Here’s how to pick off trout in high-water streams with a simple nymphing rig. Also, be prepared to get soaked
From the bank, I pulled the knot tight on my dropper fly and looked out over the river, which sent a quick shiver of fear knifing through my excitement, like the feeling you have before you get on a carnival ride. The river was up, hurtling foam over the boulders after one of those long summer rainstorms that leaves wisps of steam spiraling above the fields—exactly how it looked when my grade-school buddy Jo and I first fished the spot, years ago.
Jo had a reputation as a tough kid. (Nobody pointed out to Jo, for example, that only girls spell that name without the e.) The river didn’t scare him. He hiked the worm box—filled with night crawlers we’d pinched in the rain the night before—from his waist to his armpits and cinched the belt across his chest. Then he dropped in and battled the current to a rock below a roaring plunge pool.
It was when he turned and motioned for me to wade in that his sneakers began to slide, and he started flailing in vain to catch his balance. The worm box popped open. Night crawlers sailed. And in the boiling slick below, where the fat morsels plopped and raced downstream, a yellow slab rose and parted the surface.
It was the biggest trout I’d ever seen.
After that, I wasn’t scared either. I jumped in and lobbed a crawler into the slot—and the brown crashed and bolted downstream. As I leaned into the fish, my sneakers shot in opposite directions, and I rode the current downstream, rod held high above the froth. But when I finally got my footing, the fish had broken off.
Upstream, Jo was laughing. Since we were both soaked, we spent that day wading or swimming to the river’s hardest-to-reach holes—and had one of the best days of summer fishing I can remember.
Make It Easy
In midsummer, I want to be waist-deep in heavy pocket water, when the river is up and the fishing turns on. I don’t lob crawlers much anymore—not because I think I’m above it. I just think flyfishing is more fun. And summer should be fun.
Summer should also be easy. It’s a nice coincidence that if there is good rainfall, pocket water can fish well through the hotter months. By then, I need a break from all the fussing that goes with slow-water dry-fly fishing, and pocket water is the perfect antidote. It’s one of the rare things in life where you can take the easy road and not give up any success.
The easy road, from a technical fishing standpoint, is to put a strike indicator above a subsurface fly or two on a 9-foot 5X leader and walk up the middle of the river, picking pockets left and right. You can make it more complicated. You can study the water as if reading it were a form of code-breaking. But why would you? The fish are in the slower spots next to the faster spots. And eager. Make a decent drift, and they’ll usually grab your fly.
Just about any pattern that looks like trout food (and plenty that don’t) will catch fish in pocket water now, but as a general rule, I think it’s tough to beat a weighted stonefly nymph with a Muddler Minnow dropper. If there are more rainbows than browns, I’ll swap the Muddler for a Woolly Bugger. It just seems to work better. Choose a pocket or seam, wade close, and cast above it with a little flick of your wrist to drive the flies under. High-stick them through the sweet spot, then let the Muddler swing down and across before you pick it up. If the trout don’t seem active enough to chase a streamer, switch to a small nymph or wet fly. That’s it. Work fast, and cover a lot of water.
And don’t be afraid to get soaked. Put on some wet-wading shorts and jump in. This might sound crazy, but after nearly 40 years of fishing pocket water, I’m convinced that when flows run high and fast, nothing increases the number and size of the fish you catch more than simply wading aggressively. I don’t say recklessly—you need to stay safe. And I don’t wear sneakers anymore. Studded wading boots help, and a collapsible wading staff is handy in the roughest patches. Just remember that in heavy water, it’s the hard-to-reach spots that hold the neglected, and often bigger, fish. And you can’t rely on long casts to reach them. With so many intervening currents, pocket water forces you to wade close, often real close, to get a decent drift.
Back on the bank, I took one step into the drink and went in to my waist, then I fought my way to the slick below the roaring plunge pool where I’d lost that huge yellow slab years ago. Halfway into the drift, my indicator stopped. But this time the fish ran upstream instead of down, and I landed it in a shallow side eddy. My tape read 23 inches—the biggest brown trout I’d ever caught in a freestone stream, along with a nice dose of redemption. And I didn’t even have to go swimming. Summer fishing doesn’t get much easier—or more fun—than that.
Gear Tip: Take it to the Top
Midsummer can have sporadic but good surface stonefly activity. So bring a handful of big, buoyant stone imitations, like Stimulators or Sofa Pillows. Grease them up and skitter them over the soft spots about an hour before dusk, or if you see big bugs popping. You won’t catch any more fish this way, but you’ll watch some big trout roll and slash. And as long as you remember to beef up your leader to at least 3X, you’ll land a few of them too.
Written by David Hurteau for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.
Vanish from view with these layout blind concealment tips
Layout field blinds can help you disappear before the eyes of wary geese and ducks, or they can flare every bird that gets close enough to see the decoys. Whether you trudge back to the truck weighed down with your limit or an empty bird strap largely depends on how well you hide your blind. Here’s how to turn a hunter-size duffel bag into just another lump of innocent stubble.
1. Mud Bath
Yes, you shelled out a couple hundred bucks for a spanking-new layout, but your first task is to coat the entire thing with mud. New fabric has a sheen that flashes like a mirror, and you have to dull the shine. Don’t hold back. Mix thick mud in a bucket and slather it on with a mop or paintbrush. Once it dries, give the blind a light shake to dislodge large clods, but otherwise, keep as much dirt on the blind as possible.
