The Hermit

The Hermit

Author's note: The following is purely fictitious. Any resemblance it may have to real people and/or events is purely coincidental and (I hope) delightfully freaky!

In his prime, he had been willing to serve all the people. If they called and showed interest, he took them fishing, from the beginners, drifters and bait soakers, all the way to the hardcore, hardware chunking wade-only trout snobs. He put them on big fish in Baffin Bay and the Laguna Madre back in the good old days, when thirty inch trout were as easy to find as the whitetails along Park Road 22.

There was the time he took the host of a popular fishing show out for some live bait action in late-spring. The celebrity angler caught three trout over thirty inches! Everyone in the boat caught at least one, and together they boxed a limit of forty trout and twelve reds that weighed nearly three hundred pounds. In those days, few people considered putting some fish back for tomorrow, especially the big ones. There were egos to be stroked on the screen and bragging rights to be earned at the dock.

Squealing children, old ladies in floppy hats, frat boys, business executives in street clothes and all other sorts of folks caught giant trout and numerous redfish back then. The guide had fun watching all of them, sharing in their joy over the ridiculously easy fishing and sending them home with their share of the bounty.

Eventually, he became more interested in the clients who were willing to wade and throw artificial lures, particularly the ones who wanted to focus on trophy trout instead of the reds. Over time, as the old sow specks became more scarce, he came to relish the challenge of consistently finding and tricking them, and he reveled in the pleasure of watching the acrobatic antics they often display after they're hooked.

He began to weed out the bait soakers and drifters in favor of those who wanted to fish his favorite way. They were content to wade, to chunk and wind all day, waiting for one big bite, but normally catching plenty of quality trout and reds along the way. Lure designers began to dream up and make new and better tools for them to use to take the trout that made his home waters famous.

One foggy February morning, he and two clients found a school of titanic trout feeding on a shallow sand and grass flat surrounded on both sides by rocks and deep water. Casting at mud stirs and suspicious swirls, the three managed to hook twenty of the monsters, landing fourteen, the smallest at twenty eight inches, the largest at nearly thirty four, weighing over thirteen pounds. Five others weighed in the double digits! They caught them all on a lure that was new at the time, a slow-sinking, soft-bodied mullet imitator that would revolutionize trout fishing in Texas.

His face was displayed in magazines and newspapers all over the state soon after the sun burned off the mists that morning; he was beaming behind those colossal specks who still had the lures dangling from their saffron-fringed lips in the pictures. Because of that trip, many other trophy seekers came, and times were good for the guide, his clients and the lure makers too.

They didn't catch as many trout over thirty as they had back in the day, but the fishing remained better than in most of the rest of the state, and they let almost all of the big ones go. He began to limit the harvest they took, even offering a discount to those who fished purely catch and release. They were in it for the sport, and they came to his waters for the chance at a lifetime-best trout, not to take home a heavy sack of fillets.

For more than a decade, life was good; the money flowed down the serpentine highways south and east into his tan, callous hands. He was posting reports and pictures on the internet, finding new customers now and then and fishing regularly with those he had met earlier and kept. Toward the end of his run, his business reached a plateau, then began to shrink, and the long years of wading and baking in the sun took some of the vigor from him.

Sometime after the turn of the millennium, the rising taxes and insurance on his home in Padre Isles subdivision threatened to price him out of the neighborhood. He'd raised his fees to equal those of the other prominent guides up and down the coast. But as the hordes of people scrambled to develop every inch of the last stretch of Texas beachfront, they drove the prices higher and higher, and he became unwilling or unable to afford to stay.

He knew he had to find another place to live, and by the time his last black Lab bitch could no longer stand on her worn out hips, he had her put to rest and resolved to go somewhere and start over again. Not wanting to move into town where the cost of living was cheaper, he devised an alternative plan, one that would take him away from the skyrocketing costs of living in such a popular place.

He called up a young friend who had rights to a floating cabin in The Badlands and worked out a deal where he could live there for a monthly fee. Then he sold his home and all possessions that belong on land and stuffed the other things into his boat, leaving behind a modern life and returning to an ancient-seeming one. Living atop the waves, he plied his trade within them.

His young friend would bring food and supplies when he made his own fishing trips, always arriving with five brimming tanks of gas and leaving with empty ones. They'd talk about where the fish were biting and how the old guide had been. The young one would bring what little mail arrived in the old man's box and sometimes a newspaper for him to read; it didn't matter how many days had passed since it was printed, as it was all news to him.

Like Santiago and Manolin in The Old Man and the Sea, they shared a mutual respect built from a love of fishing. The apprentice watched out for his venerable mentor, who tutored him on the ways of the fish and in the art of catching them.

