Thunderstorm, snook, old fisher: My night at AMCP

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Stormy weather at the Anna Maria City Pier.
Snook

It was nearing 6 o’clock in the evening as I steered the boat toward the Mainsail Marina. My clients sat in front of me, talking about how many fish they had caught and enjoying the warm air that was blowing over the hull as we traveled at 20 mph over the flat.

It was fall and the sun was getting low in the sky. We were nearing a low tide, which was apparent by the wading birds standing along the edges of the channel looking for shrimp and small fish to eat.

Upon arrival at the dock, I tied up the boat and instructed my clients to hop out and wait by the fillet table if they wanted to watch me clean their fish. I grabbed my fillet knife, sharpened it and put a couple gallon-size plastic bags in my pocket before I unloaded two limits of spotted seatrout and one hefty redfish, placing the fish in a bucket before making my way to the fillet table. After filleting the fish, rinsing them and bagging the meat, my clients grabbed their dinner makings, paid me and headed toward their car.

Now, was time for the fun part. It was nearing 7 p.m. as I began to hose down the boat. I filled a bucket with water and added my normal dose of Dawn soap. After a good scrub and rinse, I wound up the hose, gathered up my rods and nets, turned off the battery switch and headed to my truck.

At that moment, Capt. Mac Gregory pulled into the parking lot.

“You wanna go for a beer?” he asked.

I thought for a moment — my wife and daughter had left to go out of town that morning, so I was on my own for the next couple of days.

“Heck ya,” I replied. “Bekka and Izzy are out of town, so why not.”

“OK,” said Mac. “I’ll see you there.”

Rather than just place my rods in the bed of my truck I put them in the cab, where they could be secured and locked away. No need to leave $1,000 with of tackle just laying out in the open for anyone and everyone to see.

Luckily, I had a clean shirt in the truck. I changed, locked the truck and wandered across Marina Drive toward D.Coy Ducks Tavern.

The woman working at Sun & Surf Resortwear was wheeling in the parrots as I passed by. I gave a wolf whistle to the African gray and it quickly responded with the same.

I hadn’t been to a bar in quite a while. Family life will do that to you. As I opened the door to Ducks, I was overcome by a cloud of cigarette smoke.

“Some things never change,” I thought to myself. I saw Mac perched at the end of the bar and took a seat next to him. Within seconds, Lisa, the bartender, had an ice-cold Coors Light on the bar in front of me. I was impressed that she remembered what I drank, even though I hadn’t been there in ages.

So we sat and drank beer, talked about fishing and boats and whatever else. We even managed to chug down a couple Yaeger bombs in the process. It was getting dark outside and I was getting buzzed.

I decided to make my way home. I bid Mac farewell and stumbled out the door, but rather than go to the truck, I ventured to Jessie’s Island Store — just in back of Ducks — to buy a 12-pack of beer and a fresh pack of Camels.

I was feeling pretty good, so I decided to drink another beer on my boat and listen to the radio. Soon enough, after three beers, I realized I needed to stop if I was going to drive home.

Just then, the trolley pulled up on its route to the Anna Maria City Pier.

I had an idea.

A trolley ride and a walk on the pier was just what I needed to sober up before heading home. I put the remainder of my 12-pack in a bag and boarded the trolley. The trolley was practically empty despite a couple of tourist families getting a ride home after dining at a restaurant. By now it was almost 10 p.m.

Where had the time gone?

We arrived at the city pier and, as I exited, the driver instructed me, “This is my last run.”

“OK,” I replied, “Have a good night.”

So there I was at the foot of the pier. Stranded. With nothing but some beer and smokes. I suddenly realized my predicament.

Then I remembered my buddy, Rodney — a bartender at the Waterfront Restaurant across South Bay Boulevard from the pier.

If he’s working, I tell myself, I can catch a ride with him when he gets off.

I called him on my cellphone and a sigh of relief fell over me when he answered. Unfortunately, the feeling was short-lived. He wasn’t working.

He offered to come get me, but I told him, “Don’t bother. There’s always Bruce’s Taxi.”

Well, I thought, I’m here. Might as well see what’s biting at the pier.