2. Yard Work
Working natural cover like crop stubble, grasses, and stalks into your blind’s stubble straps is a crucial step in hiding effectively. Add pruning shears, hedge shears, and a lawn rake to your field gear list. As you’re setting up in the dark, a couple of hunters should be tasked with gathering loads of cover that match the surroundings. These hand tools cut the time required by half. Don’t spoil the look of your hunting area by gathering material near the blinds, though. Move a few dozen yards away.
3. Trench Warfare
Early-morning light on a field blind can cast a 20-foot shadow and spook birds from a hundred yards. Dig a 6-inch—or deeper—pit to fit the footprint of the blind. This will lower the profile and reduce the shadow. Place a couple of decoys to the west of the blind to soften up the harsh outlines of its shadow.
4. Sock Setup
Late-season birds are particularly wary of bumps in fields. Vanish by crawling into the blind without setting up the internal metal rail structure. Prop your head on your shell bag and stay still. Is it as comfortable as a blind that’s fully set up? Nope. But carrying a full game strap will make you feel better.
5. Ice It Up
On still, cold evenings, try to set up in the dark the night before a hunt. Frost-free blinds are darker than blinds skimmed in the white stuff, which makes a difference during that first half hour until body heat melts the frost.
6. Reapply Makeup
Once you’ve kicked the blind doors open several times, take a few minutes, maybe while the dogs are working, to freshen the cover in your stubble straps. You need to be just as covered up an hour after shooting time as you were in the dark.
Written by T. Edward Nickens for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
You’ve seen them standing in the river, casting to and fro, and wondered what the fuss is about. You’ve seen your friends’ obsession. You’ve reckoned that a decent trout would put up an exciting fight on that light tackle. So here you are, at the dawn of your first season of flyfishing.
As you’ll soon see, there’s a fair amount going on. Much about flyfishing will be unlike the fishing you’ve done before, and it can be a little bewildering at first. But it’s also a hoot, and chances are you will enjoy it enough to come back for more. Here are a few things you’ll experience in that first season.
1. Less Force Equals a Longer Cast
You spot a rising trout at the outside edge of your casting range. You apply more force to reach it, but the line plops down in a bunch of S-curves well short of the target. The fish is still rising, so you try again, with the same result. Your excitement now mixes with frustration and your muscles are tense. You’re in a cycle that ends with an un-caught trout calmly digesting its snack.
It’s natural to think that casting longer requires you to cast harder, but it’s wrong. If you try to muscle a fly line, it usually ends up collapsing. Experts say using too much force is the number-one casting flaw, and believe me, it’s not limited to first-year fly fishers. Do this: Stop casting for a few minutes. Breathe and let the tension ebb. When you resume, make it your top priority to have a light touch—crisp, but light. You’ll be surprised at how much your casting improves.
2. What the Water Temperature, Speed, and Depth Mean for Flyfishing
If you visit your charming local brook after a night of thunderstorms, you will see how quickly weather can affect trout habitat. Generally speaking, flyfishing for trout is much more enjoyable and effective when the stream is in "normal" condition—that is, not "blown out" by heavy rain, warm and shallow from summer heat, or frigid from winter cold.
You can save yourself some disappointment and gas money by seeing what shape the water is in before you go. Find a local fly shop and see if they post reports on stream conditions, or check the U.S. Geological Survey’s Current Water Data for the Nation page, which lists real-time flows and, for some streams, water temperature. If your trout stream is too warm to fish, go fish for bass, preferably smallmouth. You may find you prefer bass to trout, even if you don’t want to admit it to yourself.
3. Why You Have to Stand in the Water
There are many situations where spinning-rod anglers pull on waders and walk into the water, but they don’t always need to. They can cast far enough to reach the spots likely to hold fish, and they don’t require room for a back cast. But the new fly fisher will quickly realize why he or she needs to be standing out in the stream: It’s often necessary to get physically closer to places in the stream where fish live, and you usually have to throw the line behind you before you can throw it in front of you.
The need to wade is actually one of the nice things about flyfishing. Joining the trout in their environment is both challenging and fun. Taking even a few steps into the stream opens up lots of room for your back cast, and getting closer to the fish is a strategic advantage, because the less line lying on the water between angler and fly, the better. By the way, don’t immediately wade in up to your rib cage so you can reach deeper water. You might be surprised how many trout hang close to the shore. Fish the near water first, then wade deeper.
4. Smaller Flies are Often Better at Catching Fish
The chalkboard at the fly shop said size 14 flies were hatching, so you tied on a size 14 fly, but the trout ignored it. They took natural flies all around it, maybe even right next to it, but your size 14 didn’t fool them. A size 16 might have. It’s not that the fly shop was wrong; gauging fly size by hook dimensions is a fairly imprecise way estimate. Sometimes, for reasons only the fish understand, a fly that’s a couple millimeters too big is unacceptable. Down-size a bit and your luck may well improve.
One rule of thumb says size, shape, and color, in that order, are the key characteristics of flies, so if the right pattern isn’t working, going smaller should be your first adjustment. And don’t think trout won’t see a smaller fly. Many are caught every season on nymphs the size of sesame seeds.
