Travis Rolan casts with the trail as a backdrop
“They are unique in the simplicity, the diversity, the related harmony of the forms of life that they enclose.”
Marjory Stoneman Douglas- describing Florida’s Everglades.
Tamiami Trail Tarpon
It began as a Roddy Rumor, morphed quickly into plan, and was routed into action, all in the course of one late spring Florida afternoon.
“My friend saw Flip fishing there.” Roddy started. “Anyplace in the Everglades he stops to throw a fly, has to be hot.” For those unaware, T.V. personality Flit Palot’s knowledge of Everglade’s fishing is second only to Chief Tiger Billy.
Travis Rolan flashed a look I’d seen many times before in Key West, usually before we set out on a bus-man’s expedition to a new permit or bonefish spot.
Although skeptical at first, we knew when Ft. Lauderdale native Roddy Haines speaks about South Florida fishing, his words are to be heeded. Born and raised in this former beach-side bungalow settlement, he’s fished and frog gigged every hole from Flamingo to Okeechobee.
We’re gathered in the spacious salon of a seventy-seven foot Hatteras, temporarily land-locked in a boatyard along the Intercoastal Waterway. Captain Travis and mate Roddy are finished work for the day. I am in in town visiting friends, these two included.
Roddy’s comment was prompted by an animated conversation about the annual Florida Keys worm hatch we were missing. Having been Key West guides, we knew when it comes to tarpon fishing, the worm hatch is the bomb. The talk has us jones-ing to jump a tarpon, size doesn’t matter.
Already on his feet, Travis says, “I’ve got fly rods in the truck, let’s go.”
Roddy backs off. “I can’t. You know, the baby.” The proud father of a brand new boy, Roddy is experiencing a first taste of parental responsibility.
Travis hit the G.P.S. App. on his smart phone and pulled up the Tamiami Trail.
Roddy eared-marked the location, described the landmarks, and wished us luck.
Construction on the Trail’s leg across what early Indians called “Pa-hay-okee” or grassy water began in 1913. It was the largest and one of the most daunting highway projects of its’ era. Hacking across the “River of Grass,” through nest of water moccasins, across alligator holes, while fighting off mosquitoes the size of Black Hawk gun ships required a special breed of men.
One witness claims there were always three crews on hand. One fed up and quitting, one working, and one preparing, not yet aware of the hardships. After dynamiting and digging their way across miles of swamp, through virgin cypress stands and soggy sawgrass prairies, the road finally opened in 1928.
It quickly became a favorite route of tourist. Gators, Indians, the prospect of panther sightings and rumors of twelve-foot Skunk Apes, drew blizzard-dodging snow-birds by the thousands.
Cut through the heart of some of the most amazing cypress stands in the world, visitors glimpsed wild orchids, exotic birds, and miles of Florida wilderness from the comfort of their automobiles.
We head west toward a lowering late afternoon sun and deep into the glades charm. Early spring rains have the roadside canals brimming, and the cypress celebrate with an explosion of green. For a few miles I count alligator snouts, stopping at a dozen.
Along the road people fish the canals. Pursuing sustenance, these “bream busters” harvest pan fish with cane poles, a stark contrast to our pursuit of a tarpon thrill with a carbon fiber fly rod.
Past the tourist information center and high walled Indian village, we drive through the heart of the swamp. Then, scattered slash pines and palmetto thickets replace bay heads, sawgrass, and isolated hardwood island hammocks. What once took resolute men a month to cross, we’ve accomplished in just over an hour.
Following Roddy’s directions we find the spot where mangrove marsh straddles the asphalt. In this brackish water environment, both salt and fresh water species mingle and mix. We expect tarpon and snook, but the occasional largemouth bass wouldn’t be a surprise.
While Travis rigs a Loomis eight weight, I wander to the dark waters edge, its’ surface rippled hard with an afternoon sea breeze. Lucky for us, the wind will challenge casting but keep the mosquitoes at bay. Seems in our haste we forgot bug spray.
Travis ties a deep black “Swamp Bunny”, purchased from “The Fly Shop” in Ft. Lauderdale. His intention is to imitate a fingerling black mullet, a favorite of both tarpon and snook,
Proficient fly casters fall into two categories; the technically correct and those that fling a fly with the smooth, effortless grace of a ballet dancer. Travis falls into the second group. Watching him throw is a “River Runs Through It” moment – even with the asphalt as a backdrop
Standing atop the low highway guardrail, timing his back-casts between passing cars and trucks, Travis unfurls ninety feet of line and spans the bayou. The black fly settles gently, feet from the far shore. Wearing a McGiver style stripping basket, hastily constructed from a plastic storage bin and shock-cord, (we forgot the basket too) Travis drops the rod tip and strips.
The deception works. On the third cast, as the fly streams below an overhanging Mangrove branch, the water explodes. It’s a snook, tinted dark by the black water. The bold stripe running the length of its’ lateral line, barely visible. With a head shaking jump, the leader parts, a result of contact with razor sharp gill plates. No matter, snook season is closed on the west coast of Florida, a result of the devastating freeze a few years back, and the fish kill accompanying it.
Travis ties on another “swamp bunny” and wanders further down the canal. I’m distracted by two white tail deer grazing on the far bank. These small swamp specimens seem oblivious to the passing semis, munching new grass shoots along the fence line.
“I’ve got them rolling over here.” Travis calls. Suddenly, a twenty-five pound, black-backed silver king launches skyward. After tail-walking across the water, emulating a wild teenage headbanger at a midnight rave, the fish snaps the leader and once again the small bayou goes quite.
Travis is lit up, mission accomplished, fish in the air.
After jumping two more tarpon the fix is in, the supply of “swamp bunnies” gone. A lighter colored fly gets no action.
When the breeze dies with the sun, hoards of bugs rise and we load up. Back along the trail, we re-cross the peninsula.
Overhead an Everglades kite soars, fixed winged, as if tethered to a young boy’s string. In its’ talons a fresh caught frog, a reminder life still struggles in the swamp.