If you’ve read this column before, you know that I live on Perdido Key, Florida, the northwestern most island in Florida. PK is tucked between Pensacola and Gulf Shores, Alabama, and has the inauspicious honor of being the first Florida beach to get oiled by the Deepwater Horizon blowout. But that’s another story I’ve told so many times I’m tired of it.
When we don’t have hurricanes and oil slicks, there’s a lot to love about Perdido Key. It has some of the softest, whitest beaches in the world. It’s so remote there’s never a traffic jam on the two-lane blacktop that cuts a straight line through the dunes. We have good restaurants and better bars. The locals are laid back and the tourists are tolerable.
First and foremost, there’s enough fishing to last several lifetimes. From my house, I can paddle my kayak to redfish and speckled trout territory in five minutes. Or I can walk across the street to the Gulf of Mexico and cast for bluefish, Spanish mackerel, pompano, bonito, and even big bull reds. Or I can jump in the boat and blast offshore for redfish, grouper, king mackerel, mahi-mahi, triggerfish, and amberjack. And if I’m really feeling brave, I can ride 50 or 60 miles out for tuna and billfish. That’s a lot of fishing. It’s like I tell my hunter-buddies: it’s not like I’m not opposed to hunting, but with this much fishing in my backyard, I just don’t have time to shoot at animals.
One evening a few years back, when the sun was setting like a lava lamp in a 1970s dorm room, my wife, our two daughters, and I strolled to the beach to take in the scene and shoot a picture or two. I brought a spinning rod just in case. The surf was strong and the breakers were rolling in so hard they’d carved a three-to-four foot bluff along the shoreline. This is a pretty common phenomenon because Florida’s barrier islands are just big, elongated sandboxes that are constantly shaped by the wind, waves, tides, and kids with plastic buckets.
That evening I noticed two fishermen with the tell-tale PVC rod holders jammed in the sand holding their extra-long surf rods. They were fishing for what I believe is possibly the tastiest fish in the sea – pompano. Every morning and evening, especially during peak pompano season in the spring, fishermen of all races, religions, age, and Facebook status, fish the beach. I’d seen these guys before and I knew they were pretty well into their retirement years. One of them had even outfitted a walker, like you see in nursing homes, which has the little wheels on the front. It had a seat, rod holders, a tackle box, and a mini cooler for the essentials. I was impressed that he trudged through the sand on his pimped-out walker. I told my wife that I wanted one of those contraptions when I was old, gray, and mixing my rum with Ensure. She gave me one of those stares. “I’m not kidding,” I said. “Never too old to fish, honey.”
The walker-rig was parked at the edge of the bluff and the guy was working two rods from his seat. Even if agility was just a distant memory for him, determination was still very much alive. Suddenly one of his rod tips bent over. I watched him grab the rod and start reeling. It took a while for him to crank the fish ashore, but these guys clearly had a system. When the fish emerged from the waves, his buddy, who was also quite elderly, slid off the sand bluff, walked toward the waves, and started dragging the fish up the slope. About the time he secured the pompano, a large wave crashed on the beach and knocked him to his knees. I watched him try to crawl toward the bluff as another wave gushed up the beach. When the water receded, he was sprawled out in the gushy, wet sand. But he still had that pompano. I had already started jogging in that direction when the man looked up and yelled to me. “Mister, mister,” he said, “help me!”
I quickly jumped off the bluff, grabbed the man under his arm, and pulled him to safety. Of course, I made sure I had the pompano in the other hand. Human life is precious, but dinner is imperative.
I really didn’t feel like a hero or anything special but both of the men were extraordinarily grateful. After thanking me profusely, they hit me with the “How can we repay you?” question. That was an easy one. “How many pompano do you have in the bucket?” I asked. They immediately gave me their two biggest. I was happy, my wife was happy, my kids were happy, and our two new friends were happy. The world was a beautiful, fishy place.
With the incident behind us, we stood there for a few minutes and chatted. As it turned out, the man I “saved” was none other than Paul Silivos, the owner of Skopelos on the Bay, one of Pensacola’s oldest and finest seafood restaurants. Like Paul, the restaurant had heavy Greek influences, and in its 40-plus years, it had served movie stars, dignitaries, and politicians, including President Gerald Ford and his wife Betty.
“You bring your family to the restaurant,” Paul said, “and everything is on the house.”
I was starting to warm up to this hero thing. “Drinks too?” I asked.
“Even my best bottle of wine,” he said.
If you know me, you know that I took Paul up on his offer. I’m not one to pass on a free meal. I started going to the beach almost every afternoon and I’d find Paul and his buddy fishing there. I’d hang out and shoot the bull while they fished. I was also studying that fishing walker so I could get some blueprints drawn up. We had some good times and they’d float me a pompano every so often when the catching was good.
The next spring came but Paul and his buddy didn’t. I learned that they’d both passed on to fishing heaven. Sadly, Skopelos got caught in the middle of a battle over Paul’s estate and the restaurant closed, too, after 50 successful years.
These days, when spring arrives, I haul my surf rods to the Gulf and set up in Paul’s favorite spot. I usually catch a few nice fish for my family and meditate to the sound of the waves. And I always think about two old men who were lifelong friends and lucky enough to share the gift of fishing until they passed away. I’m glad I got to share a slice of time with them. And I’m glad I got my free meal and some choice pictures of that walker.
I hope one day when I’m frail but still determined, I can be dragging a big pompano out of the surf and yell to a beachcomber, “Hey mister, help me.”
That’s what I call sustainable fishing.