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.
Nothing on the water looks normal at 2 am. Land masses that provide depth perception in daylight warp into ominous light-flecked shapes. Reflective channel markers pop up unexpectedly in front of the boat moving too fast through black water.
But tarpon feed at night and people sleep.
The dates are picked, the strategies are being worked out; it’s happening again.
Night Ops 1: Drifting live crabs,big water, big-fish.
Night Ops 2: Casting flies, light pools, little fish. (Never thought about the light babies until a note from Flies and Fins regular Marshall Demott. Now we know.)
Then the tide dies and it’s back to the ramp. The guides are all there mainlining coffee in the dark while they wait for their clients to show.
5am Automatic: We can’t sleep yet. We’ve got to get out again and run the inlet to the beach by sunrise, when everything resumes its rightful shape and a big tarpon might just appear in front of our bloodshot eyes.
The world at the moment is at the frayed ends of sanity, but those tarpon will be there in due time. Hope lives.
This is what I’m looking at right now out of my hotel window. Not bad, but I should be looking into the prehistoric glowing eye of a night time tarpon. Plans get cancelled, beers get purchased, balconies get occupied.
Plan B is in effect. Sneak off for a pre-work scramble after some freshwater invasives. Show up to the 10 A.M. bidness junket with fish slimed clothes; shake hands with a sandpaper thumb.
I’m looking for funding from someone willing to sponsor my proposed research project, where I will spend the next year living in the Everglades National Park studying what happens to fly hooks after they’ve become embedded in the jaws of baby tarpon.*
For control, I will use resident snook and redfish populations, and eventually move onto full grown adult tarpon. Practice will occur up here on northeast striped bass and bluefish concentrations until budget and supply needs are met.
I’ll need 300-500 weedless mangrove bugs, several pounds of beef jerky, and a drum barrel of DEET. As far as corporate sponsorship, so far I have generated interest from the American Mustache Institute, and several other heavy hitters. Interested parties can contact me directly.
*I haven’t shared this idea with the wife yet, but I know what she’ll say: This plan is awesome in its awesomeness.