Brogan Jayne said it best in a previous Word Hatch, “I’ve never intentionally risked my life to go fishing.” Well, I can honestly say neither have I. But on March 12th, 2013 I came very close to proving that an individual doesn’t have to “intentionally” put their life at risk whenever they walk out the front door – it just happens. A drive in the rain and a slip of treading are the proof in the proverbial pudding. But this isn’t the first time God has treated me to a healthy dose of perspective.
Flash back to 1992...
When I was 3 years old, my older sister, Sarah, and I were playing in the attic. This was uncharacteristic for us since we hated each other in those days. In hindsight, I should’ve realized this was unnatural.
My dad was in the process of packing for a road trip and had gone out to run an errand. It was at this time that I decided Dad’s trunk looked an awful like a submarine. Naturally, I wanted my sister to see my vision and join in with me, but alas – the trunk was too small for the both of us to comfortably fit. Being the great big sister she was that day, she volunteered to stay behind and let me pilot the submarine/suitcase on a solo mission. I obliged by clambering into the trunk and excitedly announcing to the world that I was ready to submerge without questioning her motives for one second.
I looked at Sarah, who was all of 5 years old, and gave the command to “close but not lock” the trunk. Naturally Sarah closed the trunk, locked it, and promptly went downstairs to play in her room – leaving me for dead. She had planned it all along. Girls are smart. Trapped in the dark with an extremely limited amount of oxygen, I didn’t know what to expect so I sat and waited (sound like fishing anyone?). Luckily, through some sort of divine grace, the latch opened a few minutes later, an earnestly surprised Dad standing over me. I never realized how lucky I was. One stop in traffic or unplanned errand ran and I’d have been dead. But here I am.
Lesson learned: Don't climb in suitcases...
Flash forward to the summer going into senior year at Rhodes College…
I’m 21 years old and hell bent on catching a tarpon in a kayak. I’m attempting the incredibly stupid task alone with no mother boat or an accountability buddy in sight to help me if and when things get weird. If I hook into a poon, I’m going for a sleigh ride to Mexico with a kayak, iPhone, and a cursory knowledge of the Spanish language as my only means of getting home.
On this particular morning, I’m nearing the end of my usual drift a few hundred yards off shore. I’ve seen dozens of rolling fish – including one of the more beautiful moments in my life, when my 9ft kayak was literally floating in the midst of a tarpon school the size of a hockey rink - but luckily haven’t found a taker. My live pilchard swims haplessly about 50 yards off the bow. To this point, sharks have been an afterthought.
As I relax, the morning sun’s gentle warmth and kayak’s subtle rocking melting my worries away, I spy a large dark shape rising up from the sandy bottom out of the corner of my eye. As we all know, the waters off the coast of Florida are teeming with wildlife. Naively, I assumed this dark shape was nothing more than a dolphin or manatee – two of gods more trustworthy and friendly creatures. If only dolphins were 14ft long with a 3.5ft wide hammer-shaped head.
The Great Hammerhead is known to ram kayaks in the misguided hope that they are a tarpon. I never knew this. So until the shape was about a paddle’s reach away and gained definition, I was calm (unaware) of what was gliding my way. Looking down for the first time, I found myself staring the leviathan right in the hammer. At any point, it could have killed me. Knocked me out of my kayak and devoured me to the tune of my last words, “Oh, WHAT THE F*CK!” But it didn’t.
Again through some sort of divine intervention, the great fish realized it didn’t want me. With one flick of its giant tail it created a boil the size of a Mini Cooper and descended back into the depths. I returned to shore and promptly texted everyone (including my mother…big mistake) about my near death experience. The next day I returned to the water with a plan to protect myself just in case it happened again.
Lesson learned: There are bigger things than you.
Flash forward to March 12, 2013 at 8:15am….
The morning began like any other fishing trip to Mossy Creek. Renowned for its large, wild brown trout – Mossy resides about two and a half hours from Washington, D.C. While there are certainly closer places to pursue trout, waking up at 6AM, hitting I-66 West by 6:30 and finding myself stalking its banks by 8:15 or so is an experience I’ve come to really enjoy. The creek is challenging, the drive through the Shenandoah Valley breathtaking, and the fish straight from God’s private storeroom.
In the pursuit of large trout, my 2005 Explorer, “Buffy”, has made this trek into the budding dawn many a time. It’s kind’ve our thing. She is a machine designed for long hauls, pulling things, and driving through the elements. I am one that wants to fish at all times. We are a match made in heaven. So when I saw that the weather report called for thunder showers, I paid them no mind. This was not our first rodeo.
The weather worsened an hour into the drive. The roads, which a week earlier had been covered in 10 inches of snow, were now slick with snow-melt chemicals and anti-ice agents. I felt confident in Buffy’s ability to handle the road despite the worsening conditions. But about a mile from my old stomping grounds - The Plains, Virginia – something went wrong.
I felt the right wheel shutter. Oh f*ck. I began sliding through two lanes towards an inevitable doom at 75mph. I accepted my fate. “Well, I’m dead,” were my choice last words (I’ve really got to get better at this). Buffy then swerved into the emergency lane. She plowed through the ditch and promptly climbed/power slid 30 feet up and down a hill - similar to a surfer shredding waves. I prepared for the worse. But it never came. The car never flipped. It didn’t crash to a halt. Hell, the airbags didn’t even deploy. It was like God pressed a stop button.
I emerged from the vehicle shaken - much more so than the Hammerhead or attempted murder ever did. Some combination of adrenaline, bewilderment, and humility coursed through my veins (to the point I failed to notice my concussion until I got home a few hours later). I knew I was lucky to be alive. Someone somewhere gave me a second chance.
I'll try my best to not let them down.
Lesson learned: Drive slower in the rain, appreciate the sunny days, and know that everything happens for a reason.
I like to believe that God sends us messages. Akin to a power pitcher backing someone off the plate with chin music or a 30” rainbow shredding your 7x tippet with one majestic leap in a stream you thought no such fish could ever exist. Simply put, there are moments in life that leave us filled with adrenaline, fear, and questions. Regardless of fight or flight instinct, these messages tend to leave us shaken to our core. They are what define us – the motivation to back away or push on when faced with adversity. They are the true thrills of life. But the messages and challenges we come across, although hard to handle or comprehend sometimes, ultimately are what we are here for. They are the journey, our test, and purpose. It’s this simple rationality that allows me to carry on living my life the way that I do – fishing as hard and as often as I can.
I understand that my time here could end at any moment. I know I am not in control of the car driving my life. Literally. But you can’t draw lines - everything happens for a reason. The good, the bad, and the ugly are all part of the plan - hydroplaning, great hammerheads, and big sisters included.
So what advice can I give you? Enjoy every cast – you’ll never know which one may be your last.
Remick Smothers is a native son of the District of Columbia and the founder of FlyTimesDC. A self taught fly fisherman and fly tier, Rem graduated from Rhodes College with a double major in fly fishing and English in 2012. He has been celebrating the fly life ever since. Just remember, if it's dark out, there's a shark out. Above all else, stay fly. #flytimesdc