The Great Bay ~ Sean of the South

by Sean Dietrich
Sean of the South

The world is a dang mess. And I have gone fishing.

It’s been a long time since I’ve held a rod in my hands. Too long. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I sat on this overturned five-gallon bucket, perched upon the shore of this Choctawhatchee Bay, staring at this water.

Some people don’t understand fishing. Take my wife. She can’t figure out why any rational man would spend hours on a bucket not talking. She says it’s boring.

Boring? No. To go fishing is to embark upon a great intellectual competition, attempting to outsmart the cleverest creature on earth. You might not think fish are intelligent, but believe me, they are much smarter than humans.

A redfish, for instance, would never drain his kid’s college fund to purchase a 17-foot Tracker Pro Team 175 TXW boat package simply to go catch his limit of humans.

Today I came to this bay because earlier I was watching the news and it made me sick to my stomach. The headlines du jour were giving me literal palpitations. The irony is that I was having a pretty good day until I saw the state of our world.

You have to worry about us sometimes.

So, I packed my tackle and left. And I’m glad I did because bay water can work wonders on a man’s soul.

Try to visualize this. I am looking at 129 square miles of brackish, blue water that spans two counties and has a watershed that covers roughly 3,339,632 acres. Out here there are no radios, no screens, no phones. No traffic. No billboards. I only have a rod, a bucket, and the ghosts of my ancestors.

Choctawhatchee Bay in Northwest Florida.


I come from a long line of fishermen. Most were mediocre anglers, but others were gifted like my uncle Ray Ray. Uncle Ray Ray could communicate with fish through extra sensory techniques. Sadly, the only message he could send was: “Don’t come near me.” His gift, I’m told, also worked on the ladies.

My grandfather was also an avid line-wetter. The rod I’m holding was his. It dates back to 1933.

The old man would have purchased this fishing pole at age 22 via a mail-order catalog for $6. These rods came with cheap reels, cork handles, and a guarantee to “last a lifetime.” This one has lasted 88 years, which is pretty close.

The major selling point was that this rod is all steel and can be disassembled to be carried in a small canvas bag. Thus, it could be used on lunch breaks, before hot dates, after church service, or during.

A young man like my grandfather would have assembled this rod and retreated to the water’s edge for some meditation. Which is all fishing is. It’s meditation with an occasional beer.

Although I’m not having any luck meditating today. It’s January. This bay is chilly from brisk northerly gusts that bounce off the still water and numb my nose like frozen hamburger.

Which brings up an important point. The common misconception about Florida is that it’s always warm and sunny here. This is because in 1970 some marketing geniuses nicknamed Florida the “Sunshine State.” But the truth is our state should be called the “Overcast State.”

Florida has more days per year in which the sun is blocked by 20 to 70 percent cloud coverage. That’s more than any state in the continental U.S. But you don’t print something like that on tourism brochures, or else tourists will start visiting Nevada to see Celine Dion.

Neither should you advertise that Florida that has more lightning strikes than any other state. Nor should you brag about having the most cases of fatal snakebites. And you definitely shouldn’t tell tourists that Florida leads the league in rainfall.

Oh, do we get rain. To give you an idea just how much: Seattle gets a whopping 38 inches of rain each year. Florida gets 54.

But today isn’t about weather, nor about fishing. Not really. It was that I had to leave the house.

I needed to breathe. To think. To be away from headline news. I came to the bay of my youth to forget that the world is angry right now.

This is the same tranquil water where Creek natives once fished for their livelihood. Where beautiful black-haired maidens once dove for blue crabs and oysters. Where young men caught mullet with handwoven nets.

This is also the same water where Spanish explorers like Ponce de León moored massive square-rigged ships in the 1500s, searching for a fabled Fountain of Youth that would make his eyes less droopy and his buns firmer.

Personally, I’ve often wondered if this bay isn’t the fountain Ponce was looking for. After all, this bay has outlasted everyone and everything.

This ancient land withstood hurricanes that altered its shoreline. This place has endured colonization. It has somehow remained sturdy despite Revolutions, Civil Wars, yellow fever, Great Depressions, industrializations, World Wars, urban sprawls, and the cancer of tourism. And this water will outlast me, too. If that’s not eternal youth, what is?

Today, however, the water is a reminder to me. A reminder that when this world gets frightening; when people of Earth begin to rip each other apart; when mankind becomes plagued by pandemics and violence; this is not the end.

Not as long as the beauty of this earth overwhelms the ugliness of it. Not as long as I have an antique rod and a few spoon lures.

And even though I probably won’t catch a dadgum thing today, there is peace upon this water. Which is more than I can say for the rest of the world right now.

And this is why a man goes fishing.

Sean Dietrich is a columnist, and novelist, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in Southern Living, The Tallahassee Democrat, Good Grit, South Magazine, Alabama Living, the Birmingham News, Thom Magazine, The Mobile Press Register, and he has authored seven books.


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