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.