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The River of Grass

The Everglades were decidedly not a safe place for two inexperienced Canucks.This truth had been quickly established during the drive through the park when we stopped off to prospect for bass in one of the many ponds along the Tamiani trail. In shorts, wading out towards the ledge of the limestone shelf and casting towards the deeper water that seemed to hold such promise, the subtle shapes that slid off the island and cruised towards my location went largely unnoticed until a sudden feeling of paranoia overcame me with the realization that the trail of bubbles honing in on me belonged to alligators looking for an easy meal. I hightailed it out of the water as fast as I could and stood at a safe distance from the shoreline while one of them surfaced a few feet away and inspected me like a piece of meat at the butcher’s counter at the Winn-Dixie supermarket.

Where the hell did Mr.Harry send us? The man in question was Elkwood K. Harry, President of the I.G.F.A. in 1975 and from whose offices we had just arrived. We had corresponded months earlier and as members of the association he had invited us to meet with him at his office on East Las Olas boulevard in Miami when we arrived in town. He probably never expected the two young men to show up but it was our first stop after we left the Avis rental counter at the airport, and while surprised at our impromptu arrival, he received us like royalty in their dusty old offices with paint chipping off the walls, a place which was rapidly becoming the basis of the largest angling library in the world. The office was cluttered with shelves and shelves of books and other fishing publications from around the world, antique and modern tackle of all kinds, paintings and sepia photos of early nineteenth century fisherman with their prize catches, photos depicting some of the halcyon eras of fishing. There were some personal photos of Papa Hemingway in Cuba,  Zane Grey with a gigantic marlin in Australia, and Lee Wulff with he first sailfish he caught on a fly rod. It was a cathedral to the sport, a repository to its tradition and the day was spent lost in its history, poring over its literature and accoutrements, tackle and equipment, lore and tradition. Within the confines of those dusty shelfs was the entire history of the sport, since its very beginnings. It was a great experience to be amidst of such a superb collection of piscatoria. At the end of the day we gathered in Mr Harry’s spartan office and discussed our plans for the next three weeks. He seemed sincerely interested in our adventure and when we disclosed our original intention to fish Okechobee for largemouth he suggested we might be better off in Flamingo, where we could fish for largemouth in the Glades for bass as well as enjoy the inshore opportunities for salt water species. It was the first time we had the chance to fish in the ocean and when he called up a friend and made arrangements for him to guide us for a few days out of Flamingo we were sold on the idea.

The Everglades was not unknown to me and its name conjured up vivid images of mosquito ridden, snake infested, forsaken and inhospitable swamplands that were among one of the last places you would want to find yourself lost. It was a place that was largely unknown, where ten thousand years ago sabre-toothed tigers once roamed and hunted for large prehistoric mammals, where airboats were mandatory for travel in the shallow marsh, where the Spaniard Ponce de Leon searched in vain for the fountain of youth and where alligators have ruled the water since the beginning of time, a place where dead corpses from drug deals gone bad were the flotsam and jetsam of the tides and where sightings of the legendary hominid cryptid known as the skunk-ape were still reported; a chaotic jungle of mangrove and sawgrass that held root everywhere, a place where real rednecks lived and where clouds of insects were known to devour a human in a day, a harsh land where everything conspired to make human life miserable. A place unforgiving of human error. One of the most inhospitable places on the face of the earth.

The Everglades are the subtropical wetlands in the southern portion of the State of Florida, a vast and complex ecosystem of marshland, estuarine forests of mangrove and cypress, upland pines, interlaced channels and swamps, a river of sawgrass that is over sixty miles wide and a hundred miles long. Travelling at an average rate of a quarter-mile per day, it is essentially a slow-moving river flowing over a limestone shelf originating from Lake Okeechobee and the Kissimmee River near Orlando which flows southwest towards Florida Bay.  To understand the importance of the Everglades is to comprehend the unique geology of the area. The properties of the rocks underneath the Everglades, layers of porous and permeable limestone, formations that developed from calcium carbonate, sand, shells, and coral as the sea levels fluctuated, created the Biscayne aquifer which is essentially a storage center that acts as a water filter and cleanses it of all impurities. It is natures water filter and distills it over long periods. The water in this system travels at an average rate of a quarter-mile per day and because it can often get trapped for years in sinkholes and other different strata of the aquifer, it can sometimes take years for the water to flow from its original source through its entire length.

