April 07, 2023
There was a chill in the air when we arrived at Recon Beach. The sun was not yet shining through the early morning fog bank that seemed to render both the mountains to our east, and the ocean horizon to our west, almost dreamlike. I had traveled from my home in south-central Texas to southern California to chase corbina with my friends, Aileen Lane and Kesley Gallagher. We unloaded the gear from Kesley’s “urban assault vehicle.” She drives a black Toyota 4Runner with a four-rod-capacity enclosed rack on top that looks like a rocket launcher from a Somali “technical.” And being a true Angelino, she takes no prisoners when she’s driving down The 101 on the way to the beach.
Looking down from the bluff we could see the harbor seals on patrol just beyond the breakers. It seemed that we had the beach mostly to ourselves. At first we did what any good angler does—we watched and waited to see what nature was telling us. Kesley spotted some motion along a rip at the edge of a deepish pool and told Aileen and me to work either side of the pool, and we did.
A moment later I saw a boil and the splashing flip of a tail and I instinctively cast toward the rip just beside the splash, stripped the line three times, and felt the tug. Almost in amazement I set the hook and began fighting the first corbina of my life as Kesley coached me, each step of the way.
The “bean” went on a short run and I did my best to keep the tension on with my line hand as I quickly moved backward and farther up on the beach, so as to get him on the reel. Once he was on the reel the fight was on, my rod bent sharply, the corbina kicking and twisting in the surf, and me applying pressure and not knowing how much was too much.
Kesley moved up toward the surf to help me land the bean. “Oh, it’s a nice fish!” she hollered. “It’s about four to four and a half pounds!”
I’m not sure if that made me more excited, or more worried… and that’s when I felt him pull hard and I pulled back just as hard, and the tippet broke, along with a piece of my heart. The first corbina of my life was gone. I was experiencing “a spot of time.”
Norman Maclean once wrote, “Poets talk about ‘spots of time,’ but it is really the fishermen who experience eternity compressed into a moment. No one can tell what a spot of time is until suddenly the whole world is a fish, and the fish is gone.” I had come so close to holding that magnificent fish in my hands, and then in an instant, he was free and I was forever bonded to the moment we parted ways. I will never forget him.
When things come undone in fishing or in life, the only thing we can do is learn from the experience, check our life-knots, leaders, and previous assumptions, remember and adapt to what we’ve learned, and cast forward once again, in a new direction. We all take life’s hits. It is in hardship that we are all defined.
I have been beaten down by life many times, but I have never been defeated. I get back up. And where one person laments losing a friend or a fish, I celebrate that even for a moment I was connected to either. I count my blessings, not my burdens. Expectations can lead to a sense of exasperation that robs us of our joy. Acceptance leads to a sense of gratitude, that reminds us of the many reasons to be joyful.
As momentarily deflated as I was not landing that corbina, I was also elated to have hooked it in the first place, against all odds. So, I walked down the beach to the next likely spot, watched until I saw another corbina tailing in the shallows, and I cast forward again with a renewed sense of hope and promise. Life was beautiful—as always. Everything is forever changing and there is nothing in life that we possess for all time, including life itself. The corbina was never mine; nothing had been lost.
There was a lot of activity on both ends of the pool and although the light wasn’t bright enough to see into the water we could see the tails, backs, and V-shaped wakes of feeding corbina. All three of us were finding fish to cast to and before long I felt another tug, set the hook, and found myself connected to a smaller but still powerful bean. This time I tried to do a better job of getting it on the reel and allowing it to run whenever it wanted to, applying side pressure, and reeling it in whenever the fish gave its subtle permission. In short, I was practicing all that I was learning from Kesley.
I walked it back on the beach and Kesley excitedly reeled in and came over to try to help me land it just as she had done before. I could feel it thrashing along the sandy bottom and was doing my best to keep the tension on but not make the same mistake I had made on the first fish, and I didn’t. Instead, I made a new mistake, allowing the briefest moment of slack, which is all it needed to somehow slip the hook. Incredulously I found myself standing there slack lined and slack jawed with the score: corbina two, Steve zero. It didn’t matter. Kesley and I high-fived each other while Aileen cheered. Kesley said, “Steve, you’re on fire!” We were having a magnificent morning. We were good friends fishing on a beach that might as well be the center of the universe. What else mattered?
The chill of dawn had worn off and the sun was beginning to rise up over the edge of the bluff and onto our shoulders. It was a wonderful, warm feeling—like our friendship. I looked down the beach toward Aileen and made a silent wish to whomever might be listening that she’d be the one to catch a corbina. Aileen has one of the kindest hearts I’ve ever known, and I wanted to see her holding a corbina with a bright smile on her face. These are the moments and memories that make fishing with friends so precious and perfect. I always find myself taking snapshots with my mind.
I began casting to a few corbina that I saw riding the surf toward the crab beds, just about the same time I heard some commotion and excitement coming from where Aileen and Kesley were standing. As it turned out, my silent wish to the universe was heard, and Aileen was into a nice-sized corbina. I saw the look on Aileen’s face and heard Kesley cheering her on and got so excited myself that I almost forgot to watch the water in front of me.
Before I could do much more than let out a cheer for my friend, I saw a splash in the water and a couple of nice beans cruising through the trough, just down from a crab bed. I was too slow to cast to them as they were in the swash, and just then another wave crashed ashore, obscuring the fish beneath the foam. I cast my line toward the most likely place for the fish to be, and after a single strip of the line, I felt the pull and set the hook. Now we had a double hook-up with Kesley trying to coach us both at the same time! Kesley was spending so much time and energy trying to help us catch a corbina that she barely had any time to fish for herself.
I was like a giddy kid as I backed away from the surf, got the bean on the reel, and began trying to work it in toward the shore. When I lost the last fish, I asked Kesley for some tips on fighting and landing corbina. This time I knew the value of applying side pressure, letting them run and then working them back in, and most of all, allowing the action of the surf to help me work the fish farther and farther onto shore. In a sense, I was trying to “beach the bean.”
I was so busy trying to hold onto my fish that I completely missed what was going on with Aileen, but as it turned out we both came unhooked at about the same time. We had a double hook-up and a double long-distance release. We both moaned with that open-mouthed expression of a kid whose double-dipped ice cream just fell off the cone and onto the sand. After a moment of disbelief came the laughter and the joy of actually being fortunate enough to have hooked a corbina. I had hooked and lost three and Aileen had hooked and lost another, and from Kesley’s reaction, we beginners were having a banner day even though none of us ever landed a fish.
Fly fishing teaches us many things if we pay attention. It teaches us to live in the moment we have, not backward or forward or any other place or time that is either dead and gone or yet to be born. It teaches us to be connected to everything around us, and that everything around us is connected to us. It teaches us resilience and the value of taking things as they come, just like a corbina moving with the tides. And most of all fly fishing teaches us gratitude, and gratitude is the beginning of joy. Whenever things come undone in fishing or in life, it doesn’t matter what you did or didn’t do. What matters is what you learned from that spot of time, and what you choose to do with each new cast.
Steve Ramirez is a Texas master naturalist, poet, and Marine Corps veteran. He is the author of Casting Forward (2020) and Casting Onward (2022). His new book Casting Seaward will be available from Lyons Press in April 2023.