Tamiami Vices

SEB HAD CHARACTERIZED HIM after several phone conversations as a salt of the earth type. Sea salt, I would suggest. We met Steve Kantner, alias the Land Captain, outside his apartment building at a humane hour, following an English breakfast. He stood a sturdy six feet, had wavy brown hair and sported a deep, indelible tan. Jeans, a button­down short-sleeved shirt, and a baseball cap. A man’s man by all indications, the kind of guy you might meet in a pool hall or hire to rebuild your deck.

“Shipment of cork dust came just in time, had plenty of colorant, made a boatload of berries last night.”

What strange language was this fellow speaking? I didn’t know how to respond, so I started back to the SUV to gather our gear.

“No need, got everything, wife made sandwiches. Mr. Pibb okay?”

I didn’t realize there was another party joining us, but I nodded and got in his vehicle, a big, beat-up cruiser that would put a hitchhiker’s thumb in his pocket. We lurched out of the parking lot and onto a north-south avenue in a run-down part of town. The trip proper had formally begun, and the Land Captain was at the helm. I liked the name, I wondered if he considered this car his boat. It certainly qualified as such. I was still trying to decide if I liked him or not.

As the engine gathered speed so did the conversation, or monologue rather. The job of a guide can be as simple as giving directions and often involves instruction. In some cases it can drift into entertainment, under the broader goal of showing people a good time. It was not clear that the Land Captain was purposely trying to provide this service, but he was doing a good job of it nonetheless. I admire people who speak their mind and let the chips fall where they may, and by that criterion the Land Captain and I were destined to be fast friends.

By the time we turned off the avenue and headed west we had keen insight into his nature and his personal life. Other than his cryptic remarks at introduction, fishing was apparently not a hot topic this morning. Instead, we learned of his position as head of the co-op board which was doing battle with a tyrannical landlord. His time in the service. And of greatest interest, how he came to do what he was doing now.

“Have you always been a Land Captain?” I asked with typical understated sarcasm.

“Nope. Sat behind a desk selling insurance for twenty years.”

“That sounds like fun.”

“It certainly wasn’t,” he answered, acknowledging my tendencies. “Put a gun in my mouth one night, thought about it, put the gun away. Went in the next morning, collected my stuff and left.”

“No resignation of any kind?”

“Never said a word to my boss. Twenty years. Just left.”

Sometimes the people who speak their minds can appear affable and approachable at first, and eventually turn out to be insane or dangerous. Or both. I wondered if I should reconsider my friendship criteria.

Fortunately, we were now approaching territory relevant to our quest. Something of a surprise, because we hadn’t gotten too far. The Captain digressed from his autobiography to remark on the conditions as he leaned across the passenger side to peer at a canal that paralleled the road. There’s water all over the place in Florida, so the canal hadn’t seemed like anything special. Plus, in preparing for the trip I had the inner-city gondola ride in my mind, and we were in grassy, “placeless” land, a canal-divided boulevard slicing through suburban sprawl. But I this was it and, although I was blind to them, evidently there were a host of visual clues present. A drive-by fishing forecast sprang from the Captain’s mouth as we rolled along.

“Overcast, and the city’s got the water running.”

“Decent wind, berries should be falling.”

“There’s one of them right past this intersection. There! See that, that’s a berry tree.”

We followed his gaze to the intermittent trees that clung to the shore. Isolated trees. Tight groups. Large. Small. They looked pretty much like magnolias and all looked the same. We’d traveled hundreds of miles and paid good money to drive along a roadside ditch with an insane person.

It would not be until well into the next day, on our own, that we would finally develop an eye for what the Land Captain was seeing. There was no other choice if we wanted to catch something. But right now we had the option of putting faith in our fearless leader. We pulled up to an open stretch opposite a stand of overhanging trees that were, for mysterious reasons, very appealing.

“See, there. No, not over there. RIGHT THERE!”

It sounded like EI Capitan might get physical if we didn’t catch on soon. So we concentrated harder and noticed that every few seconds, as the branches swayed, something was dropping into the water below. Berries. We didn’t break out the rods, though, because nothing was eating them. If they’re not surface-feeding, they’re not feeding at all. Sinking berries, “wet” berries if you will, are not appetizing, we were told. Obviously.

