Dateline: March 7, 2015 – A ditch somewhere in Southern Florida
Plan A was a good plan. Plan B was good. But by the time we got down to M, it was pure desperation.
This was supposed to be a great trip. Martini, with his genius for research and planning, had identified a four-day bonanza of southeastern species that was to begin in North Carolina and end up back at his home in Coral Gables. But as Von Klausewitz sagely observed, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, and the enemy, in this case, was the weather. It was cold, and not just a”pack a fleece” kind of chilly, but an unseasonable arctic cold that could freeze both small streams and underpants.
I flew in late one evening, believing that an unexpected warm front would move in and make everything OK. I also believe in the Easter Bunny. It actually got colder, and by the time we got up at 6am, the temperature was into single digits, and indeed, I felt like showing a single digit to the Fish Gods, but no good could come of that. The bass and redhorses we wanted were simply not going to bite, so we went to “Plan B” and headed southeast toward the coast. There, we optimistically reasoned, we might get a couple of marsh species. This also turned out to be hopeless.
We needed to head south to get ahead of the weather, although it had been cold as far south as Venezuela, so this was going to be a challenge. Martini made some calls and set us up to pursue monster catfish on Santee-Cooper reservoir in South Carolina the next day. While I had caught both the flathead and the blue catfish, (details HERE,) I didn’t have a particularly large example of either, so this sounded like fun. The weather was actually decent for our outing, but it was almost immediately clear that the cold fronts had put fish off the bite. We got a few small cats and white perch, and we were left scrambling to find options further south.
I did catch a big bluegill at the dock, but when your biggest fish of the day is a bluegill, that’s an issue.
It was during the day on Santee-Cooper that Martini made a rather memorable personal hygiene error. In dealing with a call from nature, Martini noted that the guide had a convenient container of what looked like baby wipes within arm’s length. Only they weren’t baby wipes. They were heavy-duty kitchen wipes, meant for scrubbing crusted chicken fat off of stoves. Bleach and some parts of the human body were never meant to meet.
As we drove to Florida, it was obvious that the cold front was moving right along with us. We got far enough ahead of it on the third day to actually make some progress. We stopped at Blue Springs, one of Florida’s beautiful freshwater springs, in which the water happens to look blue, and species were awaiting. In a few hours, I managed to get both a russetfin topminnow and the rather rare Suwanee bass.
The russetfin topminnow.
My Suwannee bass. We had tried for these on the road trip last June.
I was back on the board, and suddenly feeling very good about making the trip. As a bonus, Martini had not caught the russetfin topminnow, which we would not know for some weeks, but the Fish Gods would punish me anyway in just a few hours.
Leaving Blue Springs behind, we needed to head through Gainseville, and it was here that Martini’s penchant for deep research led to both opportunity and heartbreak. Martini somehow figured out that a small creek running through a residential neighborhood in Gainesville contained something called a variegated platyfish.
I like platypi. One of my few friends is a stuffed platypus named Robert, so I thought it would be cool to catch a platyfish.
That’s Robert the Platypus peering over my right shoulder.
Despite the need for ridiculously tiny hooks and sight-fishing that needed a dead-still presentation, Martini made it look easy and got one right away.
The amazing variegated platyfish.
But just as Jaime Hamamoto had embarrassed me on the mosquitofish all those years ago, (See “The Worst Little Girl in the World,”) Martini caught the only platyfish that day. I just couldn’t keep the bait from twitching a millimeter or two away from the beasts. Martini was very patient with me. We were already running very late for a dinner with his cousin, but he kept trying to help. “There’s one! Don’t move the bait. Oh damn. Wait, there’s one! Don’t move the bait. Oh, damn.” And just as I had one take a savage run at my fleck of night crawler, I set the hook perhaps a bit too enthusiastically and launched the entire rig into a hopeless Bimini around the rod tip. Martini sighed and said something helpful like “Smooth move, genius.” And I was hurt. Butt-hurt.
I thought I would give Martini a hard time by playing up the emotionally damage. I pouted and said something like “You didn’t need to be so mean.” Without missing a beat, he responded “Well, you didn’t need to be so stupid.” Touche. We glared at each other for a moment, then burst out laughing.
We spent the evening having dinner with Martini’s cousin Angel, and in the morning, we headed for Tampa Bay. Martini had several species scoped out, and then had located a pier where we could spend the afternoon. Our first stop was something of a backwater by a bridge, and Martini stalked the shoreline until he improbably spotted a two-inch long killifish out in the murky tidal flat. In 30 quick minutes, I put two killifish – the gulf and the goldspotted – on my species list.
