Blue Bastards

"The Flats Fishermen," by Peter Corbin

The good news is, with a guide like Brad Morris, someone who has put in the time and effort to figure out the new fishery—the tides, the flies, the winds and the flats themselves—you’re bound to eventually get it right. Your eyes sharpen. You begin to notice the tiny telltale puffs of cloudy water where the fish root about and feed. Your casting might actually improve. Then suddenly you’re tight to a running fish—when the real trouble can actually unfold.

“Don’t let it reach those rocks!”

What makes a worthy game fish? When does a fishery deserve the considerable time and effort—not to mention your precious money—it can take to explore or discover yourself?

And, really, is there anything genuinely new, sport-wise, under the timeless glare of our planet’s closest star?

In his delicious essay, A World-Record Dinner, first published over half a century ago, Tom McGuane offers some notions as to why anyone might want to pursue, like the subject of the essay, the mutton snapper, a relatively homely fish such as the blue bastard.

“To begin with,” writes McGuane, “mutton snappers share with the most pursued shallow-water game fish a combination of hair-trigger perceptions. They are wild and spooky, difficult to deceive, and very powerful. Taken under optimum conditions, they are as enthralling as any species that haunts the flats.”

All of this can be said, as well, of blue bastards, whose rotund torso, blubbery Botex lips, and bulging marble-like eyes are hardly the stuff of song or poetic waxing.

Add to all of this, it’s worth noting, you’re hunting these fish in a region where, should you choose to wade a flat or walk the edge of the water along a beach, you have a good chance of falling prey to a crocodile or, less frightening I suppose, losing a limb or other appendage to a shark.

Some anglers might feel these very real dangers enhance their notions of sport.

To be clear, I would not include myself in that group.

Rather, I suggest, accept yet minimize your risks. One morning after poling us along the outer edge of a broad, mostly sand flat, Brad stakes the skiff and allows Gil and me to climb out and search for fish on foot. He offers, as well, to stay by my side. I don’t protest. Not only does his presence increase, dramatically, the odds of me spotting a fish, but he’s also able to watch for approaching danger. Built like an NFL linebacker or, better, a rugby hooker or tight-head or loosehead prop, the big fellows at the head of a scrum, Brad gives the illusion, at least, of someone who just might have a chance of warding off an attack, a possibility he seems no more interested in exploring than I am.

The risk, in this case, pays off: We find a blue bastard, I manage the cast, and it all ends with photos, high-fives, the release—and that exquisite feeling I always get when I succeed at this silly game in what seems its purest, simplest form.

That same day, on another flat, I spot Gil fending off a shark, jabbing at it until the frothing water finally settles and he holds up his rod, now missing six inches, or more, off the tip.

Inside of a week we lose our good tides. Along with the big swings on the approach of the new moon, the increased currents running through the straits are accompanied by increased winds, a phenomenon I’ve seen elsewhere although nobody seems quite ready to agree that these spring tides might in fact cause the wind. What’s certain is that a skiff ride out to the offshore islands, where we’ve been hunting the blue bastards, would now be treacherous, at best, and once out on the flats, fanning out like spilled paint from the islands’ coves and broad bays, we’d find ourselves struggling to locate enough water to float in or, just as troublesome, water shallow enough to see fish feeding along the bottom.

“Neapies are best,” says Brad, peering at me over the lip of his cup of morning coffee, NATO standard, his eyes raccoon-like, pale hollows above sunbaked cheeks, following days behind Polaroids searching for bastards beneath the glare of the Cape York sun.

I refresh my own coffee, something from home a bit more exotic than Nescafe, the grounds filtered through a sock, made in Costa Rica out of cotton T-shirt material. We’re leaning against opposite ends of an uneven hardwood counter, under a palapa-like roof covering raked volcanic sand. I’m a little bummed about the weather change, as I feel I’m just beginning to get into the swing of the blue bastards. But they’re far from the only game in town.

“What about permit?” I ask.

Brad tugs at the long gray whiskers hanging from his chin.

“You know, I just don’t have a thing for permit.” He pauses to let that settle in, reaching a hand out for an ear of Softie, one of two camp dogs, her coat at her rib cage etched with a long bold scar from a close call with a crocodile when she was young. “Everybody does that.”

Scott Sadil is the angling editor here at Gray’s Sporting Journal.