hide the features of the bottom. We had always known that the hole was there, and it is a deep one. But, even just a few inches of water is enough to disguise the hole from view. Personally, I had always avoided that one little corner of the bay. Now, on the extraordinarily low tide, the perimeter of the hole lay fully exposed. We could see the entire hole, and its full extent.  It was big, and I had heard for years that it was deep! And, by the time I got there, Reid was dredging mullet out of it on almost every cast. He had a half dozen fish laying in the mud next to where I stopped pulling the kayak. By now the water was so shallow that even the kayak balked at moving as the mire on the bottom slowed its progress. I slogged through the mush to retrieve the fish he’d laid out and take them back to the cooler.

mullet north floridaReid declared that he wanted to move to the other side of the hole, toward the bank of the slough. In the gloaming, I suggested that he should wait for me to finish packing away the caught fish. Then, I’d grab my net out of the kayak and stand near him as he crossed through the hole to the other side. If, the hole was as deep as we suspected, and if the mire in the bottom would not allow him to swim, I could toss my net in to pull him out. He agreed. A minute or so later, with me standing next to him, he charged off into the watery mire toward the other side. He promptly went down into the swirl over the top of his head, virtually disappearing.

I was ready to throw my net on him when in a huge surge of adrenaline and force, he bobbed up to the surface and charged through the muck up the other side, churning out of the hole and up the bank in one forceful movement. There is never a dull moment when you chase Mr. Mullet. He was soon pulling in two and three fish at a time on each cast from the opposite side of the hole. These fish were stranded. There was no escape. With the exception of the hole, there was no water left in this part of the Harbor. By the time the carnage was over, fifteen minutes later, we had 35 fish in the box, a handful of which were flounder and one redfish.

The sun was long gone and it was going to be a long drag back to the sand launch. I knew that most of the way back would be a walk, not a paddle. It took both of us to drag my kayak back down the mud-exposed creek bottom, with a hundred pounds of fish in the cooler on the back of the ‘yak. When we finally made it back down to the creek mouth, where his kayak was located, we rinsed the mud off the fish, and repacked them all with fresh ice, dividing them up between each kayak’s 48-quart coolers. I emptied out the ice from the snack cooler over the fish and we started the tug of war with each kayak to get them out far enough into the bay to be able to paddle them rather than drag them. There was barely an ankle’s worth of water left, and the tide was still going out.

Reid TilleyWe stopped a few minutes later, and I dried off my hands and took a digital camera out of my dry box to catch the last rays of sunlight that were left at the mouth of the Harbor. I asked Reid to position himself between me and the dusky sky. When I loaded the pictures to my laptop the next day, I was amazed at the quality of the colors and hues that the camera managed to capture in the low-level light. And, the camera had also captured a half-a-dozen pictures of my six foot two inch teenager-turned-man in silhouette against the darkening horizon. The day was spent, and so were we. There was still a 30 minute pitch-black paddle back to the sand launch where the truck awaited. The coolers were full of fish. My heart was full of memories.

Last Updated ( Sunday, 07 July 2013 09:42 )