5. Your Fly Needs to Float Naturally
Getting a good drift can be surprisingly tricky. You know the basic strategy: Drop the fly upstream of where the fish is feeding and let it drift downstream to the trout, just like the naturals are doing. The naturals, of course, aren’t tied to a 9-foot leader and however many feet of PVC fly line. That leader and, especially, that line often cause the fly to get yanked off course, because they’re lying on water that’s not flowing at the same rate as the water where your fly is floating. The drag can be so subtle that you can’t even see it, but still bad enough that your fly moves unnaturally and the fish isn’t fooled.
There are lots of ways to deal with drag. You can find a casting angle where the intervening current doesn’t pull the line so much. You can make casts, like the reach cast, that have some built-in slack. The simplest thing to do is get closer to the fish, so there’s less line on the water. Stay downstream of the trout so you won’t be seen.
6. What Time You Go Fishing Is Everything
You may find yourself on a well-known stream in mid-afternoon on a sunny day and wonder what all the fuss is about. There are no mayflies or caddisflies on the water or in the air, no splashing from surface-feeding trout, no evidence whatsoever that the water holds fish. Come back that same evening and you’ll think you’re in a different place, with insects everywhere and fish rising like crazy.
Broad-daylight fishing is by no means a waste of time, and depending on the location, the season and the insect activity, can be very productive indeed. But as a rule, you’ll have better action at dawn and dusk. Not only will you have more fish and insect activity, but you’ll also avoid conflicts with daytime river users like tubers and canoeists. In the summer, the water is coolest at dawn, which usually makes for livelier fish.
7. Fly Casting Is … Different
If you’re like me, your first attempts at fly casting didn’t go smoothly. My backcasts smacked the water, my forward casts landed like spaghetti, and sometimes I ended up with line wrapped around myself. I never snapped a rod over my knee in frustration, but I wanted to a few times.
Casting a fly line is fundamentally different than casting with a spinning or bait-casting rod. Unlike those, a fly rod is designed to throw the line, not the lure or bait. Reading up and watching videos will help, but the best way to shorten your learning curve is to be taught by a good caster and teacher. Local chapters of Trout Unlimited and the Federation of Fly Fishers regularly offer classes for modest fees. Fly shops often hold classes and clinics, too. It’s worth taking the trouble.
8. Good Fly Rods Are More Fun
Most of us start out with relatively inexpensive gear, for the same reason a guitar student won’t show up for his or her first lesson with a $6,000 Les Paul. Happily, today’s lower- and mid-priced fly rods and reels are darned good, and besides, it’s how you use the rod that counts.
Still, if you get a chance to make a few casts with a high-end Sage, Orvis, or Winston, you’ll notice a difference. They’re lighter, they’re easier to control for accurate casting, and they effortlessly lay out nice long casts. Not everyone can plunk down $1,500 for a rod, reel, and line, but if it feels like flyfishing is something you will do a lot of in the years to come, do get the best gear you can afford.
9. You Really Do Need Waders
Sure, standing bare-legged in a cool stream on a hot summer day sounds nice. It even makes sense on tiny, high-elevation brook trout streams. But in most places, most of the time, you need to be wearing waders. Reason One: trout live in cold water. There’s only so much time one can comfortably spend “wet wading” in a 58-degree stream. (Feel free to disregard if your first season of flyfishing takes place on a bonefish flat in the tropics.) Reason Two: Waders have soles designed for underwater use, made of either felt or “sticky” rubber like Vibram. Walking in regular sneakers on slippery underwater rocks is flat-out dangerous.
Chest waders also serve as another thermal layer when fishing in cold weather. Hip waders are cheaper, cooler, and less bulky in transit, but I guarantee you’ll get your crotch wet somehow, no matter how careful you are. Waist-high wading pants are a nice compromise. Stocking-foot waders have booties and are used with separate wading boots; they offer great support. Boot-foot waders have rubber boots built in; they’re warmer and easier to put on and take off.
10. Surface vs. Subsurface Fishing
The fact trout they eat floating flies is one of the reasons they’re so much fun to fish for, but they don’t do it all the time. They feed at the surface when flies are hatching, but the rest of the time they feed below, usually close to the bottom. No rises doesn’t mean no fish—it just means you need to use a different tactic.
Exploring the stream-bed landscape with a nymph or a streamer is a great way to catch trout, and it sure beats starting at a blank pool, waiting for a rise. It often yields bigger fish—the old guys that are too lazy to dash around at the surface. Nymphing requires concentration, watching, and feeling for a clue that an unseen fish has taken your fly (a strike indicator can be a big help.) Just like with a dry fly on the surface, your goal is a natural drift, at the appropriate depth.
Of course there’s more. Flies, knots, trout behavior, bug biology, rules, and regulations—like any interesting hobby, flyfishing comes with plenty to learn. But that’s part of the fun. Your first season will teach you many lessons, and so will the ones to come.
Written by Morgan Lyle for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.
Knots fail. Leaders snap. Lures pop free. Whatever the reason, if you spend enough time on the water, you’re going to lose fish—probably some big ones to boot. Even the pros suffer break-offs.
But not too often, because they learn from their mistakes. Here, six of the best share some of those painful lessons so you’re never deprived of another grip-and-grin shot again.
