Sunday, July 15, 2012

FLOUNDER NIGHTS


{Flounder (verb) - To hunt flounder fish with a gig and a light}

 
The sun is just setting as I load the following into my 11 foot, sit on top fishing kayak:
  1. life jacket
  2. floundering light
  3. flounder gig
  4. drybag with camera and stuff
  5. paddle
  6. lawn tractor battery
I've come to flounder and so far, it doesn't look good.
It rained this afternoon which has muddied the water and on top of that, a steady breeze is blowing off the ocean, over the dunes, and across the bayou in front of me.
The rain murked water and the ripples dancing across the surface will make it hard to see any flounder tonight.
On top of that ... it has been 30 years since I've hunted flounder in this marsh with a light and a gig.
I'm not sure how that happened ... I used to go here all the time when I was a teenager.
I would pick a night with no moon and a low tide so late that most sane people would be home in their beds... and
I would flounder 'til dawn or close to it.

The last time I remember coming here to flounder was during my college days.

How does that happen ?
How do you put a place on hold, somewhere you absolutely love, for 3 decades?
I push off from the boat ramp, pondering that question with every paddle stroke ...

My earliest floundering memories are of walking the back side of Conch Island with gig in one hand and a heavy, dangerously hot, glarey, hissing, sputtering Coleman gas lantern in the other.
Later,when I was a teenager,  my very inventive Father made an electric flounder light that put the light source under the water, eliminating the surface glare.
He did this with an electrical cord, some alligator clips, a 6 foot piece of PVC, a tail light bulb, and a used Cool Whip bowl for a reflector.
Everything was held together and waterproofed with gobs of hotmelt glue.

It worked like a charm.
You just put a car battery in the canoe, hooked up the Cool Whip flounder light cables to the battery, and voila! 
Instant, glareless, underwater night vision and it weighed next to nothing.

The canoe served multiple purposes.
It ferried you across the water to the best floundering shore.
It carried the heavy battery for you.
It held your fish.
It ferried you back home when the night was done.

I remember that old blue canoe ... a Mother's Day gift to my Mom long ago. It might sound like one of those gifts that is really more for the giver than the receiver, but Mom loved to go floundering and canoeing too.
Honest.


Flounders spend their nights stalking fish and shrimp in the shallows.
Teenage FC spent alot of nights walking alone in the shallows, stalking the stalkers.
Popping in to McDonald's at 11:00 pm, my canoe strapped to the top of Dad's International Scout, I would grab a coffee and head out for a night of floundering.
Sometimes, I would see my friends as I got coffee, chilling after a night out on the town.
Their night was over.
Mine was just beginning.

I think about all this while I paddle, silently steering between a small armada of sailboats moored in the bayou. I have a glow stick ziptied to the bow and stern of the kayak, but no one is on deck to see me as I slip by.

On the opposite shore, the dark, protected, undeveloped shore, the kayak bumps against the sand and I step out.
In the dark, I tie a short line, maybe 6 feet long from the bow of the boat to my belt.
This is my tow line.
Then, with the 3 prong gig in my right hand, I clip the flounder light wires to the lawn tractor battery.
This is the moment of truth. The flounder light is a homemade one, created from a plan I found on the internet two years ago. It has sat in my boat shed all that time awaiting its maiden voyage.
While I did test it on the battery back at the house, this will be the first time that I have submerged it.
If it leaks and shorts out, this night will be over before it really begins.

Black to negative, red to positive.

The light glows brilliantly.
All around me, mullet, killifish, needlefish, zillions of fish go absolutely crazy, leaping everywhere.

I quickly push the light underwater and the fish panic ceases.


The water is, as I feared, pretty murky.
Not only does this make it hard to see flounder, it also makes it hard to see stingrays.

I remember a murky night like this when I was 17 and a particular stingray who sure looked like a flounder in the murk.
I stuck him with the gig and he stuck me with his barb.
Turn about is fair play I suppose, but it was a pain on a level that I do not want to repeat.
Ever.

Wading through the shallows, I curse the murk and worry that I am wasting my battery in water too dense to see much of anything. Unclipping the light, I get back in the boat for a short paddle out of this marshy zone, in search of clearer water.

A hundred feet away, the bottom turns from mucky mud to sandy mud and visibility improves, even though it is far from ideal. I get out, hook up again and begin slowly, silently walking and stalking.

I am not alone.

There are egrets, ghostly white blobs dancing in along the shoreline, and  fish, oh my, the fish ... they are all around me.
Mullet jump into me, into the kayak and then out again.
Needlefish zip in and out of the bright circle beaming from the flounder light.
A mosquito buzzes in my ear and then is gone.

Far away, from the direction I just came, I can hear loud splashes, but I can't see what is causing them.

It is totally, totally awesome out here and I am feeling right at home, even after such a long absence.
A flounder is an ambush predator, ... an AWESOME ambush predator actually.
At night, as the tide ebbs, they glide into the shallows, settle into the bottom sand, change their color to match the sand, and then wait, both eyes independently searching for the small fish or shrimp who makes the fatal error of coming too close to a mouth full of long sharp teeth.

