A Fish Tale

First you take a berry. Then you dangle it in the water. Count to ten and reel in your line. Sound simple? It is.

Even fishing gets old. But this was a new one on me. "Bro, I just caught a 30-pound fish, about three feet long, using a blueberry for bait in the lake by the horse track."

Of course it was Zap talking. I searched my memory. Had I ever fished at Gulfstream or Calder or Hialeah? I remembered clearly catching tarpon and bass on golf courses. Tossing out baits at waterholes next to Miami's expressways, fishing the Everglades ever since my dad first took me out there 30 years ago. Fished the Keys, the bay, the canals, and just about every other wet spot south of Lake Okeechobee. So all this deep thought took about a minute, at which point I picked up the phone and called back Zap: "Whadja say?"

He repeated the story, and I told him I'd be by in an hour so we could go fishing A but not at his mysterious lake. I secretly hoped this didn't make him think I doubted his tale for a second. He had already established his credibility, though perhaps not enough to get away with tales of 30-pound berry-eaters, when he coaxed me out to the Everglades a week earlier with another of his fish discoveries.

Zap and I have been friends a long time, and we love to fish, and we're always angling for a way to get our hooks wet. I have a job, wife, house -- distractions, responsibilities, whatever. Carlos "Zap" Gonzalez has three young children, plus the rest of it, so our outdoor recreational opportunities have grown somewhat limited.

But his first son, his middle child, Manuel Carlos Gonzalez, is now three and a half, old enough. I call little Carlos "Chino" because he had some jaundice as a newborn, some yellowing, and chino is Spanish for Chinese. No wife would forbid a couple of decent grown men from taking a youngster out to the Glades to learn about real life.

For some murky reason, bass fishing seems to be on the upswing around South Florida. This makes no sense -- what with overfishing, pollution, urban encroachment -- but I keep seeing people bringing up beauties, and Zap has reported several fine catches of both peacock and largemouth. I can't go into much detail or his wife will find out he's been fishing when he was supposed to be refinishing the kitchen cabinets. But freshwater is cheaper and easier than saltwater efforts, so we took Chino and a box of worms and our light tackle out the Trail. At our fishing hole, beneath the huge yellow "Safari" sign marking an airboat-ride concession, Zap turned me on to another new one -- red oscars.

Zap enjoys making fun of people, especially to their faces. He'll ridicule anything, is offended by nothing. Some of us grew up with hard senses of humor. There was one kid Zap knew who stuttered badly. When this poor guy would begin a sentence A "Uh-uh-ah-ah" A Zap would mime starting a car. As Zap pretended to be twisting the invisible key, the stutterer provided the sound of a cold engine trying to turn over. Zap called this guy Ta-ta, as in "Ta-ta-ta-tell you what."

And now, out here in the swamp, Chino has somehow picked up the stutter, maybe imitative, or maybe he's just being a little Zap, messing with our heads. Either way, this is when Chino uses repetition the most: "I wa-wa-wa-wanna fish," or its variant, "Ah-ah-ah-ah wanna fish."

At which point begins our first encounter with the Terminator. I've cast out a purple worm for bass, but everyone else here -- perhaps two dozen anglers -- is hauling in these little fish called red oscars, which they all swear make for delicious eating. Most of these fisherfolk use cane poles; that's all you need to catch oscars, and it relieves them of the license requirement levied against rod-and-reel users. The Terminator -- dressed in the uniform of the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission -- has arrived. Working on my rig by Zap's car, I taunt the nature cop as he steps out of his Ford. I have a license.

In lieu of me, the ranger busts two Latin gentlemen who are using reels but apparently are not carrying the proper papers. The arrestees speak no English, so Zap ends up in the middle of it as translator. I can't hear the four-way conversation, but I suspect Zap is changing around all the words, turning the defendants' "perd centsname, disculpame, lo siento" into "Mr. Ranger, if you cut your hair any shorter, it'd be brain surgery."

Meanwhile, Chino has hooked up with a nice red oscar. As I help him land the fish, I notice that the kid's face sparkles, his eyelids curling into a smile and the corners of his mouth ascending skyward.

After that we cruise a few miles over to L-67, just before Shark Valley on the north side of the Trail, and take a hike. When we return, we see a man landing a huge bass, easily over the minimum size restriction of fourteen inches. And we see the Terminator's truck jag into sight. He forces the lucky fisherman to measure the prize catch. We taunt the ranger.

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