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  • Writer's pictureAllen Crater

Where I'm From

Updated: Mar 17

Fishing rods on the back of a fishing boat in the ocean with Saint Thomas in the background

Slip N-22 sits about halfway down the marina boardwalk. Our white, 37-foot, center-console bobs lazily in its moorings – manila lines tugging briefly taut, then falling slack. Taut then slack. Tropical rays refract in broken ripples of turquoise water.

7:20, and it's already 81 degrees – the sun has been up for almost a half hour. Despite polarized lenses, I find myself squinting – dilated pupils still accustomed to the heavy grey curtains of winter left back home. The days get going earlier down here, and the humid breeze carries a salty, sea-and-fish scent that mingles with the redolence of diesel engines, triggering something pleasurable in my memory bank. The grating call of a frigatebird breaks the silence as I snub out a cigarette.

"Why do old men wake so early? Is it to have one longer day?" The musing of Hemingway's Santiago echoes in my ears – perhaps from knowing I'll mark another trip around that big bright orb in a couple months, or maybe I just have marlin on my mind. But it isn't blue season yet, so we'll be chasing mahi, wahoo, tuna, barracuda, and sailfish; or at least that's what the brochure says.

Sunrise on Saint Thomas looking at the ocean over a cliff

It's the last day of January, and my buddy Tyler and I are in Saint Thomas with our wives, doing our best to defrost Michigan bones gone creaky with the cold. Today we'll fish while the ladies frequent the palm studded beach, and a few select shops downtown. Our forecast is encouraging, the breeze is faint, and the sea nearly flat – gentle one-to-two footers sparkle softly in the oblique morning light.

Another fishing boat eases alongside ours and Captain Matt hops onto the dock with a net full of baitfish and a friendly smile. He's younger and athletic-looking, sporting black board shorts, sandals, Costas, and a slightly stained sun-shirt. Curly brown hair pushes out in unruly bunches from under a faded ball cap. "Morning, fellas. You ready to get after it?"

Matt tells us the offshore fishing has been slower, and that we'll probably have our best luck sticking closer in and using live bait, but if we want to roll the dice and hunt for bigger fish, he's always game to try trolling deeper water.

We do.

He smiles again, and I can't tell if he's excited about the choice or covering up the "I warned you guys" dismay guides must endure when sports decide they know better. Having plenty of friends who guide for a living, I assume it's the latter, and do my best to assure him that we understand what we are asking and won't hold it against him come tip time if things go slow.

I've always been a swing-for-the-fences angler – I can't help it; small ball just isn't my kind of game. And I'm more than willing to strike out a few times in the process, knowing there's a chance at something sizable.

To get to the bigger water we'll head offshore, south about 10 miles, to the steep ledge where depths quickly drop from 150 to 250 feet, and then we'll follow the shelf-line east to west, hoping to coax something substantial from the Caribbean depths.

Man in ball cap, Costa sunglasses, and light blue sun hoody looking off the side of a moving fishing boat in the ocean

The ride out is glassy smooth, and the diffused light reflects in an almost painfully beautiful kaleidoscope of color. Tyler joins Captain Matt near the console and I quietly sip my coffee from the back, content to watch the verdant island grow smaller and smaller off our stern – the last vestiges of civilization fading like a tiny mirage in a spray of saltwater. It's easy to understand the draw of a place like this.

The throttle eases back and we slow, nearing our starting point. Rocking in soft waves Matt rigs each rod. No sound but the moan of the sea and the low hum of the idling engine. Besides us there's one lone boat testing the shelf. The only other interruption in the endless skyline as we begin our troll is Saint Croix, 30 miles to port, appearing like a long, lumpy shadow on the horizon.

Two men on a fishing boat in the ocean, driving into a the sunrise

"Where you guys from?", Matt asks, breaking the quiet.

It's a common question down here. A friendly form of small talk. Like folks from the Midwest commenting to each other about the weather – Looks like we might get some rain today, Joe – or the lady who cuts my hair inquiring about big plans for the evening - Whatcha got going on tonight, hun? But it's also that ice-breaker moment where captain and client search for common threads to weave together like anchor lines.

"We're from Michigan," I answer.

"No shit, what part?"

"West side," I reply holding up my hand and pointing in the customary way Michiganders tend towards.

"My dad's family is from Michigan. I used to spend summers at my grandparent's cottage in Hart."

"Near Silver Lake," I reply. "Beautiful area."

It's funny how many people we've run into on the islands who, at one point or another, called Michigan home.

Expats like "Red", the deeply tanned, white-haired water-taxi captain in the Lions cap who piloted us to Saint John – going on his 27th season in the sun, or the friendly couple on the beach who used to live in Escanaba, or the customs agent who moved here from Detroit. Each looking for something different. A change of pace. Warmer perhaps. More sunshine.

It's a phenomenon I've often noticed in my travels.

Out west too, when I visit places like Montana, or Idaho, or Wyoming. The "I-used-to-live-in-Michigan" effect, as I've come to think of it. And I understand, at least on some level. The siren song of 81 and sunny in January is tough to argue with. And those bold blue mountains and winding, trout-laden rivers of the west pull on my heart like a tractor beam every damn time I visit.

I've been tempted to relocate. To cash in all the chips and try the sailboat-in-the-islands, or tiny-cabin-in-the-mountains life. But I've never left. At least not permanently. Maybe it's a lack of courage. Or maybe it’s just that I truly feel home in Michigan. In the seasons. In the big woods. In a place as familiar as an old flannel.

Even the warmth of the islands grows monotonous after a while – the locals retreating to the shade or traveling elsewhere for a little variety. And the big sky of the west is almost too big for me; too open. Not enough trees. Out there I feel like I could fall off the earth if it tipped just ever so slightly. Or blow away like a cottonwood leaf. 

These are places I love, places I dream about, places I regularly visit, but they are not home.

The outrigger suddenly snaps to life, and I'm sucked back into the moment. Grabbing the rod and giving a firm set, I feel the steady pull on the other end. The surge – drawing me towards the sea. But I resist. Hauling up hard on the stout rod and reeling back down. Again and again, until I gain some ground.

I'm soon able to bring the barracuda to the boat. My first ever. A beautiful predator so perfectly of this place.

We let him go.

Fisherman wearing a ball cap, sunglasses and light blue sun hoody holding up a barracuda

"I'm actually heading to Michigan next week," Captain Matt says. "To visit my grandmother. She's 93 and still sharp as a tack but failing physically. It won't be long now."

Though Matt was born on Saint Thomas, he still travels to Michigan a few times a year to visit family. There's a certain draw for him there but, when I ask, he confirms the island is home and always will be.

"I moved to Florida for a few years," he says, "but this place kept calling me back. This is where I belong."

I nod.

man with a fishing guide reeling in a fish in the ocean from a boat

From a fishing standpoint the day ends up pretty slow, but we don't mind. We're happy to be out here. On the water. In the sun. Visiting this beautiful place for a while. We land a couple more – a bonita and rainbow runner - before motoring in.

Back at the dock Captain Matt fillets our catch and Tyler and I head off to the beachside pub for burgers and beers before the ladies come pick us up.

A couple at a high-top notice us as we walk in.

"Where you from?", the woman inquiries.

"Michigan," I say with a knowing smile. "We're from Michigan."

"We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." – T.S. Eliot

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Feb 07

Fun story, but did you catch any other fish besides the Barracuda?

Smitty Dewitt, MI

Allen Crater
Allen Crater
Feb 07
Replying to

Just one additional (smaller) barracuda and the bonita (which was chased by a 7-foot reef shark) and rainbow runner

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