Every morning when I step outside I am greeted by a chorus of ospreys circling in the glint of the rising sun. There are between four and six of them, depending on the day. They spend their days fishing, building nests, and fighting. Every evening, sitting out by the fire as dusk turns to darkness, we hear them winding down their day, circling until they settle into roosts in dead trees around us, the females returning to their nests.
The osprey is a consummate fisherman. Spend any time casting a line into the surf along the Gulf of Mexico and you will see them. You will see them come along, hover for a few minutes, not far from wherever your line is, and then they’ll drop down like a rock falling out of the sky and snatch a fish before heading inland again. Meanwhile you will sweat in the humid sun all afternoon and not get a bite.
The osprey has been here far longer than humans. The osprey will probably be here long after we have retreated. The osprey doesn’t get sunburns. If it gets hot it doesn’t complain about it. It’s willing to live just about anywhere. It loves old dead trees, but it’ll settle for the top of telephone poles, collapsing radio towers, even the 1950s-inspired Pensacola Beach welcome sign.
Ospreys always make me feel like I could catch a fish. We carry quite a few fishing poles on the roof of the bus, but I rarely get them down. It’s some combination of sloth and fear of failure. But those damn ospreys. If they can do it we have to try.
The weather was pretty near perfect. Sunny, but not too hot. Enough breeze to stir up waves for the kids to play in and get the Pompano out running. Or so they say. Maybe for other people the Pompano come out. Our friend John caught two in the time we were there. We caught zero.
The problem is that we are not serious enough about fishing. The osprey is single minded, maniacal even, about fishing. If you want the rewards you have to put in the time. We don’t put in the time. We’d rather lie around reading and playing in the surf. We reap the rewards of that, which are numerous, but fresh fish is not one of them. If we want fish, we have to be more like the osprey, focused.
The one time we did hook something we didn’t even know it. When Lilah went to reel in the line, as I was taking the image above, I noticed she was having trouble. We were using a 5 oz sinker, which none of us were used to, so I thought maybe it was that. But finally she said “Dad, I can’t get it in, it feels like there’s something on it”. I came over and took the pole and started to reel it in. It felt like the hook was snagged on a log. I have never felt anything that big on a line before. I didn’t even have the drag set for something that big (I’d switched from a lighter line and forgotten all about the drag setting).
Luckily a fellow fisherman nearby came over and while I kept tension on the line, he ratcheted down the drag and I started reeling in. Whatever it was had run quite a ways out before we noticed it. It took a few minutes to even get it anywhere near shore. Once it got into the surf though, it must have charged the shore, or somehow managed to get the hook out of its mouth. The line went slack before we ever saw what it was. Giant Redfish? Possibly. Definitely too big to be a Pompano. Could have been a huge ray, in which case I’m glad it got off. Either way now the kids, especially Lilah, have a good story about the one that got away. I feel like that is a kind of necessary initiation into fishing.
Having failed to catch dinner we headed across the bay to Joe Patti’s wholesale seafood to buy dinner. We’d driven by it several times going between Fort Pickens and Big Lagoon. It’s hard to miss, there’s a life-size viking vessel out front. But sometimes as an outsider it’s hard to tell the legit from the tourist trap. I’d always kind of assumed it was the latter, but our friend John assured us it was legit. And that we had to try the Caribbean Grouper. He was right. About both.
We bought a mess of Caribbean Grouper and Royal Red shrimp. If you’ve never had Royal Reds, which are only really found in the Florida Panhandle and along the Mississippi/Alabama coast, they’re very different than ordinary shrimp. As the name implies they’re deep reddish pink and they taste like lobster. We had a huge seafood cookout. Never let one getting away stop your seafood fest.
Fishing slacked off even more after we added boogie boards to the list of things we don’t have room for. They’ve proved very well-loved though and they definitely take precedence over fishing most days. Can’t say I blame the kids for that, when the waves are big enough I’d rather be out there surfing too. Osprey don’t surf.
Then the weather took a turn. It was my fault. I donated the heater. It happens every year. We buy a heater in December or so and then we donate it come spring. There’s just no room for a heater so the sooner we get rid of it, the better. But almost every year as soon as I take it to the donation center, the weather turns cold. This year was probably the worst — it dipped down below freezing for two nights in a row. We have plenty of blankets, and just turning on the stove to make tea and coffee in the morning makes the bus plenty warm, so it’a minor discomfort. But someone has to get up and turn on the stove.
With it too cold to swim, we took to playing games, climbing trees, and reading books. Sometimes all at the same time.
Part of the reading in a tree comes from reading Sterling North’s Rascal, which was one of my favorite books as a kid. Sterling and Rascal spend some afternoons reading in a tree, with Rascal lying in the tree on his belly. Lilah reports it is relaxing and comfortable. She recommends it to everyone.
I recommend Rascal to everyone. Grab a copy from your local library. It is well worth re-reading as an adult. For those unfamiliar it is Sterling North’s account of a year of his boyhood in small, rural Wisconsin town in 1918, which for that year he shares with a pet raccoon named Rascal. It’s a world that hasn’t existed since that time, but the book somehow manages to balance nostalgia with piercing, sometimes heartbreaking doses of reality. There’s no changing reality, no one is saving Sterling. The world must be dealt with. It cannot be changed, it cannot be shouted at, it just is and Sterling has to deal with that.
It’s made me realize that a big part of why we live this way is to try, as much as possible, to let our kids inhabit the sort of world young Sterling lives in, surrounded by nature, able to do what what they please with their time, but also knowing that the world is full of real responsibilities and no one is coming to save them. To remain innocent requires facing up to reality, not hiding from it. I know that the world of Rascal is hard to find these days, but I think it’s worth chasing the idea still there, even if, in the end, it should get away from us.