The reconnaissance mission continued for several miles. Conditions pointed to a productive outing, but for some reason the fish were not holding up their end of the bargain.

“The water was boiling like Hell’s Gate here yesterday.”

I was waiting for that one. “Were they jumping in the boat?” I muttered to myself, getting antsy and irritated. It was now mid-morning and we hadn’t even taken our rods out of the trunk yet. Captain Crunchberry sensed our growing unrest, particularly mine, so he switched gears and started on Peacock Bass, another inhabitant of the canal system. The Peacock Bass is brightly colored and although small­ and largemouth are technically members of the sunfish family, the peacock really does look like a larger, elongated pumpkinseed. We got a brief report on their tendencies and whereabouts and started scanning the shores. The canals receive influxes of water throughout the day at the discretion of the city. A supply line lay nearby and the Captain confirmed it as a good spot to try. The water was much deeper and the flow was churning up tons of debris from below in a lively boil. I threw out a streamer and started drawing it across the manmade current. I had lapsed into the stultified state that accompanies an outing marked for doom, when from the depths rose a fish such as I’d never seen. It was so big, so oversized for this body of water, and so close to me as it rolled over on the surface that I jumped back from the edge in fear. It was about the size of a human body and, based on what we’d seen thus far of modern-day Fort Lauderdale, I didn’t doubt that’s just what it was.

“Eighty-pound tarpon,” announced the Land Captain. He dead­panned his proclamation, but there was an undertone of intense excitement. Now he was flying down the bank to see about hooking him.

“Cast again, CAST AGAIN!” he yelled at me as I stood there like I’d seen a ghost. I carne out of it and tried to move my arms. “Oh my God!” I kept repeating as fear turned to determination. I must catch that thing. Or rather, I must hook that thing. I couldn’t dream that I would actually land it. Who could, for that matter, using the puny fly rod I now held. Without warning the contest had shifted weight classes. It wasn’t the first time, but nothing quite like this. What exactly would happen if by some miracle he got hooked? At the very least a pile-up on the street behind us as passersby watched the behemoth tail-dance his way down the canal.

Speculate though we did, it mattered little because we never saw him again. I cast into the roiling water over and over and over, replaying the encounter and wondering if there was something I could have done differently, even though I honestly don’t believe he was going for my fly in the first place. Amid my disappointment there was a fresh, almost crazed twinkle in my eye. A heightened state of awareness about the wonders of Florida fishing. Peacocks? Grass carp? Offbeat or no, I didn’t care where, how, why or who was or wasn’t fishing for tarpon, this was a fish I wanted to get to know better.

The Land Captain, it turned out, is an accomplished tarpon fisherman. An accomplished fisherman period, for that matter. He was only too happy to oblige my sudden obsession. The canals may turn up a few strays, but as far inland as we were it was quite unusual. Hence his surprise and excitement over our earlier encounter. The Everglades were more popular stomping grounds for these prehistoric titans and it made sense, given our current location and shoreline limitations. It meant a decent hike cross-state. We bid farewell to the Sew-erz Canal for the time being and declared, “Go West, young men!”

Our guide revived his entertainment gig as we decompressed along I­75, an uninterrupted ribbon of desolation commonly known as Alligator Alley. The political incorrectness still flowed freely but he had ratcheted down a notch, perhaps owing to the fact that it was now past noon and our hands didn’t smell. His content turned topical, first noting with disdain the collection of debris lining the fences and then the fences themselves, that flanked the highway. His interpretation was that they were erected to keep the “undesirables” from fishing, the side effect being that upstanding citizens of the fishing community such as ourselves were likewise barred. To us it seemed reasonable that if there had to be a highway cutting across, it need not be paved with alligator. Not to mention that having carloads of fishermen pulling off and on along this tropical autobahn was probably inadvisable from a safety standpoint. But we kept our opinions to ourselves as he switched his focus to Indians and then, at an inquiry from Seb, the sugar manufacturers.

“Sure, Big Sugar’s screwed this area big time.” I thought this might be a high-octane relative of Mr. Pibb (the South’s version of Dr. Pepper I had learned), or possibly a rap star. It turned out to be a pejorative akin to “Big Tobacco.” The sugar growers were conducting their business somewhere north of the highway and the Everglades, as they had for decades. Their practices had drawn increasing scrutiny from environmental groups and the issues had grown to statewide and national prominence.

