Focus Column: Counting crows and landing a ladyfish

Our sons came down to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with us here in Florida. After a big turkey dinner with friends from the North Fork at the water’s edge, we were anxious to get out visiting some of our favorite places along the west coast and do some fishing in the beautiful weather.

There is a little rustic café in the fishing village across the water from us where, for a modest fee, you can rent a boat with a captain for a few hours. It was a bit windy but we finally began to catch a few of the smaller fish: little ladyfish, a lizard fish and even a snake fish, but nothing of any size.

Then — ziiiiiiinnnng — my line tore out of the reel and my pole bent double as though something big was trying to get away with it. I had previously set the drag on the reel so that if the occasion came up it would let the fish take the line out but prevent it from breaking. I reeled in as my prize tried to escape. Then again — ziiiinnnnng — more line went out. The captain moved the boat about as the fish went first toward the bow, then underneath and then to the stern of the boat.
Off it would charge, only to be brought back by my reeling in.

“Get the net,” someone called as my silvery-white prize broke water off to the side of the boat. The line passed a knotted section of my spool, which told me this was old backup line and who knew how strong it would be. Reeling in, I got the good line back on the spool and now we could see the glistening white fish below. My sons passed the net back and forth from one side of me to the other and the fish kept up its fight trying to escape in every direction. It felt like I was fighting a big bluefish back home.

I knew the fish was weakening and I was, too. Our captain thought it might be a black-tipped shark when she saw the tip of its tail but no, as we brought it in closer and finally into the boat it proved to be a ladyfish, a member of the tarpon family, which accounts for its breaking water as I was reeling it in. Our captain said she had never seen such a big ladyfish before.

We were fishing fairly close to shore, where big pines grow over the water and great blue herons nest. We see these great blue herons on the North Fork, but they do not nest there.

To add to our day’s fishing, a school of porpoise circled the boat chasing mullet, which leapt out of the water. We followed the dolphins as they turned to go into a boat canal and swam alongside after the mullet. As we headed toward the end of the canal, we could see what looked like huge turtles’ backs on the surface of the water.

They were manatees resting in the sun; others were moving about at their slow lumbering pace. We could even see the young swimming alongside their mothers — down they would go to feed, then up for a gulp of air. We had never before been so close to these gentle creatures as they surfaced alongside the boat.

After a great day on the water we headed for a quiet place to eat. Alongside some working boats on a small canal, by a fish market and close to a boat yard, we found just the spot. We ordered mostly seafood for dinner and sat at an outdoor picnic table enjoying our late-afternoon meal.

Then, what I consider one of the great spectacles in the bird world started to happen. You can’t go to Florida without hearing the raucous call of the fish crow. These birds seem to be everywhere. We began to hear a few crows calling. Looking up into the blue sky, we noticed crows all flying in one direction. We ate our meal and occasionally looked up and saw the crows were still flying, all in a westerly direction. And they never stopped.

They must have been heading for a roost. We paid little attention at first but then as they increased in numbers and darkness started to close in, we could count hundreds, no, thousands, of these squawking fish crows. We knew they must be dropping down nearby.

After we finished eating we started to look for their roost; in and out of fishing places, up and down streets we kept looking, listening and following them. No matter where we looked, we saw and heard crows. This reminded me of the American crows up north that will do the same thing every evening when they come in to roost, but nothing like the quantity of what we were seeing and hearing.

Finally we turned around a corner and there, at a shipyard, we could see the crows all around us. We became a part of the scene and the sound. The immensity of it all was almost mesmerizing, and so our busy day in the sun ended with some good eating and fishing and watching the crows as they gathered to head for their roost on a mangrove island across the bay.