Le Jeune Road near Miami International Airport. A right turn loops around, allowing access to a service road that leads past the Sheraton Hotel and practically right onto the fairways of Melreese Golf Course. A water hazard prevents parking directly in the line of soaring Titleists, but across the canal lies the green of the fifth hole where the balls land, providing a slight diversion while Zap and I do what we came here to do. Which has nothing to do with working on our chip shots. We're here to golfish.
"I don't know for sure if there's fish here or not," says a man named John who works at Melreese. "'Course, fishing's not allowed here anyway. No, I haven't seen any fish. The fertilizer and other runoff probably damages the water." Thanks for the info, John, but we're busy right now.
"You know what, bro?" Zap says as we survey the canal by the fifth hole. "These fish are used to seeing golf balls swim by. Wait'll they see a nice, fat, fake worm."
There are other (fishing) holes at Melreese. Zap and I recommend you drive around to the 37th Avenue side, where you can find easy parking and access to the course. We didn't hook anything in the canal, and we're not sure you'll catch bass in any of the lakes, but we think you ought to try anyway. Whatever your approach, all you need is a rod and reel with light line and a lure, live bait, or the trusty purple worm. A modicum of patience, a bit of stealth, and you're golfishing.
As far as I'm concerned, there are three types of golf courses around Miami: freshwater, saltwater, brackish water. Some have fish A a few are actually stocked A and some don't. "We have freshwater lakes," explains Charlie at the Fontainebleau Golf Club out on Flagler Street. "They were stocked originally. There's bigmouth bass A I've seen 'em dead on the side of the lake. People fish out here, but I wouldn't eat anything from these lakes. Wormy fish. I've had problems with wormy fish. See, the water's too warm. But for sport, it's okay. I don't see that many dead fish, but there is the runoff of fertilizer that would make the fish bad to eat."
Okay, so we'll pass on the wormy bass. But Zap, whose real name is Carlos Gonzalez, has got a strong urge to golfish, so we're off to Coral Gables, where the majority of acreage seems to be devoted to golf courses. We're not about to give up yet. Zap is a big believer in catching as opposed to just fishing.
Near the grandfather of local courses, the Biltmore (built in 1925), we pull Zap's truck up next to a couple of kids skateboarding in front of a house. They look like models for a politically corrected Rockwell: Tom Sawyerish white kid with freckles along with a handsome black kid right out of Cosby land. "C'mon you guys," Zap and I say, "we know you know how to get to the best fishing spot on the course." The kids are reluctant to talk, playing it dumb. "Fishing? On the golf course? What do you mean, sir?" What we mean is the Coral Gables Waterway, which cuts through the Biltmore and wanders all across the course. With a little more cajoling it spills out. The Tom Sawyer kid who didn't have a clue suddenly says, "Okay. Go around those trees there, down that little road, and turn right at the...."
The five-gallon bucket we had filled with ice and beer is close to empty by now, and the sun is setting hard and fast. So Zap and I simply walk through the entrance, by the clubhouse, past the genteel folks in polyester swinging sticks at little balls and paying good bucks to use this wonderful chunk of rolling green for something other than angling. We don't belong here, and it's not just because we're obviously not golfers A we're also violating a fundamental rule of the game: covertness is essential in guerrilla golf-course fishing. But at this point we don't care.
An older man who works at the Biltmore gives us the lowdown, but only with the same reluctance as the Rockwell kids:
Old guy: "Can't fish here. Nope, can't do it."
Zap: "Yeah, but I bet you know where there's some fish in here."
Old guy: "Couldn't tell you if I wanted to. 'Course, if you went over there to the Bird Road side A all kinds of fish in there."
Zap: "Excellent. Anybody fish here?"
Old guy: "Told you can't nobody fish here, not allowed. Now, there was this one fellow who'd come out here on the lakes and catch a mess of bass and bring 'em up here for the employees and just give 'em to us to cook up."
Zap: "How'd he fish it, which lake, what bait, what time of day?"
Old guy: "Why you askin' me that? Plugs, just pluggin' right over there, in the early evenin'."
We park on Bird Road next to a sign that reads NO TRESPASSING and try some dead-shrimp baits in the waterway, without luck, although we do get a few bites. That's enough to keep us going, and so we drive Zap's pickup around the Gables looking for more fair fairways. But the Granada Golf Course has us stumped. We can't find a water hazard anywhere. "Bro, we better slow down on the beers," Zap counsels. "We've been around this thing three times and I haven't seen a lake yet." (We later learn it's true A there are no lakes, not even little ponds, on Granada.)
Plenty of people have discovered the illicit pleasures of golfishing, much to the chagrin of people like Chris, who works at Kendall Golf Club and is quick with a scowl when the subject comes up: "We have ponds on the course and, yes, there are fish. I have no idea how they got there. They're just there. No, I don't know what kind. I'm a golfer, not a fisherman. And no, you can't fish here."
Among those anglers who ignore the likes of Chris, most would prefer their sport be kept a secret. One local professional guide A who once helped a friend win a big tournament by taking him to a certain hole on a certain golf course to catch a tarpon A puts it this way: "You write a story about this and everybody's going to come out here, and that'll spoil it. Only three or four people know about this particular spot." Well, okay, the top-secret fishing hole will remain a mystery. But you're not supposed to be out there anyway.
