G. Scott Sparrow, EdD, LPC, LMFT

Counseling and Mentoring Services

Starry Nebulae
by Scott Sparrow

"Craig! Are you up?" The silhouette of a man tapping the window startled Craig into semi-wakefulness. Recognizing the voice of his friend Steve, Craig yelled, "Hold on." He swung his feet onto the worn linoleum, and limped to the door, favoring a sore knee.
"Well, at least Mr. Coffee knows when to wake up," Steve said wryly as he sauntered through the back door toward the full pot that was already a half-hour old. He poured himself a cup and plopped down at the table. Wincing from a sip too quickly taken, he exclaimed, "Come on, man, we're wasting precious time!"
As Steve waited, Craig rummaged through a pile of clothes on the sofa, looking for a clean shirt and wading shorts. He sniffed them to make sure they were clean. Remnants of feathers, thread, and deer hair littered the floor from a hasty fly tying session the night before. His Sage six-weight and vintage Gunnison lay strung and ready on the unused side of the bed. In the corner of the room, a framed photo stood in the middle of a battered end table, kept co

mpany by several battered flies that testified to some of Craig’s more memorable catches. Craig picked up the the year-old picture of his son Sam and wiped the glass with his bandana.

"Napping?" Steve yelled. Craig quickly put down the photo and tied his bandana around his neck. It was hard for him to participate in a kill-tournament, but his friendship mattered more than the survival of a few fish. Steve, a well-known fly fishing guide on the lower Laguna Madre, had let things slide after his wife died. A win in the Texas International Fishing Tournament would provide a much-needed boost to his sagging reputation. Craig guided some, too, but his regular job as a social worker took care of his basic needs. It was fortunate, because in the last few months, his interest in fly fishing had been waning.
As Craig emerged from the bedroom, Steve jumped up, coffee in hand. "I'll drive the boat. Here's breakfast." Steve stuck a dry piece of toast in Craig's mouth as Craig juggled with his coffee and gear. Stuffing an apple in his pocket, he followed Steve barefoot down to the dock. As Steve began lowering Craig's skiff into the water, the trout that had been feeding around the underwater light promptly fled from sight. "We could have caught our trout without leaving the dock," Steve mused.
"Only small ones, though," Craig added."The ones we need will not be so easy to find, nor easy to catch."
"You've got that right," Steve agreed.

Steve headed east down the Arroyo Colorado shining the q-beam along the shoreline in search of deer and javelina. The noise from the Yamaha limited their conversation to occasional shouts, and except for the glowing eyes of raccoons, there was nothing much to see.
Craig sat crosslegged on the ice chest in front of the center console, and let his thoughts and feelings range freely in the privacy created by the steady drone of the motor and the predawn darkness. He recalled making this journey countless times as a child.
Craig remembered how he would sit with his legs dangling over the bow, gripping the rope like a bronco rider, and relishing the moist summer air flowing over him, as his father would drive their old plywood boat toward the mouth of the Arroyo. The pervasive smell of fish both living and dead, the spent anvilheads towering above the Gulf, the cool pockets of air left over from the night, the occasional coyote roaming the tidal flats, the mullet-eating herons lined up along the shore––each familiar sensation greeted him as part of a rich, expansive experience of arriving at the place most precious to him in all of the world.
Craig briefly felt the faint magic of his boyhood excitement. But his sadness over recent events quickly overshadowed it.
Looking back, the divorce still seemed necessary. Even Jessica finally admitted during a rare moment of civility that it had been the best thing for her, too. But on the heels of handing Craig that long-awaited prize, she added, "But I could never have hurt Sam like that." She had a way of keeping Craig's guilt alive and well.
Craig had hoped that by moving back to south Texas, he could establish a lifestyle that would appeal to a 13-year-old son who had only known city life, and that the memory of his departure would quickly fade as Sam came to love his father's home waters. But Craig's idyllic dream failed to acknowledge the depth of Sam's hurt. During Sam's first visit––which, at first, seemed to be going pretty well––Sam finally broke down and told his father how upset he was about the divorce, and how he felt he really didn’t know his father at all. Then, upon his return to Atlanta, he began making vague excuses about why he couldn't visit for a while; and then gradually he stopped responding to Craig's phone calls. Feeling helpless, Craig could not bring himself to keep calling, but he dutifully sent a postcard each week in hopes that in time Sam would come around. Meanwhile, the depression that he'd managed to keep at bay for most of his life rushed in to claim its prey.

