Hear the Hatchlings Losing Their Way

As is said about rivers, you never step in the same Gulf twice 
2015 07 30 069 Photo By Kevin Novak Ccsz
Sea turtle hatchlings exit a nest on Panama City Beach and head for the Gulf of Mexico. To survive to adulthood, they will have to dodge a gauntlet of predators and refrain from eating plastic litter that may appear to them to be jellyfish. Photos courtesy of Panama City Beach Turtle Watch

Before this morning, I never had hooked a bluefish that leaped from the water. This one did, like a greyhounding blue marlin. The bluefish, you should know, is the Mitch McConnell of nearshore waters, a perennial scowl on its face, always more red than blue in disposition, forever slashing things and exercising power that exceeds its stature.

I am not sure the bluefish intended to jump. Rather, I think it possible that it darted and dashed so madly that it left the water inadvertently, a tantrum at the end of a line.

The chopper, as they are called by some, peeled line from the Pfleuger Trion GX-7 reel that my son won as a door prize at a charity golf tournament more than 10 years ago before departing for graduate school at the University North Carolina. The reel, while inexpensive, refuses to die, and in combination with a Eupro graphite rod, whipped the fish, which came to the net exhausted. Good thing. You don’t want to try to remove treble hooks from a green bluefish.

I hooked the bluefish while wade fishing grass flats at the mouth of Grand Lagoon at the foot of Jan Cooley Drive in Panama City Beach. I tangle with choppers there regularly — an inedible by-catch made while pursuing speckled trout and redfish.

From those flats, which front massive homes with too-green lawns that extend to the water’s edge, I look out and watch sportfishing yachts from the Capt. Anderson and Treasure Island marinas pause to get a scoop or two of live cigar minnows from a floating bait station and head into the Gulf of Mexico. I am fortunate to have exited the pass to St. Andrew Bay many times on dive trips with Steve McLellan and fishing excursions with Capt. David Buckner.

No two trips were anywhere near the same.

After releasing the bluefish and two undersized trout, I permitted my mind to wander and thought back to the first trip I made with Buckner.

I was new to town and to the northern Gulf of Mexico, having moved from the Midwest to accept a job as a municipal government reporter at the Panama City News Herald. Bill Salter, my editor on arrival, was a native Texan who wore cowboy boots (ostrich) whenever he wasn’t wearing golf spikes. He drove an El Camino and drank legendary amounts of George Dickel whiskey until the gout and his wife, whom he preferred to call Miss Kitty, caused him to quit. He was one of a couple of bosses I had who took pleasure in publicly humiliating subordinates, and once shouted at me from his corner office, “Bornhoft, there is no ‘q’ in barbecue.” He didn’t have to tell me twice. Salter, let me be clear, was a fine editor.

Not long after I started at the News Herald, Salter appended outdoors reporting onto my other duties. To hear Salter tell the story, he had gone to extraordinary lengths to get a freelance writer named Wilson onto a yacht participating in the old Bay Point Invitational Billfish Tournament. When Wilson failed to make it to the marina on time and missed the boat, he was sunk.

“You know anything about fishing?” Salter asked me.

“I fished lakes back home a lot and fished the surf during trips to Longboat Key when I was …”

Salter cut me off. Good enough for him. I was his new outdoors guy. The next fishing tournament of consequence on the calendar was a shark tournament sponsored by Half Hitch Tackle.

“I’m from the newspaper, and I’d like to speak to Capt. Putnam,” I said tentatively.

An employee went to get the store’s owner and tournament sponsor. Presently, I shook hands with a ruddy-faced man with a Santa belly and a welcoming personality.

“I’ve got just the guy for you,” B.J. Putnam said with a wry smile after I explained the nature of my business. “Name’s David Buckner. Young guy from Macon. You’ll like him. His boat’s the Never Enough. Docked behind the Treasure Ship. Only beige-colored boat down there. Leaving out at 6. They’re expecting you.”

The Half Hitch tournament, established in response to the sensation that surrounded the movie Jaws, was a weeklong, total pounds affair. Motorists streamed off Thomas Drive to get a look at sharks suspended from the scales in front of the tackle shop. For years after the tournament was discontinued, the skeletal scales remained. Shark gallows.

Buckner, tall and sporting a mullet, was presentable enough in navy shorts, a white shirt and leather flip-flops, but the members of his crew looked like so many Santiagos. Sharks had gotten the better of them, too. One, who answered to Low Roller, was much shorter than the rest, wore a signature polka dot railroad engineer’s hat and never let the conversation stall. The group favored a dialect unfamiliar to me, which they ratcheted up a notch when they wanted to talk among themselves. Like parents spelling out words in the presence of preschoolers.

Low Roller worked for Georgia Power, and years later, during a visit by management, he streaked au naturel across the plant floor on a pair of roller skates he had fashioned from materials he found on the job. A working-class hero, he served a suspension, gladly.

Buckner anchored up within sight of land. As the sun set, Low Roller and others took turns dicing freshly thawed bonito and starting a slick behind the boat. The captain set the baits — big chunks of bonito impaled on tuna hooks and suspended beneath balloons.

A reel didn’t start clicking until the wee hours of the morning. Anglers who had dropped off due to the accumulated effects of whiskey, weed and exhaustion, took turns reeling in what would prove to be a large hammerhead. Buckner dispatched it with a bang stick, and the success occasioned the opening of another bottle of Crown. Soon enough, all were reeling, if you know what I mean.

At the scales, the shark registered 325 pounds. The numerals were sprayed onto its flank with shaving cream. A decent hammer, but in 1985, the largest catches entered were tiger sharks weighing three times that much.

Things are different now. Sharks are fewer. I don’t hear about catches of big tigers anymore.

Putnam is long gone, Low Roller, too. McLellan retired voluntarily and moved to Blacksburg, Virginia, where once he graduated VT, and Buckner retired involuntarily, his back ravaged by a career spent atop rolling seas and folded into engine compartments.

My forays into the Gulf of Mexico are fewer. But the Gulf exerts tremendous influence on my life and the life of the region each day. It supplies the seafood that the Southeast most loves to eat. It is the reason that Tyndall Air Force Base is being rebuilt. It heats up the coastal real estate market. It is the natural feature that brings millions of visitors to our beaches each year and, with them, economic returns and suffocating, dangerous traffic.

But those millions don’t think about dead zones or Deepwater Horizon dispersant or freshwater flows or poisonous runoff or nutrient pollution.

“I hope that red tide stays down in Tampa,” they say, as if there were more than one Gulf.

“Don’t talk about the beautiful fish in the deep blue sea dyin’,” sings the brilliant balladeer Neil Young. “People want to hear about love.”

Of course, Mr. Young. But you will agree with me that they also need to hear the sharks expiring. They need to hear the water levels rising, the shortsighted lying. They need to hear the ecosystems trying. They need to hear loggerhead hatchlings losing their way.

“Every year, the Panama City Beach Turtle Watch program documents isolated instances of nesting interference by the public as well as hatchlings disoriented by lights along the beach,” wrote Jessica Graham, a longtime Turtle Watch volunteer in an email to me. “Following Hurricane Michael, any cover that was provided to the beach by trees or other natural features was eliminated from the landscape, resulting in a greater level of light pollution and sky glow from off-beach development.

“The Turtle Watch program works together with local government entities, the Tourist Development Council and resource management agencies to find balanced solutions that protect sea turtles from these threats while minimizing the impact to businesses and visitors. Only through partnerships, outreach and communication can we make a difference in conserving our resources for the future.”

Hear her love.

Categories: On the Water