On a wet and windy day a few years back, as Gilbert Drake walked along a street in Palm Beach, Fla., an otter crossed ahead of him and disappeared behind a house. Good furs are common in Palm Beach, but an otter wearing its own skin is a rarity. Drake followed the otter around the house and on the back lawn came face to face with it. As Drake approached, the otter sat upright, fixed a nervy eye on him and began snorting in a way that suggested it was ready to take on anybody.
Realizing that an otter putting on such a gutsy act might have rabies, Drake retreated. The otter followed him. When Drake quickened his step across the lawn, the otter bounded after him. On reaching the street, Drake started sprinting all out, but he could not shake the otter. At this point, when all seemed lost, Drake suddenly remembered that he was carrying four one-pound mullet in his hip pockets. He wheeled and dropped a mullet in the path of the on-rushing otter. While the animal gorged, Drake made his escape.
How can a man pursued by an otter possibly forget that four large mullet are sticking out of his pockets? For Gil Drake it is easy. He is a fisherman, a devoted one. Mullet is not his favorite bait, but he sometimes carries one or two just in case. As he points out, "You never know when you are going to need a mullet." Over the years, by carrying mullet, Drake has attracted a few dogs and, by putting away his clothes without searching them for leftover mullet, has occasionally created a stink at home.
As best Drake can remember—dimly now—he caught his first fish, a sheepshead, with a cane pole at the age of four. He has been fishing with constancy and joy ever since. He has used hand-lines and long lines. He has still-fished and drift-fished. He has cast, trolled and jigged with all kinds of gear and bait. Using shrimp, mullet, bunker, crab, shiners; spoons and spinners; streamers and poppers; pork rinds and dough balls; tin squid and plastic squid and real squid; and various hanks of hair and feathers, he has taken more than 180 species of fish from the fresh and salt waters of North America.
April 5, 1971
For some reason, possibly a vagrant trace of Hiawatha in his genes, Drake was destined to be either a hunter or a fisherman. He grew up in Palm Beach, a town entirely surrounded by fish, and as a boy collected many walking, crawling and flying pets. He bought some; more he caught by hand in vacant lots. (After escaping from the family garage, one of his green snakes turned up four months later in the attic, bleached almost white.)
When he was old enough to think of other things, Drake's parents sent him to The Asheville School in the North Carolina mountains. At Asheville he learned to appreciate Shakespeare (the English playwright, not the American tackle manufacturer). He also learned to factor A-square minus B-square and other academic monotonies that are reputedly useful in later life. Of all the cadences and sounds still echoing from his school days, the one Drake remembers best is the solid, orgiastic "splut" of the lever-action Daisy air rifle that he kept hidden in the woods on the Asheville grounds. He fished the small lake on the school property, but he hunted more. He was the scourge of the local rodentry. When the little furry folk holed up for the winter, Drake pecked away with his Daisy at the behinds of ice skaters on the lake. The other nasty adolescents at The Asheville School put preset alarm clocks and similar devices in the master's desk in study hall. Drake loaded the master's desk with snakes and frogs. He ended his academic tour at Asheville with dubious honors and a lasting love for its woods and waters.
As a boy and teen-ager—and to a lesser extent later—Drake took fish in ways that would appall a priggish angler. He netted fish, and he hunted them with assorted weapons: above water he took fish with a bow and a lily iron; underwater he went after them with Arbalete, sea lance and Hawaiian sling. He caught live fish for his aquarium with nets, bags and a slurp gun. When he needed bait, he sometimes bagged jumping mullet and flying fish with a shotgun. He has blasted at sharks now and again with a bang stick and, just for the fun of it, has horsed a few into submission with a lariat.
As might be expected, after 20 years of intense and—God knows—diverse fishing, Drake gravitated to fly-fishing, the ultimate art. Although without question he today takes the greatest pleasure in elegantly presenting a speck of fluff to a fish with a fly rod, Drake is no purist. His curiosity about fish and his zest for fishing far exceed the limits of a specialist. He is Piscator unconfined. If he wanted a fish to eat tomorrow, Drake would just as soon go after it with a broadax.
Fishermen who are bored with orthodoxy should try using a machete, as Drake will do, to get edible mangrove snapper. With machete in hand Drake walks at night along a beach at the water's edge. Suddenly he flashes a light into the water beside him. If he catches a snapper in the beam of light, in a trice he swings the machete, separating the fish's head from its body. Any fisherman interested in taking snapper with a machete a la Drake should keep two things in mind. First, there is little chance of success unless the snapper are abundant and also fairly stupid, which mangrove snapper seldom are. Second, it is wise to practice with a machete in daylight before sallying forth in the dark. An unpracticed machete swinger is apt to miss the snapper altogether and take off his foot.