"Where to?" Steve yelled, as he approached the mouth of the Arroyo and the shallow flats of the lower Laguna, and pulled back on the throttle and let the boat inch along in the deep water of the Intracoastal Waterway. Steve waited for Craig's call, because he knew that Craig understood big trout like no one else.
Craig gazed northward, and could almost make out the dark outline of Green Island against the blue-gray sky. But his thoughts ranged far beyond that familiar landmark, and eventually came to rest at a lagoon so remote that most fishermen knew it only by name.
"The best place to find big trout in mid-August is Glady's Hole," Craig said with conviction. "Of course," he added, "it's a bit of a run."
"A bit of a run?! It's 33 miles from here! We'll spend half the day making the round trip!" Steve shook his head.
"I don't know about you," Craig replied, "but I don't much care to join the circus at the Trout Bar." Craig was referring to the most famous big trout venue in the Lower Laguna. "The fish will be there, most likely, but you know what will happen. You'll be stalking a tailing trout, and then someone will plane across the flat, and just smile and wave. And that's the last you will see of the fish."
"You're right," Steve admitted. "We wouldn't stand much of a chance there." After pausing to consider Craig's go-for-broke proposal, Steve said, "Okay, Let's do it. But we should have left an hour ago."
Steve brought the skiff back on plane, swung eastward into the shallow water to increase its planing efficiency, and headed due north in the calm bay water. The water went from murky to clear within 50 yards of the ICW, and for the rest of the hour-long ride, they sped over water of gem-grade clarity that was from one to two feet in depth. They made good time, and were aided by a slight tail wind. But the return trip would be different story. By afternoon, a 25-knot headwind would confront them on their way home. The prospect of a long return trip against the wind accounted for why so few fishermen ventured very far to the north in the lower Laguna during the summer, when the sea breeze often reached 30 knots or more by afternoon.
As they skimmed over miles and miles of featureless flats, the horizon greeted them as a thin line dividing two skies precisely replicated in the unbroken surface. The boat itself seemed motionless, and the bow spray supplied the only evidence of movement. The near-perfect symmetry between sky and water captivated the two men, and arrested the impulse for them to speak.
Steve thought of Laura, who had died in a car accident the year before. She would have relished the sights of the birds, so as was his habit, Steve silently shared with her what he saw––the reddish egrets hunting canopy-style on the flats, a peregrine falcon perched atop a channel marker with the remains of a coot in her talons, and a flock of roseate spoonbills flying in loose formation. Steve had ceased thinking of his one-way conversations as odd or deluded: He simply had become Laura's eyes and ears in a world that she’d left too soon.
Craig thought again of Sam, and how his son had enjoyed the long boat ride up to Glady's Hole during his last visit. With a rare feeling of hopefulness, Craig looked forward to the day when they'd make that journey again. His thoughts turned, as well, to his aging father, who had taken Craig to what he called "the north country" in search of big trout on Craig's 10th birthday, and dozens of times thereafter. He recalled on one occasion crawling beside his father on their hands and knees along the King Ranch shoreline so his dad could show him a giant trout that was tailing.
"Look, Craig!" His father pointed excitedly to a spot 30 feet away.
"But Daddy," Craig had said, "I don't see anything."
"See that black thing sticking out of the water, son? It looks like a leaf. Watch it. It will move, you'll see."
Craig had his doubts, but within a few moments, the stationery tip of a fish's tail disappeared below the surface. A second later, baitfish flew in all directions as the huge fish attacked some finger mullet.
Craig had always loved these trips, but he could not fathom why his father was so obsessed with big speckled trout––fish that were difficult to find, and harder to catch. Almost everyone else preferred redfish, which were more plentiful and almost always to take a lure. But somewhere along the way Craig began to see the world as his father did. And then the only things that really mattered to him were few in number and often beyond his reach––like difficult fish, beautiful women, and God.
Two years in a nursing home had almost quenched the fire that had made his father legendary among local fishermen. Senility was setting in, and most of what he said was pretty meaningless. But sometimes his old intensity burned through the fog that was slowly engulfing his mind. When it did, he'd turn to Craig with a youthful urgency and ask him, "Have you seen the starry nebulae?" Craig believed that his dad was referring to the speckled trout's Latin name, cynscion nebulosis, which meant "starry nebulae," but he wasn’t sure exactly what his father wanted to know. He tried different answers, but the one that finally satisfied his father was, "Yes, she's where she's always been."
When the northern shore of the lower Laguna came into view, Steve turned west and crossed the bay. Passing through an opening in the shoreline of the King Ranch, the shallow-running skiff entered the lagoon referred to by some fishermen as the Northwest Pocket––or by others, more intriguingly, as Glady's Hole. The depth of the water decreased to about a foot, and the fish that were feeding in the lagoon fled visibly from the boat's intrusion, leaving wakes as they went. As the skiff headed for a small inlet joining the lagoon to a series of back lakes, the men spotted a few retreating trout mixed in with redfish and sheepshead. Craig held up his hand for Steve to stop.
Steve pulled back on the throttle as the boat neared the southwest shoreline of the lagoon.
"The bigger trout should be cruising the shallows, chasing baitfish onto the bank." Craig said. "Why don't we anchor off that point, and I'll fish the inlet while you wade the shoreline?"
"You're giving me the prime water," Steve protested.
"Maybe," Craig answered, "but neither of us knows where the big ones will be."
Steve nodded. "We'd better get moving then. The wind's coming up."
Sawgrass-covered dunes and live oak motts lined the shorelines of Glady's Hole. The sun had been up for over an hour, but the low thin clouds softened the sunlight, increasing the chances that the largest trout would continue feeding in the shallowest water well into mid-morning. Knowing that it was hard to get a big trout to see a subsurface fly in the thick seagrass, both fly fishers tied on small poppers with weedguards. Without further discussion, they slipped into the cool water, and waded off in different directions.
Steve walked toward the shoreline, feeling a mixture of relief and apprehension. Craig had called it right: The big fish were here, and the conditions were near perfect in spite of the rising wind. But Steve had little confidence in his ability to catch a big trout on demand. Skill was a large part of it, and he had plenty of it, but catching a trophy trout normally required a considerable investment of time on the water: The big ones just didn't come when you whistled. In fact, targeting big trout with a fly rod was about as rational as using your whole paycheck to purchase lotto tickets. Finding them was hard enough, but enticing them to the fly was equally daunting. The big ones––all of them females––are known to feed only about two hours a day, making your chances of arriving at dinnertime slim at best. Even so, Steve knew that a popper might still provoke an aggressive reaction from a well-fed fish if the cast was nothing short of perfect.