The twentieth century saw the industrialization of this unique hydrological system by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with the development of a complex canal, levee, and drainage system throughout the wetlands that was undertaken as both a measure of flood control, to provide fresh water for over half the state, and as economic driver for the development of this area into agricultural farmlands, the primary crop being sugar cane. But the management of the system, largely dictated by the best interests of Big Sugar, have often had devastating impacts on the wildlife and environment. While the politics of Big Sugar and the management of the Everglades have always been an issue of contention in the state, the tide began to turn in the seventies when UNESCO declared the Everglades as being one of only three wetlands of global importance and in 2000 U.S. Congress passed into law the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, the most ambitious and expensive environmental repair attempt in human history.

The Calusa and Tequesta tribes were the first to inhabit the area over 15000 years ago and early contact with early Spanish colonists during the age of exploration led to the decimation of the indigenous tribes through slavery, disease, and warfare. Recent history had also been harsh on the remainder of the Indians, particularly to the Seminoles who populated and earned their living in the Everglades when forced there by the U.S. military during the Seminole wars of the nineteenth century, launched by president Andrew Jackson when he attempted to annex Florida to the United States. Succesive Seminole wars throughout the century pushed them further into the swamp and by 1913 records indicate there were fewer than 325 Seminole Indians living in the Everglades. We stood as much chance of meeting a real Seminole as we did running into a florida panther.

On the advice of Elkwood, we had picked up some basic supplies and headed off in the direction of Flamingo, a ghost town in the middle of nowhere on the southernmost tip of Florida that faced Florida Bay. We were as far away from civilization as possible. It was perfect. This area had first been settled after the Seminole wars when settlers made a living by selling fish, vegetables, and charcoal to early settlements and fishing villages in Key West. The early nineteenth century saw the construction of a fish house and commercial fishing became the primary occupation of the town until  Prohibition, when moonshining also became a popular occupation in Flamingo. The present day town consists of Flamingo lodge, a restaurant and café, marina, and campground. It is as laid back as you can get while still registering a heartbeat. It is a place where the rhythm of daily life flows almost imperceptibly, like the tides of the ocean or the clouds in the sky. The place was deserted and we rented a small cabin near the water for twenty-five dollars a day which included free continental breakfast in the café. It was rustic and dilapidated but had the two requisite cots, a small kitchenette with table and chairs, a nightable with a glass ashtray and a fresh copy of Gideon’s bible in the drawer.

The next morning we wandered down to the marina to see if our Captain was anywhere in sight. A man wearing a black apron covered with blood waved at us from the fish shack where he was gutting some triple tail and cobia, unceremoniously tossing the nasty mess of fish heads and offal through a chute in the table that dumped out into the water below the dock. Swirls formed as fish moved in and picked off the remains, competing with the seagulls and pelicans that were to also be familiar with the drill. The bait shop was a rickety and weatherbeaten shack that stood on stilts and had an uneven floor that creaked eerily with each footstep. A broken glass display counter that had probably survived the last hurricane held some terminal tackle, mostly weights and stainless steel hooks and a nice assortment of Mirr-O-lures which the man behind the counter told us the gold and black ones were great for snook. Little did he know that I had no clue what a snook was. We picked up a few things, some shock tippet and line and then headed back out onto the dock.

A man in a crisp blue shirt, neatly pressed beige chinos, Sperry topsiders and a hat that covered his ears approached us earnestly and asked if we were the two guys from Canada. A thick hand stretched out as he introduced himself as Bouncer, former Sheriff in Dade County and born again Christian turned full-time fishing guide after suffering a burnout from witnessing five years of human depravity and violence while patrolling the streets of Homestead. He was a strange sort of character, a bit of a neat freak on the boat, didn’t drink or smoke or swear, really worked hard to clients into fish and was upset if he couldn’t locate them, preferred guiding flyfisherman and was best suited for experienced anglers that knew what they were doing, was somewhat intolerant of error, had latent anger management issues, constantly checked and re-tied his knots, and would probably not think twice about drowning a paying client and feeding them to the sharks if they really pissed him off.

