Life in the Cast Lane

What kind of world do we live in when a man has to sneak around like a common criminal just to get in an afternoon of expressway fishing?

The way they've done South Florida, a guy like Andy Anderson learns to take his communions with nature where he can find them, even if it means spidering his pickup truck down a steep, grassy knoll at a treacherous angle, or breaching barbed wire barricades, or dealing face-to-face with the Florida Department of Transportation (DOT).

Anderson, who moved to Hialeah when he was eleven and now lives in the Grove, knows that humans have mostly contributed stupid and terrible things to the natural ecology of South Florida. The very foundation -- freshwater -- has been poisoned, polluted, and diverted by a canal system unmatched in its ability to distort and damage the area's natural state. More and more development means more and more people, which means less space, more roads, and traffic -- all of it baking in the merciless sun like a cake made with gunpowder.

But Andy has discovered little escape hatches right in their faces. Their concrete aberrations will provide us our shade, Andy promises. The water-filled scars of their work will provide us some killer fishing, he says. The envy of passing motorists will be immeasurable, our revenge sweet. We'll fish like mad, but only within honking distance of actual South Florida expressways, no exceptions.

The first nature trail we explore in our effort to test Andy's claims: the Palmetto Expressway. Drawing on his many years of fishing next to major highways, Andy selects the north-south stretch, which runs from the Dadeland area up to Miami Lakes, bending east just past the golf course, and which daily hosts some of the worst traffic jams on the planet.

Driving north we spot an inviting lake where Gratigny Road and the Palmetto intertwine on the east side of the expressway. No fence, no foliage to speak of, and, we discover after a half hour, no fish willing to bite Andy's lure or the purple worm I'm casting. No big deal. There are hundreds of similar angling venues. We will continue to fish. Next to an expressway. No matter what.

A landscaper swerves across the grassy expanse between the roadways and the water, parks next to us, and warns us to watch out for the DOT. Their regulations, after all, flatly bar fishing on state-owned land adjoining highways. Then he tells us about a nearby canal, on the other side of that exit ramp right over there, where giant trout were literally jumping out of the water the day before. -- bunch of the guys had seen this while they were working.

Because Andy spent his youth in Hialeah, he's able to discern what the guy means by "trout," a species that does not exist in the freshwater of South Florida. It's a Cuban term for bass -- the expressway fisherman's catch of choice.

So we follow the landscaper's truck along the emergency lane of a ramp -- going the wrong direction. Cut across a divider onto Gratigny -- still going against traffic, which is fairly light at noon hour. Slide off the road into something resembling a ditch or trench, look in the canal, see nothing. The canal runs east to 57th Avenue, where it joins another, longer canal, so fish could easily get in there. After a number of casts, we find no evidence. We should've been here yesterday.

Lakes like the one we hit next, armpitted between the NW 58th Street bypass and the Palmetto, are situated close to ramps for a good reason. "Those are what we call retention and detention ponds," says David Fierro of DOT. "Whenever you put so much concrete and asphalt somewhere, you have to do something with the rainwater. That's what they're for A storm water flowing off the highway. Retention means permanent, detention is temporary, where the water stays until it filters off. Some look like little lakes or ponds." And some contain bass.

"These lakes are a byproduct of development," Andy says cynically. "They weren't put here to look pretty." Nor were they put here for fishing. "All the expressways are in the DOT's jurisdiction," Fierro notes. "If they're part of a limited-access highway, they are usually fenced to keep people from walking around where traffic is zipping by. But even if they aren't fenced, we don't encourage recreational use on state property. We're aware people use them for that anyway." We sure do.

Andy and I find plenty of room to fish at the retention pond we're using at NW 58th Street, and the barbed wire fence is not as daunting as it looks from above, where drivers sit bumper-to-bumper sweating and fuming and spewing obscenities. I glance up and smile at the metal mass and groaning motors. The heavenly gate is unlocked. Has been for about four years, Andy says.

I'm slowly reeling in my purple worm, a bait that a fisherman normally allows to sit on bottom until his prey finds it. Nonetheless, I get a good strike and hook up a largemouth bass. The drag on my reel isn't working right, and just as I get a good look at the fish's face five feet from shore, I lose him. At least we know there are hungry bass here, and the exhaust-pipe toxins and asphalt radiations seem momentarily less irritating.

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