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.

Later we make a short hop to Old Trail to scope around, and as we pull in off the Trail, we almost run head-on into A yes, the Terminator, again. "Sure nice to be away from civilization," I remark sarcastically.

"Let's go home," says Zap without smiling.
It isn't too far from the Gonzalez family's Southwest Dade home that we begin the carp capers. After I'd heard the impossible story about the 30-pound, berry-eating fish Zap supposedly caught, I found myself at Tropical Park trying to keep an open mind.

"I was fishing right near here," Zap explains as we view the water from the bank near a sprawling tree. "They hang out under this tree. See the berries?" They appear to be mulberries, not blueberries, and when we toss a few in the water, I see the fish: big, slow, gleaming silver creatures -- the offensive linemen of the piscatorial world -- that break the surface and inhale the fallen berries. "When I saw them do that," Zap continues, plucking more berries, "I figured I'd just put a berry on a hook and see what happens."

I take a tiny gold hook and thread it to the light tackle on my smallest bass rig, then poke the hook through a fat purple berry and toss it three or four feet from shore. A fish as long as my arm snaps up the offering and is quickly and effortlessly dragged to shore. "That's the only problem," Zap says as I give him the look of a victim of some metaphysical prank. "They don't put up any fight." And by the way, you can't eat them, either, at least as far as we know. Too bony, and illegal as hell.

Once I pull the behemoth to shore, it just lies there, and I'm certain I've somehow managed to kill the poor thing. "Don't worry," says Zap, "they're just lazy." Sure enough, when I nudge the beast back into the water with my foot, it disappears in a burst of sediment powder. We put out another berry and let Chino catch one of the carp, maybe even the same one.

After freaking on these strange critters a while, we decide to dub this enormous, J-shaped waterhole "Horse Lake" (not to be confused with Dead Horse Lake down in South Dade) because it's located near Tropical Park's equestrian center, where Thoroughbred horse racing once took place about a thousand years ago, when Zap and I were kids, before they built Tropical Park as it's now known. We've long fished various of the lakes at T.P., landing bass on more than one occasion, and we will soon discover that this particular hole, the park's northernmost body of water, is chock full of bass and other species.

I have no particular interest in catching any more oversize, useless carp, but during the next several weeks, I will return to this spot again and again. On one trip, with my wife and our nephew, a fourteen-year-old visiting for a few days from South Carolina, we make an exciting discovery. (I don't mean the turtles, or the baby blue heron, or any of the other activity.) When we toss a handful of the mulberries into the water, a number of fish (much smaller than the carps) attack the arboreal treats full force. "Oh, cool," I exclaim. "The giant carps had some babies!" My wife, staring hard at the splashery, says, "Those don't look like carp to me."

A few days later I take Zap and Chino out there. We rig up some berries and cast. All three of us quickly catch one of the "baby carps." They turn out to be, in fact, channel catfish. We release them, though we could have kept them and eaten them A at this lake there is no size limit, and each customer can take home up to six cats per day A and I could proclaim that I was simply following the conscientious angler's motto of "limit your takes, don't take your limits." But to be honest, I'm always reluctant to eat anything from the pisspool that South Florida's vast waterways have become. So we throw 'em back.

A few days later I'd regret that decision. But for now I wanted to find out what the deal was with these carp. "Those fish are illegal to possess or transport. They can only be legally kept in private lakes and you must have a permit. They are eaten in foreign countries where protein is hard to come by, but they're real bony. Goldfish are a type of carp." I was talking to Frank Morello, a biologist for the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission. "Those are called grass carp, and they're put in there for aquatic plant control. They eat the hydrilla and so forth off the bottom."

I learn that Horse Lake is part of the Urban Lakes Project, begun in 1990 by Game and Fish to "increase fishing opportunities in urban areas." Five waterholes -- in West Palm Beach, Boynton Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Plantation, and Tropical Park -- were selected. Game and Fish put in automatic fish feeders, attractors (such as submerged piles of brush), and aerators. And they began stocking channel catfish, four times per year. They also introduced to Horse Lake the triploid grass carp that had so baffled us.

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