As the Boston Whaler and motored inland through a maze of channels bordered by mangrove forests and hammocks, he explained that despite certain other occupational life hazards of guiding in the Everglades, it was infinitely much safer than a career in law enforcement in the Sunshine State. He believed in four things: guns, Jesus Christ, capital punishment, and fishing, although not necessarily in that order. He knew the back country well and despite his general disdain for most humans, mostly those that didn’t fish, he had a great respect for wildlife and every now and again would slow the boat to show us something in the water, perhaps a manatee or giant sea turtle, and his eyes would shine with reverence. We travelled for a long while until gradually the channels opened into larger bays and we cut the engine and anchored in one of them, casting live shrimp into the current.

The strikes were lightning fast with several break-offs and we realized we were into a good-sized school of toothy Spanish mackerel. As neophytes who were ignorant and didn’t know any better, we used our ultralight trout gear, with four and six pound test on rods no longer than five feet. This was the same equipment we had been using earlier in the season in the small creeks back home fishing for brook and brown trout. Bouncer laughed at us as our gear was clearly inadequate and many of the fish simply broke off at the hook, as we had no wire or shock tippet. There was a  slight tick on your line and it was all over. Bouncer looked increasingly annoyed with us as the pile of hooks he had left on the deck diminished rapidly before we even managed to land a few fish.  But despite the damage we did to his tackle supply, by the time the school dispersed an hour later, he reluctantly conceded that he had probably just witnessed us break several line class records for Spanish mackerel.

Our next stop was a deep channel in a tidal inlet where he said there was usually a good sea-trout bite. We rigged up with large styrofoam bobbers with concave heads that when jerked by the rod, popped in the water and which acted as a sound attractor for the bait below. Bouncer had a cooler with fresh live shrimp he had netted earlier that morning which we baited on the hooks and sent drifting out into the current. A few pops later and my float vanished and a ladyfish launched itself all over the bay, its iridescent colors glittering as it danced under the sunlight at the end of my line. It was an interesting fish and the feat of landing it was only slightly diminished when Bouncer explained that ladyfish were not the type of fish that was targeted by fisherman.  As we drifted through expansive sand flats covered with scattered clumps of brown turtlegrass, a flock of wading pink flamingoes took flight over our heads, a raucous blur of pastel splashed against a turquoise sky.

The hot sun beat down upon us without relent and our clothes were soaked through from the sweat. The sand flies were also making their presence felt around our ankles and necks, the areas open to exposure. When a dip in the water was suggested Bouncer strongly advised against it and casually mentioned that an eighteen foot hammerhead shark had been caught in the vicinity a few weeks earlier. Swimming was definitely out of the question and I wasn’t about to argue with Bouncer, who had a .44 magnum strapped menacingly to his side at all times while on the boat. It is never a good policy to trifle with a man who has a bible in one hand and a gun in another. The gun was ostensibly for protection against alligators but, as he admitted with a wink and smile, could also serve other useful purposes out here in no man’s land. 

In places like this, on the very outer fringes of society, there is a certain culture of anarchy where people are prone to take the law into their own hands. Or seriously infract it. Its isolation, vastness, and location made it an ideal area for drug trafficking. There was all kinds of activity going down in the Glades and he had fished out several half-eaten bodies with their heads blown off.  The drug smugglers flew in small single engine planes  under the radar and dropped shipments of cocaine and marijuana in water tight crates equipped with GPS tags, that were later picked up offshore by speedboats. Bouncer warned us that if we on our own and discovered any suspicious looking packages in the water to steer clear from them and file a report with authorities upon our return to shore.

