For most of my fish-addled life, a winter trip to Florida was a sanity-saving jump into summer for a week or so. I made the jump to Florida the second week of March this year, but I landed into another version of winter. A cold north wind rattled the palmettos around the vacation condo, and I wore jeans, hiking boots and a down vest whenever I ventured outside.
Sure, it was 55 degrees, which is not cold during an Oregon winter, but I was in Florida, dammit, and my duffle was jammed with shorts and thin, tropical fishing shirts. Florida feels like the coldest place on the planet when that cold wind blows, night temps drop to 42 degrees and the fish just vanish.
My usual spots — the tidewater marshes on the East Coast of Florida — were grey and wind-chapped. The redfish, snook and jack crevalle were gone. Even the stoic stingrays skulked away from the sandy shallows to deeper, warmer water.
The fishless week ground on, and daytime temperatures climbed slowly. By my last day, it was 80 degrees with no wind. I slathered sunscreen on my white Oregon legs, finally put on a pair of shorts and headed for the eastern side of Amelia Island, which is just north of Jacksonville.
I’ve fly fished enough in Florida to know that better fishing — probably for redfish, ladyfish and small jacks — was probably happening off the tidal marshes and the Intracoastal Waterway on the west side of Amelia. Those marshes warm up faster than the ocean. I’m pretty sure I could also have found some jack crevalle and ladyfish prowling around some of the canals and harbors just off the Intracoastal Waterway, but I didn’t have a boat, and I also needed to stay on the east side of the island.
So I set off on foot as the flood tide started. I brought my 6-weight fly rod, which is a little light for a lot of Florida gamefish but perfect for the humble whiting, which swim around in the gentle surf and whack little woolly buggers. Whiting, a bottom fish that looks kind of like small, pale redfish, also hang around when things get cold in Florida.
My pride had shrunk to a nub during those cold days.
I slowly walked up the beach and looked for rips — deeper slots where the water pushed up on the sand from the gentle waves was draining back into the Atlantic Ocean. Rips look like flowing creeks, and fish like to hang out in these deeper, faster slots and pick off food.
The trick is to not get caught in the rip. If you do, just swim parallel to the shore, get out of the current and then swim with the waves back to the beach. This is the kind of fly fishing I did as a boy in Southern California, and the tiny, gentle waves felt good as they broke around my calves.
Whiting rapped my flies in just about every little rip. They’re not redfish or snook — the fish I dream about when I fly east to Florida — but they fight hard for their size. A spin angler fished one rip with me, and we both grinned at each other every time a whiting bit.
“At least I’m out of the house and having fun,” my new friend said.
The bite died at high slack, and I made the long walk back to the condo, loving the sun on my back and the gritty shellfish sand between my toes. I turned on my computer to check the flight back to Oregon. That’s when I found out that the state had been basking in 70-degree days while I was away.
Sometimes you can’t win for trying.
Less than 24 hours later, I walked out of Portland International Airport and into an early spring: azalea shrubs, daffodils and cherry trees were in full bloom. Pale Oregonians plopped on the soggy grass in every park. Shorts were making their 2018 debut.
In Oregon, 70 degrees feels like summer. I knew where to find some fish, even in the city of Portland. I dropped off my gear at home and got out a 4-weight fly rod and some size 14 soft-hackle flies. I drove to a nearby nature area that is dotted with swampy ponds.
I cast that soft hackle and let it sink for a bit. Then I twitched the line, and it came tight with a frantic, high-speed vibration. A small bluegill splashed on the surface. My heart happily rattled around in my chest. Pond bluegill coming into the shallows to warm up and get ready to spawn is a sure sign of spring in Oregon.
I’d flown from coast to coast, and caught very modest fish at both ends. Yet, as I unhooked that bluegill and cast my line out again, I felt the tidal pull of seven months of nonstop fly fishing ahead of me. In my mind, I saw sea-run cutthroat trout, smallmouth bass, rainbow trout, largemouth bass, brown trout, summer steelhead and, yes, more bluegill, from that moment through the end of October.
I could see these fish — and the wonderful places they live — so clearly in my mind. Winter was over, and the good, warm times were here again.