TIERRA VERDE — It's 6 a.m. and Paul Hawkins sits patiently in his boat at O'Neill's Marina.
"I want to set up on these fish before anybody else gets out there," he said. "There's nothing worse than a boat coming along and scaring off all your fish."
Hawkins, 59, has been guiding on Tampa Bay area waters for more than 25 years. In the mid '80s, Hawkins was one of only a handful of fishing guides who targeted trout, redfish and snook. Nobody really used the phrase "flats fishing" back then.
"There were your offshore guys," he said, "then there were a few of us with shallow-running skiffs.
"We had the bay to ourselves."
Hawkins, a third-generation Floridian, grew up in St. Petersburg but went to college at Appalachian State in North Carolina, where he pursued a degree in physics.
"Most fly fishermen start off fishing the rivers and streams for trout and then switch to saltwater," he said. "For me it was just the opposite."
After a brief stint working in California, Hawkins returned to St. Petersburg in 1984, thinking he might try his hand at guiding until a job opened up in the printing industry.
"I thought the Tampa-St. Petersburg area was going to be the next fishing destination," he said. "The fishing was every bit as good as what they had down in the Keys."
Word was spreading quickly, and by 1990, Tampa Bay was crowded with flats boats and fishing guides, many of whom were new to this style of fishing.
Poling in, not piling on
A traditionalist, Hawkins doesn't have much use for trolling motors or tower boats.
"I've sat here and watched as a group of tower boats got together and literally surrounded a school of the redfish," he said. "I've always thought the secret to catching fish was to sneak up on them."
Hawkins still works the poling platform, pushing his boat slowly across the grass beds, watching for tailing redfish.
On this particular May morning, Hawkins spots a school of reds about 100 yards in front of the boat. A lot of fishermen would immediately drop the trolling motor and give chase.
But Hawkins has been fishing since he was a boy, and one thing he has learned in all his decades on the flats is you never rush a redfish.
Sightcasting at close range
Hawkins likes guiding diehard fly fishermen such as 67-year-old Mal Brown. The retired printer started fly fishing for trout in the streams of Massachusetts and later for striped bass on the New Jersey shore.
"Blind casting is a waste of time," Hawkins tells Brown as he readies his fly and they approach the school of reds. "You have to cast to the fish, but wait until you see the whites of their eyes."
Brown, an experienced caster, waits until a fish is just 25 feet away. Then he delivers the fly perfectly. It passes right before the big red's nose. The fish swirls.
"Missed it!" Hawkins exclaims. "Don't worry. You will get another chance."
Hawkins patiently pushes his boat along, then stops and waits for the school to come to him.
"Here they come," he said. "Get ready."
Suddenly, a small cabin cruiser motors across the flat, scattering the school of reds.
"Sorry," a woman yells. "We have to take a water sample."
Hawkins takes a deep breath, composes himself, then asks, "Isn't that water over there the same as it is over here?"
By now, the school has moved on. It might be another hour before Brown gets another shot. Hawkins climbs on the platform and starts poling slowly again.
"That is why they call it fishing instead of catching," he said.
Guide Paul Hawkins can be reached at (727) 560-6762 or via flatsguy.com.