A day on the water is all about fishing. But it’s also about really “seeing” the Lowcountry

Erik Bjerknes and his grouper.
Erik Bjerknes and his grouper. Special to The Island Packet/ The Beaufort Gazette

Last week, I wrote about a solo trip I took recently aboard my neglected skiff the “Marsh Monkey.”

Only 16 feet in length, the Monkey has treated me well over the years and, because I have been guiding aboard so many other boats for the past two or three months, my poor skiff had been woefully neglected.

Sitting in my yard and covered with a tarp, it was like some sort of neglected child. One day I happened to throw aside the tarp and saw my baby needed a bath and some tender loving care. All spit shined, I launched her at the boat ramp and the two of us headed out. Our three-hour excursion — and all the things we witnessed — left me lifting my arms to the heavens and thanking the big man upstairs for keeping me here in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

I sat down this morning and realized that my personal revelations can’t touch the wide-eyed awe I witness when I introduce newcomers to our area — to the thousands of wonders our waters make available in the blink of an eye if I do my job correctly.

Does that make sense? Better put, the art of “seeing” is not hereditary, but rather a learned trait. I suspect that way back in our evolution, it was engrained as a means of survival. But as our species became more and more civilized, this trait was no longer a necessity and dropped right off the grid.

But some have retained this wonderful ability “to see” because these lucky individuals have spent endless hours outdoors. Rabid hunters, avid anglers and those outside the mainstream like minimalists living in the wilderness of Alaska or the Amazon rainforest come to mind.

Most recently, I went offshore aboard my friend Dan Cornell’s boat the “Reel Deal.” Dan, of Atlanta, often invites hometown friends or work associates to come down and fish with us, and this excursion was no different. The forecast called for light winds and calm seas making it perfect for his guests. If I had to guess what percentage of trips mimic these conditions when I guide, it would probably be around 30 percent.

For those who have rarely spent much time out of sight of land, that big ocean can be very disorienting. If worse came to worst and I fell overboard, many of these first-timers would have a hard time figuring out which way to head to get back to land. After years of part-time guiding, I have learned that to teach people the art of seeing, you have to give them a push or two to get them in the groove, so to speak.

On the trip with Dan, we were about halfway to our destination and sitting in the cockpit. I was chatting with one of Dan’s friends, Erik Bjerknes, about this and that. We talked about his job as a financial adviser with Bank of America. The conversation then switched to me asking him how much fishing experience he had. Especially with bottom fishing, there are some tricks of the trade I always try to explain to relative newcomers, tricks that can all the difference between “catching” and reeling up baitless hooks.

As we talked, my eye caught hordes of flying fish skittering across the water as our wake had them running for their lives. As many times as I have seen this exact same scene, I never tire of watching these marvels of evolution.

I asked Erik if he enjoyed watching these flyers.

“What flyers? he asked.

At that moment, I realized he hadn’t seen the flying fish and told him to watch one specific area in the boat’s wake. No sooner had I guided his eye then nearly two dozen took to the air. All it took was that one flight and he was into it. Some skipped across the waves, others flew straight up and, to our amusement, some appeared awkward like some big goofball inadvertently doing a belly flop off a diving board.

From that moment on, it was as if a switch had been flipped in a dormant part of Erik’s DNA.

From seeing how a triggerfish gets its name to grouper kicking his keister to king mackerel dumping line off his reel with ease, Erik had found his groove that had long lay hidden in his psyche. This is the part of guiding that I love best.

I rarely, if ever, reel in fish on these trips and even a couple of days ago when I took Bass Pro Shops president Jim Hagale and his wife Mary Martha out searching for Indian pottery, I was once again able to ignite senses that will hopefully remain tuned in for a lifetime.

Like a long locked treasure box, it is there in each and every one of you.

All you need to do is find a key, open the box once and I guarantee you’ll never see nature the same again.