On the outgoing tide we caught a few jack crevalles and mangrove snappers near some small keys before returning back to the marina. The sun was just beginning to drop into the ocean as we stepped onto the dock and headed towards our cabin, anticipating a well-deserved supper of fresh grilled snapper, mackerel, home fries. and a bottle of Chablis we had picked up before leaving Miami. After the meal we sat outdoors and polished off our bottle of wine under the gathering darkness of evening, listening to the strange sounds of the dark forest behind us that had suddenly come to life. The sky was clear and slowly millions of stars emerged brilliantly from their slumber and formed into constellations that danced in the night.

The next morning Bouncer greeted us at the dock with a cryptic smile and indicated he had something special planned which he wouldn’t disclose until our arrival at the destination. An hour later we found ourselves in one of a thousand nondescript bays surrounded by thick mangrove forests when he slowly backed the boat in towards the shoreline, anchoring it so the transom was a few feet away from a gargantuan mass of gnarly  mangrove roots. The mother of all mangroves. He then proceeded to remove a thick long pole that had somehow until this point been inconspicuously stored under the gunnel. At its base it was a good five inches thick and slowly tapered to a few inches at its tip, set up with a single strand of 500 lb test airplane cable and 10/0 saltwater hook. He explained that this was called a Calcutta pole, so named after the dense and unyielding wood from which it is made, and used primarily for hauling large fish such as grouper out of their lairs once hooked. It was an old-fashioned jiggering pole and it weighed close to sixty pounds, and barely manageable by a strong adult without a fish on the end of it. He quickly explained the protocol. We would hook a live three-pound mangrove snapper to the business end, the three of us would simultaneously hold the rod and drop the bait in the hole, and when the fish hit, our single task was to keep lifting the rod no matter what until the fish surfaced. It sounded simple in theory and Bouncer confidently assured us that there was indeed a fish in this hole and that it would take all of five seconds for a hookup. We looked at each other incredulously as he impaled the snapper and we slowly dropped the bait into the lair.

Sure enough the hit was instantaneous and the three of us struggled and cursed as we battled against some great  immoveable force to keep the tip of the pole as high into the air as possible. The weight was unbelievable. When it was all said and done, about thirty seconds after the battle began, we all collapsed onto the deck of the boat, sweating and laughing over the insane debacle that had just taken place. The fish flopped around the deck with us and when we saw its size, caused us to laugh even harder. It was a baby grouper that bottomed out the scale at only thirty-two pounds. It was hard to imagine what a big fish would have done to us as these things grow to well over six hundred pounds!

As we recovered from the exertion, Bouncer recounted the story behind the huge replica mount in the Flamingo café which took up the whole wall. It seemed that several fishing boats had hooked into the fish but had been unable to pull it from its lair. They had tried everything, until a few of them got together and came up with a plan. They would tie a hook onto some rope and then attach the rope to a transom boat cleat and when the fish took the bait, would throttle the boat forward and pull the fish out into open water. The plan worked exceptionally well but the fish almost sank their boat as it dragged them back and forth in the bay for close to six hours before finally surfacing.

In the afternoon we went tarpon fishing in the channels and while we managed to hook a few small ones they proved difficult to land. The closest we came was bringing one up to the boat and just as we were about to grab it decided it still had another run left in him and broke us off in some mangrove roots. They were the most exciting yet frustrating fish we had ever encountered. A few days later we met a guy in the café who told us not to feel too bad over our results as he had hooked into over fifty tarpon before he manged to land his first one. The day was cut short when we ran into another fisherman who had blown his engine and had been marooned for close to eight hours in the hot sun and was beginning to show signs of dehydration. He had not seen another boat all day and feared he would be stuck on a sand bar at night on the outgoing tide. There was no way we could leave him without assistance as death from exposure was a real possibility so like good maritime Samaritans we tied his boat to ours and towed it the two hours back to the marina at Flamingo. 

