Tilting at windmills

Tilting at windmills

Gary Meyer | Tuesday, 7 January 2020

On New Year’s Day, a fishing buddy joined me on a canoe trip into the far backcountry of the Everglades mangroves. He and I have fished together this way for around 25 years or something like that. He mentioned that he did the math a while back but I ignored him. Being reminded of how time passes swiftly is only interesting to you younger folks.

The local weather has possibly turned the corner into the winter pattern, but who can tell these days? In any case, the fish we target might also be mistaken because, as we expected, they have begun to occupy a location my friend and I have learned to stake out.

After that trip, I went home once again despondent, and looked over my notes. I have fished in that area, primarily during the winter season, fourteen times over the last few seasons. I can count on one hand how many large snook I have caught in there on fly.

My limited education in biology comforts me, somewhat, with the knowledge that cold blooded species have their metabolisms turned down when the ambient temperature of their environment decreases. So they need less food intake, and their digestion rates slow down too. Add in the fact that snook are a subtropical species at the northern edge of their distribution and it makes sense that they are less aggressive in their feeding behavior during this coldest period of the year.


All that may be well and good, but it doesn’t help with this illogical addiction I have with throwing flies at them!


It really is due to a combination of factors. First, it is an amazing environment for angling. I appreciate the beauty of trout streams, but this tropical landscape adds an almost alien-world spice to the recipe. And then there is the visual aspect of sight-fishing : the water is calm and clear with a light tannin stain, and the snook almost seem to glow as they bask in the tilted sunlight. But visibility works both ways so anglers and flylines are easily detected.


If given enough space, a line can be cast low and curving so that the fly can land in front of the fish and then move directly away and, importantly, not directly back toward the canoe. Snook normally succeed in feeding by ambush and acceleration when the water is warm, but when cooled they are cautious curious followers - if they show any interest at all. Low casts are critical. If an elevated cast is up-sun, it will throw a shadow, down-sun and it will flash. In either case, a fish that feels vulnerable out in the open will bolt for cover. So, flyline heights must be kept below the angle of Snell’s window. Again, a low cast has a chance but all casts require space, and back cast room is limited in these small, interconnected mangrove lined ponds.


Most often, the glare from the low sun, or the corresponding long shore shadows, disguises the location of the fish and it spooks from the canoe. So your only reward is to see is how big it is as it bolts for deeper water. If you see it first, it commonly spooks from the flyline in the air or detection of your casting movement, and once again, your only reward is to see how big it was. If it does not spook from the cast, it will likely either spook from the fly or simply ignore it completely. Then, if it is still there but uncommitted, if you try another cast, alerted by the removal of the fly, it will then spook from the cast, your movement, or just, it seems, for the hell of it.


But then again, sometimes, although infrequently, it will accept your offering. Occasionally, it will simply explode into instant acceleration and clobber the fly, usually immediately after splash down. The angler, so accustomed to being snubbed, usually blanks out when this happens. Other times, and more frequently, the fish will subtly move toward the fly, then painstakingly track it, apparently out of curiosity. That follow is the most addictive part. Do you speed up, slow down, or let the fly drop? You have to read the fish and respond accordingly, and sometimes, albeit rarely, you can tease the fish into a take. That is nirvana! It is so stimulating that, most of the time, I (err…I mean the angler) will snatch the fly away from the fish at the very last moment - which is a big disappointment for both um… the angler and probably the fish too!


Maybe I should have started all this with, “Hello, my name is Gary and I am an addict”? I know this because I have been here before. Years ago I dealt with this same problem on the other side of Everglades National Park. It is only about 100 miles, as the canoe paddles, to the east, but the fish and the seasonal timing over there are about the same. The environment is subtly different though, and a small forage fish that is common over there is apparently nonexistent where I have been fishing of late. To the east I learned that if I mimicked that baitfish, matched the hatch if you will, I had a good chance. Over here, as of yet, I have not identified the fly that will convince these fish to open their damn mouth.


The funny thing is I am pretty confident that I could get my string stretched if I simply fished over on the east side. Apparently, I would rather be frustrated by these western fish. They are, quite literally, driving me crazy.