By Kristen Seymour (as told by Earl Green)
Earl Green wasn’t a Redington Beach local, but he was more than a tourist. He and his wife, Connie, had spent a few weeks twice a year in the Florida resort town ever since their only daughter got married there 12 years earlier. They always booked a room overlooking the white sand and tranquil surf, and Earl always made sure to bring an assortment of rods and reels.
The fishing ranged from fair to good, depending on current weather conditions. This year, Connie and Earl’s fall trip to Redington Beach fell shortly after Hurricane Matthew, so for the first couple of weeks, the fishing was tough. Still, Earl had fished in much worse conditions. Out into the surf he walked, day after day. He spent hours out near the sandbar, sometimes alone, sometimes joined by friends or family who came to visit. He and his son-in-law, Jared, hadn’t had much luck when they’d gone out, but he’d managed to bring in some mackerel and ladyfish, along with a few sharks, lizard fish, and even a 3-foot stingray when joined by his friend Bob during the first week.
By the third week of the Greens’ vacation, the weather had begun to look up. That Wednesday Earl made his way down to the beach around 9:30. He posted up under an umbrella, deciding to relax and read one of his beloved westerns while he waited for the tide to come in – that was when the fish had been biting. His four fishing rods sat in a fishing cart, his bucket and net laid out in front of him. Everything was prepped and ready as soon as the tide changed.
As he turned a page of his book, he experienced the distinct feeling of being watched. He looked up to see a 9-year-old boy with dark hair looking intently at his fishing rods, occasionally stealing shy glances at Earl. Earl lowered his book to his lap and smiled at the boy.
“My name is Justin,” the boy said. “I’m from Denver, Colorado, and I watch all the fishing shows.” He paused, then added, “River Monsters is my very favorite.”
The 76-year-old man hadn’t spent much time around children. His only daughter was more inclined to show up with a new puppy than a pregnancy announcement, and he and Connie lived in a retirement community, so although their friends occasionally had grandchildren come to visit, there weren’t typically kids running around the neighborhood.
And yet, he found himself warming to Justin immediately. After all, how could he not like a friendly young man with an interest in fishing?
“Nice to meet you, Justin. I’m Earl,” he said, and the two shook hands. “Do you do much fishing?” Earl had fished in many parts of the country, but hadn’t spent much time in Colorado and was curious to hear about the boy’s experience.
“I’ve never gone fishing,” Justin replied. “But I’m really hoping to cast a rod and reel one day.”
Earl marked his page and put his book away, grinning. “Well, Justin, this is your lucky day.” He grabbed a rod and reel and stood. “Follow me.”
As the unlikely duo approached the water, Earl explained the importance of doing the stingray shuffle, sharing the fact that he’d been stung by one just three days before. “Move your feet along the sand without lifting them too much – that way, a stingray will move out of your way instead of stinging you if you step on it,” he told Justin, demonstrating as he spoke.
Justin listened closely and followed suit, adding a twist to the shuffle and eliciting a hearty laugh from Earl.
The two waded out and Justin held his first minnow as Earl showed him how to bait the hook. Earl cast out into the surf and got a bite right away. After setting the hook, Earl realized that whatever they’d hooked was quite heavy — heavy enough to start pulling drag.
“This fish is trying to take me to Texas!” Earl exclaimed with a laugh. Justin’s eyes got big — then got much bigger as Earl handed him the rod. The look on the boy’s face was priceless.
“Just try to keep a bend in the rod,” Earl instructed him. “Let the rod do the work for you.” The boy followed Earl’s directions to a T, exclaiming once or twice that he was pretty sure the fish was trying to take him to Texas, too.
Fifteen minutes later, Earl netted Justin’s first catch: a 30-inch, 10 pound bonnethead shark. It would’ve been an impressive fish for anyone, but the fact that it was a young fisherman’s first experience — and that he managed to bring in the large fish on 8 pound test fishing line — made it all the more memorable.
It was difficult, if not impossible, to determine who was more thrilled; Earl or his new fishing buddy.
“From now on, you’ll be known as Shark Hunter,” Earl told Justin as they shuffled their way back to shore. Justin’s beaming smile could’ve lit a dark room.
Once back on dry land, Justin sprinted back to his family, anxious to tell his parents all about his adventure; Earl returned to his book and umbrella. Ten minutes later, Justin, his mother, sister, and brother walked up.
“Earl, could I show my brother and sister the minnows?” Justin asked.
“Sure thing, Shark Hunter,” Earl replied. “Make sure you show them how to do the stingray shuffle, too!”
The three children ran off toward the water, and Justin’s mother turned to Earl with a look of immense gratitude. “I can’t thank you enough for letting Justin catch a fish today,” she said, stealing a glance at the three grinning children who were gathered around the minnow bucket, shrieking and giggling. “He talks about fishing all the time. He’s always watching fishing shows. It’s honestly his favorite thing. You just made his dreams come true.”
The following day, Justin and his family went to Disney World. The day after that, though, Shark Hunter was back at Earl’s chair with his mother. “I’m putting him on a timer so that he doesn’t bother you too much,” Justin’s mom said. “We spent a day at Disney, and still, all he talked about was fishing!”
The two spent most of the day fishing. They talked about football — Justin liked the Denver Broncos but thought Peyton Manning was too old. Earl taught him to cast the rod and reel all by himself, and Justin managed to catch a ladyfish, followed by a snook big enough to bust his line as soon as he brought it close enough for a good look. Justin was leaving the following day, and he couldn’t have asked for a better ending to his trip.
As the day came to a close, Justin went back to his family and Earl settled into the chair he’d set up next to Connie. She’d been watching the two of them all day long.
“Enjoy yourself?” she asked him with a smile, knowing the answer. Earl just chuckled as he opened a can of pop. He had indeed enjoyed himself, and had to admit he was a little sad to know that his new buddy was leaving.
Before long, Justin came walking up with his mom, dad, brother, and sister in tow. “Do you have grandchildren?” Justin’s mother asked.
“I think we do now,” replied Connie, earning a laugh from all the adults.
“And I think I’ll be buying some rods and reels when we get home,” laughed Justin’s dad. “So, thank you for that!”
Earl was in the water, fishing of course, at 10 a.m. the next day when he heard someone calling his name. He turned around to see Justin and his mother waving to him from the shore, and he made his way toward them.
The boy was dressed up for his flight, but didn’t hesitate to take Earl’s damp hand as soon as he was out of the water. “I want to thank you for taking me fishing,” Justin said, his voice quivering slightly. He looked up at Earl with tears in his eyes, then hugged him tightly.
“He will never forget you, that’s for sure,” his mother said.
Earl found himself choking up as he returned the young man’s hug. “And I’ll never forget you, Shark Hunter. Never.”
Reluctantly, Justin released his hold on Earl and said good-bye. He and his mother walked back down the beach toward their hotel as Earl sat back down in his beach chair to finish his western — a task made considerably more difficult by the tears filling the man’s eyes.