Saving the Glades could mean screwing these guys.

"When we started going to meetings, I'm convinced a lot of these guys had no idea that anyone even fished these canals," Ovies says. "They thought it was just a water conveyance they could get rid of and no one would miss."

Persson, Ovies, and I float down the arrow-straight canal, the rhythmic splash of our lures the only sound other than the wind. It's hard to believe this waterway hasn't always existed. I think about the Seminole Indians who fled to these swamps in the early 1800s to avoid the Trail of Tears. They too dug canals, to keep their tree islands dry and to create fishing holes.

But these canals are different, says Van Lent, the Everglades Foundation scientist. They're deep gouges across the Everglades — 18 feet deep in places. The L-67A forces millions of gallons that used to flow gently across endless acres into a fast-moving river. Millions of fish, birds, and insects that depended on the slow-moving river for a habitat have died, and reams of invasive species have moved in instead.

Rick Persson founded a group to save the canals.
C. Stiles
Rick Persson founded a group to save the canals.
Pahokee Mayor Wayne Whitaker worries about how his town will survive without sugar jobs.
Pahokee Mayor Wayne Whitaker worries about how his town will survive without sugar jobs.

"Everyone agrees the [canal] has got to go," Van Lent says with authority. "It's an artifact of what we've done to destroy the Everglades. It's certainly not a natural feature, and it's certainly not compatible with Everglades restoration."

Persson and Ovies concur that restoring the natural flow of water to Everglades National Park would be ideal. But both doubt it's possible. They worry the Corps, acting on an untested theory, will backfill one of the state's premier fishing holes.

The fishermen are not alone, it turns out. Jon Fury, a biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission since 1985, has spent more than 20 years studying the canal systems. And he's found few places that match the L-67A as a fishery. By his math, the canal generates $1.1 million for Florida businesses every six months.

Fury believes water flow to the Glades can be fixed by removing levees but leaving the canals. Water could then flow freely over the top of the man-made ditches.

"To simply backfill these canals because it's the easiest solution you see, I'd have to say hold on," Fury says. "You're going to ruin a really important fishery."

Van Lent is skeptical. "Maybe we can have an occasional hole where bass can have a refuge," he says. "But there's not going to be the same access. You're not going to be able to drive in from the city and launch your boat in 20 minutes from the dock right off the Trail."

That's a tough pill to swallow for a man such as Persson, who spent so many long, languid afternoons on the canal with his dad, who died four years ago.

The old firefighter's eyes are distant and glassy behind his sunglasses as he casts and reels, casts and reels, drifting down the same waterway he's floated along a thousand times before.

Suddenly, his arms go taught. Tendons flex under his weathered flesh as the fishing line jerks and tightens.

Persson pulls back on the rod, expertly driving the hook deeper into whatever is fighting below. He reels. A footlong bass breaks the surface, flipping back and forth as it struggles in the air.

This time, in this tiny conflict waged in a canal carved out of the swamps, man has won.

"Beautiful," he says.

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