Guide: Bernie Schultz
Home Waters: North-Central Florida
Credentials: Pro for more than 35 years
Tough Break: On the final day of a big BASS tournament on Florida’s Lake Okeechobee, Schultz was in position to take first place and walk away with the prize money. “I had a strong bite going,” he says, “working a Rapala minnow far ahead of the boat, in a boat trail that cut through a massive field of mixed vegetation—pads, grass, and reeds. Then I hooked a huge female largemouth that headed straight for cover to bury herself deep in dollar pads.”
Instead of going toward the fish, Schultz tried to yank the lunker free—and his 14-pound mono snapped. “It was a rookie mistake,” he says. “That fish would have won me the event.”
Lesson Learned: “Often, bass anglers after big fish are flipping in heavy cover,” Schultz says. “That frequently leads to fish that become caught in matted milfoil, lily pads, reeds, or flotsam. That’s when many anglers tend to do the wrong thing—trying to muscle a trophy bass out of the cover. Rarely does anything good happen from that.”
In fact, Schultz goes on to explain, when a largemouth bass is pinned in the weeds, that can work to your advantage. “For some reason,” he says, “when they’re stuck, big fish often stop thrashing and just sort of sit there.”
Seeing the fish and its situation can allow a fisherman or his partner to reach down and get a good hold on the largemouth. Of course, bass are often hooked in relatively open water. That’s when Schultz’s other go-to tip for fighting trophy fish comes into play. “Anytime during the fight you feel that fish rising to the surface like it’s going to jump,” he says, “get your rod tip in the water.” Doing this rolls the fish downward and keeps it from breaking the surface—and possibly spitting the lure. But Schultz adds that you shouldn’t “bow to the king,” as anglers do for leaping tarpon. Instead, keep the line tight as you dip the rod.
Guide: Frank Campbell
Home Waters: Niagara Region of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, and the Niagara River
Credentials: Guide for 30 years
Tough Break: Frank Campbell recalls a day on the Niagara River nearly 20 years ago. He and a friend were catching steelhead on light lines, 6- and 8-pound-test, and with very small Rapala Original Floating Minnows. Late in the day, Campbell’s buddy hooked a solid fish. “But by that time, we were drifting toward a really turbulent stretch,” Campbell says, “and we saw that it was a big fish, probably 23 pounds.” With the boat spinning in the rushing current, the angler tried to put some heat on the monster. When one of the lure’s hook points snagged in the net’s mesh, the big fish—not yet tired out—thrashed enough to tear loose and was gone.
Lesson Learned: Looking back on that memorable failure, Campbell says the current really forced their hand. Normally, when fishing calmer water, he reminds his anglers to slow things down and finesse the fight whenever they hook big fish. “I’ve landed brown trout more than 30 pounds on little lines like that by taking my time,” he says. If they’d been able to take their time in this case, Campbell is nearly certain they would’ve landed the tired fish. Campbell notes that most anglers have a natural inclination to try a bit too hard, particularly when they know a steelhead or any trout could be a trophy and much is at stake. “Don’t rush it, and you’ll land that fish,” Campbell says. “More big fish are lost when an angler tries to rush them to the net than for any other reason.” He also believes the loss of that fish might have been avoided if they had upsized the hooks on the small lures that were proving successful. Larger hooks would’ve ensured more purchase in the big fish’s mouth, which might have kept that trophy buttoned on when it thrashed at the net.
Guide: Ross Robertson
Home Waters: Lake Erie, Ohio
Credentials: Guide for more than 20 years
Tough Break: Robertson and a friend had lucked into a school of giant walleyes. They’d already caught 23 fish over 10 pounds when both anglers hooked up again. As Robertson netted his, a 14-pounder, he saw his partner’s walleye near the boat—and it was much bigger. “The biggest walleye I’ve ever seen,” he says. Robertson called out, “Stand by! I’m trying to get this fish free of the net!” Just about then, he heard his buddy’s lure whack the outboard cowling after it flew out of the immense fish’s mouth.
Lesson Learned: Looking back, Robertson wishes he’d reminded his partner to go slower in getting the fish to the net. “As anglers, we tend to push fish too much to get them to the boat,” he says, “especially when we see a big one.” Given how hard the lure struck the motor when it popped out, he’s positive that his buddy put too much pressure on the fish.
“Giant walleyes often fight very little, so a fresh trophy can catch us off guard when it suddenly comes alive at the boat,” he says. Robertson adds that although braided line was key to getting deep for the bite, its lack of stretch also requires more vigilance on the part of an angler when fighting a fish. Since that loss of a possible record walleye, Robertson now keeps two nets on board. He makes sure those nets are big, with wide mesh, which creates less drag in the water. And they should have long handles. A 9-foot handle, for example, allows you to reach out and net the fish sooner than you could with a 3-footer. Reaching a fish that much sooner could make the difference between a fish in the net and a potentially perilous boatside lunge.
Guide: Brad Durick
Home Waters: Red River in North Dakota
Credentials: Guide for 12 years
Tough Break: Before he set out lines on the Red River, Durick reminded the lone fisherman on his boat not to try to set the hook, since the baits were all rigged on circle hooks. Unfortunately, that message didn’t get through. A rod next to Durick’s client started to bend suddenly under what the guide says was an enormous strike. Before Durick could react, the fisherman reached out and in one motion jerked back with everything he had. But missing the huge catfish wasn’t the end of it. In his rush, the client failed to get a good grip on Durick’s brand-new rod and reel, which launched out of the angler’s hands and fell into the river.
