My father and I are opposite. He sits at the stern of the skiff with the drone of the generator and the darkness. I stand on the bow and scan the oyster rakes by painter’s lights. We’re searching for flounder, a fish that lying flat is all but invisible against the bottom. Sometimes the eyes are the giveaway, other times the bright spots that speckle the fish’s mottled brown body like constellations. Or at least that’s what I’ve been told.
To be honest, I know nothing about salt water aside from summer vacations surf-fishing as a kid. I’ve driven down from the mountains of North Carolina and scooped my father up on the way for a chance to gig flounder. The two boys who’ve taken us out grew up here in Savannah. Cameron, a lean twenty-something law student I met in an online turkey-hunting forum and took into the woods to chase longbeards, is returning a favor, so to speak. He loafs in the middle of the boat using one of the gigs to help pole us through the shallows as he sips Natty Light. Stephen, a lifelong friend of Cameron’s whom I’d never met before supper, has run this skiff since he was a kid. He stands beside me on the deck and tries to teach me to read the pluff mud and oyster shell, though the learning curve is steep and I am a slow study.
As we push-pole along the creek bank, our setup is simple enough: a small flat-bottomed skiff with a two-by-four secured across the front of the boat. Clamp-on incandescent work lights are fastened to the board and angled toward the water. A four-stroke generator powers the lights, and Stephen keeps one of them in hand to scan the outer edges for anything lying just outside the spread.
What isn’t simple: everything else. Gigging flounder is a matter of synchronicity. A low tide at night, winds under four knots, clear weather. Get all of that to line up and you can still hit the lights and look down into soup. Water clarity is the most unpredictable and important factor. On this night I ease the spear into the water and can barely make out the tips of the five-pronged gig. We’ve got inches of visibility in most places, and never more than a foot. Our window of opportunity is little more than an hour, and if another boat passes by too fast, its wake could rouse the mud and wash that window away altogether.
“Fish,” Stephen yells, and my eyes dart to where he holds the light fixed on a gap in the oyster bed. I squint to focus, but I see nothing. “Do you see it?”
“Right there.” He holds his gig just over the surface and I know he is pointing at something I should be able to spot, but I can’t discern anything at the bottom, and the boat is quickly drifting out of range.
“Gig him,” I say, and for a second he hesitates. “I can’t see it. Gig it,” I urge again.
Stephen drives his spear into the water, and what I would’ve sworn to be nothing more than broken shell just seconds before comes alive and thrashes at the end of his gig. He keeps the fish pinned to the bottom and drops to his knees while Cameron works the boat closer. When he’s within reach, Stephen slides one hand under the fish, then lifts both gig and flounder into the skiff.
Until right then I’d been so focused on the lights and the water that I’d forgotten my father was there. He and I stand like bookends at stern and bow. There is blood in the bottom between us.
I grew up with a photograph of a fish my family called Spike. The story was that my father and his brother, along with their uncle and cousin, were wading an inlet one night, gigging flounder along the North Carolina coast. They’d stuck a few fish when Uncle Oscar drove his gig into something different. The way Dad told it, Oscar’s arms went wild, the long handle running figure eights through the water as everything around him clouded with blood and sand.
In the picture, a thick-bodied fish with a scar visible along the top of its back rests on a wooden table. One of the men can be seen in the background, just his torso and waist—blue jeans, a plaid shirt, a sheathed fillet knife in his right hand. The fish has a broad head and the blunt face of a bulldog. Its pectoral fins are larger than its tail, and its flanks split in color midbody from olive brown at its back to white along the belly, the darker section dappled with light-colored spots. I remember looking the fish up in a field guide as a kid and discovering it was a northern stargazer, a bottom-dwelling species that spends most of its life in deep water. I also remember the first word of its Latin name, Astroscopus, meaning “one who aims at the stars.”
When I was growing up, everything about that photograph fascinated me: the fish, the camaraderie, the adventure. My father was a different man before I was born, or at least that’s how the stories made things seem. He hunted squirrels and rabbits. He jug-fished for channel cats and once upon a time gigged flounder.
By the time I was old enough to tag along, my father didn’t do most of those things anymore. We fished. We always fished. And he showed me how to clean our catch. He handed me the knife. He taught me to shoot a rifle. But I always wondered if our relationship would’ve been different if the outdoors had remained essential to who he was, if the woods and water had persisted as a necessity rather than an indulgence.
Needlefish and mullet zigzag through the lights, their backs writing cursive on the surface. I try not to blink for fear of missing something, but it is hard to stay focused on anything still with so much movement in the periphery. Blue crabs trot sideways, and rays fly over them through water that seems too shallow to hold this much life.
This is nothing like the stories of my father and uncle wading through a knee-deep inlet looking for outlines of fish against sand. The bottom here is different. The secret, Stephen says, is to find an oyster rake mixed with whole and broken shells. At that point, you’re looking for small breaks in the bed, places the fish can hide, though the flounder I spot is in the mud and so shallow that its body is almost out of water.
“Fish,” Stephen says, his voice solidifying the dark arrow-shaped bruise I’ve spotted against tan clay.
I aim just behind the head and get the gig close, shoot forward and feel the faint quiver of the fish against the bottom. Stephen leans over the water and brings the flounder into the boat. This one is more brightly spotted than the first, pinpricks of white against a body the color of wet sand. We add the fish to the cooler, and though I am happy to have gigged my first, what I really want is for my father to have the chance.
