(to be read in Casey Kasem’s voice) We’re counting down the 10 most memorable moments of 2021 on currentseams-dot-com. (to be read in singing chorus voices) Number Seven!
#7 Teaching Wet Fly Fishing. I didn’t have as many guide trips this year as usual, mostly because of high water — and then I cancelled most of the summer due to elevated water temps on the Farmington. But in the spring, I did get the chance to do what I enjoy most about being a teaching guide: introducing people to the ancient and traditional art of wet fly fishing. The bite gods generally smiled upon us, and we had multiple memorable outings. You’ll be able to learn more about tying and fishing wet flies from me next month at the Fly Fishing Shows in Marlborough and Edison. Of course, there’s nothing like an on-water lesson. April and May are coming!
#6 Peacock Bass Fishing in south Florida. When you’ve never caught a tarpon or snook, and you’ve been fantasizing about doing so for months, and then your guide tells you that conditions in the Everglades aren’t good so you won’t be realizing your dream today…well, that just kinda sucks. But wait, he says. I’ve got a plan B: peacock bass. If you love smallmouth, you’ll love peacocks. They’re aggressive and feisty and leapers and beautiful fish to boot. Plus, I know a spot. Okay, you say. You’re still disappointed, maybe a even little reluctant. But you go because it is what it is…and then you discover that what it is is fan-freaking-tastic. But wait, there’s more: find the right water and it’s bass after bass after bass. What a delightful way to wreck your forearm.
#5 Being a Contributing Author to the Followup to Surfcasting Around The Block. When surfcasting legend Dennis Zambrotta asked me to contribute a chapter to his new book, I was thrilled. I pretty much knew what I wanted to write about, and after much drafting and polishing I sent it off to Dennis. My piece is called “The All-Nighter and the Nor’Easter.” The book’s working title is Surfcasting For Striped Bass: Fifty Years of Legend and Lore from the Islands of Block and Aquidneck. Target publish date: fall 2022.
Before this trip, I’d had only one Everglades fishing experience. That was four years ago, and it was a single day excursion with my oldest son, Bill, who was graduating from law school. Our target on that May day was snook and tarpon, but I never even got a taste of a tug. Sure, the jacks and ladyfish and sea trout were fun, but I was disappointed. The highlight of the day was a fine snook Bill grabbed out of a shallow tidal flat.
And so it came to pass that Bill and I were heading out again. I’d already gotten my snook, and then some, and had an all-too-brief encounter with a tarpon, so in a sense this was a gravy day for me. Bill was getting married in three days, and at the very least we’d soak up some sunshine and enjoy some cigars.
The first time I fished the Everglades with Mark I was green. This is a specialized type of fly fishing, and by the time I felt like I was getting the hang of it, the day was over. What’s more, it was one of those days where the shots at fish weren’t plentiful. I’d gone down with the intention of catching snook and tarpon, but we had no opportunities at the latter and only a couple with the former.
So you can imagine that on this trip, I was raring to go. But, there’s always something conspiring against you, isn’t there? Wind, rain, cold fronts, pandemics…the list of potential villains is endless. Add to that that I have an uncanny talent for picking lousy fishing days months in advance. And so it was that Mark informed me that the Everglades bite had been slow. Very, very slow. But you go and you fish and you do your best, and that’s all any of us can ask.
A few hours in I’d landed ladyfish and sea trout and jacks, but no precious snook, let alone even a sighting of tarpon. Mark, being the guide extraordinaire that he is, thought we might have better luck in some of the more intimate creeks and ponds. Getting to some of these spots is an experience. You use the electric motor or the Evinrude on its lowest setting, and start down these labyrinthine waterways, some of which are not much wider than the boat. Mangrove branches and leaves try to smack you in face, and they’ll swat away anything on deck that isn’t lashed down.
Once inside the pond or cove, you assume a ready position on the bow. There’s no chatter, only hushed tones that are essentially a loud whisper. If we don’t see any cruisers, we systematically attack the mangrove-choked shoreline. In particular, you look for structure, like downed trees and especially little notches in the shoreline or micro-creek mouths. It’s a precision cast — the closer to the mangrove roots the better, and watch out for those overhanging branches that want to eat your fly — then short, fast strips the moment the fly touches water. I didn’t know it yet, but if there are snook or tarpon lying in wait, they will race to the fly with breathtaking speed.
I was working one of those little notches in a shaded corner when it happened. The water bulged, I felt a bump, and I saw a large shadow turn and melt away into the tobacco-stained water.
Snook. A good one.
There was no hook set, no point-finding-purchase, no sense that the fish was spooked. So I made the same cast.
