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A Brief History of Ditch Fishing

ditch-fishing

I loved the article in the Wall Street Journal about brownlining, and was glad to see props go out to Fat Guy, Gracie, JP, et al, and for the esteemed Mr. Chandler and Mr. Barton getting credit for coining a new name for a fly fishing genre.

But the article stopped a little short. Before brownlining there was ditch fishing. The concept of casting flies in less than pristine settings goes back decades. In Florida, many well known fly fishing luminaries and pioneers cut their teeth fishing the Everglades and the vast network of man-made backwater canals that carve up the southern tier of the state.

It is well documented that anglers such as Flip Pallot, Chico Fernandez, and Norman Duncan–who invented the Duncan Loop (uni knot)–took to these unglamorous stretches in search of snook, baby tarpon, and largemouth bass on foot while growing up in South Florida in the 1950s.

“But people were doing that before them,” says Sandy Moret of the Florida Keys Outfitters as well as a fly fishing historian.  “It goes back into the 40s or earlier; guys were working baitcasters and topwater plugs when that was still considered finesse fishing.”

Steve Kantner, an editor at large for Florida Fishing Weekly, made a name for himself in the 1990s as “The Land Captain.”  He specialized in taking people fly fishing not out into the bluewater or the emerald flats by boat, but by car into Florida’s backwaters to fish on foot. Also very much immersed in recording Florida’s fly fishing history, Kantner relayed the story of who he believes is the original ditch fishing pioneer.

Steve Kantner, "The Land Captain"
Steve Kantner, “The Land Captain”

“Back in the 50s there was this guy named Rocky Weinstein [click this SI link; it’s a great read.] He was a croupier back in Ocean City, Maryland, who ran afoul of the mob.”

Like many wishing not to be found [please read Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen], Weinstein made his way down to the Ten Thousand Islands and Everglades City.

“He was a tough little bastard who got in fights with the local commercial guys,” says Kantner, presumably because he tried to date their daughters.

Charlie Waterman used to tell me that Weinstein couldn’t read a map.” If you didn’t know where you were going in the islands, you’d get helplessly and dangerously lost real quick. So, according to Kantner, he started working the canals along the roads.

“He used to take Chico and Bill Curtis and he had this little short fly rod he used and his big thing was he could tell where to fish by looking on the road for squashed leopard frogs.”

The frogs would sometimes migrate en mass. Apparently Weinstein would find the squashed frogs on the road and know that snook would be waiting for them in the canal on the other side. So he’d wait for the tide to be right and get in position in the cattails and wait for the frogs and the big snook.

Sandy Moret, who started fishing the canals with Pallot and Fernandez in the 1970s, recalls, “You would drive along and see a slough about five feet wide coming out of the grass; it became a trickle of water at low tide, and the mud minnows would push into the main canal. You’d see ibis and egret there and snook busting on those mud minnows, and you’d never know if it was a one-pounder or 15-pounder…or a largemouth bass.”

Fernandez, Pallot, and Moret used to fish the ditches in the 1970s
Fernandez, Pallot, and Moret used to fish the ditches in the 1970s

Today, the population and water usage pressures that afflict South Florida have rendered some of those old spots fished out or even paved over. But the practice of ditch fishing in Florida lives on, because even in highly suburbanized areas there is still usually access to water.

“Every kid in the world who grew up here grew up ditch fishing,” says Kantner. “Everybody had a ditch, or pier, or seawall, or pond…” or some unglamorous, unloved stretch of water turned into a secret fishing goldmine.

Today’s Florida game also includes a myriad of introduced fish–either on purpose like peacock bass, or nefariously, as with snakeheads, oscars, clown knifefish, walking catfish, and midas and mayan chiclids, among others.  (Kantner is credited with tying the “Kantner Berry Fly” designed to catch grass carp, an herbivorous fish introduced into Florida’s freshwater canals to combat hydrilla, an invasive aquatic weed.)

This is a brief history because there are probably histories like this in every other state where people fly fish. Ditch fishing is not new. What’s noteworthy is the fact that people besides its practitioners are paying attention to it.

21 thoughts on “A Brief History of Ditch Fishing”

  1. Nice. I had the same reaction. In Indiana, brownlining and ditch fishing are just known as fishing. When I mentioned to some of my Indiana brethren about the WSJ article I had to explain bluelining. Most of our rivers are kind of green.

  2. Great read pete — a great way to pay homage to “the ditch” .. i, personally, love “the ditch” and have so many great days on so many ditches in florida .. i kid you not here, i have at times been out in beautiful flats boats on the offshore flats of biscayne bay or the keys and thought to myself, “this sucks, i wish i was in the ditch” .. there is just something so exploratory and adventurous about the “ditch fishing” and that is why i love it .. you mention that “every kid in florida grew up fishing some sort of ditch” .. and i think that is, ulitmately, what is so appealing about it now. All off the bells and whistles are stripped away and when we are in “the ditch” we are brought back to the simplicity and arguably the soul of fly fishing. thank god, there are lot’s of “ditches” in florida .. always a new place to fish! see ya in the ditch someday!

  3. We have irrigation canals but they are shut off in the winter. Every now and again you hear rumors of someone catching a stray trout that made it out of the river and past the gate. I have always found the Florida Ditch scene fascinating and would love to do it. thanx for the nice read Pete.

  4. Good stuff pete. I’m a ditch dawg here in Naples and I’ve been fly fishing the canals and creeks here for a half dozen years…alway it makes me feel like a kid. You know it’s hard for me to ride down the trail and not stare at the creek. looking for busts.

    thanks for the fine article.

  5. The whole “brownliner” thing was really just supposed to be an ironic statement – a sort of verbal prank that afforded Singlebarbed and I a one-word shorthand for making sport of each other.

    Like all pranks (and most sci-fi movies dealing with scientists) the creature appears to have acquired a life of its own, and is on the verge of turning on its creators. A “movement” is the last thing I had in mind.

    Everybody’s got a little brownlining in their past (mine was a muddy, manicured private lake in Southern California which you weren’t allowed to fish unless you lived there, which we didn’t).

    It’s not a new sport, just a new name. And lest anyone forget, the Offbeat Anglers book of a few years past certainly deserves a mention – the “Brown Water Boys” who wrote it sure had the brownlining thing bad.

  6. Very interesting read. I didn’t know I was a brownliner or a ditch dawg. I grew up and learned most of my fishing tricks in Tampa and surrounding areas. Lot’s o’ canals and ditches for a youngster to “wet a line”. Your story definitely takes me back, especially as I am now in Nova Scotia and have a much smaller fishing time and target species….

  7. The recent MidCurrent article about short rods brings to mind the Tamiami Trail guide Rocky Winestein, he guided around Everglades City in the late 1950’s and early 60’s. He made and sold 7 and 7-1/2 foot fly rods that he made from either the Lamiglas 1145 blank or a Conolon flyrod blank, they were good in the canals and creeks for the big snook and small tarpon we caught there. He would come into Miami and peddle his rods to all of the tackle shops and tank-up. Little John and I were fishing the tamiami canals on the west coast in the mid 1950’s, we were friends with some other fishermen that started fishing there in the 1920’s, boy did they have stories!

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