You already know they are flatfish, but they are not "flattened", they simply have adapted to life on their side. What we refer to the "bottom" of a flounder is merely the side he lies upon. That side is white with no pigmentation. The side that is up, sports both eyes and is loaded with cells called "chromatophores". These are pigment sacs that can expand or contract as needed.
Imagine someone pointing a large black umbrella at you. The umbrella is closed. All you would see is a small black circle.
Now imagine they open the umbrella while it is pointing at you.
Suddenly, your view is of a large black circle.
Chromatophores work like that umbrella ... need more dark to match the bottom, just expand the dark chromatophores and shrink the light color ones.

When you couple their chameleon capabilities with their habit of fluffing the mud to hide their outline, you have one excellent covert operator.

This master of disguise is who I am hunting on this dark and breezy summer night.

I did not come empty handed though.


Just when the rippled, murky water has almost convinced me that this night will be a fishless, but still amazing experience, I see my first flounder.
It IS legal, just barely 12 inches, but I pass it by.
I don't take minimal fish. The body count to meat ratio is just too high. If we leave those legal little ones to grow, we can take less fish, but still get plenty of meat when they are bigger.

Still, seeing a flounder, any flounder, rejuvenates my optimism as I stalk the shallows. The murk has confined me to the VERY shallow water's edge. I'd like to be a little deeper ... knee deep at least, but it is a waste of battery on this cloudy water night.

There are more young, legal flounder lying in wait as I wade quietly. It's as if someone stamped them out of the 12" flounder machine.

The wind picks up and the ripples increase,so I move even shallower.
Thousands of 2-3 inch killifish and fingerling mullet crowd the shoreline as they run the gauntlet of wading birds on shore and toothy, fishy predators in the deeper waters.

In ridiculously shallow ... 6 inch water, a keeper flounder lies almost at the water's edge.

I stop, move the gig head over him and dip the points  into the water.
Fast, no splash.
 I strike.
Just behind the head.
The gig pins him to the bottom. The wooden gig handle telegraphs his struggles up to me.
I feel for him, but we are both predators on this night.
  I walk him up on to the shore.
30 years melt away in that moment.

Not physically dammit, but somewhere inside, I'm back.

All around me is a crazy cacaphony of splashes and surprised egret squawks. In the excitement, I've laid the bright floundering light down, with the light shining above the water and the marsh denizens are freaking out at the sudden brilliance.

Unclipping the light from the battery restores calm while I place the flounder in the kayak storage compartment.


Two hunters.

With a fish in the boat, I go a little farther and then turn around for the long walk back. Two hours have gone by and that ebbing tide has dropped enough that I will be stalking new territory, even as I retrace my path.

What was deep on the first pass is now shallow.
Thank you, Moon.

Lightning whelks and hermit crabs cruise the bottom while blue crabs hold their ground and wave claws at the light. Needlefish come to the light and then momentarily blinded, bump into my legs.The shoreline is covered, every inch of it, with mud snails slurping the goody from the shore surface.
Everywhere around me, schools of young fish shimmer and leap.

I'm in my favorite place, an estuary, with life just seething all around me, at night, with a good fish in the boat.

Life is good.

And then it gets even better ...
A flounder, bigger than the first keeper,  is between me and the shore.

But ... this one knows something is amiss and he is moving slowly towards deeper water.

No careful setup this time, I dip the gig tip in and strike.

Another flounder, the final one for this night, goes into the kayak.

Ahead, I hear a huge splash.
It's good to pay attention to huge splashes when you are in the water at night, so I stop and listen.

There it is again.
Then a pause.
Then again.
It's coming this way, so I stand still in the water and wait.

I can see the splashes now, reflected in the lights of the sleeping city on the far shore.
6 foot sprays of water shoot at an angle towards the shore.

The splashers are really close now and I can hear their breathing.
Loud, "PUHHH!" exhalations.

A pod of bottlenose dolphins are hunting this fish-packed shoreline and they are coming right at me.

This night's AWESOME METER just went over the top!

They come so close that one of their splashes drenches me and I can see them in the dark as they surface for a quick breath, just ten feet away.

They continue past me working the shore, splash, pause, splash, pause ...

I soak it up.
When it's quiet again, I flounder a little more, but it has been about 4 hours and I'm thinking those dolphin probably scared every reasonable flounder into very deep water ... or maybe up on to the shore!

Either way, I have what I came for ... in more ways than one.

I don't really want to go, but the tide is changing and it is already tomorrow, so I unclip the light and stow everything away.

With paddle in hand, I glide across the dark water, past the sleeping sailboats, ... aiming for the lighthouse and the nearby boat launch.

The lighthouse fishing pier is just ahead, and I'm in a paddling rhythm when suddenly, something big bumps the kayak, once, twice, spraying me each time, and then it's gone.

That was not a dolphin.

I was moving at a rapid clip and I think I surprised a shark or tarpon at the surface. I saw fin, but not clear enough to say who that fella was.

That was the icing on the cake.
What a fantastic night.