Lesson Learned: Durick rigs his baits only with circle hooks—quite successfully for channel cats—so he emphasizes the importance of waiting for the fishing rod to load up, then keeping it tight and just cranking. Most of the time, you’ll hook the fish. He also recommends using hooks with a gap wide enough to clear the bottom jaw. He explains that catfish tend to pick up a bait and squeeze it in a way that hinders the corner-of-the-jaw set. If the circle hook is large enough, it’ll pierce the bottom of the fish’s mouth for a more secure hookset.
“I’ve had lots of people complain to me of missing hookups,” Durick says. “It turns out this is because their hooks were too small.” And once someone’s got a giant catfish on the line, Durick says he is “constantly preaching the need to keep the fish turned away from the boat when they get the fish close. Don’t let a big catfish get under the boat. It might tangle in an outboard’s lower unit, plus once it’s under the boat, a big cat is harder to net.”
Guide: Steve Scepaniak
Home Waters: Mille Lacs Lake, Minnesota
Credentials: Guide for 28 years
Tough Break: Scepaniak was taking two anglers, Brad and Tom, to a spot on Mille Lacs Lake where he’d seen a huge muskie just a few days earlier. Sure enough, as Brad made a figure eight with a big spinnerbait near the boat, a giant muskie inhaled his lure. The fish cleared the water four times as Brad kept steady pressure and lowered the rod each time—until the fish’s fifth leap, when the rod stayed horizontal. The muskie shook its head one way, and the lure flew the other.
But the heartbreak didn’t end with that first lost muskie. Later on that day, Tom failed to set the hook on a fish when he thought his lure had just snagged some weeds. That mistake cost the anglers their second giant of the day.
Lesson Learned: Scepaniak says the loss of those two monster muskies illustrates his two fundamental rules when it comes to hooking and holding onto big muskies. “First, set the hook on everything and anything,” he says. While we’d love every strike to be a rod-thumping whack, Scepaniak says that most muskie strikes will be more tap than wallop, and if a lure doesn’t feel right, “they can spit it out in a fraction of a second.” So, the instant the angler feels resistance, he or she has to react with a strong hookset to penetrate the bone-hard mouth of a muskellunge.
Second, when a fish is coming out of the water during a jump—Scepaniak says that 80 percent of muskies will jump during a fight—anglers should keep that rod down and not stop cranking. Conversely, he advises anglers to remember to get the rod up when that big fish goes back down.
Had Brad and Tom remembered those two rules, Scepaniak says, and had the fish stayed hooked, he would have advised them of his third rule: Back off the drag, particularly if you’re fishing with braided line.
Guide: Mark Bennett
Home Waters: Southwest Florida
Credentials: Guide for 48 years
Tough Break: At the end of a long and so-far-fishless day, outside of famed Boca Grande Pass, one of Bennett’s anglers finally brought a good tarpon, in the 100- to 150-pound range, boatside. “As soon as I grabbed the leader, out of nowhere, a 15-foot hammerhead raised its front half out of the water, like in the movie Jaws, and grabbed that tarpon,” Bennett says. “His hammer actually whacked my hand. It was that close.” The huge shark began shaking the tarpon back and forth into the side of the boat, using the boat for leverage as it shredded the fish, until both shark and tarpon were gone.
Lesson Learned: Big sharks, primarily hammerheads and bulls, are a fact of life for tarpon enthusiasts who fish in Southwest Florida. When encounters with sharks do happen, the concern is less about landing a tarpon to score a release than it is about saving the fish, and Bennett has become an expert at that. Hammerheads—with a dorsal fin sometimes taller than the bow of his skiff—often show themselves before launching a tarpon attack. Big bull sharks, however, are notorious for staying down and suddenly grabbing a fish near the boat. Bennett relies on side-imaging sonar to scan the area while an angler fights a tarpon. “If I spot a big shark moving in,” he says, “I’ll break the line to let the tarpon go while it still might have a chance.” Or, if a tarpon is already at the boat and Bennett sees a shark, he’ll keep the tarpon close to the boat while he motors to shallower water, where he’ll revive and release the fish.
Written by Doug Olander for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The school is strung out for 300 yards, the dark mangroves of Cape Sable in the background, the water barely ruffled, broken by silver tails, heads, bellies, and entire bodies. There are dozens of fish, 100 or better, the closest within an easy cast of my Tarpon Toad. On the poling platform, my guide, Chris Wittman, shakes his head slowly, afraid to break the spell. “I hope you know how special this is,” he says softly. “You could fish a very long time and not see tarpon like this.”
The pain of missing four tarpon eats in a row, thanks to lifting the rod on the set, still stings. Now I lay out another cast to the silver kings, and let the line and fly sink. I focus on my hands and the fly reel because I don’t want to see the strike—I want to feel it. There is total silence on the boat. I tell myself I will not lift the rod tip. I will not set the hook until I feel the fish eat, turn, and run. I retrieve to the beat of a mantra in my head: strip-strike, strip-strike, strip-strike. Strike!
The tarpon leaps clear of the water the instant I feel its weight, and this time I don’t lift the rod. “Stick him!” Wittman yells. “Stick him!” I give a hard yank. The fly feels as if it’s buried in a fence, and then the tarpon skies again, shaking so violently, it flips 180 degrees. “Stick him again! Keep sticking him, Eddie!”
