Fishing With Steve and Sandy

Everglades City, 6:30 AM. The Road Kill Cafe has decided that they won’t open this morning so we head over to the stone crab docks where a few locals are sucking black coffee out of tall styrofoam cups and we swat mosquitos the size of small birds while we eat. Then we put fuel in Whipray, which beyond being stripped of electronics has signs of Steve’s trademark tinkering all over it: customized plastic paint roller handle on the electric motor, elegant whipped rope wrappings on the tiller, handmade casting platform, even a tiny clip to hold the head of the Hookout in place. It is warm, with a slight southwest breeze.
We launch from Ted’s house on Chokoloskee Bay. His workshop extends from inside to out and a large, patinaed vise dominates the under-awning benches near the ramp. Steve takes us out through the invisible web of ditches that leave the island and continues south for an hour before moving inland and away from the breeze. Every few minutes or so we notice a big tarpon roll as we glide past. “If we wanted to catch tarpon today, we could,” Steve says. We are snook fishing, though. Even though we turn reflexively at every big gulp of air, the lure of finding big snook in just a few inches of water — water so shallow that their eyes are out of the water — keeps most of our attention on the expanse of still, dusty water in front of us.
We find our first fish in the long wash of a creek as it enters a basin. The snook dot the shore, in twos and threes every 50 feet or so, along with countless mullet. I can’t get a bite, so Sandy takes over and casts at snook and the occasional redfish as we wander down the edge into the basin. We move to another spot, where the fish might be more willing, and are suddenly catching fish. Some of them are smallish. But the first miss by a 15-pounder that comes out of nowhere jolts me beyond alert. I convince myself that I will calmly notice the next long, gray-green shadow and deliver a cast that lands in front of, instead of five feet behind, the fish. The longer we wait, though, the less sure I am. Then I know I am fooling myself. “I just realized I’ve been holding my breath for three minutes.”
That is the story of the day. We always see fish, no matter where we stop, but only six or eight places have big fish that want to jump on the fly like they’ve never seen one before. Perhaps they haven’t.
By lunchtime we are tucked back into a long, tannic creek casting at Goliath Grouper (still known as Jewfish in these parts) and watching the broad backs of tarpon lift out of the water and sink with the sound of of an inverted pail releasing bubbles underwater. Steve is having a hard time not looking at happy tarpon circling upcurrent of us, but tells the story of how he and Sandy chased a 300-pound Jewfish up the beach for over an hour one day. “I would pole to get up in front of him and jump down and tie on a new fly. We finally started trying a sailfish flies on him. But he wouldn’t go.” “Funny how they started coming back right when they changed the name,” Sandy says, just as a tarpon tail tips up near the surface just 30 feet from the boat. “He’s facing right,” says Steve. Sandy casts and the fish begins sinking. Eventually a fish swims under the boat, gets spooked and wakes his way up the creek, calling a sudden end to the burping and gurgling. “We’re done,” Steve says. “I’m gonna pole out though. I don’t want to mess up their house.”
Low water shows the carved shape of gators everywhere along the banks, especially in the coves where are catching the most fish. Like statues, Steve says. Two hundred (or more: three hundred, four hundred?) white ibis, herons and roseate spoonbills dabble along the crown of a big flat, feeding during the hour of dead low tide while the water flows out but the tide slowly rises.
By 5:30 the light begins to drop and the mullet and hog-nose rays seem to have muddied every shoreline we try. Big dots of water hit our necks and hands in the sunlight. A dark shadow-line of clouds rises between us and the dock. “Do you want to put on a rain coat?” Sandy asks Steve. “I don’t want to get that wet,” Steve says. And we are off.

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