The Phantom, The Circle, and the Pentagon

The Phantom, The Circle, and the Pentagon

"I know I killed him off in my first book,
but I can resurrect him if I want to." Cap'n Kev

Early on a summer morning, a solitary angler idles up to the edge of a miles-wide grass flat in a secluded corner of the Laguna Madre, pausing for a moment to gaze eastward, where the burnished hues of sunrise glow over the dunes on Padre Island, soon to end a short, hot night.

Then his eyes begin to scan the surface of the water around his boat, looking for signs that the fish he's been finding here have stayed for another day. A slick pops to the port side of the path he's chosen, which crosses a shallow grass bed surrounded by fish-holding potholes. Starting as a mere shiny spot, the slick quickly grows to the dimensions of a bathtub, then to equal the size of his boat, floating slowly with the morning breeze away from where it first signaled the presence of a feeding fish.

In the opposite direction, the sharp-sighted fisherman spies the tell-tale wide, humping wake pattern of a school of moving black or red drum. Spooked only slightly by his stealthy craft, they push away at a leisurely pace, but he knows they will most likely come back to the same potholes where he often finds them.

While he gingerly drops the anchor over the gunwale and into the clear shallows, his attention is suddenly focused on a hole blown in the water by an attacking game fish. With a loud "splat!", a mullet's life has likely ended, the sound of its demise instantly registering in the mind of this apex predator. As he watches the spreading circles emanating from the foamy hole, he hears another, softer noise behind him in the deeper water from which he's idled.

It's the airy sound of a porpoise clearing its breathing hole. He can see the dorsal fins, tails and profiles of a school of the squeaking gray mammals surfacing off the outer edge of the flat. To the fisherman, it's just another sign that the fish he's looking for have not left. Hunters like porpoises don't have to guess whether they are "on fish"; their profoundly sharp senses eliminate all uncertainty.

As he slips over the low side of his skinny-water skiff, the old salt can smell the fish whose presence he's already verified visually. At first, the scent reminds him of watermelon, but not the sweetest kind; he surmises that the odor is wafting off the countless mullet that are dimpling the surface all around him as he tries to determine the most promising direction in which to head.

Off the western edge of the grassbed on which he's parked, a silty gut runs parallel to the shore of a spoil island. Where the gut runs south into the shallower flat, several choice potholes feather out, breaking up the bottom and creating ambush habitat perfect for speckled trout. To the east, a bright, sandy pothole dotted with scattered grass lies next to shin-deep solid grass with fewer features on the bottom.

He's studied it all carefully many times before, both with his eyes and the soles of his boots and he knows where the bottom changes from hard to soft, the depths of various potholes and the paths fish like to take on their trips from the skinniest confines of the flat back to the guts leading into the comfort of deeper water.

On this morning, it's hard to choose the direction of highest interest. Again, he hears a "smack!" when a healthy predator makes a meal out of one of the horse mullet that carpet the flats. The sound comes from a different spot, not where the slick had popped, not where he'd heard and seen the first attack, nor where he'd spied the cruising school of drum.

Rather than proceed in any direction, the man stops and begins casting to nearby wakes which give away the presence of nervous mullet. Almost instantly, he's hooked up when a crazed redfish charges his Super Spook and takes it in one clean swipe.

The fisherman finds the pull of the broad, bronze fish most pleasant in the still-dim light. As his drags slips and whizzes, the breeze whistles against tight line, and other fish are spooked by the one he fights; the flat erupts with the slushing, low sound of their fleeing en masse.

The closer the fish gets to the man, the harder it fights back, and several minutes pass before he succeeds in bringing it within reach; the redfish makes one last lunge, its tail spraying water onto his face. The man tastes a salty sip of the lagoon; he smacks his lips while reaching out to put his hand around the reddish-brown shoulders of his feisty quarry. Taking a moment to admire the golden accents on its cheek and the powder blue tip on its tail as it waves in the soothing breeze, he releases it and begins to scan the area again.

Slicks are popping, bait is darting and nervous water stretches in every direction. With a shrug, he casts back to the spot of the previous hook up and his lure makes it no more than five feet over the water before it's attacked again, this time by what looks like a pod of redfish; he sees a large wave run up behind his plug and an eruption of foam around it obscures whatever has shown ultimate interest.

Again, he's hooked up to a red pushing the upper end of the slot. He plays it close to him and in the growing light of morning, can see that several of its schoolmates have followed curiously. One actually bumps his leg as it passes, panicked by the sudden knowledge of his presence and fleeing in a boil of mud.

While releasing his second red, he smells fish again; this time, the sweet fragrance of ripe watermelon registers as speckled trout to him. He's been pulling some rare and impressive sow trout from among the schools of drum on recent trips. This is what he's waited for, and he begins slowly to shuffle upwind of the slick he spots, nostrils flaring fully to verify the scent of a species he places above the redfish on his personal list.

But he doesn't catch any trout for the next two hours or so; there are just too many reds on the flat to give the trout a chance at his topwater lure. Three dozen or more of the brazen bullies are hooked when they openly charge his cigar-shaped plug, though some fifty others strike and miss. One is perfect for eating, just over the twenty inch mark, so he strings it during the middle of the melee.

He's alternately laughing, talking to the fish, cussing them when they bend or break hooks, reassuring them that they'll be okay when releasing them. Through it all, the whispering wind provides a backdrop of noise and a perfect ripple on the water to help his lure work its magic.