I stick him until he’s stuck for good, and then the leaping and the surging, the head shaking and hard charging back under the boat begins. The tarpon shows one more time—a sea-shattering 15-foot vault I meet with a deep bow to lend slack to the fly line—and the rest of the fight is a tug-of-war. It’s not a huge tarpon. It’s not even an overly large tarpon. But it is a tarpon, and when a beast like this comes to the boat with a fly in its jaw, its measure is in the angler’s heartbeat and breath rate, not inches or pounds.
Once I have broken my small-water habits, I jump three more tarpon in the next hour and fight another to the boat. The commotion finally puts the tarpon down for good, and I wipe sweat from my brow with a sleeve. My arms are quaking.
“Epic,” Wittman says. “That’s the only word that works.”
But he’s not talking to me. I catch him glancing at his pal and fellow guide, Daniel Andrews, standing at the console of the flats boat. They’re stoked for the fishing, and equally pumped that I finally figured out the tarpon strike. But what each has experienced is a bit of karmic payback. The last hour has been proof not only of what the beleaguered fisheries of South Florida still have to offer, but also that the last three years of their own personal sacrifice, fear, family upheaval, and hard work are paying off.
The water woes here have grown to be as much a part of the state’s lore and legend as swamp tours and spring-break shenanigans. Year after year, a horror show of environmental ills seems to plague what is arguably the most important fishing destination in the Lower 48. Toxic algal blooms blanket mile after mile of beach, shuttering tourism economies built largely on world-class fishing for tarpon, snook, redfish, bonefish, and snapper. News outlets around the world publish photographs of beaches mounded over with dead fish and marinas awash in a green, guacamole-like goop. Farther south, in Florida Bay and the famed Keys, saltwater flats, nearshore reefs, and mangrove shorelines are being starved of the fresh water they require. Hot, hypersaline water kills off the vast sea-grass beds that are the foundation of the food chain. Bonefish flee the flats. Tarpon vanish. Oyster beds rot.
The last three years have been particularly traumatic. Wave after wave of red tides, blue-green algae, and brown algae have suffocated the state’s famed Indian River estuary and Mosquito Lagoon on the Atlantic coast, the west-coast waters where the Caloosahatchee River spills into the Gulf of Mexico, and the massive Lake Okeechobee, whose waters used to feed the Everglades and Florida Bay. In 2017, a red-tide bloom that cropped up off the Gulf coast in October lasted until the early months of 2019. Then-governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for seven west-coast counties. A 26-foot-long whale shark floated belly up off the Sanibel beaches, its muscles, liver, intestines, and stomach contents tainted with the red-tide brevetoxin. More than 100 sea turtles and millions of fish washed ashore. For two weeks, the city of Sanibel spent $75,000 a day cleaning dead grouper, tarpon, and baitfish off the beach and out of canals.
Just three years ago, in 2016, Wittman and Andrews were guides working the waters of Fort Myers, Charlotte Harbor, and the Sanibel Island coast. When the red tides of 2016 hit, Andrews says, anglers for tarpon, redfish, and permit disappeared. Wittman figures they lost 80 percent of their bookings. Furious and more than a little desperate, the two captains started a Facebook page called Captains for Clean Water (CFCW) to organize charter captains. “To organize for what,” Wittman says, “we had no idea.” They held a kickoff event at the Fort Myers Bass Pro Shops, hoping that a few more guides might come to talk about what they might do. Three hundred people showed up.
CFCW’s growth and impact has been incredible. In its first year, CFCW raised $60,000. The next year, $600,000. Membership and supporters have grown to more than 30,000, and CFCW members didn’t stop at just writing checks. They showed up in legislators’ offices and packed public meetings. The group revived a long-dormant culture of people largely disconnected from the political process—but no more. “People see that we come from this grassroots, sunburned, hardcore, hard-boiled, hard-fighting group of fishing captains and people who love the water,” Wittman says, “and they think: Finally. Maybe this will work. Maybe this will help tip the balance.”
That’s the thread of the story I’ve picked up during more than 18 months of reporting on the state of Florida’s saltwater affairs. There’s a new governor with a decided sense of urgency about the region’s ecological calamities. There is new state and federal funding for massive projects to help alleviate South Florida’s water problems. There is still a pang of loss for parts of Florida that will never be regained, and an urgency that can border on panic over just how monstrous the water issues remain. But over the past few months, I’ve picked up a feeling that was entirely new.
Maybe things are changing.
How Did This Mess Happen?
For millennia, fresh water flowed into the Kissimmee River from as far north as Orlando, and then drained slowly south into the massive, shallow Lake Okeechobee. Clean water spilled over Okeechobee’s southern rim into large sloughs, such as Taylor Slough and Shark River, and innumerable small tidal creeks that trickled into Florida Bay. This is the famed “River of Grass” that delivered to Florida Bay a life-giving pulse of clean, fresh water each year. But this multifaceted ecosystem—fresh marsh and salt, brackish estuary, mangroves, saw grass, beds of sea grass, ribbons of reef—no longer functions naturally. The entire state has been replumbed with canals, reservoirs, channelized rivers, ditches, levees, dams, and pumps. Nowhere has this engineering had such a landscape-scale impact than in South Florida.