When I look up from the bottom of the boat, we are close to the bank and I can tell the water has risen since we started. My eyes are slowly growing accustomed to what we’re looking for, but we’re already running out of time. The tide is coming in, and much of the oyster beds that were dry an hour before are underwater. In some places the creek has started to lap at the cordgrass. We slip toward a small bend in the bank and suddenly all see the same thing at once, a flounder tucked into a small pocket, its body completely camouflaged except for a slight variation in color.
“Come gig this one, Dad.”
“You take it,” he says, but I refuse, and Cameron and Stephen back me in urging him forward.
Dad comes around the coolers to get to the front of the boat. By the time he reaches the deck, the skiff is in position. Cameron hands him the gig, and he wastes little time. I hear the clink of spear tips against oyster shells. The fish is pegged, and my father shovels the gig forward to lift the flounder from the water. Cameron slaps him on the shoulder. “Just like an old pro,” Stephen says as he works the fish off the spear. I watch Dad’s face to try to judge whether he’s enjoying himself, and the truth is I cannot tell.
We stay along the bank and pick up a few more fish. Then, just like that, our window is gone, and we make our way back with five flounder between us. The night is cool, the stars are out, and everyone in the boat is smiling and laughing. I look back at my father, then up at the sky. We’re joking, almost yelling at one another to keep our voices over the whine of the engine. Tomorrow is supposed to be perfect. Low tide’s set to come a little later. The forecast calls for no wind at all.
illustration: Michael Byers
By the time I was old enough to go with my father to the woods, most of his rifles and shotguns had been stolen during a break-in and never replaced. The places he’d grown up hunting had been lost to urban sprawl. We fished together, but not as often as I needed. Whereas I went every day, fly-casting and bobber fishing a small farm pond at the back of a cattle pasture by our house, Dad put things off. “If I can get this done, we can go,” he’d say, and then we wouldn’t. For the most part I fished alone. I stayed in the woods by myself.
When I think about what stopped my father from continuing to do the things he’d done as a younger man, it’s complicated. Part of it was the loss of access. The woods he’d grown up hunting and the banks he’d fished succumbed to privatization and development. There’d been a cultural shift that seemed to take place right about the time I was born, something I noticed even as a kid in, say, the way my uncle still kept kennels filled with rabbit dogs yet no longer had places to run them.
The biggest thing, though, was that my father worked too much. Life distilled to salary and benefits, to providing for our family financially, when what I wanted and needed from him was more a matter of spirit. He came home tired. He blew through weekends playing catch-up with yard work and bills, and I made a deliberate choice early on that I would never live that way.
I don’t say this with as much derision as it might seem. I love my father. And I can’t say that one choice is better than the other. There’s good and bad to both. But what I can tell you is that if you ask me to do something during turkey season, I’m apt to tell you I’m dying of cancer. If the flatheads are up the creeks or the bucks are running does, if the birds are gobbling—Lord help me if the birds are gobbling—my house could catch fire and most likely I wouldn’t head home.
The next afternoon things have changed. A tropical storm has come out of the Gulf and made its way across much of the Southeast. Claudette is set to blow well north of where we are, but bands are breaking off from the main storm and shifting the local forecasts. The water is choppy and the clouds are dark. Dad and I are at dinner when Cameron texts me to call it. They’ve issued a gale watch. In the sound, winds are steady at fourteen knots.
The fish from the night before are on ice in the back of the car. When we leave the restaurant, we run down to the boat landing so that I can clean them since we won’t be adding any more to the cooler. I kneel over the flounder on a dry oyster bed as the tide goes down and quickly scale both sides of each fish, then remove the head and guts. Dad stands over my shoulder and asks if I need help, but I don’t. The lesson from thirty years ago has stuck, and my hands do the job without much thought.
The next morning, we drive home. It’s Father’s Day. We cross the Savannah River and make our way through the South Carolina Lowcountry, swampland on both sides of the highway and egrets circling the overpasses like pigeons.
My dad’s less than a month away from his sixty-ninth birthday. He’s been retired three years now. He fishes more these days, mostly with my uncle, chasing crappie when they stage off the banks, blue cats and channels by the dam when the heat sets in. He’s taken on more responsibility at the church—too much, to be honest—always shoveling more onto his plate. Somewhere mid-way home he starts to complain about all that he has to do when he gets there, and for the most part I tune him out. I turn up the radio and listen to an old recording of the Grand Ole Opry on WNCW.
When we get to the house, I cook the flounder for dinner. My mother is the only one who doesn’t eat fish on the bone, so I fillet one for her on the kitchen counter, hold what’s left up to the window, and watch the sun make stained glass out of the skeleton. I fry the others whole on the stove top and make a pan sauce with a recipe Cameron’s told us we have to try—a short jar of apricot preserves, a teaspoon of mustard powder, salt and pepper to taste.
We sit down on the back porch to eat, my father across the table from me, my mother and sister and my partner, Ashley, in the seats around us. Dad starts to tell them stories about our trip, and it begins to sink in how much it meant to him. What I could not read on his face at the time is evident now in his words, and I know that as much as he enjoyed himself, it’s most likely something he would not have done on his own.
I take a bite. The sweetness of the apricot glaze evens the saltiness of the fried fish, and as I close my eyes, I am standing on the front of the skiff with the water shifting the deck beneath my feet, the gig resting in both hands at my waist like the pole of a tightrope walker. Everything is a matter of balance.
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