Ten years ago, after absorbing enough knowledge for a secondary diploma, Drake went to the University of Miami where he concentrated on marine biology and commercial art. Some of the art appealed to him. Curiously, marine biology did not. With mask and fins, Drake often dived on reefs where oddball fish abound and in open water through swarming acres of pelagic species. Occasionally, while roving, he came upon the strange ritual of lobsters marching in rank and file across the barren bottom—thousands of lobsters trekking from somewhere to somewhere for no known reason. Around jetties, while anglers flailed the water in vain, he dived and found schools of snook riding to and fro in the surge, ignoring the bombardment of lures overhead.
Because he had been so often among living fish, enjoying their odd ways, Drake found he had little interest in the biology classwork at Miami or in laboratory specimens of fish that smelled of Formalin and were almost as pale as death itself. In his senior year he took a leave of absence in good standing and never went back.
Today he spends a couple of months a year fishing and wildfowling for pleasure. Most of the year, roughly from mid-October to mid-July, he serves as master guide and counselor—and in bad weather also as consoler—for anglers at the Deep Water Cay Club in the northern Bahamas, considered by many to be the bonefish capital of the universe. He is apt to stay at the job for a while. He likes the work. The anglers like him. And furthermore, his father, Gilbert Drake the elder, owns the club.
The Deep Water Cay Club is situated on one of a dozen flat limestone cays that extend like disjointed segments of a beaver's tail off the eastern end of Grand Bahama Island. To the south and southwest the straggle of cays faces the deep blue of the Northwest Providence Channel. On the opposite side, across the Little Bahamas Bank, there are many miles of tidal flats and one-fathom water dotted with bare rocks and lesser cays. In many places the slow acids of time have eaten through the old limestone floor that supports the whole area, creating a labyrinth of saline rivers—fingers of the dark Acheron—that wander beneath the land and water. In three dozen spots the old limestone has collapsed completely. As a result, in the tidal creeks between the major cays—and on the cays also—there are deep blue holes where the water, responding whimsically to the change of tides, sometimes boils upward and sometimes sucks. Boiling or sucking, each blue hole is a beauty place, harboring fish of many kinds and colors.
According to the British Colonial Office and other authoritative mapmakers, the two-mile sliver of land on which Deep Water Cay Club sits is known as Water Cay. When he bought the small island 15 years ago, by authority that he duly invested in himself, Gil Drake the elder renamed it Deep Water Cay. He did so partly because the north end of the property affords good anchorage, but mainly to distinguish it from other odd pocks of land in the Bahamas that are also called Water Cay.
By any name, the place doesn't interest most people. Which is good. The Deep Water Cay Club opened 12 years ago as a fishing resort and it is still that. Compared to the average tourist Casbah in the Bahamas, the club lacks a lot. It does not have a man-made, chlorinated swimming vat, or a cunning Buccaneer Bar, or a gambling casino, or a gift shop. The guests are welcome to use the backgammon board in the main lounge. At the desk a guest can buy monofilament and poppers, wigglers and squirmers to catch fish and (sometimes) a brush to clean his teeth, but that's about the limit of it. The accommodations at the club are comfortable. The lizards that occasionally stray into the room are all small and friendly. The food is simple but good; the drinks come from the best bottles and are cheap. The dinner conversation rarely drags and is always intriguing for those who dote on fish lore. The club has never advertised, but has depended simply on one satisfied customer telling another. The system seems to work: 80% of the fishermen who try the place come back, often bringing friends.
Although there is good game fishing in the deep and good plug casting around many edges of land, the main attractions of the Deep Water Cay Club are the bonefish and permit on the flats. In the past 10 years Gil Drake the younger has poled skiffs many a mile over flats—several thousand miles, he reckons—to get anglers within casting distance of spooky fish. Despite his Achillean features, when the season first opens in mid-October Drake looks rather like an inflamed owl. Because of the Polaroid glasses he wears to cut the glint on the water, large pale circles around his eyes stand out on a sunburned face. As he poles anglers along, Drake calls attention to the various fish lurking on the shoals. "Right over here near the grass we have a big lemon shark," he says matter-of-factly, like a tour guide pointing out historic sites, "and up ahead, about 50 yards at one o'clock, there are a couple of nice barracuda." In the hard light and multicolors of a flat he can distinguish species at distances, unbelievable distances, where the ordinary eye sees only blobs—or nothing at all. Where other men can barely pick up the mark in the sand left by a burrowing bonefish, Drake can tell if it is a recent digging or an old one.
Day to day, Drake's mission is much the same, yet few days are alike. Sometimes when bonefish should be scarce, they are all about. When there should be fish, sometimes they are all gone—and who knows where? On a given day one fisherman can do no wrong while another does nothing right. That is fishing. It is God's will.
