Photo courtesy of Angie Chestnut
Since I started my Volunteering at Fairchild blog, a Flick friend of mine, keylargo_diver – who takes wonderful photos of South Florida with vintage cameras, by the way – started teasing me about this new side to Manola. “It makes me think of Carl Hiassen’s novel, Nature Girl,” he noted. I had never read Hiassen’s novel, so I picked up a copy at the library and found that I couldn’t put it down. But as much as I loved the story and all its quirky characters, I can’t say I’m as crazy as its main female protagonist, Honey Santana. But my friend is right -- I do have one thing in common though with Honey – it’s the love of South Florida in its natural state. And so I thought to take advantage of what my friend called “a major shift in consciousness” to write about my adventures in the Everglades. Here is part 1 of the series.
Back in ‘90s I used to go fishing in the backcountry of the Everglades almost every weekend. As you’ve probably guessed, I did it because the man in my life then was devoted to the sport. I didn’t mind, because becoming an angler also meant that I could regularly escape from urban Miami into the remote, primeval wilderness.
But this wouldn’t be the first time I had cast a line in the water. When I was a little girl, my family would go fishing on the catwalk suspended under the Bear Cut bridge in Key Biscayne. I would stand in the shadows looking down, awed by the relentless energy of the water swooshing below, echoing loudly in my ears. My clumsy fingers would hold the thick line spooling from the yo-yo, palpating the heavy sinker as it dragged in the direction of strong currents. Wrapped in the mist of sea spray, I would wonder about the finny creatures below, swimming in and out of the cut. I patiently and eagerly waited for the telltale tug that meant a fish was nibbling at a squishy chunk of squid.
Once, I stuck a hook on my leg, and even though I was startled and cried as my dad pulled the barb out of my flesh, I quickly went back to platform’s edge with my spool, determined to catch a fish.
I don’t recall ever catching a fish then, but years later, as a grown woman, I would catch more than my boyfriend, who spent so much time maintaining the boat, steering and tying knots, that he basically became my personal guide. You see, even though fishing is a male-dominated sport, it’s also male-supported. Even though guys get to do everything, they also get to do everything for you.
But let’s not get caught up in gender disparities; ideally, fishing requires the effort of at least two people. Though not impossible, it’s not easy for one person to do everything – I still wonder if I could ever trailer a 17-foot flats boat into the water during low-tide in an cranky old ’86 Chevy Blazer Silverado. I had a hard enough time parking that gas-guzzling beast in the streets of Miami, although it did give me a sense of security on the road. Nobody would dare fuck with this Cubanita behind the steering wheel!
Our fishing involved responsibilities assigned to whomever could do things best. He did all the heavy-duty guy stuff, while I focused on all things girly, like making sandwiches. I also got my ass out of bed at 3:30 am without complaining, because the reward was being on the water in Florida Bay just before sunrise – the liminal, magical hour.
My other reward was intellectual and satisfied my inner explorer. Since he always steered the boat, and we never used GPS or a depth finder, I became a navigator. I poured over marine charts of Florida Bay and the backcountry, learning the contours of waters beneath us as if they were, literally, like the back of my hand. I had to -- navigating is no divining skill. Distinguishing the shallow flats from deeper channels and predicting how navigable each would be in the fluctuations of the tides is absolutely necessary.
Our boat, named Cyan because of the color of its hull, was a 17 Hewes Bonefisher. Cyan had a shallow draft so it could float even in about 12 inches of water. At the stern, a platform stood above the outboard motor.
In shallow water, he would raise the motor, hop onto the platform and "steer" the boat with a 16-foot pole, pushing down on the muddy flats to propel it forward. The work was challenging, even in slack tide with a weak current. Although he huffed and puffed, the vessel would glide quietly through the water, without spooking fish or damaging fragile grassbeds. The platform also served as a higher vantage point from where to spot fish. He would always call out instructions: “Fish at 3 o’clock. Cast lightly.”
Fishing in the backcountry is a predatory sport. Like hunters, we watched for signs of activity and approached stealthily. Polarized sunglasses, which reduce glare on the water’s surface and enhance contrast, helped us see what was going on just underneath the water’s surface, even on a cloudy day.
Gold and silver spoons fooled the eyes of hungry tarpon tailing in the shallows. Live shrimp attracted feisty jacks in the channels. Bobbers were meant for snook feeding by the mangrove roots – a fishing technique that sometimes attracted half-submerged alligators in the early morning. These wily reptiles would follow the bobber to the boat and then swim back to the mangrove, waiting for us to cast again. Sometimes, they proved to be such a nuisance that we had to pull up anchor and fish elsewhere until afternoon.
We only ever took home whatever we were going to eat fresh the next day, which we preferred to cook simply as possible. More often than not it was a filet of sea trout, thrown into a pan with butter, lemon and dill. We always practiced catch-and-release and obeyed wildlife regulations.
Now, you’re probably wondering if I ever did anything on this boat besides navigate, fish and eat sandwiches – all this while the poor man slaved away at the “guy stuff” for my fishing pleasure.
I never quite got the hang of tying knots, no matter how much I tried. Whenever my line broke, it was just easier for him to fix it. It wasn’t exactly textbook co-dependency, but close enough. I wish I could go back now and tie my own knots, damn it. Or at the very least, I wish that he had been firmer in insisting that I learn. If I ever fall in love again with another fishing fool, I’ll make sure to enroll in Knots 101 straightaway.
I did at least file down the barbs of my hooks so that the metal would slide easily off a fish’s bony mouth, minimizing damage during the struggle. Besides, it was more sportsman-like to give the fish a fighting chance.
But perhaps I've been telling you a bit of a tall tale, which anglers are wont to do. You see, it’s not as if he never fished -- it’s just that I caught more. Sometimes, even when we anchored in one spot for a long time and I had absolutely no need whatsoever for his assistance, he would try so many different strategies that he would inevitably spend more time fussing with tackle than with his hands on the reel.
I used to say that fishing was like Secret deodorant: strong enough for a man but made for a woman.
Actually, it was more like this: requiring a man’s strength, but also a woman’s patience.
After countless weekends engaged in this activity called fishing, I realized that I had become more than an angler – I had morphed into a naturalist of sorts. After all, in order to catch fish, we had to be experts on their behavior; we had to understand how they interacted with their environment. Everything was connected.
I had turned into a bird watcher, a botanist, an environmental steward and a lover of unspoiled Florida.
Out in the silent, vast territory of the Florida Bay, every mangrove looked the same against the flat horizon. The muddy water, colored like pea-soup, ran endlessly under the weight of big skies. It was easy to lose perspective here, especially in oppressive heat, but instead, our observation skills grew keen -- every breath of wind, every shift in the tides, every flutter of a heron’s wings, every shriek of a hawk, every falling leaf, every blooming flower – everything struck the senses deeply and the soul even deeper.
The smell of the Everglades at sunrise, that sweet indescribable scent of this amazing ecosystem taking its first collective breath at dawn, is something I will never, ever forget.