“See those aqueducts headed north? That’s for run-off, but there isn’t much because Big Sugar’s sucking the area dry. And what water does come this way is loaded with so much fertilizer it might as well stay where it is. Either way, it can’t get through this freakin’ highway­slash-dam, can it?”

As I learned more, I could see that this was not necessarily another conspiracy theory. Highway and Big Sugar both functioned to the detriment of the Everglades. Yet man had arrived and he wasn’t leaving, and here we were using the highway to our benefit to reach the tarpon kingdom. I had sweetened my coffee this morning. And Mr. Pibb well, he’s probably responsible for any number of endangered species. Again I opted to zip it.

Midway across we stopped where a subtle depression in the fence made access difficult but possible. The high sun beat down mercilessly as we consumed the Land Lady’s tasty sandwiches and sipped our Mr. Pibb while silently surveying our host’s latest selection — another segment of canal, one that couldn’t possibly have tarpon as it was even smaller water than the last. But it had plenty of vegetation abutting and atop the water and looked promising for other species. The cruiser’s pitted roof rack held a canoe which now came off and into play. In classic offbeat fashion we hoisted it over the fence and slid it in the water. Three grown men hovering around 200 pounds each makes for some precarious canoeing. Mix in the fact that you’re operating beside a highway named for a man-eating reptile and you have all the makings of a dark comedy-horror flick. There was a gator or two in sight at all times. Cap noted the cuts through the brush as prime gator tunnels: exercise caution. A six-footer slamming his tail a rod’s length from the boat provided the exclamation point. I leaned forward to hug the Captain but thought better of it.

Word had come down that this place was a “guarantee.” For what I didn’t know. I had inquired about bass and was told tersely that, yes, bass were in here. I really liked the name “Big Sugar” and couldn’t let go of it. I decided that a hefty Florida largemouth would hereafter be called a Sugar Bass. Fat and sweet. But the time of day made me skeptical that I’d meet up with one. Still, I would be content with any member of the sunfish family at this point. Even a bream, like Seb was just now pulling up. He hooked another and a third. The way things had been going, it really was a welcome relief to have something to reel in, and the water was fun to fish: lots of overhanging brush and opportunities for short, accurate casts as we paddled by. The sunfish shared space with the Mayan Cichlid, an aptly bizarre name for a non-indigenous fish introduced via the contents of someone’s discarded aquarium. Tilapia too. The edge came off as we did battle with a variety pack of colorful aliens.

After a while I stopped fishing and started simmering again. The sun had moved to a point where you subconsciously feel the day winding down. A lot of people who don’t fish share a derisive view of fishing as a non-athletic sport where you sit on your butt all day drinking and watching your line, then make up stories as you swerve home. Though perhaps not athletic in the full sense, when you fish as Seb and I do you’re pretty well spent by the end of an outing. And as age creeps up, that feeling comes on earlier. The hot weather certainly played a part. Either way, I was starting to get a bit weary as we reloaded the canoe and made for the ‘Glades.

The Land Captain may have been getting a little weary too. He had been around longer than we, but was probably in better shape owing to his career of choice. We heard a single, rousing tale about extracting a treble hook from the stomach and through the neck of an overzealous heron while angling for snook in the inner lakes of the Everglades. But now I noticed his delivery was ebbing. I couldn’t imagine that he had run out of material, maybe this was the part of the trip where he usually waxes poetic about the day’s glories. “That Tilapia ran with your line like an FSU fullback headed for a sorority mixer.” Wouldn’t quite cut it. Seb and I picked up the ball instead, telling him a bit about our backgrounds and occupations. My D.C. counterpart is also well-versed on issues affecting the fishing industry nationwide, including the Everglades. The Cap made for a restless listener and sought to opine. But Seb had launched into a full-fledged fishing filibuster and would brook no interruption. At times I wonder whether he imagines a video monitor is pointed at him as he auditions for The Reel World. I rolled down the windows to release the heat.