A lady named Mrs. Richard LaReno of Barrington, Ill. came to fish at Deep Water Cay three years ago. Previously there had been only one fish in her life—a walleye pike that she had somehow hooked 18 years earlier while casting a dry fly for trout. On her first day at Deep Water Cay, Kathryn LaReno could do no wrong. In the morning she came across single bonefish and occasionally a pair. Although she had rarely used a rod, every bait she cast—guided by a divine hand—fell just right, ahead of the feeding fish. By noon she was back at the lodge for more bait. At three o'clock she had to return again because the fish were wrecking her gear. On her last sortie of the day she ran into a school of thousands of bonefish, such a mob that when she cast north and the bait happened to sail west, it still fell in front of fish. Altogether she hooked up with two dozen bonefish and brought 15 to boat. The finest of them, a 10-pounder, is mounted on her library wall.
In contrast to Mrs. LaReno's good fortune, Gil Drake recalls the fate of the notoriously competent Florida angler, James Morton Caldwell, on his first day after that most elusive and challenging of fish, the permit. Caldwell has killed good salmon and has taken a variety of saltwater gamesters with fly rod and spinning gear. Drake maintains that, like many another great angler facing a permit for the first time, Caldwell simply went to pieces. Caldwell maintains nothing of the sort. "I had been fishing with one-eighth-ounce lures," he says, "and Drake tied a half-pound crab on my hook. When you go from the sublime to the ridiculous, you need a little practice." In any case, on Caldwell's first cast to a school of permit 40 feet out, the crab went almost straight up with such force that for a moment it seemed it might become the first fishbait in orbit. An instant later it descended, missing the boat by inches. Drake and Caldwell agree that on the second cast the crab went almost straight down, striking the water a foot off the port side. On his third try Caldwell scored a direct hit on the boat. The crab started in perfect trajectory toward the permit, but Caldwell accidentally flipped on the bail of his reel. Ten feet out the crab suddenly paused in flight, then came whipping back to the boat. "When that crab hit the stern," Drake remembers, "it was instantly pulverized." On his fourth cast Caldwell put a crab in the middle of the school. One of the permit picked it up and then spit it out, as if wanting nothing more to do with such an opéra bouffe.
Many fishermen are reluctant to dive with a tank and mask, feeling that too much familiarity with fish might take some of the mystique and challenge out of their sport. Drake has spent a good bit of time underwater and loves angling all the more. On shallows he has often dived to feed the same barracuda that he takes above water with a plug. In the blue holes around Deep Water Cay he swims among swirling jacks and under ledges where snapper hang almost motionless in disarray. Above water he casts for the same fish with zest. In two of the blue holes he often finds schools of large permit. Underwater he can reach out and touch them. Poling on the flats, he counts himself lucky to get within 60 feet of a permit; still, he loves to stalk them.
On his days off from guiding other anglers at Deep Water Cay, Drake often loads a 22-foot Aquasport with a hodgepodge of gear and takes off, alone or with any pal interested in come-what-may. Sometimes he heads for blue water to troll for billfish and tuna. If there are pilot whales moving through the deep, he runs the boat ahead and goes over the side with a camera to photograph the whales as they come by. Longimanus, the whitetip shark of the open sea, often trails the whales. If a whitetip shark comes close enough, Drake photographs it also. If it comes too close, he gets briskly out of the water. On a lucky day in the deep he may wander upon the spectacle of tuna, silky sharks and gulls all going for the same ball of baitfish. As the tuna leap out of the water driving the bait, the silky sharks stand vertically on their tails with their heads out of water and their mouths agape to catch whatever happens to jump their way. The gulls flutter just overhead, snagging the baitfish that bounce off the snouts of the sharks.
If the action drags in the deep, Drake heads for the shallows. With a throw net he takes pilchards. With the pilchards he takes barracuda. He guts the barracuda and hangs them in the tide to attract sharks. To photograph the sharks Drake uses a collapsible cage that he constructed from pipes and line. Any sturdy shark with half a mind could make a shambles of the cage, but it seems to give Drake comfort. When lemon sharks appear, he usually has a good chance for pictures. With blacktip and silky sharks he never knows. When half a dozen blacktips are milling about, Drake leans out over the top of the cage brandishing half a barracuda, but the blacktips do not always come close enough. The silkies sometimes go right past Drake and bite down on the screw of the boat, worrying it with shakes of their heads. To spoil Drake's pictures—sheer contrariness it seems—the silkies louse up their slick good looks by rubbing along the bottom of the boat, streaking their flanks with anti-fouling paint.
Instead of going for big game, Drake sometimes anchors near a promising hole and spends a simple afternoon pitching a small jig to one-pound snappers. At other times, in a quiet creek, he goes overboard with a plastic bag and a Quinaldine ejector to catch inch-long tropicals for his aquarium. The fish in his life come in all sizes, and he has enthusiasm for them all. He is quite certain that if it were ever impossible to fish in any one specific way, he could be quite happy with another. The only unbearable fate he can imagine is not to fish at all. After a quarter century of steady addiction, Drake reckons he is too far gone now ever to kick the habit.