Over the course of the next hour, Steve passed up three small tailing reds, and paused to watch a 20-inch trout snaking its way through the shoal grass in search of prey. On another day, he would have enjoyed the prospect of presenting to these fish, but today they were mere distractions: He had to catch a big trout in the next couple of hours, or the tournament would be over.
After wading up the bank for about 200 yards, he finally saw what he was looking for––the dark back of a sizeable trout. She was moving up the shoreline toward him, breaking the surface and showing the tip of her tail as she darted to the right and the left, chasing baitfish. Steve waded quietly onto the bank, and dropped to one knee on the wet sand. If the fish approached without seeing the fly, Steve wanted to be out of the water so he could cast as she passed, even though a head-on shot was far more likely to draw a strike. He quickly pulled enough line beyond the rod tip to enable him to load the rod quickly, and stripped another 30 feet of line at his feet. His heart was racing, and he took deep breaths to calm himself.
After losing sight of the fish, Steve spotted her as she surfaced again about 35 feet away. He made a couple casts off to the side to aerialize his line, and then repositioned his cast, dropping the popper lightly about a foot from the fish's head. Steve let the fly sit for a second, and then stripped firmly. The trout lunged after the sound, and flared its gills to inhale the fly. Resisting the impulse to lift his rod, Steve strip struck, but missed her. Fortunately, the trout followed the fleeing popper and struck again, this time taking it deeply. Steve stood up in place and fought her gently, knowing that the trout's tender mouth could not take much pressure before tearing. Five minutes later, he pulled the beautiful 26-inch fish onto the bank. Overjoyed at his good fortune, he put the fish on his stringer, and hurried back toward the boat to show Craig his catch.
Craig had only waded about 50 yards from the boat. "Why aren't you fishing?" Steve yelled. Craig waved him off without replying. Puzzled at first, Steve studied the water and spotted a black tail breaking the surface about 70 feet behind and upwind of Craig.
"There's a big one behind you!" he yelled.
Craig glanced in its direction, and nodded, but he appeared to take no interest in the big fish. He crouched low to the water, wiggled his rod in front of him. He then turned his head slowly back and forth, shrugged, and then took a couple of high steps in slow motion. Steve was puzzled, but then it dawned on him: "He's imitating a heron!"
Craig had talked about this strategy before, but always over a couple of beers, so Steve had dismissed it as hocus pocus. But here clearly, Craig wasn't hunting the trout––he was hunting with the trout. The wind had increased, so rather than opting for an upwind cast, Craig was obviously waiting for the trout to move downwind of him so could make a clean, backhanded presentation. With a fish like that, both fly fishers knew that the first cast had to be perfect.
Steve watched the big fish turn slowly to the right and move alongside his friend. Craig noted the fish's position every once in a wh
ile, but quickly looked away each time, and repeated his heron-like movements. Slowly the trout moved from a crosswind position to a quartering downwind angle. At that point, Craig unfurled his line with a studied casualness, and laid the line on the water off to the left, away from the fish. Instead of lifting his rod, he kept the tip tilted downward, straight at the fly. From where Steve sat, Craig looked like a heron poised for a strike: His elbow was at eye level, and he held the fly line and the reel high against his face. Then, in one fluid movement, he hauled downward with his left hand, and shot the line backhanded toward the trout. The popper landed lightly about 18 inches from the fish's head, on Craig's side. The huge fish reacted before Craig could make the first strip. She whirled and accelerated toward him, seizing the fly on the run. Turning instantly, she took off in the other direction leaving a muddy wake punctuated by powerful thrusts of her tail. Anticipating the sudden shift of direction, Craig bowed to her, and the tippet held. He slowly lifted his rod and let her run.
He fought the trout carefully, keeping the line gently taut as the huge fish thrashed her head from side to side, revealing her toothy golden mouth. After several powerful, darting runs, she began to tire. Tucking his rod under his right arm, Craig finally reached down and cradled the big fish with both hands.
Steve walked up yelling congratulatory praise. "Incredible! She must be at least 30 inches long!" He was already pulling out his spare stringer to help Craig clinch the deal. "I've never seen anyone work a fish like that before." Steve continued.
"She was upwind, and I knew I couldn't make the cast." Craig replied.
Steve went on. "She'll win the Big Trout Trophy, hand's down, and you're the man to beat for the entire Bay Division," Steve asserted. "Let's get the fish to the boat," and he handed Craig the stringer.
But Craig ignored Steve's offer. He'd already lowered the fish back into the water, and was kneeling beside her.
"What are you doing?" Steve was puzzled.
Craig continued moving the trout back and forth. Without looking up, he replied, "I just can't kill this fish." He looked up at Steve, and continued. "So, while I'm reviving her, why don't you wade on over to that inlet, and catch one of those reds that have been tailing. I don't want to have to pole your butt around for the rest of the day."
"But you're giving away the tournament!"
"I know." Craig went back to reviving the trout.
Steve shrugged and turned toward the shoreline, but after taking a few steps, he remembered that he'd put his camera in his wading pouch, so he took it out to take a picture of Craig and his fish. Through the viewfinder, Steve saw his best friend on his knees before something that glistened and undulated in the morning sunlight. Craig's face glistened, too.
Steve lowered his camera and waded away.