The western horizon grew redder as we reached the end of the interminable Alley and pulled into a gas station to refuel; a routine practice elsewhere which, if neglected in an environment such as this, could result in death. According to the Cap, a wrong turn might also prove fatal. And he wasn’t talking about alligators or heat stroke. We hadn’t noticed but a quick review confirmed the presence of man but a disturbing lack of civilization. The convenience mart was the cultural mecca for these parts. A mile or so down the road we pulled off to the shoulder beside a short concrete bridge low to the water. An inlet traveled under the bridge and between mid-span piers of tubular concrete. Very steep banks. Again, small water, but deep. Maybe I didn’t have a good feel for the type of water these tarpon preferred. The Captain noted that he’d caught plenty of keepers right here, a few that tore out the other side of the bridge and into the backing. We had spent enough time with him to know that he was colorful but not given to embellishment or B.S.

“Sounds good, but how exactly does one cast here?” we wanted to know.

“Ah, that is the question, isn’t it?” he replied, and removed a rod from the trunk to demonstrate.

The road we had taken and now shouldered was the Tamiami Trail, another east-west conduit and the equivalent of Route 1, the local passage along the Northeast Coast. Just as I-95 had taken the pressure off route 1, Alligator Alley now bore the main traffic burden here. Still, plenty of cars whizzed by above, and there were phone lines as well. Throw in the underpass, the likely whereabouts for a lurking tarpon and the fly’s improbable destination, and it made for an Extreme Sports fly fishing challenge. Captain Land had been training and was a formidable opponent. Positioned at the top of the bank, he started casting out and back but also up and down, generating length and power without yet addressing the underpass. This also avoided the nearby cars and wires. Once he had enough going on, he rotated the directionality and shot a picture-perfect cast a good two-thirds of the way under the bridge. Amazing! An experience found only in fly fishing, where the technique is arguably more rewarding than the results.

“Now you guys try it,” he said, raising the rod above and behind his head for the next willing contestant. Seb looked at me and I shook my head. He stepped onto the bank for a lesson in humility. Since Seb does a lot more fly fishing than I do, he’s less willing to take advice or criticism. LC had noticed this and was browbeating him. For God’s sake, I thought, how could someone who hadn’t done this before possibly get it right the first time? The Captain had probably cast here thousands of times. Besides, aesthetics were nice but there was the bottom line to consider, and by now Seb had put a few pretty deep in the tunnel. The competition was heating up, but the sun was going down. The underpass was getting a low reading on my mental tarpon-o­meter, so we moved along.

An inlet canal directly off the ocean provided the day’s final setting. Less cover and the wind had picked up. It would pose a casting problem. With the finish line in sight, we summoned our remaining energies for one final push. Our side of the inlet was an arid expanse of baked grass with heavy vegetation at shore only. Wind aside, a fly­friendly arrangement. The other shore had some midscale ranch homes with piers and reeds. The mightiest of casts might span the distance, but was unnecessary since there was surface activity throughout the deep channel. We stood at a cut in the brush and assessed the variously subtle and ferocious disturbances.

“All tarpon,” came a voice from the other side. A park ranger living in one of the houses had come down to tend to his boat.

“This place is basically an aquarium, it’s got hundreds of tarpon, some into triple digits in weight. But they’re savvy, I wouldn’t get too excited just yet.”

The Land Captain deafly handed us our rods and we began tossing flies that looked like white Muddler Minnows in the direction of the feeding.

“Guy probably sits on his dock all day plunking crabs. The bigger the tarpon, the smaller the bait. You can’t beat flies for these babies.”

I wanted to believe him. I was saying a little prayer to myself. It was now or never. A silvery flash and a good-size fish sideswiped the tail end of my retrieve. He was on for a split second, then gone. That was it, my one and only chance. Gloom and doom started descending again. This time I fought back. Disgusted, yet I had to admit that my first-ever tarpon strike was itself a thrill. They were quick, and so silky-smooth. Appeared out of nowhere, traveling at a high speed, then rolled sideways as they struck so you got a really good look at them even when they didn’t break water. It was spellbinding.

A few moments later Seb had a similar opportunity and made the most of it. He landed a nice fish, tarpon number one in the O’Kelly record book. I was self-absorbed in mental fish-games and took scant notice. Soon I was devising a plan. Alligator Alley was long when one was chugging across in a rusty cruiser. Sidestep the Mayan fields and with my lead foot I bet I could cut the trip in half. We had a few days left, plenty of time to make any number of new friends: grass carp, peacock bass, why not a certain stealth bomber from the Everglades?

I managed a smile as I walked over to see about Seb’s triumph. I hadn’t caught a tarpon, but the good news was this: I knew now that I would.