"Quite a few guys do it," explains another pro. "Some of them know somebody at a course who lets them go out. I recommend lures, plastic worms, and plugs. Plugs are especially good for both freshwater and brackish courses. Most of the guys I know fish Doral."
Doral qualifies as one of the most glamourous, well-kept courses (actually four courses) in town. And I know for a stone fact that there are fish to be caught there. Last year professional golfer Phil Blackmar, who lists his "special interests" in the PGA Tour book as "fishing," caught a very impressive bass at Doral. "It's something they do on the side," says Doral-Ryder Open tournament manager Charlton Norris. "It's not official official. I just post a notice in the locker room telling them where to take their fish to be weighed A any kind of fish. Blackmar caught an eight-pound bass on the first day of last year's [fishing] tournament, and once they saw that, nobody else brought any fish in, though I know everybody fished. Phil's won it the last two years. Paul Azinger and Davis Love like to fish the eighteenth hole. Davis had two tarpon on last year." This year's tournament was won by John Adams with a three-pound, fourteen-ounce bass. One of his competitors, Billy Ray Brown, was spotted on the USA Network's televised coverage holding up a catch. The majority of pro golfers, it turns out, enjoy fishing, and many of them indulge their hobby during big competitions like the Doral-Ryder Open both before and after they play their rounds. Some even carry breakdown, or "telescope," rods in their golf bags.
For me and my friend Lenny, guerrilla fishing in the dead of night is equivalent to an expedition led by Larry and Curly without benefit of the astute supervisory guidance of Moe. On our first visit to Doral, we manage to actually break a rod, as well as several lines and rigs. We're fishing from a wooden bridge that crosses three water hazards clumped together. Well, we're trying to fish. Without warning the course sprinkler system comes on. Drenching sprinklers aside, there are two good reasons (excuses) for our lack of success. First, the best times for bass fishing are early morning and late afternoon. Unfortunately, almost criminally, golf courses are used for purposes other than fishing during daylight hours. Second, Lenny and I are, at least when in each other's company, bumbling clowns.
Our second trip to Doral doesn't turn out much better. This time we try several lakes and use live shiners, the best bass bait there is. Even so, we can't land anything. But at least we don't break any rods.
While Lenny and I may not exactly prove the point, the truth is that golf-course fishing is pretty easy. One of the best anglers I know, Eddie Bustamante, grew up fishing on and around Key Biscayne Golf Course, and one outing with him does prove the point.
After rigging some rods with light line (six- to eight-pound test is best; pros can even use fly gear), filling a freezer baggie with lures and leader line, and grabbing a flashlight, we're out the door. We park off the Rickenbacker and walk into the woods bordering the fairways. A creek runs through here, serving as a moat, but we find a fallen tree crossing it, which we tightrope to get to the other side. It's dusk, so we hide in the woods for a few minutes to make sure the course is clear. Then we skulk over to the big lake near the fourth tee.
Eddie sets me up with a redfish spoon as bait, which I cast far into the water hazard and wait A about ten seconds. Then I feel the unmistakable tug of a fish on my line. Even though it's a solid hit, I can't believe I've hooked up already. I jerk hard, reel a bit, and that's when it breaks water A a big, brawling tarpon that leaps four times, flashing its black-red-gold-silver beauty, running deep and wide between leaps. I reel it ashore, admire its greatness, and release it back into the water near the tee of the fourth hole.
Once I set it free, I cast several more times, reeling in the spoon slowly so it looks like a baitfish swimming the surface. Then another tug. A few precious, delicious seconds later I land another tarpon, this one about a three-pounder. We've been fishing all of fifteen minutes.
Despite the giddy prospect of reeling in something with every cast, Eddie insists we take a break to watch the sunset. He's the guide, and he knows this place, so why argue? We stroll down to a part of the course that touches the bay and sit in silent awe as the expiring sun and the open water and the mangroves conspire to paint the world a breathtaking purple and orange and blue.
In the shallow inlet before us, another fisherman saunters into view -- a gawky blue heron tiptoeing out from the mangroves onto our private stage, nature's theater presenting a classic. The big bird takes the most delicate steps, a tai chi master on rice paper, and before long he bows a bit, then plunges his head into the water. Gulp. Golf-course fishing at its most sophisticated.
In the growing darkness, with the stars above and the tall lights of the nearby Lipton tennis complex casting their beams, the sprinklers raining down their water, the undulating carpet of grass interrupted only by white sand traps and blue lakes, the course assumes an enchantingly surreal quality, melting and blurring into a liquid green otherworld.
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I cast a trout-tout lure and quickly hook up another huge tarpon, but he shakes the hook and gets away. Then Eddie lands a small tarpon.
Another light tug and I jerk up my rod. I'm on yet again, but it is clearly a smaller, less tenacious and spectacular species. I pull the fish ashore and call for the flashlight. Before Eddie arrives with it, I see the stripe running lengthwise across the fish's body. "Hurry up with the light," I yell. "Got me a nice snook here."
The snook and tarpon get into the course's lakes via large pipes that channel in water from the bay. That they find their niche here is a natural minimiracle. That they seem to thrive only increases the ecological ante. For the intrepid golfisherman at Key Biscayne, it adds up to a uniquely pleasurable experience: a beautiful setting, exquisite solitude, and the satisfying knowledge that you're not supposed to be here enjoying it.