Carl and Jane Bock are retired Professors of Biology from the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Carl received his PhD in Zoology from the University of California at Berkeley, while Jane holds three degrees in Botany, a B.A. from Duke, an M.A. from the University of Indiana, and a PhD from Berkeley. Carl is an ornithologist and conservation biologist. Jane is a plant ecologist and an internationally recognized expert in the use of plant evidence in criminal investigations.
Now largely retired from academic life, the Bocks have turned their creative efforts toward fiction writing, and are co-authors of two ongoing mystery series, the Arizona Borderlands Mysteries, and the Florida Swamp Guide Mysteries.
The following is an excerpt from “Swamp Guide.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit
The day of the red hat and blue shoes began like any other, but it marked the beginning of a long hard time while we tried to figure out what happened to the woman who was wearing that hat and those shoes on the day she fell off the edge of the earth. I might have quit the crime-fighting business altogether if I’d known how much the case was going to stink up my life. After all, it was just a sideline. I was supposed to be a fisherman.
George Lancaster and I met for an early breakfast that day at the Hogfish Grill, like we often did before connecting with our clients. George is a fellow swamp guide, and one of my best friends. Everybody called him Snooks. He’s a canny angler no matter what the prey, but he and his namesake have some sort of a special relationship. He can sniff out a snook’s hidey-hole when none of the rest of us even has a clue.
The combined aromas of frying bacon, buttermilk pancakes, and fresh coffee hit me as I walked into the little restaurant. The place was full of fisherman, chatting optimistically like they always do in anticipation of a fresh day on the water. Snooks already was at the counter, having coffee. He’d saved me the seat next to his, and ordered for both of us – an egg sandwich with bacon for me, three eggs over easy with a big pile of hash browns for him. He pivoted on his stool when he saw me coming. “Morning, Sam. What’s new at Sawyer’s Backcountry Charters?”
I slid in next to him. “Kind of an easy day, I hope. My guy wants to throw flies for mangrove snappers and bring home dinner. Any suggestions?”
Snooks is in his early sixties and has me by a good twenty years. He’s spent most of his adult life angling up and down the Florida Keys, and nobody knows the skinny water better than he does. The guy is a gold mine of tips and know-how.
He fiddled with the rubber band holding a little gray ponytail that only partly concealed his advancing bald spot. “You might try either Clovis or Ranger. The moats around those keys are plenty deep. ‘Course the biggest snappers will be tucked way back under the mangroves, so your guy had better know what he’s doing. Otherwise you’ll spend the whole day getting him unhooked from the branches.” He paused while the waitress, a thin dark-haired woman in her fifties, came out from the kitchen with our food. “Oh, and one other suggestion. You might bring some live shrimp and spinning gear in case those snappers are feeling picky.”
“Thanks, but we’ve fished together before. He’s pretty good with the fly. I think we’ll stick to that approach. What’s on your schedule?”
I swallowed some coffee and watched while Snooks scooped his eggs up on top of the hash browns and worked his fork around mixing the whole thing together. He took a big bite, chewed, swallowed, and wiped the grease off his chin with a paper napkin. Snooks is one of those lucky souls who can eat like a horse and stay thin. He stands only a couple inches shy of my six feet, but I probably outweigh him by sixty pounds.
Snooks forked in two more bites before he got around to answering my question. “Got a fella wants to go deep into the everglades, try for some snook and redfish, maybe a young tarpon.”
“And you’ll be taking your canoe?”
“Yep. The usual routine. The tide’s gonna be good. I just hope the mosquitoes and the no-see-ums behave themselves.”
We both specialize in taking clients back into parts of Everglades National Park where boats with motors are not permitted. We strap canoes to the side of our boats for the ride across Florida Bay, then tie up to a convenient mangrove and paddle our clients on from there. It’s a tricky business, and not for everybody. The days are long and sometimes the bugs are awful. But the fishing, the wildlife, and the scenery can make it all worthwhile.
Snooks is strictly a fisherman, while I cater to people with a wider range of interests. Usually they want to fish, and I’m pretty good at that — not as good as Snooks but getting better thanks to him. Some of my clients want to see birds instead of fishing. I can do that too, because of a background in zoology. And then sometimes I have people who just want to get paddled out into all that empty, where they can enjoy the scenery and escape whatever it was they fear or resent or don’t want to think about, if only for the day.
Remote parts of the everglades are beautiful and haunting, and a trip out there can be its own reward, even without the fish or the birds. But the glades hold their share of danger as well. Snooks and I had learned this the hard way, and we always were properly cautious. Even so, we weren’t prepared for some bad things that were about to happen.
We were about three-quarters finished with breakfast when a man I had never seen before came in and took a seat at the far end of the counter. He was tall and heavy-set, at least six-five, with a flat face, unruly blond hair, and beady blue eyes. He glanced at Snooks and favored him with a nod. Snooks barely nodded back, and then muttered something under his breath that I didn’t catch.
“Who is that guy?”
“That’s Reuben Fletcher. Surprised you haven’t seen him before, ‘cause he’s a guide like us. Sort of.”
I took a bite of breakfast sandwich and drained the last of my second cup of coffee. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Snooks snorted a half-laugh. “Reuben’s a world class jerk. He follows me around all the time, and then he butts in when I find the fish. It drives me nuts. And there’s rumors he doesn’t always pay attention to things like size and possession limits.”
“Has he ever been caught?”
“Not that I know of. He drives a 22-foot Pathfinder with a dark blue hull stripe. If you see him out on the water, go someplace else.” Snooks shoveled in a last fork-full of hash browns and spun around on his stool. “Let’s get the hell out of here before he comes nosing around. I’m tired of dealing with that guy.”
“You’re the captain, Sam. I’m just a passenger. So you decide. How much time do we have?”
