Dateline – March 27, 2011: Florida Everglades
First off, if any of you read the title and thought this was something dirty, shame on you. This is a family blog. Cousin Chuck – get your mind out of the gutter.
My alarm went off at 5 am Sunday morning. I woke up on one of the subsequent snooze cycles, sat blearily upright and felt around for the light switch and the closest Red Bull. Had it all really happened? Was I really going fishing with the guy who holds more world records than anybody? Well, judging by the plaque under my arm and the note with Marty’s card saying “Fishing 6am,” apparently I was. Then my phone rang – it was Adrian. “I’m downstairs, ready when you are.” It was all real.
Adrian and I picked up Marty at 6 and we were back on the road shortly afterward. We made a quick stop at the bait store for worms and mullet, and zipped off onto the Tamiami trail. This is a long, straight dragstrip of a road that goes into the heart of the Everglades. We whipped past an assortment of uniquely punctuated American tourist traps – “See Live Alligator’s,” “Feed the Alligator’s,” and then “Alligator Barbeque” which I presume is how they deal with the poor performers.
Marty had a clear plan for the morning – he had listed 8 species he thought I could get, and he had very specific locations for catching each. He definitely put some time into planning this, which had me shaking my head in amazement. Our first stop was a spillway where he thought we could get a Brown Bullhead and maybe a Florida Gar. We stepped out of the car just in time to see a beautiful sunrise.
Sunrise over the Everglades.
As we walked down to the water, Marty reminded me – “Watch out for alligators.” I kept a keen eye open for reptiles while I cast a chunk of mullet into some lily pads, and within 3 minutes, I had both the Gar and the Bullhead.
The Brown Bullhead, a type of catfish – one of the “ugly fish” that Marty has set so many records on. I am one of the first people in history to whoop in triumph upon catching one.
The Florida Gar. Ditto.
Wasting no time, we jumped back into the car and headed to the next spot. Here we tried for the Bowfin, a primitive warm-water predator. We fished a few minutes, and nothing bit, so Marty checked that spot off and we headed down the road to another spillway. He was incredibly disciplined about checking a spot quickly and moving on; an area where I could improve.
The sky was cloudless and it was already getting hot and humid. We put out a couple of bait rods, and it didn’t take long before Adrian pointed out that one of them was about to get dragged into the water. I set the hook, and got species #3 of the morning. It was especially cool to get a bowfin, as I have hooked and lost several of them in the past, notably on that disastrous Florida trip in November of 1997, not that I carry a grudge about such mishaps, but if that yokel of a guide had been quicker with the net, we wouldn’t be having this talk.
Marty wasn’t even fishing himself, but he was always nearby, offering advice, letting me know what to look for. This is a huge body of water, and he knows it like the back of his hand. Marty has set dozens of records in the Everglades, accounting for a good portion of his 386 IGFA records. Some of these were “uglies,” some not. His knowledge was amazing, and the fact that he was graciously sharing it with me even more so. We packed up and headed further out on the trail.
Marty, Steve, and the Bowfin. (Clockwise from upper left.)
Steve, Adrian, and the Bowfin. (Which is also the title of a well-known Bulgarian nursery rhyme.)
This guy was a machine. We were motoring down the drag strip and he would suddenly say “Stop the car. OK Steve, we’re going to go under the 2nd culvert here and there should be some Mayan Cichlids on the right hand side. Watch out for alligators.”
Here come the unfriendly reptiles. (How many times have I said THAT at Thanksgiving?)
Marty wasn’t kidding – we had to dodge alligators; they were lolling all over the place. They didn’t directly approach us, they just lurked nearby like lawyers at a bus crash. Once we had a fish hooked, though, they moved awfully fast to try to take it. Marty had an excellent strategy for discouraging them – rocks. He seemed incredibly practiced at this and was surgically accurate. I also threw a rock or two, but in a flashback to my less-than-memorable baseball career, the rocks went very fast but nowhere near the alligators. (Of course, if there were ever any alligators in the stands behind first base, I would have nailed them.)
