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Wreckage: Snook Fishing in a Boat Graveyard

Living meaningful lives in the “here and now” while being open to any “there and then.”

Wreckage: Snook Fishing in a Boat Graveyard

(Rob Benigno art)

The skiff slid just beneath the low-slung bridge and we could see the scrapes and scars on the concrete from those who came before us and neglected to protect their fishing rods and boat antennas. My buddy Aaron Reed has passed this way many times before, so our gear and our heads were appropriately lowered for safety. As the bow of the boat began to protrude out the other side of the bridge, the sunlight illuminated a nautical scene complete with shrimp boats and pelicans that stood watch from the whitewashed pylons and piers. The boats swayed with air-dried nets and empty hulls. The pelicans posed motionless and statuesque in their feathered suits of grayish brown.

As the skiff slid past the docks of shrimpers and bait fishermen, we hoped to target snook and a variety of other native gamefish with our fly rods, using nothing more than a bit of fur and feathers attached to a stainless-steel hook, which we’d drag enticingly through the deep, dark waters of the Brownsville Ship Channel. We had been traveling at speed for a while, trying to get to our fishing area in the ship graveyard before the sunlight grew too strong and the day too hot.

Normally, I like to fish with only the sounds of nature around me, but the shipping channel is a place largely devoid of birdsong and replete with the noise of pile drivers and boom cranes that swing from side to side like dinosaurs feeding on the hulls of decommissioned ships.

All around us the gray metal skeletons of once grand vessels were being cut into bite-sized pieces and hauled away as scrap. So, when Aaron asked, “Do you mind if I play music while we fish?” I was more than pleased to say, “Go for it brother.” Moments later, the sounds of deconstruction were replaced with the wonderfully poetic words and melodies of soulful songs that went a long way toward tightening my loop and widening my smile.

I don’t know if it was the good music or the great company, but I was relaxed and casting as if I knew what I was doing. There was a natural native rhythm to everything from our casting to the sound of the music. We cast into murky waters while listening to the Michigan Rattlers singing a song of longing, love, and loss, and the purely mortal fear that our journey might end—all too soon.

I thought of how much that song might fit Aaron and me—two travelers who’ve made it a long way down life’s road, making the most of every loop. We drifted. We cast. We retrieved. We cast again. Two wounded warriors. Poets by nature.

We made several passes along the seawall and I felt a few hopeful bumps and tugs which I was unable to convert into a fish at the gunnel. The water here is dark and dirty with who-knows-what leaking out of the shipyards, so I couldn’t see what smacked at the fly. We took another pass and just as we drifted around the area of the last tug, I saw a swirl and felt the weight of a fish, which I solidly hooked. With the first silver flash of fish flesh, I wondered if I’d lucked into a juvenile tarpon, but with its first of many leaps I knew I had connected with a ladyfish or skipjack—something I was trying to avoid. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against catching ladyfish, it’s just that I was searching for snook. I set that one free and we moved down to the next spot, which was a long shoreline of black rip-rap between two massive ships.

There were plenty of forage fish swimming all around us and quite a bit of splashy predation going on. I cast out into the carnage and almost immediately hooked another skipjack, which jumped and fought with conviction and attitude before I was finally able to land it. We started working a cove that was rimmed in black mangroves, and a few more ladyfish were the result. After I had caught about half a dozen of them Aaron said, “I think I’m going to start calling you the lady killer.” “Please don’t,” I replied.

We were quickly losing the coolest hours of the morning, so we headed toward a shoreline that had a little artificial cove cut into it that looked quite “snooky” around its rocky edges. I saw something snapping at the water near a couple of half-submerged boulders, so I lined up a quick cast, landed it where I wanted, made a couple of short strips, and connected with a nice mangrove snapper. I was as happy to see him swim away as I was to catch him. I guess the pointlessness of catch-and-release is exactly the point. Everything is transitory.




