EVERGLADES CITY, FLA. – Ned Small let his dog outside well before sunup, when the tide was still falling. This was hours before the airboat people in town untied their noisy craft and loaded them with flamingo-shirted tourists. The dog is a cocker spaniel, which you don’t see a lot of anymore. Small uses him for hunting snipe in winter, and while we fished, he would pass the good time in Small’s house, which stands on stilts alongside a canal of tannic-colored water.
Like most people in Florida, Small isn’t originally from these parts, though 20 years of fishing the Everglades back country, as it’s called, should certify him as some kind of Floridian. He has a 17-foot skiff with a tunnel hull, a bow-casting platform, a poling stand, and a 70-horse outboard swinging from the transom. When pressed into service at low tide, the neat little craft draws only a foot or so of water.
“I’m available,” Small said when I called last week to ask if he could take me into the 10,000 Islands area of the Everglades to fly fish for snook and redfish. “Be here early, 6:30.”
My friend Steve Vilks would join me, and we pulled up to Small’s house as the eastern sky fused crimson to midnight blue. The day would be largely cloudless. Already pelicans were on the wing, looking for breakfast, and to a visitor from the north, the dank air bore a confusion of scents and the promise of summer. Small launched his skiff, and soon we idled past stone-crab boats, clapboard restaurants whose cantilevered porches hung over water, and the coffee-drinking captains of the still-silent airboats.
Small leaned against the throttle of his skiff and put distance between us and the hard ground of Everglades City.
“There’ll be some snook around, and redfish,” he said. “But the winter’s been cold down here, the water cool and the fishing only fair.”
For a century and more, Florida has been at war with itself over the Everglades. When the Spanish arrived in the early 1500s, the Calusa and Tequesta tribes, and later the Seminoles, were settled here, mostly at river mouths. At the time, the Everglades covered about 11,000 square miles, twice what they do now, and claimed as their source the Kissimmee River, which ambled and meandered slowly about 100 miles between Lake Kissimmee to the north and giant Lake Okeechobee.
Beginning in the middle part of the last century, opportunistic Florida politicians conspired with Congress to straighten and channelize the Kissimmee, following an already well-developed but ultimately wrong-headed Florida tradition of attempting to control water that proves uncontrollable. Still, the Kissimmee was cut from its original 103-mile length to 56 miles, destroying many of its vast adjacent wetlands, ponds and river grasses, all of which teemed with wildlife.
The especially bad news was that the channelization of the Kissimmee also sped its flow, and today, too much water carrying too much nitrogen and phosphorous dumps too quickly into Okeechobee, which in turn has lost much of its outlet capacity into the Everglades, due also to drainage.
A who’s-who of wintering waterfowl and sub-tropical birds and other wildlife, including the Florida panther, have been displaced as a result.
Solving the problem, if it can be solved, will require purchasing and reflooding previously drained land downstream of Okeechobee. Until that happens, if it ever happens, Okeechobee’s overflow will continue to be dumped like an unwelcome guest into, among other waterways, the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon along Florida’s vaunted Treasure Coast.
High-rise condos, bumper-to-bumper traffic, lanais the size of tennis courts and nearly continuous construction throughout south Florida come at a price, apparently.
• • •
Now the morning is warming, heading toward 85 degrees, as Small guides his skiff among a cacophony of mangroves. Killing his outboard, he clambers atop the skiff’s poling platform and propels us quietly ahead.
The water is dark in all directions, and along a profusion of exposed mangrove roots a white ibis patrols mud exposed by the low tide.
Nearby is another ibis and a bird Small calls a Louisiana tri-color.
Stepping onto the bow platform, I strip enough line from my reel to make a cast and send a loop of line ahead, the latter for no particular reason. I don’t see any fish. It just feels good.
“We’re looking for shadows,” Small said. “They can be hard to see, and the amount of water a shadow displaces if it breaks the surface indicates how big the fish is.
“Mullet, for example, which we’re not after, make only small disturbances when they move.”
Originally from Massachusetts, Small is well settled in his adopted surroundings. Beneath his stilted house he stores an even smaller and sleeker boat than his skiff, a Gheenoe, and alongside it is a camouflage side-by-side ATV, which he uses for hunting snipe.
“Why this part of Florida?” I ask.
Waving an arm toward the endless wilderness of mangroves and shallow water that surrounds us, Small says, “Too many people everywhere else. And they haven’t ruined this yet.”
Under ideal conditions, a fly angler can have nearly continual action with redfish.
But not snook.
If a fly can be cast delicately enough, and accurately enough, a snook will eat it, especially in the shallow “flats” on warm sunny days.
“But you’ve got to make the cast,” Small says. “In this dark water if the fly lands too far from the fish, they’ll never see it.
“Took close to the fish and you’ll spook it.”
My friend Steve, who lives in Naples, about an hour distant, is new to fly fishing, and he’s taking all of this in. A few nights earlier, he and I and a couple from White Bear Lake, Wally and Deborah Hilke, caught sheepshead and speckled trout in the canals near his home.
That was fishing.
This is more like hunting.
Wait. Wait. See the fish. Loop line into the air. False cast. Measure the distance. Haul. Haul again. Shoot the line.
“Cast into that dark water around this point,” Small says. “I don’t see any fish. The water is too dark for that. But on this tide, snook will hang out there.”
Years ago, some friends and I were in Costa Rica: Karen Johnson, Norb Berg, Bud Grant, Eddie Bronstein and Buzz Kaplan.
We were in the jungle, fishing tarpon on the Rio Colorado, and one late afternoon while waiting for dinner I saw kids on the opposite shoreline tossing baitballs into the river and catching fish.
Packing a fly rod, I paddled a canoe across the river.
The boys were catching snook, and soon I joined them, blind-casting flies into the dark water, and also catching snook.
Few fish in the world present themselves as table fare as well as snook, and I returned with enough for dinner.
Now time has passed and I’m in the Everglades in early March.
I can’t imagine circumstances in which I would kill another snook, even if it were a legal fish. But give me a shot, I think to myself, and I’ll make the cast.
In the ensuing hours, we see shadowy silhouettes here and there. Not all of my casts are on target. But one hits the mark. To a big snook. And with enough luck, he would have eaten my fly, an Enrico Puglisi special.
It doesn’t happen.
The morning is long spent when Everglades City rises again into view, also the stone-crab boats, the restaurants with their cantilevered screened porches and the airboats with their noisy engines now started and their seats filled with flamingo-shirted tourists.
Small’s cocker spaniel is happy to see him.
Steve and I say we’ll be back.