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.

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.

I want to return the favor, so I tell Morello the wild story about catching these aberrant fish on berry baits. He's neither befuddled nor impressed. "Oh, that's just something that's incidental," the biologist says. "We've also found that food in other types of fish. It falls in the water, and just instinctively they eat it."

To us this means we've discovered little more than a nifty outdoor version of a parlor trick. We can impress friends by showing them the giant grass carps, but despite a tale told me by a fishing buddy from up north who swears people smoke carp for consumption, there's not much else to do with our find. Until Family Fun Fishing Day.

As part of its effort to alert people to the fact there's a carefully managed fishing hole in the middle of one of Dade County's most popular public parks, Game and Fish has set aside a Saturday for this event. Free bait and juice and little bags with goodies such as a gamebook for kids are handed out by Game and Fish officers. This has persuaded me to rise at 7:00 a.m., something I do about twice per year, and then only for fishing trips.

Zap and I cruise over to a different part of the park, to another lake, where we catch a couple of dozen baby bream to use as bait. The bream are taken with tiny hooks and pieces of bread, then kept in a bucket of water until we get them back to the controlled lake.

Dozens of kids crowd around the far bend of the lake's horseshoe shape. But we're the pros. We are the masters of this lake. We have a spot. Normally when we wheel into Tropical and make our turn past the stables where Metro-Dade police keep their horses, we wave at the cops and they wave back. This friendliness we attribute to the fact they're horse cops.

But today the area we fish -- hundreds of yards and one large fence away from where everyone else fishes -- is crowded. Also there is an equestrian competition taking place; giant stallions topped by people in skin-tight suits and funny hats prance about the course. We try to not let this distract us.

As we rig up, two uniformed men in a Parks and Recreation truck pull up. They seem surprised we're here, and they tell us we're not allowed to be. "We fish here all the time," Zap protests.

The younger of the two men, the one in the passenger seat, says that normally that's okay, "but you can't fish while they're having the horses. It scares them."

In a last-ditch effort -- and just to have some fun -- I challenge the Parks guy with this: "Is this a Parks and Recreation lake, or a state lake, or a Dade County lake? Or is it, in fact, a private lake?"

"Uh, it's both," he answers. "I mean, it's a county lake, but it's in the park."

"Okay," I say triumphantly, "then it's not a private lake? Okay. So you are illegally keeping triploid grass carp in public waters?"

The man shakes his head as if I'm speaking Greek. "What are you talking about? There's no tarp on this lake."

We leave, set up on the other side, and Zap jets to his house to pick up Chino, who by this time has surely finished breakfast and begun the day's effort to drive his mother crazy. While he's gone, I fish this new spot and become convinced there's nothing to catch here.

Eventually we give in and join the others at the far end of the lake. Though we fish hard, we're not really expecting to catch anything here. Chino seems to be having fun, so I decide to have some, too: "Let's go talk to the Game and Fish guys."

A couple of tented kiosks are set up for registration and such, and there's a big tank holding some of the fish that people are catching in Horse Lake. The Game and Fish officers are gathered in groups in this area. Beneath the shade of one of the tents we spot the Terminator, sitting around chatting, not hassling a soul. We walk over and talk to three other rangers.

Me: "If this isn't a private lake, you really shouldn't have triploid grass carp in there."

Game and Fish Guy 1: "What about a harp?"
Me: "There's grass carp in this lake, but they're only supposed to be kept in private waters. I'd like to know where they came from."

Game and Fish Guy 2 points toward heaven, indicating that the fish were put there by God.

Me: "Then you better issue God a citation."
Game and Fish Guy 1: "You're crazy, there aren't any carp in this lake."
Zap: "Then God made some 30-pound catfish that don't have any whiskers."

After a while of this foolishness, we're told what we already knew but didn't want to admit: Of course Game and Fish can put carp in this lake. They're Game and Fish.

We take the free handouts, a plastic bag with a gamebook, a fishing guide. On the outside of the bag is a Top 10 list called "The Angler's Code of Ethics" -- support conservation, practice catch and release, don't pollute, be safe.... The Code of Ethics is, the bag says, a joint project of the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Sportfishing Promotion Council. Seems like simple common sense to Zap and me.

There's no need, we figure, to point this out to our Game and Fish friends. We do, however, talk with one of the boys about the catfish, and the fact that a sign posted next to the lake warns anglers to be careful about consuming too many of their catches -- traces of mercury, don't you know. The ranger says, "Listen, I ate a catfish out of here yesterday. It was the cleanest, nicest, freshwater fish I've eaten in a while."

I had never given much thought to catfish. The farm-raised versions you get at the fish market are decent for batter frying, but cats seem like a kids' fish -- they're the low-lifes of freshwater fish, and generally they're quite easy to catch. A survey conducted by Game and Fish indicates that 79 percent of freshwater anglers are interested in catching bass, 7 percent go for bream, and a mere 3.7 percent seek out the whiskered bottom-feeders. Nonetheless, any time Chino and his dad are ready, I'll be glad to go along. We're always looking for something new.

As we drive through the park, we see the Parks and Recreation workers who'd kicked us out of our spot. Zap flips them the bird and we snicker like teenagers.

A few days later Zap and Chino and I are back at our spot. We've decided to forsake the fat carp and go all out for channel catfish. If they're clean enough for a Game and Fish officer to eat, they're clean enough for us. Naturally, we don't catch a damn thing.

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