These things were fearless. I was not.
At some point in the mayhem, I breathlessly cast a float within a three feet of a gator and hooked a beautiful Mayan Cichlid. As it turned out, I had caught this creature before, in Thailand of all places, but this one was much better-looking. Speaking of Thailand, Marty and I discovered we have quite a few friends in common, notably my old friend Jean-Francois Helias. It’s a small small world. (And if you think that song is annoying in English, try it in Japanese sometime. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DpYqiQS2k54)
The lovely Mayan Cichlid
Kids, don’t try this at home. Of course, if you have alligators at home, that’s a problem to begin with.
Our next target was the Walking Catfish, a creature that can only be described as bizarre, even by my low standards. Able to gulp air and walk on their pectoral spines to the next pond when things get too dry, these were transplanted from Asia at some point and are now happily residing throughout south Florida. We were on the edge of a creek, everything dead still while we watched for alligators, when all of a sudden there were a hundred little splashes as a school of these curious little beasts shot up for air, or to flip me off, or whatever it is they do when they frolic on the surface. And then, just as suddenly, they were gone. And no matter how many times I threw my bait in the middle of this frenzy, I went biteless. It brought back awful memories of the Oman tuna incident. See https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2011/02/21/1001-arabian-bites/
While I was casting for these exhasperating little Siluriformes, I got a small bite and pulled in a rather unlarge panfish. I was about to release it when Marty asked me “What do you have there?” I responded “Bluegill.” Marty was very tactful. “Look a bit closer. I think that might be a Warmouth.” I am not used to being corrected on species, but needless to say, I was so very wrong, and a species was added. We cast another hour for the Walking Catfish, and they continued to laugh at me.
The savage Warmouth. I am told they get bigger.
Adrian was always right there with that omnipresent camera, and he got some photos I will treasure and others I will spend years trying to keep from being released to the public.
The shop talk in the car was a clinic in fish geek speak. Between Marty and Adrian, they had been almost anywhere I could think of – Marty with more exotic travel and Adrian with every possible nook and cranny of Florida. I quietly listed to myself all the new species and countries I wanted to add – creatures and places I had never thought of until now. Marty seemed to be as happy as I was that I was getting all the new fish – but he was also fiercely determined to get the elusive pedestrian feline fish thingie.
We tried a couple of other spots, but all the Walking Catfish had apparently walked. As it got toward noon, we made one more stop to pursue the now-elusive creature. Again, they popped up all over the place, reenacting their bizarre fisherman-mocking ritual, and after I caught a few bullheads, I was ready to give up. (All the while keeping an eye out for alligators.) But Marty stayed on me, and after another bullhead or two, I got a solid bite and lifted a surprised Walking Catfish out of the water and onto the grass, where it, (you guessed it), tried to walk away. I snatched it up and got a couple of photos – that made 5 new entries in one morning, which is about as good as it gets.
The Walking Catfish. I was still cleaning my fingernails a week later.
Marty spent the drive back to lunch telling me about all the other fish we didn’t have time to go after. The whole area is chock full of exotic tropicals that have been relocated there, either on purpose by biologists, on purpose by idiots, or accidentally by idiots. Things can go terribly wrong when humans mess with nature like this, moving species from their native habitat to places they don’t belong. Just look at what happens when people from San Francisco move to Iowa.
We had lunch at a barbeque place along the trail, and while the menu did contain a number of “non-standard” animals, I luckily found a delightful pulled pork sandwich. Well, I’m pretty sure it was pork. I think Marty smiled and said “Watch out for alligators.”
Could this have been lunch? Eeeeeew.
On the way back to Marty’s, we talked a lot about me taking Martini fishing when I returned to California – and Martin invited me back in August to chase some more exotics. Fishing with guys like this made me realize how much I still have to learn – and how much I look forward to learning it. Later that afternoon, I was back off to California, with nine new species, bunch of new friends, and one plaque.