Thirty minutes later, Steve managed to hook a 27-inch red tailing along the bank, and after a long battle and a considerable amount of hooting and hollering, he returned to boat where Craig sat sipping a soda.
"You did it, man! Way to go!" Craig slapped Steve on the back.
"Thanks to you." Steve laughed playfully, and Craig just nodded sheepishly.
He and Craig headed south immediately, stopping at the Port Mansfield Cut long enough for Steve to dredge a heavy Clouser along the edge of a dropoff where he snagged a three-pound flounder––the third fish he needed for his total. Armed with three fine fish, Craig and Steve headed southeast onto the white sand, and then turned south toward the mouth of the Arroyo, some 15 miles away.
After a few miles, Steve tapped Craig on the shoulder and yelled,"We've got some time. How about communion?"
Craig nodded, and Steve brought the skiff off plane in the middle of the white sand. He dug in the ice chest and came up with the two bottles of Bohemia that they carried for the end-of-the-day ritual that had evolved over the years of their friendship. Reaching into his dry bag, Craig extracted two Cohibas from a zip lock bag. The men slipped off their booties, lit their Cuban cigars in the leeward side of the console, and waded 50 feet away from the boat. Sitting down in the foot deep water, they turned and faced eastward toward Padre Island. Sipping their beers and puffing their cigars, the friends silently surveyed several pods of tailing sheepshead, a broken line of golden thunderheads over the Gulf, and an indigo-colored sky just above the high dunes that shone brightly in the afternoon sun.
Steve broke the silence. "About that trout you caught...think of it. She hatched within a mile or two of where you caught her, and never left the area if the fishery biologists are right. She survived her predatory relatives when she was only a fry, eluded the dolphins and sharks in the Intracoastal Waterway when she was a footlong schoolie, then managed to escape the cormorants and herons as she first ventured onto the flats. And then, miracle of miracles, she managed to decline the crude overtures of the croaker-soakers." Steve alluded to the controversial practice of using live croaker for catching big trout. The golden croaker was a first cousin and a natural enemy of the spotted seatrout. Big trout simply could not resist attacking croaker, which was a weakness that accounted in large part for their decline in the Lower Laguna––a fishery that was still known for hosting the largest population of giant speckled trout in the world.
"And then…" Steve went on between puffs, "she winds up getting fooled by a guy pretending to be a bird! Lucky for her, the bird happened to be a real softie."
"Let's hope her luck continues." Craig said.
"To big trout," said Steve, and he lifted his bottle.
"To the starry nebulae," answered Craig.
Two hours later, Steve made it to the weigh-in in time to record the heaviest overall catch of the day, which put him in first place for the entire bay division of the TIFT.