On our last day, probably because he felt bad for us losing a few good hours the day before, Bouncer he gave us some directions to some canals that could be fished from shore at night for cubera snapper, tarpon, as well as snook. There were hundreds of them, most of these were military canals, all identifiable by number, and could be found along Alligator Alley. Above the spill water dams drained the freshwater of the Everglades where largemouth bass, tucanare, and tilapia could be caught. In the brackish water below, where sweet and saltwater mixed, a variety of large saltwater predators came in to feed on shrimp and mullet with the rising tides. Our first night alone in C-102 was quite an experience. The eerie silence of darkness was punctuated by watery detonations that echoed up and down the length of the canal as fish corralled the hapless schools of mullets that had nowhere to escape but in the air. We hooked into a big cubera snapper that after ten minutes broke our line off in the sharp coral rocks along the edge. As the tide rose larger tarpon began cruising up and down the canal and we had a huge one on the line when a pick-up truck came careening down the canal road, spitting rocks and sand in all directions. They were drunk rednecks that whooped and hollered it up like good old boys from a Deliverance movie, blasting signs with high-powered rifles standing from the bed of the truck. Local wildlife. Momentarily distracted by their presence my resolve wavered and the fish, like all those other tarpon before him, got away.  

It was on one of those nights at the canal when we  first met Brian who was fishing alone with a six-pack. He was roughly our age, lived in the area, liked to fish and drink beer, was raised in a religious household and was studying to become a game warden. Brian was a hardcore fisherman and in him we sensed a kindred spirit, made friends with him quickly and tagged along with him for a few days on a fishing adventure. He lived in nearby Homestead where his father owned a small commercial avocado farm and his mother worked nights as a nurse. One night we headed out of Homestead and took his father’s boat out onto the ocean for a night of beer drinking and shark fishing and caught several hammerheads. When the sun rose we headed further offshore, out to an area known as the hump where large amberjack hung out. We had never even heard of amberjack as we lowered the baits down to the bottom. Brian told us once we caught one we would remember its name.

The waves were tossing the small skiff about like a piece of driftwood and before long I was seasick and started vomiting over the side. We  all figured it would soon pass but after a few hours was still feeling wretched and ready to die.  The beer turned into bile and with each heave felt something inside me had died. At that moment my rod doubled over and an amberjack was on the end of my line. Despite my protests the boys strapped me into a harness and the fight was on. The struggle for both of us was painful and every few minutes my head was over the side chumming the water. The fish was stubborn and would not budge. Every foot of line was a battle in a war with no winners. After forty-five minutes of gruelling pain I pleaded with my buddies to let me break off the fish and bring me back to shore. They simply laughed at me and about a half hour later, on the verge of dehydration and fainting, the fish rose to the surface and was summarily gaffed and pulled onto the boat. We headed inland to the closest pier and it was only when my feet touched terra firma that my recovery was complete.

The next  day we rented an air boat at the marina and Brian took us onto the river of grass through Shark River. It was a paradise of lush green vegetation, pine scrublands, cypress hammocks, and forest of mangrove. We travelled up sloughs through the sawgrass marsh, saw great flocks of wading flamingos. These wet prairies held an enormous variety of wildlife and we saw several alligators and snakes in the sloughs, or channels in the sawgrass fields. While we hadn’t intended on fishing much we did stop to catch a few bass in the sloughs, had a water moccasin try to climb aboard, saw some nesting turtles, and snagged into a good-sized alligator but broke it off when it reached a few feet of the air boat.  It was an unforgettable experience.

For the next week we had decided to rent a boat, purchase some camping equipment, and live out on the thousands of islands that dotted Florida Bay. We would live on the water and fish as much as our bodies would allow. The days passed quickly, marked by long hours on the water exploring the vast bay and falling into the rhythm of the tides and the influence they exerted on all life around us. We awoke with the sunrise and slept as soon as darkness fell around us, the sound of waves lapping against the shoreline as our lullaby. We ate fish for breakfast and supper as we had little else to sustain us. Mackerel, permit, pompano, redfish, snapper, trout, jack crevalles - some were good, others not as much. My favorite was snapper grilled over a nice fire. One day, desperate for something other than fish, and ignoring the possible danger of redneck retribution, we pulled up a few lobster traps and emptied their contents, which boiled that night on some unnamed key made a meal which to this day remains as a vivid memory on my palette.  

