Fishing in Apalatchicola Bay – From Good Times … To Interesting Times … To Uh-Oh

Jack Brown 

I go fishing every spring and fall with my men.

Actually it is just some of my men because, like you, MDI has provided me with many more friends than we could ever fit in three boats. We fish in Apalachicola Bay, which is about 70 miles due south of Tallahassee, Florida and about 75 miles east of Panama City Beach. Apalachicola is a small, sleepy coastal town made up of crusty old characters, charming southern women and some of the most honorable veterans and war heroes you would want to meet.

For the past 16 years, Tom Thurmond has led us here and we have fished with an array of good guides. Captain Darryl, who retired last year, was the consummate gentleman and overall most excellent man. Thurmond and his dad, George, always got first pick of the captains and always chose Captain Darryl. Then there is Captain Kenny who is most unique. I can’t imagine he has ever uttered a sentence without “fuck” being embedded in it somewhere. There’s Captain Andrew who loves to race around the bay. He’s 30-something and probably a former high school football star still oblivious to adulthood. He says, “Down here, there are only two seasons each year: hunting and fishing.”

But the guide I will never forget is Captain Abner. The first time I fished with Ab I couldn’t help but notice the patch over his right eye. He was wearing sunglasses with, wait for it, the right lens missing! I tried not to stare. But he turned out to be a good guide and a great man to have in a pinch. His boat was ship shape, clean and well equipped. And he had plenty of bait. These boats aren’t for deep sea fishing. They are 23-foot Bay Liners. Open air, two seats behind the console, and a bench seat in front. When it rains you get wet, and when it rocks, you hang on. We fish three men to the boat, plus the captain. The captain usually will only fish if we aren’t filling the fish well, but there is room if he does.

We push off at about 6:45 am.

It’s May but still cool to cold on the river leading out to the bay. Experienced men know to wear several layers, a good hat and sometimes even gloves. The 250 Mercury outboard has us roaring down the river as the sun is coming up. What could be better? We slow through the mandated 10 knot zone, then Ab opens it up and we hang on as we head toward Bird Island.

I can’t wait.

That day I was fishing with Jon “Kappie” Kaplan and Brian “Chill” Childers both of whom, in this story, were average fisherman at best. I knew before we left that much of my day would be spent making sure they didn’t cross my line when casting and listening to them talk smack with each other.

Now understand that when fishing in the Bay, you are never out of sight of land. A lot of the time no more than a half a mile to a mile from shore. And that would become a factor later in the day. But the day started great. We anchored off Bird Island, got live shrimp on our hooks and started casting.

The Bay was calm, the tide was right, the temperature was warming, and Kappie and Chill were already betting who would catch the first keeper. Captain Ab was on the phone when Chill snagged the first fish. “Woo Hoo” he was yelling as he danced around reeling it in. About the same time, Kappie gets one on too. The race is on! Ab laid his phone down, grabbed his net and was about scoop Chill’s fish???, but it turned out to be a sail cat. A sail cat is a salt water cat fish, not a keeper and you have to handle them carefully. They have a large spike on their back and they will nail you with it if you aren’t careful. They aren’t a keeper and most captain’s whack them in the head with a club they all have and flip them off of your line. Ab did this with this one. While this is going on and with Ab busy with Chill, Kappie gets his fish in close then jerks and flips it into the boat!

Winner, winner, good fish dinner!

Kappie caught the first keeper and won his bet and the day was really started. Over the next three hours, we stayed busy loading the fish well. Several trout, a few keeper Reds, one good flounder and several sheephead. It was about 11:30 that things went from good, to interesting to Uh-Oh.

You see, I snagged a large red fish, fought it and got it in the boat. Chill did the same. Kappie caught a big Sheephead and about that time it started to rain. It rolled in fast. Captain Ab said we had to start in, that other Captains had phoned to say it was getting very bad. We hoisted the anchor and headed to safety. Lightning started flashing and the rain started pouring.

It was hard to see anything.

I look over at Captain Ab who had taken off his sunglasses and saw that he had also taken off his patch and his eyes appeared to be normal. What the heck?

About that time it went from bad to worse. The rain was blowing sideways and Ab had turned us directly towards shore. There was no time to waste. You know the saying, “Any port in a storm!” And for us any dock would do. We were about a quarter of a mile from a house with a small dock when we hit the sand bar. The tide was out, and we were in the shallows. Less than three feet. The problem was we were really stuck. Ab reversed it and got nothing; we rocked it and got nothing. That’s when I knew someone had to get out of the boat and push the boat loose. I took the initiative and pushed Kappie overboard. He was pissed! But standing in two to three feet of water, he knew he had a job to do. With great effort, he heaved us loose. Now the next problem. How do we get close enough to get Jon back in the boat. Here again, I took command.

“Leave him,” I told Captain Ab, and without a word, we headed for the dock.


Kappie lived. He mostly waded back to shore. I was pretty sure he could. It took him about three hours and he was too late for the pictures with our catch. And he was pissed! But I think he learned several valuable lessons about sacrifice and courage that have “raised his game” and probably helped make him a better man.

And I think, “What else are teammates for?”

After we got back to Camp, I asked Ab about the patch. He said, “I’ve got two good eyes, but only one good lens and sun glasses are expensive.” Whether you have done weekends together, like Kappie and me, or just fished with him, sometimes it takes a spot-weld moment to really know a man.

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