In the beginning, there was a pier and a two-year-old boy, who hopefully clutched a Mickey Mouse push button in his hand. The Dauphin Island Pier is where the adventure started for me. I spent many hours with my father on that pier attempting to catch bait for the live well. I learned the rewards of hard work, as I watched him reel in bigger fish that had eagerly eaten my small trophies. The experience kick-started my obsessive passion. To this day, I still thoroughly enjoy catching my own bait and learning the diet of the fish I pursue. Noting the behavior of the species we caught, analyzing the birds feeding along the shoreline, and observing the beauty of the marine life surrounding me fostered a curiosity that, to this day, I have not been able to silence.
Fishing was a source of bonding for my family. My father would take my two brothers and I out to the island often. He was always open to trying new techniques, and gradually passed his knowledge to us. First lesson, always be present for the morning bite. Second, schooling mackerel and jacks will almost always take Gotcha lures and speckled trout rigs. They can be casted over long distances to reach fast moving schools. Finally, live bait is a necessity on the pier. If there were schooling alewives or hardtails under the pilings, we frantically casted ribbon rigs and Sabikis at them to load the bait well. The countless teachings we received dropping lines off of those wooden planks led to numerous jack crevalle, Spanish mackerel, and bluefish.
The greatest lesson that pier taught us: never stop learning and observing. My Dad deserves all the credit for constantly adapting and watching the fishermen around us. As a result, I can vividly remember learning to catch my first speckled trout. It is almost comical looking back at our original perspective. It was common knowledge that people with boats were the only ones able to catch trout regularly, and we hardly questioned that fact. Every now and then, someone would get extremely lucky and have one hit their line. Catching a speck made a person’s day, and left everyone nearby extremely jealous. This all changed by watching one fisherman and learning.
The pier had a board walk that led to a small, roofed structure. Inside the building, there was a lady who would sell snacks and collect cash for the pier. We had never thought twice about stopping before that building and casting out a line. The boardwalk only gave access to the first 25 yards of water past the beach. Logically, you had to go past the toll woman down to the end of the pier to encounter the real monsters. Or so we thought. One day, we walked by a man hooking fish after fish. Every time, there was a fanged speckled trout on the end of his line. He would stand on the down-current side, cast a live shrimp as far as he could, and let his float slowly drift back towards the pilings of the pier. About 15 yards from the pier, the float would go down and he would pull in another yellow-mouthed beauty. It opened up a whole new world for us.
From that moment on, everything about our approach to fishing changed. We took that observation and made it our own. It quickly became apparent that the fish preferred certain depths and conditions. Treble hooks worked much more effectively than single shanks. Their mouths were more delicate than Spanish mackerel. Consequently, the hook set didn’t have to be hard. Live shrimp died if you didn’t treat them with care or hook them properly. Slowly, over time, my family became used to a regular meal of fried fish. Instead of an empty ice chest being commonplace, it was a surprise if we came home without a heavy cooler.
Those eight years we spent on the pier laid the foundation for my father’s first boat. It was a 1973 Chapparal, equipped with a 1989 two-stroke Johnson 88. It came decked out with one storage hole for an anchor and beautiful, blue carpet that snagged treble hooks like an aqua colored oyster bed. Sure, we blew large clouds of black smoke into the faces of fishermen with fancy four-stroke engines, but we loved every second of it. Our range now expanded far past the pier. Fish were no longer out of our reach. Spanish mackerel and bluefish became nuisance species as we pursued trout, redfish, kings and snapper. We took our nineteen feet of single layer fiberglass as far as we could on calm days, leading us to amberjack, triggerfish, and mahi mahi.
Boating also taught us some hard lessons. One lightning storm and a few five foot swells made us much more conscientious of weather conditions. Sea sickness plagued us often, and Dramamine became a regular side with breakfast. Owning a boat taught us our limits. Those early teachings on safety will stick with me forever. And as my father says, “If someone says they have never done anything stupid on a boat, they are lying.”
I would never change anything about how I learned to fish. Those early times made me appreciate the finer details of coastal life. Without bait fishing on the pier, I would never have developed the “sensitive touch” I use in fly fishing. If I hadn’t experienced the perils of a small craft with an unreliable motor, I wouldn’t have fostered a healthy respect of mother nature. These fundamentals carry me through every new angling challenge.
A fisherman should never be static in his approach. I think the natural progression, for most anglers, is to move away from live bait and to artificial presentations. You tend to get away from the heavy tackle, and challenge yourself with lighter line and combos. Presently, this is true for my current fishing methods. Yes, I occasionally like “grocery fishing” with live shrimp. But, my real satisfaction comes from fooling a fish with a new lure.
Fly fishing became the natural next step. I started fly fishing in 2008, after I received my first fly set up as a graduation gift. Since then, I have come to realize the vast knowledge and careful technique that is required to effectively present a fly. My first experience consisted of blind casting for speckled trout from the beach. A small bonita, which on conventional tackle would have been an annoyance, became exciting again. Fortunately, I met a fellow classmate in medical school who introduced me to poling the marshland in Louisiana, Mississippi and lower Alabama in pursuit of redfish. If you haven’t tried sight fishing for these cajun goldfish, you haven’t experienced the hunting side of fishing.
Over the past year, I have resided in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Wading small waters is a brand new and exciting venture. Dry flies, streamers, and nymphs are terms I wouldn’t have ever imagined learning. I am slowly picking up on how to fish the streams and rivers through careful observation, listening to locals, and relentless reading. Within the last year, I caught my first brown trout, rainbow trout, smallmouth, and steelhead. I’ve experienced the pain of fall leaves snagging every cast, and the importance of oiling the guides to keep them from freezing. Although the accents and food are very different from home, the basics of fishing still apply.
Erosion and shifting sands have since pushed the Dauphin Island Pier over land, but I still find that memory vital to the way I approach each new challenge. The same passion and thrill still fills me with every fish I find on the end of my line. Each lunker I miss keeps me coming back for another chance. When I’m not fishing, I’m daydreaming about the days past and those to come. If the weather is bad and conditions forbid me from wading the nearest streams, you can find me recapturing the fishing experience through my artwork. I am eagerly looking forward to exploring further into the fishing world, and this adventure is never ending.