The days were marked and planned according to the high tides, two of them per twenty-four hour cycle that offered the best opportunities for actively feeding fish. We ate and we slept and fished by the rhythm of the tides, with the rising tide providing the best bite. There were so many different types of game fish we caught, most of which we were unable to identify or even determine if they were edible. Our most interesting catch by far had been the metamorphic puffer fish which as a defense mechanism when out of water, inflates its prickly body full of air like a balloon. It was quite a comical creature and we amused ourselves by playing volleyball with it for a bit before returning it back into the clear water where it quickly deflated and disappeared. It is also a delicacy but if prepared improperly can kill you. At night we left out night lines with cut bait and were often awakened to a reel screaming with the take of a large shark. We caught several nurse sharks like this and a big bull shark that we fought for a few hours but could not land.

 Each day was marked by a new adventure, a new lesson learned about the ecology of the bay, a new respect for the fish that swam in its waters. We were like children in a candy store, everything was new to us and seen with such amazement. One day while we drifted along an inland channel, two manatees swam directly under the boat and seemed to follow us around, perhaps seeking the comfort of the shade it provided or maybe just curious with our presence. They were at once the oddest yet most sympathetic and intelligent looking creatures we had ever seen. With almost overgrown human eyes full of intelligence and empathy, it was easy to see how from a distance early Europeans colonists interpreted their first sightings of these mammals as being mermaids.

On our last day a violent tropical storm blew through and we barely made it back to shore where we found refuge back at the café in Flamingo. All our money was spent and had only enough for gas to get us back to the airport the following day. We were exhausted, sunburned, and hadn’t washed  in a week. We must have looked like rescued castaways or boat people as the waitress at the café was sympathetic to our predicament, paid the meal from her pocket, and kindly allowed us to spend the night in the café free of charge. We moved a few tables and chairs around and made a space on the floor right under the giant grouper mount. Sleep came quickly and the great fish was the last thing I remembered seeing before closing my eyes and dreaming about a slow-moving river of grass that time had forgotten.  

PS : This was the last time we fished with Brian and while we kept in contact for a few years after we eventually lost touch until somehow the horrible news about the accident reached us years later through a mutual friend. It was during the devastation of hurricane Andrew and although the family had evacuated their home and was safely inland, when hearing stories about looting in back their neighbourhood, Brian volunteered to go back and protect their home. It was during the night that the hurricane tore the roof from his house and caused a wooden ceiling beam to crash down on Brian’s spinal cord, leaving him a quadriplegic for life.

 

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6 Comments

  1. Mike Martin
    Posted December 31, 2011 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    Enjoyed reading this alot! Kept me on my toes the whole time I was reading. Keep up the great work Ari!

    • Posted January 1, 2012 at 9:30 am | Permalink

      thanks Mike! Kept me on my toes the whole time I was there! Cheers!

  2. john guthrie
    Posted November 3, 2011 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    great story! very well described, it was like i was there. i grew up in miami and can relate to most of those experiences. i just really appreciate that there are people out there that are not afraid to go on such an adventure, and who can share it so vividly. sincerely: johng ; senior associate of the redneck retribution society

    • Posted November 4, 2011 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

      thank you both Jack and John. I love the Glades and would go back there in a heartbeat!

  3. Jack Horowitz
    Posted October 16, 2011 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    Fantastic story! As well written as every episode of his life that Mr.Vineberg has allowed us to share with him. I can imagine every experience he puts on paper as if I were there with him. He is a brilliant fisherman with an amazing ability to relate his adventures on a very personal level. He makes it a true privilege to sense his emotions and share his sights through his written words.
    I look forward to many more of his stories for many years to come.

  4. Karen Miconi
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    Florida Fishing is Very Exciting and Very Dangerous. I’ll never forget looking off a bridge in Ft Myers, and commenting that we should go cast the shore.. NOT! There he was a 6 foot Gator swimming across the river right about where I wanted to cast… Florida definatly not like up north. You just cant walk up to the shore and fish LOL

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