Summer brings with it memories of happy past

July 1, 2011 

    I don't know what it is about this part of the summer that makes me think a whole bunch about my time growing up here. It really seems to hit me when I step outside at night. The sound of the cicadas clicking in the trees, the strong, musky smell of the salt marsh and a sky full of stars just seems to act like some sort of time machine, taking me back to various points during my upbringing.

    The youngest of five, I was really the only outdoorsman of the bunch. Not known for my scholarly skills, I did just enough to get by. And when school was let out for the summer, off went the shoes and they never again touched my feet until school started again in the fall. If I had to compare myself to a fictional character, my skinny frame and cut-off jeans made me a Tom Sawyer lookalike, with the only thing lacking being a straw hat.

    Hilton Head Island and Bluffton were, for the most part, void of people. It was primarily dirt roads, the same small group of residents and, for me, the biggest playground in the world. Getting away from the crowd was as easy as walking out my front door. But like today, my passion was fishing and being out on the water.

    I had a little 13-foot Boston Whaler, and it was my ticket to explore all the small islands that surrounded Hilton Head. With no cell phones and very few other boats, you were pretty much flat out of luck if something were to happen. Much to my father's dismay, I would push the envelope when it came to common sense. On those super hot summer days when there wasn't a breath of wind, I would round the south end of Hilton Head and take the whaler to the Texas Tower, some 10 miles offshore. Adventuresome or stupid, I always imagined that I was like the Old Man and the Sea, and, because I was out where the big fish lurked, that I would hook into some giant ones that would drag me out.

    There were no rod holders on the boat, so I would troll large spoons with a rod under each leg. One time I hooked into something huge, and that was that for my dad's favorite rod and reel. (This day was also my last solo trip to the Texas Tower because one of my pop's cronies saw me out there and called him that night.) My visions of the Old Man and the Sea ended up being the old man and the belt.

    Hot summer days also bring back memories of Spanish mackerel fishing with my dad and two of his buddies. Back then you didn't have to go much farther than the south end of Hilton Head to find schools of mackerel that stretched as far as the eye could see. I know you are probably thinking that these are false memories conjured up by an overactive adolescent imagination, but it is true. The entire south end of Sea Pines was a series of rolling sand dunes that was a rookery for shore birds, especially terns and gulls. You could walk out where the terns nested, and eggs would be every couple of feet for as far as the eye could see. Mother terns would dive bomb you, and the air would be full of frantic birds, trying to distract you away from their clutch. These same birds showed you the way to the mackerel as they dived on glass minnows that the mackerel had pushed to the surface.

    To catch 100 to 200 mackerel in a morning was the norm, and catch and release sure wasn't in the books yet. After years of catching so many fish, it's no wonder there aren't as many Spanish mackerel around as there used to be.

    At night, my friends and I could walk down the then two-lane U.S. 278 and never once encounter a car. And stars? Because there was no ambient light, the sky looked like someone had dusted glitter from horizon to horizon. On summer nights during the full moon, my brothers and sisters and I would walk the beach looking for nesting loggerhead turtles, and we always seemed to find one or two. As the turtle laid her eggs, we would scoop out a viewing spot behind her and count them. When done, we would then help her cover the nest and then help the exhausted turtle back to the sea. I can still remember the look in those turtles' eyes. They produced what looked like tears that only made us more sympathetic to their epic journey.

    It was amazing.

    So much has changed, but thankfully I am still able to hop in my boat and find places that offer the same feeling of solitude that was the norm when I was growing up. I try not to dwell on the past, but I had such a unique childhood that it is hard not to think about it every once in a while. Did I tell you about the time a giant manta ray dragged my boat nearly six miles? Maybe next time...

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