It happened in a split second, and I’m sure it was karma jumping in to kick my ass.
For four straight days while wading the flats off of Deadman’s Cay, we’d been hounded by nesting black-headed gulls — it’s understandable that the screaming, squawking, black-headed birds would be threatened by us as we walked quietly among their nesting islands in search of bonefish, and I think it’s understandable that, after a time, the birds began to drive us nuts.
In a fit of frustration, as a maniacal gull dive-bombed me and spooked a sizable school of bones headed my way, I took a half-hearted swing at the bird with my 8-weight … and connected. It was a glancing blow, and I immediately felt terrible for doing it. The bird flew off unharmed — if a bit startled — and I shouldered a pang of guilt for the rest of the day.
My guilt didn’t stop the birds from harassing us (and I suppose, in their eyes, we were harassing them), and I wasn’t the only one to report back to the lodge each evening with tales of gulls diving uncomfortably close, or of gulls flocking overhead and spooking the fish were we stalking.
My kingdom for a 20-gauge.
Near the end of the fourth day at Long Island Bonefishing Lodge, a gull took umbrage as I approached the apparent “no walk zone” along the lee side of a little mangrove hummock in the middle of a large, open flat. As I walked quietly, scanning the clear water with the fly in one hand — a size 6 pink puff — and the rod in the other, the gull dive-bombed me and smacked my upright 8-weight rod. The vibration yanked the fly deep into the meaty flesh of my left index finger, well past the barb (and no, I did not crimp the barb — lesson learned then and there).
With a curse I’d be ashamed to repeat, I screamed at the foul (fowl?) bird for its brazen attack on this innocent bystander. Then I looked at my finger and realized this wasn’t just a little poke. The fly was in there, and good.
I knew right away that this was a bit more serious than other fly-in-the-flesh experiences I’ve endured throughout my years spent fly fishing. It was easily the biggest hook I’ve taken — before this experience, I managed to hook myself in the arm with a size 12 Chernobly, and I once took a size 14 Adams in the back of the neck. Those all came out relatively easily.
I clipped the fly from the tippet, reeled up and started walking back to the boat, where I knew there was a cooler full of ice that I could use to numb my finger and maybe yank the fly out of the flesh.
But, every time I touched the fly, the point of the hook would move deeper into my finger and send a wave of pain shooting up my arm and then down my spine. With each tinge, I’d break out in goosebumps. And, barehanded, I couldn’t muster the strength the pull the fly out without passing out in the process.
After a bumpy ride across open water back to the lodge (and with each bump, the pain would shoot up my arm) with my hand immersed in a bag of ice, I walked into my room and was greeted by my roommate Marc Payne, who sympathetically offered to try to pull it out. Then he saw the hook deeply embedded into my finger and thought otherwise. In fact, I think the sight of the blood pulsing out of my finger around the steel hook shank flipped his stomach on end. He sat down heavily on the corner of his bed.
I grabbed my favorite pair of pliers, gritted my teeth and yanked on the fly stuck into the cold flesh of my finger.
Spots appeared across my line of vision as I put the pliers to work. I heard an audible snap and then leaned into the vanity counter next to the sink to keep from hitting the tile floor. I looked down at my finger. I’d managed to remove the fly, and blood was flowing freely.
Marc did turn out to be helpful, after all. His son, Andrew, had given him an Angry Birds first-aid kit to take with him to the Bahamas, not knowing, of course, that it would be his Dad’s buddy who would need it. It was fitting, of course, to spend the next day wearing an Angry Birds bandage on my left forefinger, given that the wound was induced by a temperamental gull.
Needless to say, I gave the gulls a wide berth over the course of the rest of the week on Long Island. And I’ll never again walk the flats with a fly in my hand.
They’re Angry Birds, after all.