We made the commitment to try for 100 pound fish. So Ron Hyde and I spent two days hunting big tarpon in the Everglades from his Seminole Flats Skiff.
The web of channels weaving through the vast mangrove islands is God’s Country, beautiful and unrelenting.
Hyde has been catching big tarpon in this area since the 1950s. I have not–The biggest tarpon I have hooked on a fly weighed 60 pounds. These are different animals. Tarpon take 15 years to grow beyond the century mark and by that time, says Hyde, “they’re big intelligent fish that can eat whenever they want, and they’ve seen just about everything.” The big female tarpon can live into their 50s.
I’ve caught big tarpon by other means, but getting one to eat a fly has proven difficult. (Setting a hook in their bony mouths is another story. “Like trying to hook a bathtub,” says Hyde.)
We found them and they were not traveling in unison but spread apart, rolling and free jumping in random unpredictable patterns. We’d watch for their silvery backs to break the surface and for their tails. Then I’d load the 12-weight and place a leading cast to where we thought they were headed.
The game grew maddening as they started popping up here and there as with a sporadic albie bust.
“”Tarpon fishing is different every day,” said Hyde. “Today they’re like this and tomorrow you can do everything wrong and catch one despite yourself.”
Two days, two follows. I’m convinced that tarpon when they grow big become the devil, and I’m still looking to sin.
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.
Work last week brought me down to South Florida and then up the Space Coast and into Central Florida, and the signs of drought are obvious. Old ditches on the roster are currently unfishable due to the dropping water levels.
Central Florida seems to have it the worst. “We could really use a hurricane this year,” one of my fishing accomplices remarked, “only without the destruction. Maybe a tropical depression.”
He was hoping for something to fill Lake Okeechobee again, like Fay did last September, so that the State doesn’t have a mad rush over the diminishing freshwater supply.
It has been the third driest dry season on record since 1932.
There are too many stresses on Florida’s fresh water supply as is. With Okeechobee water levels below 12 feet, there’s a already a developing fight over whether the water is for fish or farming, and its not hard to envision the fish losing out.
This comes at a time when the State, facing economic hardships, is scaling back on the Sugar Land Deal intended to resuscitate the Everglades.
It always comes back to the Everglades.
The Everglades is one of the greatest places in the northern hemisphere and the powers that be have some changes afoot that could make it less so for fishermen. Our fellow Florida expat Michael Gracie is on the story, so read what he has to say in, “If Everglades Management Isn’t Broken Then Don’t Fix It.”
The above sat photo illustrates a lot of what is wrong with my favorite state. Look at the encroachment of suburban development heading inward from the coasts across land that is supposed to be swamp.
This article from Alternet looks at what this does to the water supply, and the supposed rehabilitation of the Glades. Quote:
The fast eastward creep of southwest Florida’s development is mirrored by continued inland creep from the state’s east coast. Grunwald wrote in The Swamp, ‘In coming decades … South Florida could become an uninterrupted asphalt megalopolis stretching from Naples to Palm Beach. Perhaps it could be called Napalm Beach.'”
We followed this shark around Flamingo last summer, poling along behind it as it silently and casually made its way across the grass flats, probably looking for the same thing we were.