I was standing on a rock and I fell off it. I banged my shin, right in that spot where there’s nothing but skin over bone, and it hurt. The rod did not break. The reel had a gash in the bar stock but still worked fine. I pulled myself up and on to the beach and the person fishing near me laughed. (He was a plug fisherman.) I did not catch a fish.
This happened in New York. Fortunately there is a cure for every fishing drought and it’s called Florida. I fished from a lakeshore at dawn for bass and I did not fall in. There are alligators. I had pulled pork and sweet tea for lunch and a cuban with black beans and rice for dinner.
My friend further south has a boat and I ran down the turnpike and we idled through the inlet on an outgoing tide and the breakwater was loaded with pilchard. Two boats took turns drifting close to the rocks so someone could throw a cast net. When they hauled in the nets stunned pilchard fell out and snook bolted from the rocks and ate them.
Hooking a snook near structure can end badly because that’s what they do, and even on the beach their gill plates can cut through shock tippet or draw blood. Phonetically, the old-timers pronounce it snuke, but try mentioning that in a way that doesn’t make you seem like an asshole.
Pilchard are easy to mimic with fly tying materials, particularly super hair assembled with mono thread and epoxy in Hamilton Eat-Me fashion.
While down here for the Miami Boat Show, I met briefly with Aaron Adams of the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust.We had planned on sitting down for a full interview but outside forces pulled us in different directions. We did get to casually discuss the recent cold-induced carnage in Florida, and he dispensed some staggering information.
Possibly 300,000 adult snook killed, out of an estimated 1.5 million adults total. That’s a huge percentage. Plus, he speculated that possibly two entire year classes of juvenile tarpon that come of age in the mangroves have been wiped out. Plus damage to turtle grass beds and mangroves that could take years to recover.
The thought I took away from it is, extend the catch-and-release only fishing for snook indefinitely. At least until more real numbers come out as to what happened and how long it will take to bounce back.
The headwaters to the Florida Everglades start all the way up in Orlando, where Shingle Creek starts the flow of freshwater south to Florida Bay. Before the developers and the sugar plantations got to it, the massive flow moved unimpeded through a complex 8.9 million acre web of lakes, rivers, and marshes down into the mangrove estuaries of the southern coast.
The Everglades hasn’t been what it is supposed to be in over a century, since the election of Napoleon Bonaparte Broward as the state’s 19th governor, and along with that his mission to drain the Glades, starting with the New River Canal in 1906.
The National Park today consists of 1.5 million acres of protected wetlands. It’s deathly hot, bug infested, wild, dangerous, and free of the doughy tentacles of suburbia. To me, that’s beautiful.
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.
“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.”
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.
The Hell’s Kitchen Fly Fishing and Scuba Tank Advisory has declared sight casting to snook crashing bait in docklights to be great. The Advisory has also declared discount flights to Florida and friends with boats who don’t make you split the gas to be better than good.
Coincidentally, where I grew up is pronounced “Boca Rah-Tone”, not “Ratan.” (As an aside on where I live now, if I say “New York,” the proper response is not “How can you stand it?” or “I could never live there” or or any number of replies that you would be insulted by if someone said it about where you live.)