January 23, 2023

Eugene bought gas for the outboard motor, then picked up two dozen live shrimp from a bait place a few blocks from the pier. We met Richard and “Little” Bill, who’s about 6’4” and mid-thirties, yet a veteran fisherman. The four of us, all cousins, latched the boat on its trailer to the pickup and headed for the Intercoastal. Eugene backed the pickup down the ramp to slide the trailer into the water, the boat floated free. We grabbed the lines and jumped aboard.

The Intercoastal Waterway, near Edgewater, Fla., shimmered in the high-noon sun. A few hundred yards north a couple of porpoises rose and dived languidly. Huge pelicans cruised nearby, thrashing their wings, dunking for their lunch. We stowed the rods, tackle, and snacks. Eugene kicked up the outboard and we held on. The bow rose from the water as we roared into the channel. I gasped as the rush of wind blasted my lungs. Bill, the son of my cousin Margaret, handed me a windbreaker.

The Intercoastal Waterway winds through rivers, bays, and canals along the East Coast roughly from Massachusetts to the Florida Keys, then wraps around Florida along the Gulf as far as Texas. You can leave your office job in New York or some other crowded city and climb aboard a sailboat or other craft and tack to the Intercoastal. If you know what you’re doing and have the time and resources, you then can follow your dream of navigating from the congested Mid-Atlantic down through the mangrove inlets of Florida and beyond. Some finish, many don’t. I just talk about it.

Thinking about the waterway began with Albert Gallatin, Treasury Secretary under Jefferson and Madison and his 1808 Report on Roads and Canals. Congress dismissed his ideas for a series of connected waterways down the East Coast, but some were built under the General Survey Act of 1824. States and private companies built new waterway links. Legislation passed in 1882 and 1884 funded toll-free coastal water routes, and in 1924 Congress set up the Inland Waterways Corporation, the start of oversight of the IW as a contiguous route.

Bill (top), Eugene

Eugene has spent years on the water—the ocean, bays, and Intercoastal, pulling in fish—tuna, bluefish, sea bass, whatever’s catchable in saltwater. Bill has caught every game fish that swims from Lake Okeechobee in the Everglades to the St. John’s River and the dozens of Florida bays and creeks that flow into the Intercoastal. Richard and I, really, were along for the ride.

After 30 minutes we slowed and drifted in the shallows. Bill had shown photos of some big redfish he had caught at the spot. Eugene tossed the anchor and we impaled the shrimp and cast, Bill and Eugene whipping their lines out sixty feet, maybe more, their baits plunking quietly. Eugene had clipped the barbs from the hooks to avoid injuring the fish we planned to haul in.

I held my breath and heaved the rod and landed my shrimp a few dozen feet away. We all settled in. Bill and Eugene talked fishing, technical stuff, tackle, water conditions, temperature, state and county policies. I leaned back on the steering console, taking in the pale sun.

The brilliant blue of the sky met the deeper blue of the water at the horizon. A mile or so downstream we could see other small boats, just dots, heaving along slowly. The channel ran past jungles of tangled mangroves, so thick they appeared to be islands. The water beneath the boat was no more than five or six feet deep, we could see the sandy bottom.

The breeze flagged and died away. The water lapped against the hull. The surface, out a mile or more, became still as an inland lake. Apart from our low voices, our little spot in this world was silent. At a distance, the mangrove islands were a thin dark line. We shifted our rods to gauge the quivering of the slender tips for fish interest. We reeled in, inspected the remains of the shrimp and replaced them.

I cast again and leaned forward, fingering the line, and felt a tug. I raised the rod and hauled in a small bluefish, maybe a foot long. The cousins cheered. We got the obligatory photo and released it. Then we settled back into the classic fisherman’s pastime, waiting. The fish seem to wise up after one is caught, as if the guy that got away passed a warning to the others.

It was no big deal, we weren’t fishing for our next meal. Catch-and-release is the policy, and most Florida anglers go along. Eugene has caught tuna 100 miles out in the Atlantic off New England and turned them into homemade sushi. Here, though, it was the ritual, a celebration of the time on the water in the serenity of this semi-tropical place.

The outing mattered for cousins who now rarely see each other. Eugene, Richard, and I were kids together. We marched through a generation of family life, precious and tragic, coping with kids, work, sibling melodrama, now looking at the wear and tear on the body at six or seven decades, meaning doctors, hospitals, and surgeries. Yet here we were, not exactly Hemingway, but setting all that aside for a while to get out on the water in the crisp fresh air, the warm, bright sunshine, to feel the invigorating rush of the twenty-foot outboard crashing forward.

As the sun moved across the sky we polished off our sandwiches and talked more. Bill pulled out a trout fly rod, attached a fly, unspooled a stretch of line, and with a deft stroke whipped it a hundred feet, dropping the fly just outside the mangroves. “Haven’t worked this much around here,” he said. It’s for trout, after all. He’s done that.

He explained the pluses of Powerpro braided SpectraFiber fishing line. I gave him a blank look. “It’s incredibly strong and has no memory, meaning it won’t tangle as it comes off or gets reeled back,” he said. I recalled the hopeless tangles with the monofilament line I had installed on the spinning reels I had given my grandsons. Powerpro it is, I told myself.

“The baitcaster is a better choice than the spinning reel,” he said. He picked up his baitcaster and sent a quick cast fifty feet off the stern. “With the spinner the line comes off sideways, so it’ll tangle more easily.” I nodded at all this. It was wisdom in a domain I had played in as a kid, but now knew next to nothing.

I recalled the photos of Bill’s thirty-pound redfish as we hauled in the anchor. Eugene fired up the outboard and we cruised back to the channel, then chugged slowly back toward the dock. I thought it would be nice if the kids could catch something if we go fishing in the spring. Most likely it will be some local stream or pond, not the Intercoastal. But then, Bill says, here’s where the fish are.

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