Eventually, he wanders far up onto the flat in pursuit of his fish, and with the higher sun angle, he can discern a massive school of drum finning slowly over the grass. Black drum dominate the school, but reds are scattered here and there, suspending just above them, barely under the surface. He stands perfectly still, his feet stuck in the soft mud and grass, watching them as they pass. Then he picks out the biggest red he can find in the bunch and catches it with almost ridiculous ease, casting the plug beyond it and marveling at how quickly the fish reacts, how its fins stretch tight as it alertly seeks out the clicking and splashing plug, races right over and pounces on top of it.

But soon he is tired of pulling on these "old rubber lips." What he yearns for now is to feel the erratic pull of a big trout, to watch her shake her head and throw foam all around, to feel his hand around her shoulder, one softer than that of the redfish. He wants a peek at the regal blues and lavenders that adorn her back and at the golden rim seemingly brushed on the insides of her mouth and around her lips.

So he turns away from the school of drum and as he does, a sound like distant rumbling thunder spreads around his feet and lifts up from the bottom when the fish move as one. He's been hearing that sound all morning as the multiple schools react in response to the fish he's hooked. It fooled him once or twice into scanning the horizon for a coming storm, but he smiled when he realized that the pitter patter was coming from the bladders of the many drum he stood among.

Like a phantom, he slides back in the direction of the boat, the wind dies away to nothing and a slick sheen covers the surface of the flat, obscuring all beneath. The earthy smell of the schools of drum seems to saturate the still air with a scent akin to chicken necks soaking in the warm salty brine.

Then old plugger sees what will lead him to the fish he's really come over here to catch. Several tall, narrow wakes betray the presence of prowling trout on the shallow flat next to the gut on the shoreline of the spoil west of the boat. As he nears the flat and can reach the shelf where the gut borders the grass, he gets a new kind of blowup, one he instantly recognizes as that of a trout. The pull of the first speck he hooks is lighter; more delicately it fights, but also with more speed and a less predictable pull.

It is not a large trout, merely a seventeen incher, the size he prefers most of all to eat, so he strings it with his little redfish and continues looking for one of its ancestors.

Four more trout take his topwater and thrash around defiantly as he pulls them over to him, wets his hand and bends to carefully release them from the hooks they fought futilely against. None is a wallhanger, though two measure more than twenty four inches.

The wind is gone, the sun is rising higher and the day is becoming downright hot. He looks back on the scene of the earlier battles with the redfish and can tell they are moving off the flat; soon, they'll be disguised in deeper water and won't be available to him. He feels that his chance at a giant trout is slipping away as well.

But then he notices another wake, way up on the shallow grass, just offshore of the spoil island. It's too far up there, he thinks to himself, so he continues casting at the potholes near the edge and catches two more trout, all the while watching the wake; whatever is making it is spooking horse mullet out of its way continually as it weaves seemingly in an aimless fashion over the flat.

In time, he realizes that the fish will likely pass right in front of him, within casting range. Thinking the wake is too big to indicate a trout, he decides that he must cast at it anyway. His first effort fails to intercept the fish, which is moving steadily, but not in a straight line. The second attempt perfectly places the plug in the path and ahead of the predator and he waits just long enough for the fish to come within about four feet of it before he begins to give it spastic, side to side movements to make it appear to be attempting a getaway.

And as soon as the lure begins to move, a trout of legendary proportions vaults completely clear of the water, seeming to hover in the air horizontally for a moment, like a snapshot, the thick, spotted profile appearing supernaturally large, impossible to have been concealed fully by the thin waters covering the grass. Then the fish crashes down right on top of his plug, mouth agape, making a splash more like a frolicking porpoise than a striking speck.

The fight is dramatic, loud and short-lived. In mere seconds, the hooks pull out and the trout is off, leaving a hissing sheet of foam to commemorate the event. The lone angler shouts a coarse word and turns his face toward the sky, for a moment almost wishing he'd brought someone along with him. It would be useless to surmise how big the trout had been or to try and convince someone he'd actually seen it somersault its way onto his plug.

As all dedicated anglers will, he continues fishing, looking for other wakes on the narrow flat and spotting them. Two more four pound specks find themselves in a fight with the man, who succeeds in landing them. As the heat beats down and the wakes signaling feeding fish disappear, the old boy gives up and calls it another day.

He tries to fend off the nagging disappointment over losing the tremendous trout on the boat ride back in, relieved to feel the effects of the artificial breeze his skiff creates to cool him. He carefully fillets the cold pair of fish he's brought to the dock and when he gets home, he marinates them in Italian dressing while washing off the morning salt and sweat in the shower.

Whistling softly in the kitchen, he fries up the trout and redfish, one battered in lemon-zested cornmeal, the other covered in a spicy cajun rub. And when he tastes them, the circle of life and death and life is complete; he's involved all five senses in pursuit of both sport and sustenance.

The earthiness of the flesh of the fish mingles with the fruit and spice to create a rich panoply of taste sensations, from salty to sweet to umami, the savory flavor first labeled by the Japanese. Taste is the last one of the pentagon of senses brought into play on his satisfying day. When the suds from a single beer wash down the final bits of the fish, he's unable to resist the weight of his eyelids and drifts off to sleep, dreaming of the lost trout and snoring in the midst of an afternoon nap.