I walked through the darkness, seeing the restaurant lights and the gold lights of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in the background of Tampa Bay.

The pier was empty except for a couple fishermen here and there and I noticed the bait shop and restaurant were empty and locked up. Closed for the night.

I started my walk around the perimeter of the pier ,looking over the edges to see if any snook were around. I saw schools of shiners gathered along the edges of the pier, where the light shines on the water. There were a few snook milling around in the shadows, waiting for prime time to ambush bait.

The tide was coming in, so I took seat to watch the snook feed. I cracked a beer and sat patiently as the snook nosed into the current.

The water was calm and clear. The air was warm and stagnant. No breeze whatsoever. Then I heard a pop. A snook had risen to the surface to strike a bait. My heart rate increased with anticipation as I scanned the water’s surface to see where the commotion had occurred.

Suddenly, another pop.

I managed to see this one. A large snook shot out of the shadows and burst through a school of shiners. I saw the glow of the light reflected in his big eye as he turned sideways on the surface, the black lateral line was clearly visible as the fish breached the surface of the water before swimming back into the depths under a huge swirling splash. Now my heart was really racing and I wished I had a rod.

I waited for another blast.

Suddenly without notice, a cool breeze pressed against me. I looked up from my gaze at the water to feel the fresh air and noticed the yellow arches of the Skyway were no longer visible. The breeze grew into a cold wind and I realized a fast-moving thunderstorm was closing in on the pier.

Within minutes I felt the first raindrops and then a cloudburst.

The rain was so heavy, I grabbed my beer and ducked into the covered breezeway between the restaurant and the bait shop.

I was alone. Alone in the rain.

It rained so hard I only could see a little way down the walkway of the pier. No land in sight except for the faint glimmer of street lights on Pine Avenue.

Holding true to a typical Florida thunderstorm, the rain ended about 20 minutes later.

The breeze stopped.

The air grew warm and muggy and I began to sweat again.

Now I was ready to find a way home. It was just past midnight and I was tired and wet. I stood up and began to walk toward land. As I rounded the corner of the restaurant, I was startled to see I wasn’t alone. I froze where I was for a moment, looking at an old man. He had a New York Yankees ball cap, which covered a head of wavy gray hair.

He looked at me through his thick black-rimmed glasses and took a sip of coffee from a Styrofoam cup. Then he put a toothpick in the corner of his mouth.

“Nice little shower we had, huh?” he said.

Upon hearing his voice, I realized I knew him.

The shadow on the pier was Vic.

I had known Vic since I was a kid. He was one of the old-timers who fished the pier at night. A real snook hunter.

“Hey Vic, I haven’t seen you in forever.”

“You haven’t been out here in forever,” he replied.

Vic is a legend in these parts. Like I said, he’d been fishing these parts for probably 30 years. He knew these fish better than anyone. He caught some of the biggest snook I’d ever seen and he was a “no muss, no fuss” snook fisherman. You could tell just by the gear he used. A 7-foot boat rod combined with a 6/0 Penn reel spooled with 100-pound mono. And for bait, he only went big, whether it was a pinfish or ladyfish or even a ballyhoo. His method of fishing was “old-school.” Nothing like the sporty stuff we use nowadays.

We sat and talked for a while. And it was like it always was. We never talked about anything but fishing. Heck, I’d known Vic practically my whole life and still don’t know his last name. He was pleased to hear that I had become a charter captain, although he scoffed at the notion of taking tourists fishing. To him, being a good fisherman was something you learned, not something for hire.

We sat and watched his pole, anticipating a bite, where it sat in a hole drilled into the deck. Suddenly, the rod bent over double, pointing toward the water. Vic quickly jumped up and pulled the rod from the holder. It swayed to the left and right as Vic held on with every ounce of his strength. I could hear the fish splashing under the pier trying to shake the hook.

“Keep him out of the pilings!” I shouted.

Upon hearing that, Vic reeled down, pointing the rod tip toward the water, and with one quick lift he hoisted the big snook onto the deck. The fish thrashed and flipped around the dock eagerly trying to find water. Scales covered the area surrounding the fish. Then blood. Vic slit the throat to bleed the fish, which is believed to make it taste better.

