How my grandfather turned me away from fishing, but taught me to love Little Lagoon.
I’ve never been much of a fisherman. In fact, I enjoy just about everything on the water except fishing.
Swimming? The only way to cool off on a hot summer day. Paddling? I know all the secret spots. Boat rides? I’m your co-captain. Bushwhackers and beer? Let’s have a Sunday Funday. Fishing? It’s complicated.
Despite having many opportunities to love fishing as a child during summers spent growing up on Little Lagoon, I never got hooked. You could say my entry to fishing was, well, a bit forced.
My late grandfather, Rock O’Neill (also known as “Ricky”), was a Lagoon fishing extraordinaire. He fished twice a day for several hours and knew every obscure fishing hole across the Lagoon where you could catch the best redfish and speckled trout.
He even caught one of the largest speckled trout in Little Lagoon to date, coming in at a hefty 11.8 pounds. Today, this prized fish proudly hangs on our living room wall at the Lagoon as a reminder of Ricky’s fishing prowess.
Ricky had many admirable traits, but patience wasn’t at the top of the list. If you were one of the lucky (or not so lucky) novices to score a fishing invitation aboard his luxurious 10-foot skiff, you had better come prepared to get to work. When it came to fishing, it was Ricky’s way or the highway. Little Lagoon was his home turf, and in Ricky’s boat, there was room for only one captain.
Ricky embraced the “teach-a-man-to-fish” mentality by passing down his love for fishing to younger generations in our family. So much that he put all eight of his grandsons through his own “survival-of-the-fittest” style fishing boot camp. As the second oldest grandson, I became the first cousin casualty of Ricky’s boot camp.
The first (and last) day of my short-lived fishing career was memorable. Without warning, Ricky yanked me out of bed at the crack of dawn with an abrupt morning greeting and ushered me outside to his boat. “Wake up O’Possum … we’re goin’ fishin,’” he said in his gruff Southern voice. (I’ll save the O’Possum nickname backstory for another time.)
There I was, a timid seven year old slightly terrified of my grandfather, standing shirtless in my boxers about to go fishing for the first time. Fortunately, my older brother Richard had already taken a liking to fishing and bore the brunt of Ricky’s constant instructions that morning once we set out on my maiden fishing voyage.
I don’t remember vivid details on the boat besides being bored to tears, feeling my back getting redder by the minute, and getting bossed around by Ricky. Several hours later, we returned home fried and fishless. It was then I decided that would be the end of my short-lived fishing career.
Part of me likes to think I was the “rebel” who paved the way for some of my younger cousins who also weren’t destined to be fishermen. The other part of me wonders if I would have enjoyed fishing early on with perhaps a more gradual introduction.
Fortunately, Richard caught the fishing bug and became Ricky’s right-hand fishing mate for the next 20-plus years. This was a crucial buffer because that meant Ricky eventually quit pestering me to go with him every time.
While they were fishing several hours each day, I found other ways to enjoy the Lagoon. I built sandcastles and “dug holes to China” on the beach; I spent hours at the neighboring creek playing in the sinking sand; I swam out to the platform and back; I played Marco Polo with my cousins and raced them up and down the neighbors’ wharves; I collected hermit crabs on the beach and watched them slowly inch back into the water. One adventure after the next, my earliest memories of the water were ignited at the Lagoon.
You might say Ricky was a non-traditional environmentalist. It drove him crazy whenever anyone in our family stayed inside too long at the Lagoon. If he caught you watching TV on the couch during the middle of the day, he never shied away from not-so-politely telling you to get outside. Once it was clear that fishing wasn’t in my future, Ricky made it his mission to expose me to the Lagoon’s wonders through other outlets.
He took me on boat rides and taught me about the history, flora, and fauna of the area. One of our notable pit stops involved searching for alligators at Gator Lake and walking around the trails at Bon Secour Wildlife Refuge on the west end of the Lagoon. He also introduced me to the quiet stretch of public beach access at Mobile Street (shh … don’t tell). Today, I still enjoy both of these activities to recharge outside of family time at the Lagoon.
Ricky taught me all about coastal birds, especially his love for the Great Blue Heron. Over time, he built a special relationship with a certain heron who he named “Mr. Richard.” After each fishing outing, Ricky cut up the fish he wasn’t going to eat and left it out on the wharf for Mr. Richard.
Like clockwork, Mr. Richard swooped in for a hearty snack every time. Eventually he came to rely on Ricky’s daily fish portions and greeted him on our wharf after every fishing trip. Today, our family fishermen still carry on this unique tradition with Mr. Richard.
Over the years, I became my own version of an outdoorsman and discovered a passion for hiking, camping, and kayaking. One of my proudest Lagoon moments with Ricky came during my early twenties shortly after I bought a kayak and became an avid paddler.
It was a late summer weekend in August when Ricky’s boat motor stopped working. Uh oh, we thought. Life stopped at the Lagoon when Ricky’s motor broke down. Fishing was his escape, and when that was no longer an option, he could get anxious or irritable quickly.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Without Richard there as a buffer that weekend or a functioning motor to keep Ricky occupied, I was now his main project.
So, Ricky got creative and asked If I wanted to take him on a canoe fishing excursion. After years of standing firm on the fishing sidelines, I jumped at the opportunity. This time, I was the captain steering the ship and Ricky was my passenger. My how the tables had turned.
We pulled out the rusted canoe from under the house and dragged it down to the water. Soon we began weaving around neighbors’ wharves until Ricky found the perfect fishing spot. Part of me was nervous about steering him properly, and the other part of me was more nervous about flipping the flimsy canoe. Here goes nothing.
To my great surprise, we were only a few wharves away when Ricky reeled in a massive speckled trout. Soon after, he had a big smile on his face, his mood lightened, and he thanked me for being his canoe captain. I was happy to have played a small part in this unexpected canoe fishing victory.
In July 2019, Ricky passed away at age 85. Today, the Lagoon continues to serve as a gathering place for our family near and far. Since I don’t currently live in Mobile, I cherish our weeks spent at the Lagoon now even more than I did when I was younger.
While Ricky may not be with us in person anymore, his spirit and legacy live on. Every fish we catch; every boat ride we take; every walk to the creek; every swim to the platform; every stroke we paddle; every broken boat motor; we’ll always think of Ricky. When we see Mr. Richard soar above the trees and swoop down to collect his fish, deep down we know it’s Ricky looking after us.
When I was younger, I didn’t fully appreciate the effort Ricky made to build a close relationship with me and expose me to the outdoors. Twenty-five years later from the day I quit fishing boot camp, I still have yet to discover a passion for fishing. And maybe I never will. But I’ll always have Ricky to thank for teaching me how to love the Lagoon.
This article is from Mobile Baykeeper’s print quarterly, CURRENTS, which is mailed to active members who have given more than $50 in 2023. To get on the magazine’s mailing list, donate here.