Why Fishing isn’t called Catching

A few weeks ago, while meeting with our Representatives in Tallahassee, I noticed a photo of a group of fishermen next to a large shark hanging in the hallway on the way to the Senate offices. I stopped in the crowded hallway, looked closely at the picture and then down at the legislative agenda I was carrying. The picture had reminded me of something I learned years ago when my friends and I would go “fishing” from the top of the New Pass and San Carlos Pass bridges.

I said “fishing” and not fishing because we didn’t actually expect to catch anything. Late in the summer night at the top of the bridge the tropical breeze was wonderful. There were no cars, no bugs, no noise and the moonlit view was spectacular. The tackle we fished with was only meant for extremely large fish, so the quiet of the evening was rarely interrupted. Yes, everything was great… until the night that we actually caught something.

That evening, my friend Billy and I were sitting on our coolers at the top of the San Carlos Bridge, our fishing rods leaning up against the railing, when to our surprise my reel start clicking rapidly. The line was spooling off fast, so I picked it up, checked the drag and set the hook. Luckily I was braced against the concrete railing because whatever it was on the other end of the line was big and fast and it slammed me right up against the rail. “WHOA… WE GOT ONE!” yelled an amazed Billy. Then, in the distant moonlight we saw something jump from the water. It was a large shark and for the next 10 minutes, as Billy shouted encouragement, I attempted to stop its run for the ocean. When I finally did start making progress and retrieving line, Billy suddenly got quiet and looked over the railing to the water, far below us. “Hey Nelson! How are you supposed to get him up here?” I glanced over at him. “How am I? What happened to we?” I looked around. Nothing but a lot of bridge both ways, with light poles and other obstacles mounted on the railing every thirty feet or so. I shook my head. We were prepared for “fishing”… just not for catching.

So we began to walk to the west, periodically handing the rod and reel to each other around the light poles and other obstacles while the powerful shark tried to pull us into the water. Once on the Fort Myers Beach side, we planned to drag our catch onto the shore and cut the leader near its mouth, letting it go. Our chaotic journey down the bridge took thirty minutes. The “R rated” version is much better, but here’s just a sample of what it sounded like. “Get over on that side… NO! THAT SIDE!” “OK, OK…GEEZ!” “Now put your foot there.” “WHAT?? Oh, I don’t think so!” “OH FOR… Look… Reach around the sign. Now take it… TAKE IT!” “OK, OK, I’ve got it, I’ve got it! Let go. Let go! LET GO!!” “ARRGGH…I CAN’T! YOU’VE GOT MY FINGER!”

By the time the shark was near the beach, we were worn out and by the time we got the fish onshore it was dead. Billy and I stood there looking at the seven foot, 200 lb. black tip shark. “It’s dead? What are we going to do with it?” Billy asked quietly, obviously feeling as guilty as I was. I looked around at the beach. “Well, we can’t leave it here and it wouldn’t be right to just shove it into the water.” Then I saw my truck. “I know where to take it!”

Five hours later it was daylight and I was in front of the Everglades Wonder Garden with a stinking dead shark in the back of my truck. I knocked on the side gate and Lester Piper came out wearing a butcher’s apron covered in blood. “Yeah?” he growled. I showed him the shark and asked him if he was interested. “Naaah… I ain’t interested in buyin’ stuff like this. It ain’t worth it to…” “No, No!” I interrupted. “I wanna give it to you.” He immediately became a happier person. “OH! Sure, bring it on in here Ben Jr.!” On the way home, I decided that despite the adventure, my bridge fishing shark-catching days were over.

Apparently some lessons remain long hidden until needed, because before my next meeting in Tallahassee, I went over our project notes a few more times. I wanted to be sure that we were prepared for catching… not just fishing.

Horsing Around

I was in Tallahassee recently, when I noticed several men in business suits wearing cowboy boots.  I guess that’s ok…, but I’m pretty sure that boots were originally intended to be worn while riding a horse. And these guys certainly had not ridden to the capital or anywhere else for that matter.  I suppose if you asked them, they’d tell you the boots were comfortable and that they liked the way they looked.  Well… fair enough. But I think it’s also a way to pay homage to a particular lifestyle or tradition.  This got me thinking about some of the “old Florida traditions” that we hang on to or even romanticize about in connection with raising cattle, which has been a way of life for generations here in Florida.  As far as my family goes, I suspect that the “cracker cowboy” part of our family tradition may have ended with my father… and here’s why.
I know that many of you love horses and that’s just fine by me.  My mother loves horses too.  But me… not so much.  Although I am actually pretty good on horseback and I’ve got a lot of experience with them, those experiences have been laced with some pretty painful incidents.
I’ve been kicked, thrown to the ground, head-butted, bitten, stepped on and scraped off on trees by these… animals.  Don’t get me wrong, they are magnificent and powerful creatures and I really admire their stamina and beauty, but unlike a reliable and blissfully mindless jeep or ATV, they have a mind of their own.  A mind that delights in purposefully and without warning jumping sideways, leaving you like a flipped coin on your head, or on your tail, in the palmettos. They then stay just beyond your reach, pausing now and then to taunt you… leaving you to follow them like some kind of sand spur covered horse stalker.


They also demonstrate this equestrian sense of humor when you’re saddling them.  One of their favorite pranks is to simply stand on one of your feet.  They wait until you’re distracted, adjusting the saddle, then they casually side step pretending not to notice as you flail around, howling and shoving uselessly on their thousand pound bodies.  They will eventually let you go with an amused snort, but only so that they can set you up for their next “bit”.  As you chinch up the saddle (while standing on your one good foot) they swell up their belly so that despite all your tugging and pulling and putting your knee in their girth, the saddle will only get as tight as they want it to be.  The punch line generally comes about 15 minutes into the ride, when the horse exhales and you spin around upside down under his belly.  My dad used to stubbornly ride the horse upside down for a couple of hundred feet. I suppose it was an attempt to prove to the horse that my dad had purposefully swung around in order to inspect the trail conditions… with his face.

To my relief, we sold our last horse a long time ago, but periodically I still somehow get talked into going trail riding.  It’s actually something that many of you may enjoy and it’s a great way to experience Florida. The local outfitters are very competent and unlike me, they manage to keep well trained horses. But as my luck would have it, on my last family trip out west the outfitter had one horse that had ‘behavioral issues’.  As she was carefully matching up horses with riders, I quietly waited with my arms crossed for the inevitable.  “So are any of you experienced riders?”  Silence.  No one ever volunteers for this kind of mission.  Minutes later, I threw my hands in the air, finally surrendering to fate.  “O.k., o.k… go ahead and put me on “Psycho”.  Fifteen minutes later, as I rode upside down hanging from Psycho’s belly, I stubbornly stayed in the saddle, inspecting the trail with my face.


The family tradition lives on.