It was a slot-fish measuring 32 inches. We stood there a moment admiring the catch.

“I knew that ladyfish would catch him,” Vic said as he panted.

He was still slightly worn out from the battle.

“Yeah, that sure is a nice snook,” I said congratulating him.

“If anybody is going to catch a keeper out here, it’s you.”

He smiled and sat on a bench, taking a sip of his coffee.

“Well I suppose I’ll take him home and fillet him,” said Vic. “I’ll see you, Danny.”

“Good to see you, Vic. It’s been too long.”

Vic grabbed his rod and 5-gallon bucket — his tackle box — in one hand. He bent down and slipped his fingers under the gills of the snook with the other hand and headed down the pier.

I stood there, pleased that I had gotten to see him again. And was pleased that I got to see he was still going strong after all these years.

After all the excitement, I figured I would sit and drink one more beer before calling a taxi.

It was late and I wanted to just sit in silence and remember the days when I was a boy fishing at the pier. I sat in the northwest corner and stared toward Egmont Key and watched as the lighthouse flashed its beacon over the water. Every 11 seconds it would flash. I watched it and counted. Another flash. Another 11 seconds. Another flash. Another 11 seconds. Flash.

“Danny! Danny!”

I awoke to someone yelling my name. I must’ve fallen asleep watching the lighthouse. I sat up and looked around the pier but saw no one.

“Danny! Over here!”

The sound was coming from the water. To my surprise it was Capt. Aaron Lowman in his Carolina Skiff, there to catch bait for his morning charter.

“What are you doing out here?” he exclaimed.

“Waiting for you to give me a ride back to the marina. What else?” I replied.

It was still dark but I could see Lowman at the helm.

He pulled the bow of the boat up to the edge of the pier.

“Hop in, Bubba!” he chuckled. “What the hell are you doing out here?”

I explained my evening to him and he just shook his head and laughed. “I guess I have to tell your wife she’s not allowed to go out of town anymore.”

We both laughed as I sat there holding my head, feeling a headache coming on. Still, I offered to throw the net for bait in trade for him running me back to Mainsail Marina.

After a couple of throws we were baited up and started heading back and the sun was just peeping over the horizon. We arrived at my boat and I thanked him for the lift. He just laughed and shook his head.

“Go home and get some sleep,” he chuckled, and off I went.

A couple of weeks passed. My family was home and we decided to take a walk on the Anna Maria City Pier. We enjoy talking with the fisherman and visiting Dave Sork, the manager of the City Pier Restaurant. Dave is a friend of the family and we were due to “catch up” a little bit. Plus, I wanted to tell him I saw Vic. Dave and Vic had been buddies for as long as I could remember.

We made our way to the pier and began our walk. As we started, we noticed the seagulls and pelicans were ferociously diving into vast schools of bait fish that gathered all around the pier. Spanish mackerel could be seen skyrocketing through the bay amidst the diving birds. Eager fishermen were casting spoons and jigs quickly retrieving them in hopes of hooking one of these hard-fighting fish.

“Hey Dave,” I said.

He was happy to see us. We sat and talked for a while and then I mentioned seeing Vic.

But Dave had a confused look on his face.

“Vic?” He asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “I watched him catch a big snook.”

I continue to comment on Vic and how he still looked the same as always. The New York Yankees hat, toothpick, coffee and thick black-rimmed glasses.

“You must’ve seen someone else,” said Dave.

“No it was him,” I said.

He looked me square in the eye and said, “Well the problem is Vic passed away a few years ago, Danny.”

My jaw dropped.

I know what I saw. We had a conversation.

All of a sudden I was feeling uncomfortable. I agreed I must’ve seen someone else. For the sake of not sounding crazy, I let it go.

I look back at the incident and I’m thankful that I got to spend a night snook fishing on the pier with Vic.

He was one of the best fisherman I’ve ever known and I’ll never forget him.

Maybe another night and another thunderstorm, I’ll venture to the pier and check on Vic.

I have to thank him for inspiring me to fish and to teach others.

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