It was dark when Steve dropped Craig off at the cottage.
"Hey man, thanks. I’ll never forget it." He slapped Craig on the back as he slid out of the car.
"You did great," Craig said as he closed the door.
"Yeh, and you're a major head case." Steve laughed.
Craig smiled sheepishly and shrugged as Steve drove away.
On his way up the sidewalk, Craig saw Belinda Torres, his neighbor, standing at the fence with something in her arms.
"Craig, I have some mail for you," she said, bearing a bundle wrapped in thick rubber bands. "The mailman said to me, 'Belinda, you tell Mr. Matthews to get a bigger mailbox, or to start taking in his mail every day.'" She smiled, sympathetically.
"Sorry, Belinda," Craig said, feeling embarrassed. "I'll do better from now on." He took four days of mail in his arms, and noticed a postcard strapped conspicuously to the outside of the bundle. Belinda avoided his gaze and turned away.
"Belinda?" Craig called after her. "Thanks." Belinda turned and smiled. "Any time," she said, and then hurried on.
He took his pile of mail to the back porch and and sat on the bed. He pulled the card out, and studied the picture longer than he needed to. It was of a smiling man holding up a bass that was bigger than he was. The words, "Come to Georgia Where Big Fish Rule," appeared in a balloon above the man's head. Then Craig slowly turned the card over and read his son's note.
"Hey dad, how are you? I miss fishing with you. Call me, okay? Love, Sam."
Craig took the fly from his pocket that he had caught big trout with, and hooked it on the corner of the postcard before putting it next to Sam's photo on the crude altar.
"For you, Sam," he said.
After a while, Craig looked at the clock and saw that it was only 7:30. He dried his face on his sleeve, dug the phone out from under some dirty clothes, and dialed a familiar number.