At first, the hermit guide would drive his boat to Bird Island Basin to pick up the customers who called and wanted to fish. He did all of his bookings by cell phone, after setting up one of those antennae amplifiers so he'd have service in his tiny, bobbing home. But as more time passed, he didn't even want to go as far north as the basin, so he made the customers come to him.

The clients came in their own boats and met him on the porch of his buoyant home. They then climbed into his yellowed, rusty craft to do the fishing from it; his GPS was stocked with all the routes and waypoints, uncharted rocks and pipes, anchor sites and fishing holes. Mostly, he didn't really need the gadget to get around safely, but there were places no one could possibly find without it, especially in the inky night or on a foggy morning.

He came to a point where he would only book those who agreed to come and stay for at least one night with him, knowing that two days of fishing would give a greater chance of hitting a hot bite and catching a few big fish. While they visited, he cooked for them and shared some conversation, but his social skills dulled as the days in the cabin turned to months and more.

When they left, he stuffed the cash he earned under the mildewed mattress next to the propane stove until he could give it to his young friend to pay for provisions and rent. Having no bank account or way to cash checks, he didn't even ask what was done with his money after the bills were paid.

As the number of clients began to wane with the decline in his fame, he became more content spending time and fishing alone. Some nights, when he could hear tell-tale explosions through the open window of his cabin, he'd slide out among the rocks and potholes under the silvery light of the moon and watch the phosphorous fly when the fish blew up on his plug and shook their heads in attempt to deny the mistake they'd made.

Other times, people would see his boat anchored far up on some super-skinny flat and would spy him shin-deep in the middle grounds all alone, wandering slowly, not casting, merely hoping to spot and sight cast one great trout. They didn't know, but he wouldn't even try to catch those under about eight pounds or so; he would wait for the truly epic fish. Sometimes, he'd spend three days searching for one opportunity to satisfy his undying urge.

When the crowds of spring gathered, he could be seen sitting on his porch, legs dangling in the water, watching the people whiz by in their shiny, brightly painted speed boats. At night, his silhouette appeared framed in lantern light inside the square window on the side of his cabin, while he was reading, eating or simply staring across the water.

The more things changed, the more they stayed the same. He fished, he slept and he ate. Some of the grease poppers he caught went into his frying pan; all of the long fish were released to live another day.

As the two of them got older, the young friend who was also the old one's landlord began to worry about him. "You need to come in with me and go to the doctor for a check up," he told him. "Some of those spots on the back of your neck and hands should be looked at. And you might need some medication for high blood pressure or cholesterol."

"Don't trust them city doctors," the old guide replied. "If you can get one to come out here, I'll let him look at me, otherwise forget it." The wrinkles around his bright blue eyes testified to the sincerity of what he said. He simply did not want to return to land any longer, even if doing so might prolong his life.

Often, when the young one came, they said little or nothing to each other. When a war started and the old one was told of it, he simply nodded and grunted, "Hummpf," not because he was disinterested or insensitive to the plight of the soldiers whose lives were at stake, but because he no longer knew what to say or even cared to pretend that he did.

One weekend, the cabin owner found his tenant dead on the bunk in the corner of the floater, lying peacefully with arms folded over his chest, a book of faded photos in his hands, a dusty, stuffed thirty three inch trout hanging on the wall over his head.

When the young one pried the album from the stiff fingers of his cold mentor, he noticed that the picture book was not turned to a fishing photo, but to a blurred black and white image of a young woman, a girl really. Weeping softly, the apprentice shut the lifeless eyelids and wrapped his frail old friend in a sheet, then placed his body carefully in the stern of his boat for a final ride to land, realizing that he had never asked about his former life. He didn't know who the woman was, if she had been his wife, lover, mother, sister or friend.

The old hermit who had been a fine guide died childless, homeless and all alone. But he had lived the way he wanted to and had spent his time doing what he loved. That's a better fate than most people know.

The young man had him cremated, then donated what was left of his old friend's money to a local university in the form of a scholarship to be given to a student pursuing a doctorate in marine biology, specifically one who would study Cynoscion nebulosus, the guide's favorite quarry.

After the flames had reduced the old one to ashes, the young one took him back to The Badlands and sifted his remains into the waves washing over a familiar set of rocks that had produced memorable fish for both of them.

Some of us can feel the old boy's presence there to this day. When the full moon comes out and paints its silver sheen on the dark, clear waters, the wind sometimes seems to whisper a soft dirge in honor of him. On nights like those, we are content to let the old guide turned hermit have the spot all to himself!