Hold one hand out with the palm up and the fingers together, and you have a rough scale model of some of the most iconic fishing grounds in the world and how they’ve come to be in such dire straits. In the shallow bowl of your palm lies Lake Okeechobee. The deep channels between each finger follow the rough course of Taylor Slough, Shark River, and all those myriad mangrove-lined waterways that dribbled critical water to the Everglades and the Florida Keys. But in 1915, an extension of U.S. Highway 94, dubbed the Tamiami Trail, was built straight across the state through pristine wilderness, gashing through what would become the Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park. The road follows the line across the base of each of your four fingers, and 2.5 million sticks of dynamite were used to blow open a canal beside the road, which is now a de facto dam on the River of Grass, choking off the fresh water that once flowed through the Everglades.
Lifelines—the wrinkles that spill off each side of your palm—tell more of the story: They trace a pair of man-made canals that opened up navigation all the way across Florida, connecting Lake Okeechobee with the Atlantic on the eastern coast and the Gulf of Mexico to the west. As Orlando and Miami grew, massive sugar farms, cattle farms, and housing developments covered thousands of acres of the drained and strangled Everglades. Much of the runoff from those altered acres finds its way to Lake Okeechobee, which is often choked with an inland algae bloom of putrid-green cyanobacteria that feeds off an overload of nutrients. The lake’s waters no longer flow down your fingers, cleaned by millions of acres of intact wetlands. Instead, during high-water periods, billions of gallons of toxic goo spew out of the lake through those two man-made canals in the folds of your palm—St. Lucie Canal and west through the Caloosahatchee River.
There are other issues South Florida suffers from, including a rising sea level and an insidious cycle of drought and storm. And that’s long been part of the problem: There are so many factors at play that it’s easier to place blame than to work toward solutions. But the bottom line is that, historically, even after Highway 94 was built, enough clean water flowed through South Florida to cover 2 million acres to a depth of 12 inches. Today, less than half of that water makes the trip, and what does is degraded.
Without its periodic pulse of fresh water, Florida Bay goes hypersaline. Sea grass dies in massive patches. Blue-green algae blooms, turning clear water into pea soup. That overwhelms the vast sponge beds that would otherwise filter the water and provide habitat for fish. The devastation flows south, toward the Florida Keys. Everywhere, the food chain collapses. It’s a lot for a bunch of pissed-off anglers to deal with. But they, and other activists, seem finally to be gaining traction.
Is This the Dawn of a New Era?
At a boat dock in Islamorada, Capt. Eddie Yarbrough sidles up to Dr. Steven E. Davis III, a wetlands ecologist for the Everglades Foundation. “Are we supposed to be happy with all the news from Tallahassee?” Yarbrough asks Davis. “Sure seems like a lot of folks are.”
Davis brightens. “I really think so,” he says. “We’re hoping this is a new era.”
For years, conservation groups like the Everglades Foundation, National Parks Conservation Association, National Audubon Society, and others have worked to turn the tide on Florida’s water crisis, and in the last year, significant steps have been made. Much of the hope is pinned on the state’s new governor, Ron DeSantis. In January 2019, during his first weeks in office, DeSantis announced $625 million in funding for Everglades restoration and signed an executive order to secure $2.5 billion over the next four years for water resources and Everglades work. Not long after, he asked for the resignations of the entire South Florida Water Management District Board, the supremely powerful commission that oversees water issues across most of South Florida and had been stacked with many supporters of the powerful sugar industry. He also named a chief science officer and created the Office of Coastal Protection and Resilience, and joined forces with two U.S. senators to ask the Trump administration to increase federal funding for South Florida water projects. In Washington, D.C., the President signed a bill sending $200 million to the Everglades. The money will accelerate progress on nearly 70 projects outlined in the state’s Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, including ongoing work to raise 6.5 miles of the Tamiami Trail to help reconnect the historic flow of water south.
“Our jaws dropped,” Davis says. “It was like an environmentalist’s dream list.”
And then there is the S.B. 10 reservoir. In 2018, after fighting over it for years, Florida legislators approved the construction of a 10,100-acre reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee—built in the heart of the sugar industry’s lands—that will capture and hold excess water, clean it via constructed wetlands, and send it south to the Everglades and Florida Bay. Last-minute negotiations cut the size of the Everglades Agricultural Area Storage Reservoir Project, along with its potential positive impacts, and completion is nearly a decade into the future—but even at a smaller size, the reservoir should reduce the cyanobacteria-laden discharges from Big O to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries by an estimated 55 percent.
In a morning loop around Florida Bay, Davis points out acres of dead turtle grass, clouded waters, and vast clear flats where new sea-grass beds are taking hold. These are the fragile, tenuous signs that Florida Bay has pulled itself off the floor one more time, after a massive die-off in 2014 and 2015 wiped out an estimated 62 square miles of sea grass. No one knows how many more body blows the bay can absorb. I mention to Davis that the entire ecosystem seems to exist on a knife edge—ecologically, politically, and temporally.
“You’re right,” Davis replies. “Because as exciting as all this is, it’s not what happens down here that is the most critical.” He jacks a thumb over his left shoulder, pointing toward the shore of mangroves and the mainland of Florida, toward Tallahassee and Washington, D.C. “What happens up there is what matters most.”