The kayak bumps against the concrete boat ramp and I crawl out. Suddenly I feel a little tired ... it's 1:00am.

As I'm loading gear and kayak onto the trailer, a nice motorized boat pulls up to the ramp.

Two men, two boys.
They have been floundering also, I saw them earlier and appreciated the fact that they went around me rather than pulling directly in front of me.
"How'd you do?" the man asks.
"Two keepers" I say.
"We got four" he says.
"This is our first time floundering here, do you flounder here often?"

"I used to ... a long time ago", I reply.









23 comments:

Marilyn Kircus said...

Thanks for sharing. I love to fish but I too haven't done any kind of fishing for maybe four decades.

But I have done lots of paddling at night and getting to share the night with the other denizens of it is totally awesome. And the fish I usually run into are alligator gar. Hitting one of those big boys with a paddle and making then roll really gets the adrenalin shooting out.

Alligators are usually quick enough to sink that you only see their eyes but occasionally you and an alligator can share a scary moment for each of you.

Island Rider said...

Great post. Felt like I was there. Currently cruising through Alabama on the way to see oldest son, the law enforcment park ranger in Mississippi. Went through Otter Creek. That was after I left my purse at the McDonalds in Crystal River and before the flat tire in De Funiak Springs. Hope the vacation is better than the roadtrip!

Anonymous said...

Hi FC,

Great story! So, did ya cook them yet?

Patio

Dan said...

Wow! Beautifully written...

Caroline said...

Kids growing up in the Adirondacks don't know nothin' about floundering. The trip with you was fascinating, hope the flounder dinner was yummy.

Miz S said...

I couldn't decide if it was a post or a poem. Either way, it was awesome.

Floridacracker said...

Marilyn,
It's a whole nother world at night isn't it?
Be careful out there.

Cathy,
Gee whiz. I hope things go smoother. You must not have blinked at Otter Creek, or you would have no idea you had gone through it.

Patio,
Last night! Delicious.


Dan,
Thanks.
I actually edited and rewrote for once.
This is usually first draft stuff here at PF. LOL

Caroline,
So glad you came along. I imagine those mountains are beautiful and full of equally unique things to do.

Miz S,
Here's how you know.
Poems rhyme.
At least here they do.
So just ignore the haikuuks and freestyle "poets".
Poems rhyme.
Glad you liked the trip!

lesle said...

But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?
-Albert Camus

robin andrea said...

A wonderful post. I really like the way you told this story.

Mockingbird said...

What a wonderfull flounder gigging adventure, and photos! I wonder if you were at Salt Run, since you mentioned the lighthouse boatramp.

cinbad122 said...

Mmmmmm....flounder!

Floridacracker said...

Lesle,
I'm liking that quote ... alot. Thank you.

Robin,
Thanks! I know you and roger are fans of low tide walks. I thought you might enjoy this version.

Mockingbird,
Well ... maybe... I was.
You know how fishermen are about their spots. :)


Cindy,
You got that right!
Shrimp tonight.

Bill said...

Felt as though I was there with you. Thanks.

Suwannee Refugee said...

Well, sir, you are a braver man than I. There are too many of those sting rays in the waters in the summer for me to go wading around in the dark. Its bad enough for me to do it in the light fishing for mullet.

Floridacracker said...

Bill,
I was shooting for that. Thanks!

Refugee,
I hear ya. I saw a few that night.

edifice rex said...

Great story! Jack grew up just outside Mobile and has often told me stories about floundering around Mobile Bay when he was a teenager. This was way back before the bay got polluted. His setup was a little more simple back then! He would tie short rope to a washtub and then tie the rope around his waist. Apparently the washtub would float and he could just toss the fish into the tub as he went along. Glad you had soem luck!

Deb said...

Great post FC- the imagery was so vivid I could almost smell the salt water! Thanks for sharing the adventure!

Floridacracker said...

Annie,
Ask Jack if he ever went out on a "Jubilee".

Deb,
Thanks Deb! It was such a cool night, I just wanted to share every molecule of it.

Kiah Duncan said...

You should check out the LED lighting system at www.FlounderGiggingLight.com

They can run off of a 12 volt battery and they are super bright... would make gigging a whole lot easier on ya! I just got one earlier this year so that I could wade and gig and it has been working great for me. I really hate having to worry about a generator or something to run a light while I am gigging so this new LED system is right up my alley!

Jim said...

FC Since you and I went to High School together I know exactly where you were gigging. That little spit of a place is amazing and the lifeblood of so many things that people do not understand.
Back in the day, when the peninsula was accessible by vehicle, I used to drive to that side. Then with an inflated Tire tube lashed with a piece of plywood to hold the cooler and the battery, for the light which was mounted below it walked those same shallows gigging flounder. In fact during the summer it was not uncommon to see 3 or 4 people doing that.
The tarpon were indeed scary when they would sound near you, or the rare logger head sea turtle that for whatever reason decided to come that way instead straight to the beach from the ocean.
There is not much on this earth that I found more refreshing than enjoying the thrill of a self caught meal that nature provided me only asking that I protect her and respect her also in due regard.
Thanks for the trip back through time my friend.

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