Marshall White was a whole lot more than just a passenger. A bespectacled banker from Boston, he was a long-term client who had proven himself a damned good fly fishermen – a real ‘stick,’ in fact. That’s what swamp guides call somebody who knows how to handle the equipment – to make the fly go where it is supposed to go with minimal disturbance to the water.
But he was right. It was my call. The waters around Clovis Key already were shallow, and the tide was falling fast. We’d tried several other spots earlier in the day, without much luck: only two mangrove snappers in the live well, both just a bit over the ten-inch size limit. They would be delicious, but it wasn’t nearly enough for a decent meal for Marshall and his wife.
So I decided to go for it. We probably had about an hour before my eighteen-foot Hell’s Bay skiff would be in trouble. Like nearly all the keys scattered across Florida Bay, there was a moat of relatively deep water surrounding Clovis. The trick was getting in there and then getting back out. I raised up my 70-horse four-stroke Yamaha outboard and used the trolling motor for the last hundred yards. Once safely into the moat we began working our way counterclockwise around the key, looking for shady spots with overhanging mangroves.
There were lots of fish, and Marshall knew just how to reach the biggest ones. After about forty minutes we had five good snappers in the boat, and he’d only snagged up once. A remarkable feat. We were just about ready to go, but Marshall was still up on the bow reeling up his line when he pointed to a little sandy cove about fifty yards ahead of us. “What’s that?”
At first I didn’t see anything. “What’s what?”
“I don’t know. It’s something red, right up on shore. Looks like it could be a hat. Let’s go take a look.”
I wasn’t sure we had time and said so. “And anyway, what’s so interesting about a hat?”
“I don’t know, it just looks odd, that’s all. Not like something a fisherman would wear. Why don’t you troll on up there? I’ll make one cast, try to snag it with my fly, and then we leave. We can be out of here in five minutes.”
“Okay, but you only get the one shot. We don’t want to spend the night out here waiting for the tide to come back. You can’t imagine what the bugs are going to be like once the sun goes down.”
One shot was all he needed. What Marshall White retrieved was an old straw hat, dyed red, with plastic yellow flowers attached to the band. Marshall laughed as he brought it on board and unhooked his fly from the brim. “Looks like the Red Hat Society has been to Clovis Key. I wonder what the hell they were doing way out here?”
I’d never heard of the Red Hat Society, but for some reason Marshall knew all about it. He explained they were groups of women, often of the senior citizen variety, who always wore red hats and purple dresses and had adventures together.
“Want to keep it?”
Marshall shrugged. “Not particularly, but now that we’ve got it I suppose we should. There’s enough litter around here already.”
I stowed the hat in a hold up under the bow along with the life preservers, and then forgot all about it. It was only much later that I learned where it had come from, and why it had nothing at all to do with the Red Hat Society. The actual owner had experienced an adventure all right, but it was not the kind a Red Hat Lady or anybody else would have chosen.
Snooks came by after work that day to bum a beer. He did that a lot because it was a standing invitation. I would happily trade a whole six-pack for just one of his tips. On this particular day he’d found a place where the tarpon had started to roll. He’d also spotted a pair of bonefish, two of a dwindling number that still inhabited the Keys. It was good information, and a real bargain in trade for a couple of beers.
We were out on my deck, enjoying our Yuenglings and watching some white-crowned pigeons picking fruits out of the poisonwood trees across the canal from my house. I live on Lower Matecumbe Key, which is part of the village of Islamorada, in one of those developments where all the lots are waterfront because of a network of man-made canals. My uncle Fred built the house back in the early 1970s, at a time when people of modest means came here mostly to fish. He and my aunt had no children, and he left the place to me when he died.
The whole neighborhood is changing now that the Keys have gotten popular with people whose pockets are way (way) deeper than mine. Today my little wooden house on stilts is squeezed in between high-end homes going for a million plus. I probably could burn my place to the ground and still get half a million just for the lot.
The afternoon was drawing to a close and the angled rays of a fading sun lit up the mangroves along the canal in a yellow-green glow. Snooks and I were on our second rounds. I could tell something was bothering him, because he wasn’t being his usual talkative self.
“How did it go out there?”
He said “Huh.” Then he scratched at a loose piece of skin on top of his sunburned right ear and kept quiet.
He stirred, uneasy. “Turns out I had a real googan today. It was a miracle he even got into the canoe without falling overboard. And then it seemed like half his casts went up into the mangroves. I kept telling him the fish were mostly in the water.”
“Did he get better?”
“Maybe a little, but still it was a long damned day.” He took another sip of his beer, and sighed. Then he started fiddling with his ponytail, which I had learned from experience meant he was thinking hard about something.
Googan is a term guides used for fishermen who are not just inept, which is forgivable, but who also are too ignorant or arrogant to admit it, which is not. I knew that Snooks was a patient man, like all guides who are any good.
“So that was it? Just the googan?”
He shook his head and set his empty beer bottle down on the little glass-topped table in front of us. “It was something else.”
Why was I having to pry it out of the man? “Well . . . ?”
“On the way out we paddled past this really big crocodile laid up on a sandy point. I’m guessing she had a nest full of eggs somewhere close, because she didn’t look happy to see us.”
I wondered how Snooks could tell a happy croc from an unhappy one. To me, their expressionless gray faces might just as well have been carved in stone. Sometimes their mouths were open, revealing all sorts of big teeth, but I was pretty sure even then they weren’t smiling.
I was tired of prompting Snooks so I just stayed quiet and sipped my beer. It took about another thirty seconds.
“It was a pair of blue shoes. They were lying right there in the sand next to the croc.”
I put down my beer and turned in his direction. “Oh yeah?”
“But that wasn’t the worst part. There were feet in the shoes.”