The bulge re-appeared, moving at attack speed, and the snook slammed into the fly. I’ve screwed up plenty of hook sets in my life, but not this one. Rod tip down and dirty, hard strip back and to the right, and the Everglades exploded.
Right from the start, I felt like I had this fish. (A strong set and 20-pound test is good for confidence.) Still, when you’ve never caught a species before, you don’t know how it’s going to behave. This fish did everything in its power to screw me up, like repeatedly trying to find refuge in the submerged roots and sounding under the boat. I never put it on the reel; it was all hand stripping. “Don’t let him breathe!” was constantly running through my head, and Mark did a great job of kibitzing during the battle. Then, the inevitable. Snook landed.
Most of the rest of the day was anti-climatic. We found another stretch of shoreline, this time in the sun, that was infested with smaller snook, 12″-16″. It was a great opportunity to observe how snook ambush feed. The speed with which they move to their target is impressive. We didn’t count, but it had to be at least a dozen more snook to hand.
While fun, these smaller fish can lull you into a false sense that you are infallible. I remember losing a pig of a striper on the Cape a few years ago. Dink after dink after dink — then when a really good bass hit, I was unprepared and dropped the fish. You can see where this is going. All of a sudden, I rolled a tarpon. I was so surprised that I was late on the set. I still thought I had him, but after a moment of wild spray and boiling water, it was gone. I stood alone on the front deck, the heat of regret and embarrassment crawling up the back of my neck. You gotta set the hook, Steven. You gotta set the hook.
Still, it was hard to let that moment trump the victory of the morning. I had my snook, and then some. And I also had tomorrow.
I don’t mean to complain, but whenever a guide tells me, “Let’s meet at so-and-so place at 5:30am,” and it involves an hour drive to get there, and I gotta set the alarm for 4am (an hour I’m far more familiar with as a return time) I know two things for sure: I’m going to get a crappy night’s sleep, followed by a bleary start to the fishing. Call it the curse of the night owl. I’d been telling myself that this Florida trip would be a nice change from November steelheading, what with me actually being able to feel my toes and not be shivering (wrong about that, as I’ll soon explain). But the fact is, when it comes to depriving me of sleep, my Florida guide Mark is every bit as sadistic as my steelhead guide Jim.
Tarpon and snook in the Flamingo area of the Everglades was the original plan, but when you’ve got a guide as good as Mark, and he tells you he doesn’t like the conditions down south – and his backup plan is catching peacock bass, which you, Mr. Culton-Who-Loves-Smallmouth, he says, will totally dig – you go with it.
So that’s how I ended up shivering in a boat in a Florida canal at 5:45am.
I’d brought mostly warm weather fishing clothes, but I figured with enough layers I’d be OK. Zipping around canals before sunrise in a powerboat with added wind and a cold front changes the game a little. I had the solace of knowing that dawn would come soon, and perhaps Florida would live up to its nickname. Still, I tightened my arms in a bear hug around my jacket.
The Everglades is big and wild and intimidating. It’s also intimate and beautiful and serene. I know, this sounds like the beginning of a middle schooler’s essay. But it’s truly a challenge to describe the place. One thing’s for sure: we don’t have anything like it at home.
In case you’ve never been, the Everglades is an enormous subtropical wetlands that ranges from Lake Okeechobee to the southernmost Florida mainland. You see things like palm trees and sawgrass and mangroves, and it’s evident that you’re in a warm, wet climate. But when you’re out in a boat in the middle of one of the expansive watery areas, a glance at the distant verdant shores could make you believe you’re on a lake in Minnesota. The only clue that you’re not is that there are no houses dotting the landscape. The lack of ego in the form of architecture definitely adds an allure of mystery.
But you’ll see birds and fish and reptiles…and mosquitos. Fortunately, my experience this time was mosquito light. (Not so four years ago in May, when those bloodsucking flesh drillers were so aggressive and relentless that I literally had to sprint from my car to the visitor center in Everglades National Park to find sanctuary.)
Whew. It’s been a hectic — albeit very pleasurable — couple of weeks. (Spending a chunk of time in Florida in November will always introduce an element of pleasure. Not to mention, skin that isn’t horrifically New-England-in-late-fall dry. And, with my eldest son now married, we can all shout out a hearty woo-hoo!) So, time to get back to one of the things I enjoy the most: providing original, meaningful content on currentseams. It will come as no surprise to you that I arranged to spend several days fishing. I managed to hook ten different species, including my first snook and peacock bass, and my first tussles with tarpon. I think the best way to tell you about it all is to divvy it up by days. So tomorrow I’ll be writing about day one. Stay tuned…