The gulf killifish. One of the more savage of the killifish, but not the most savage. Keep reading.
The goldspotted killifish. My killifish collection was making major progress.
Things were looking very up. We then headed over to a huge fishing pier in Tampa Bay itself. I love pier fishing. It’s usually comfortable, and it facilitates my great love of putting out multiple rods with multiple rigs and baits, allowing me to miss bites on each while I am messing with the others. (Three dozen guides and John Buckingham are reading this right now and shaking their heads sadly.)
I knew we might get the elusive gulf flounder or some other oddity, and the constant action was great fun, even if most of the creatures were pinfish of some sort. But as we happily pitched shrimp at the hard bottom below us, the sky darkened ominously and the breeze picked up into a cold and gusty wind. The weather had caught up to us, even this far south. We stuck it out until evening, and despite the increasingly brisk conditions, I got the largest fish of the trip – a mangrove snapper of some three pounds.
Why couldn’t it have been a gulf flounder?
We crashed out that night at the iffiest hotel of the trip, a true mildew factory with a carpet that seemed to writhe underfoot every time I stepped on it.
We awoke early to explore some state parks in the area which were supposed to be positively crammed with oddball species. Halfway to the car, we started shivering. It was 41 degrees. IN TAMPA. What had I done to the Fish Gods? The cold front was following me like a crazed stalker, only no restraining order could fix things. We drove through some wonderful locations, with beautiful-looking backwaters and streams, but everything had completely shut down.
Martini realized that drastic action would be necessary if we were to catch anything, and so we bailed out on everything on that side of the state and headed for his home turf, the general Miami area.
The good news is that I got six new species in the next 12 hours. That bad news is that all six, if placed together on a scale, would not have outweighed the rod I used to catch them. And so we are off on a whirlwind of micro fishing – Plan M.
Our first stop was somewhere in the northern Everglades, where I got a Seminole Killifish. There’s a Jameis Winston joke in there someplace.
The best bait for them is shoplifted crab.
Driving the Ford Escape through the spectacularly unscenic, ruler-straight state roads of central Florida, we reached the Fort Lauderdale area in early afternoon. There, Martini took us first to a small pond in a local park, where we captured a sheepshead minnow – which turned out to be my 1400th species.
Another milestone with the Arosteguis! (Click HERE for species 1100.)
We then headed to a nearby backwater off the intercoastal waterway, where Martini had somehow figured out that there was a population of mangrove gambusias, which are like mosquitofish, but smaller.
This is small even by our standards.
We were just getting started. Against Martini’s better judgement, we drove right past Coral Cables and toward the Keys. We wound our way through a set of back roads and, as the area got increasingly swampy, we finally parked at what looked like a roadside ditch that was filled, in equal proportions, with water and garbage. I almost asked Martini if he was kidding, but Martini never, ever kids about these things. He was dead tired, but he was as determined as I was to get me these species.
We put some micro float rigs into the water, and six minutes later, I had captured a black acara, an African jewel cichlid, and a pike killifish. Miniscule or not, this was three species about as quickly as I could unhook and photograph them.
The black acara. This brought to a conclusion a hunt for a species that had been a mysterious ghost for years – supposed to be everywhere, but always confused with some tilapia.
The African jewel cichlid. Martini’s pictures are always much better than mine. Perhaps I should clean the chicken fat off my iPhone lens. Anybody have a Clorox kitchen wipe?
But the coolest of the small beast bonanza was clearly the pike killifish. A vicious predator in scale, these creatures attacked everything we threw at them and would have put up a determined fight if they had been larger than my index finger.
Pike killifish. The ditch and a very focused Martini are in the background.
The dental hardware. How does Martini get these photos?
This had been the most productive six minutes since Cousin Chuck’s honeymoon. A trip that had started in frozen disaster had resulted in ten total species, including six in less than six hours. Sometimes, when life gives you lemons, you throw them out, buy a Red Bull, and fish for whatever is biting. On to 1500!
SPECIAL BONUS SECTION – PROOF OF JUSTICE IN THE UNIVERSE
As you all know, my teenage arch-nemesis, Jaime Hamamoto, tries to spell her name “Jamie” just to be difficult. Well, my teenage arch-nemesis just got her driver’s license (I know, Wade – we’re OLD) and the State of Hawaii seems to agree with me on the spelling thing. I can’t tell you how much this pleases me.
I look at this at least once a day and giggle.