I DIDN’T SEE THE WAVE COMING. I was 500 yards off the white sand coast of Ft. Morgan, Alabama, standing up on the seat of my small inflatable pontoon boat, when the green waters reached up and flipped me.
This method—standing pontoon fishing—was definitely well outside of manufacturer’s recommendations for my boat, but I’d learned in past trips that a one-man pontoon could be an amazing platform for wrecking the various species on the first sandbar. In fact, the wave that pitched me over wasn’t even much of a wave; if I hadn’t been landing a Spanish mackerel at the time, I’d never have lost my balance. Unfortunately I chose a poor moment to reach out to net the fish, and the next thing I knew I was out, holding one oar and watching my gear—and my boat—move swiftly down-current. At that moment I had only two concerns: bull sharks, and my own stupidity in leaving off the life jacket on a hot day.
Almost anywhere on our Gulf Coast you’ll find fish in the trough between the beaches and the narrow strip of shallow water we all refer to as the “sandbar.” Spanish mackerel, bluefish, cobia, ladyfish, Jack Crevalle, pompano, redfish and sea trout abound; a list of species so long, every time you feel a tug it’s like someone’s spun an imaginary roulette wheel. Blacktip sharks will occasionally steal your catch, but the only real danger in these waters comes from the bull sharks. From the safety of shore, the extremely unlikely event of a bull shark attack seems like a pretty mild risk to run. But floating in the green water, watching your boat recede in the current—then all the hypotheticals suddenly become very real.
I had fished these same waters last year, the Worst Year on Record. BP’s oil spill was just reaching shore as my annual family vacation was starting, so we had the dubious honor of seeing the first oil come in. None of our catch was safe to eat then, and indeed we were forced off the beach a few days after our arrival. Tar balls, an immeasurably vast oil slick, and obviously addled wildlife added up to a sense of menace that all but ruined our trip.
I’m happy to say that the Gulf is back. In fact, thanks to the federal commercial fishery closure for much of last year, it’s fishing better than ever. That’s why when I had regained my boat, and used my weight to flip it back over (and after my heart quit racing), I gathered my scattered gear and kept fishing.
The waters were clean again; the bluefish and Spanish mackerel were cooperative, and fish tacos don’t make themselves. As I stood dripping on the seat of my boat, casting a sink tip as far as I could into the trackless green water, I counted my blessings. I was thankful to survive my own stupidity with nothing but a wet shirt, and I was thankful that Nature can survive—and thrive—even when our collective stupidity deals it what seems like a knock-down blow.
Zach Matthews is the Southeast Field Editor for Fly Fisherman magazine and a contributor to many other fly fishing publications.