How Have the Gamefish Fared?
Thirty-five miles south of my tarpon glory at Cape Sable, I’m being fed a steady diet of humility, thanks to picky bonefish ghosting the edges of a broad flat west of Islamorada. I’ve been told that more record bonefish have come off this one flat than any other in the Florida Keys. I’ve also been told that these are probably the hardest to catch of any bonefish in the Sunshine State.
It’s small consolation that I’m being handicapped by our real purpose here: To catch and tag bonefish with acoustic tags that will allow scientists to track their movements. Time and again, I suck bonefish to within inches of my fly, pleading for an eat, while Dr. Ross Boucek, a fisheries biologist and Florida Keys Initiative manager for the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, and Matt Pourbaix, the trust’s development coordinator, work spinning reels. It takes at least a 20-inch bonefish to handle the acoustic tag, and when Pourbaix hooks a good fish, all other lines come out of the water. He fights the bone to the boat, then Boucek slips overboard into waist-deep water to spread out a floating surgical harness made of netting and pool-noodle sections. But as he lifts the fish onto the makeshift operating table, it spits the hook and slides out of the contraption. Gone. Boucek’s shoulders drop. When I lose a fish, all I’m out is a good memory and bragging rights. Boucek watches as a trove of scientific data slips away.
Despite the millions of dollars bonefish bring to Florida, these fish are better known to anglers than to scientists. Because there is no commercial fishery for the species, there’s less impetus to study their population. Fishing is almost always catch-and-release, so there are few regulatory constraints. The Bonefish & Tarpon Trust was formed in 1977 to help fill in these gaps of scientific knowledge, but Florida’s water woes have underscored the need for answers just as they are confounding the search for understanding.
“It’s one step forward and five steps back,” Boucek says, explaining that the water-quality issues have put a stop to an enormous amount of habitat and fisheries restoration work.
And the consequences hammer the fish in different ways. For bonefish, the troubles come when there’s too much water arriving at the wrong time. With South Florida’s altered hydrology, hot, hypersaline water pours down from Florida Bay toward the mangroves and flats of the Keys, displacing fish that typically stay within a very small home range unless they are spawning. “When you displace a fish,” Boucek says, “you reduce growth and you increase predation risk.” It’s a one-two punch that leads to lower reproduction.
For tarpon, it’s the massive pulses of fresh water—and the toxic loads they’ve carried in the last decades—that kill off the sea grass, which jump-starts the downward spiral in the health of the ecosystem. Scientists have tagged more than 100 Atlantic tarpon since May 2016, and those fished have registered more than 65,000 detections. Tarpon have shown massive latitude in their movements: One 55-pound male detected in the lower Keys in May 2018 wound up near Ocean City, Maryland, the next month. But these fish can also gather en masse—which puts them in peril. Boca Grande Pass is one such gathering place, and it is the epicenter, Boucek says, of the toxic freshwater releases that jet out of the Caloosahatchee during the Lake Okeechobee drawdowns.
For the moment, scientists are mostly trying to keep these fish from bottoming out while they deal with the water-quality issues.
“It can get depressing to think about these problems at such a huge scale,” Boucek says. “But that’s part of the benefit of such a wave of advocacy and support on behalf of water quality across Florida. It elevates the discussion at all levels, and it seems like these issues are on everyone’s mind now.”
He tells me about recent efforts to educate anglers about prop scars in the delicate sea-grass beds of the Keys flats, and studies on handling practices of saltwater fish and mortality. When word spread about a recent study of snook mortality tied to anglers holding the fish up by the lower jaw for photos, he began to see pushback on social media. “People are now firing off when they see pictures of these kinds of actions,” he says. “If we could replicate the social media movement with snook on tarpon and bonefish, it would be huge. When you begin to understand that there are things you can do in your own political sphere that really matter, and even things you can do in your own boat, that has to help.”
What Lies Ahead?
It seems more so now than in recent memory that there is hope for the future of Florida’s fisheries. Awareness has moved beyond Florida Bay and the Everglades, to a global community. Whether they live in Florida or play in Florida, anglers are beginning to understand that they have a role to play in solving the South Florida water crisis. And for the people who make their living with a boat and a rod, there’s much more at stake than a good day on the tarpon flats. There’s a national park, a World Heritage site, and an international biosphere reserve in their backyard. There are boat loans to pay and families to feed.
After our 90 minutes of tarpon bliss, after the school has vanished, Wittman, Andrews, and I don’t say much. We drift in the dead center of one of the most critical flows of water in all of South Florida, where the outfall from the Shark River slough wraps around the state’s peninsular tip, funneling fresh water into the vast estuary of Florida Bay. With all the tripletail and tarpon around the boat, I hadn’t given my surroundings much thought. But then it occurs to me that this could be the wildest, most remote, and longest stretch of saltwater shore I’ve ever seen in the Lower 48. I ask Wittman about that.
“So, from the boat ramp at Flamingo,” I say, “where we put in, and around Cape Sable, and all the way up the Gulf coast to Everglades City—that’s got to be, what, 50 or 60 miles? And in all of that, there’s…nothing?”
Wittman is uncharacteristically quiet, and whether he is staring at the water, the mangroves, or the sky, I can’t tell.
“No,” he says. “There’s everything.”
Written by T. Edward Nickens for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.