We found a sheltered cove brimming with mangroves and anchored the boat so we could enjoy the final shaded moments of the morning and a bite of lunch. Aaron popped the top on a couple of ice-cold Wild Texas Kölsch beers, which the brewer describes as “perfect for enjoying the Texas outdoors.” I can’t argue with that description. We weren’t eating fancy—just a few gas station sandwiches and a bag of chips, but it felt like the perfect combination, along with the sounds of water lapping against the shore and Aaron’s music wafting through the air.

I had begun to fall in love with the music and lyrics of JJ Grey. Guitars, horns, harmonica, and Hammond organ all blended with his soulful Southern voice as he sang of his deepest questions about the existence of God and the significance of humanity. I’ve wondered these things too, and I won’t know the answer until I cross that final river. Perhaps, not even then.

JJ’s voice spoke to me as a fellow son-of-the-South who never knew the hateful world I hear about in the media. Each pleading tone bled through the open wounds of my beloved Southland . . . all too often, self-inflicted wounds where slave and slaver once prayed for redemption and forgiveness. There is no reason for division and yet no region free of those who would divide us. In every generation of every tribe there are those who love and those who hate. Love needs to prevail, one blended voice at a time.

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For a while we just sat there in relative silence as the soft morning light was replaced with the brightness of a rising sun and the grayness of an industrial watershed.  We did our best to follow the wisdom of seeking the few softly shaded places that remained in this hard, bright midday waterway. We were holding on to our faith in finding the fish of our dreams, if we cast onward with patience and persistence. But for now, we listened to JJ Grey singing “I Believe (in Everything)”—his song of wisdom and faith.

Faith is a funny thing. It’s based upon nothing provable and everything immovable. Nobody ever learns anything they don’t want to learn. After all, you may put your faith in something, that may be nothing; and nothing can remove that faith—but you. I’m not saying the stories aren’t true; just that it’s true that they are stories. And over time, I’ve come to believe that almost everything in life is faith. Reality is questionable.

Every song we heard was of longing and aloneness. Every note that played was like the evening call of a bird. Like a “last call.” And yet within all that longing and aloneness was the commonality that unites us. Namely, we are not alone in feeling alone. We don’t own the only eyes that ever cried, or lips that ever smiled, or voice that ever sang. There have been billions before us and there may be billions more yet to come. Who knows?

In between sips of Wild Texas brew, we watched the day unfold and spoke in tones of poetic tragedy and hope. We spoke of this place, its people, and its harsh beauty. My friend Aaron is philosophical, tattooed, and widely educated, with a halo of smoke and heart of gold. I’m grateful for our friendship.

Running through my mind was the idea that this place was either a lost land or a forgotten one—or both. I wondered as I have so many times before why we can’t just all get along—humanity and nature. Why can’t we have a port without the poison? Why can’t we build cities that are filled with fresh clean running water, safe urban fishing, native plants and trees to shade and oxygenate the air we all must breathe? Why can’t we create public gardens and fruit trees from which everyone eats? Why can’t the sound of birdsong resonate from every urban park and path? Have we become such a small species that we can’t pursue such a big life? I refuse to accept such defeat.

We fished throughout the sun-filled day, beneath bridges and in the shadows of dilapidated seawalls. We fished in the night, beneath the lights of every dock and derelict ship. And yet we never did connect with a snook; we never even saw one. Over the course of the morning, we caught ladyfish, snappers, and jacks but no snook, and I’m fine with that. It took nothing away from the taste of cold beer, the feel of the warm sunlight, the joy of our laughter, the meaning of our silences. It could not erase the joy of casting side by side with a good friend, both moving to the rhythm of a life well lived.

As we cast our lines and hopes among the lifeless hulls of the ship graveyard I wondered, “Is this us?” Are we in the last moments of our usefulness to the world —more burden than blessing? But then I looked across at my friend casting toward the setting sun and I knew that as long as we’re here, we have value. The trick is to live a meaningful life in the “here and now” while being open to any “there and then.” It’s a loop, not a line. If you miss your mark, just pick up and cast again. You simply do whatever you can do to keep the circle unbroken.


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.

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