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Life in the Cast Lane

The way they've done South Florida, a guy like Andy Anderson learns to take his communions with nature where he can find them, even if it means spidering his pickup truck down a steep, grassy knoll at a treacherous angle, or breaching barbed wire barricades, or dealing face-to-face with the Florida Department of Transportation (DOT).

Anderson, who moved to Hialeah when he was eleven and now lives in the Grove, knows that humans have mostly contributed stupid and terrible things to the natural ecology of South Florida. The very foundation -- freshwater -- has been poisoned, polluted, and diverted by a canal system unmatched in its ability to distort and damage the area's natural state. More and more development means more and more people, which means less space, more roads, and traffic -- all of it baking in the merciless sun like a cake made with gunpowder.

Jerks.
But Andy has discovered little escape hatches right in their faces. Their concrete aberrations will provide us our shade, Andy promises. The water-filled scars of their work will provide us some killer fishing, he says. The envy of passing motorists will be immeasurable, our revenge sweet. We'll fish like mad, but only within honking distance of actual South Florida expressways, no exceptions.

The first nature trail we explore in our effort to test Andy's claims: the Palmetto Expressway. Drawing on his many years of fishing next to major highways, Andy selects the north-south stretch, which runs from the Dadeland area up to Miami Lakes, bending east just past the golf course, and which daily hosts some of the worst traffic jams on the planet.

Driving north we spot an inviting lake where Gratigny Road and the Palmetto intertwine on the east side of the expressway. No fence, no foliage to speak of, and, we discover after a half hour, no fish willing to bite Andy's lure or the purple worm I'm casting. No big deal. There are hundreds of similar angling venues. We will continue to fish. Next to an expressway. No matter what.

A landscaper swerves across the grassy expanse between the roadways and the water, parks next to us, and warns us to watch out for the DOT. Their regulations, after all, flatly bar fishing on state-owned land adjoining highways. Then he tells us about a nearby canal, on the other side of that exit ramp right over there, where giant trout were literally jumping out of the water the day before. -- bunch of the guys had seen this while they were working.

Because Andy spent his youth in Hialeah, he's able to discern what the guy means by "trout," a species that does not exist in the freshwater of South Florida. It's a Cuban term for bass -- the expressway fisherman's catch of choice.

So we follow the landscaper's truck along the emergency lane of a ramp -- going the wrong direction. Cut across a divider onto Gratigny -- still going against traffic, which is fairly light at noon hour. Slide off the road into something resembling a ditch or trench, look in the canal, see nothing. The canal runs east to 57th Avenue, where it joins another, longer canal, so fish could easily get in there. After a number of casts, we find no evidence. We should've been here yesterday.

Lakes like the one we hit next, armpitted between the NW 58th Street bypass and the Palmetto, are situated close to ramps for a good reason. "Those are what we call retention and detention ponds," says David Fierro of DOT. "Whenever you put so much concrete and asphalt somewhere, you have to do something with the rainwater. That's what they're for A storm water flowing off the highway. Retention means permanent, detention is temporary, where the water stays until it filters off. Some look like little lakes or ponds." And some contain bass.

"These lakes are a byproduct of development," Andy says cynically. "They weren't put here to look pretty." Nor were they put here for fishing. "All the expressways are in the DOT's jurisdiction," Fierro notes. "If they're part of a limited-access highway, they are usually fenced to keep people from walking around where traffic is zipping by. But even if they aren't fenced, we don't encourage recreational use on state property. We're aware people use them for that anyway." We sure do.

Andy and I find plenty of room to fish at the retention pond we're using at NW 58th Street, and the barbed wire fence is not as daunting as it looks from above, where drivers sit bumper-to-bumper sweating and fuming and spewing obscenities. I glance up and smile at the metal mass and groaning motors. The heavenly gate is unlocked. Has been for about four years, Andy says.  

I'm slowly reeling in my purple worm, a bait that a fisherman normally allows to sit on bottom until his prey finds it. Nonetheless, I get a good strike and hook up a largemouth bass. The drag on my reel isn't working right, and just as I get a good look at the fish's face five feet from shore, I lose him. At least we know there are hungry bass here, and the exhaust-pipe toxins and asphalt radiations seem momentarily less irritating.

A little yellow pickup truck with a flashing light atop arrives on the scene, and a small woman with dark hair and a blue workers' uniform gets out, steps through the open gate, and walks toward us.

We bow our heads repentantly, pulling our hands from the cookie jar and carrying our rods toward the gate. DOT Inspector Suh, recognizing our remorse, uses a cheerful tone -- the phrases clipped by her mild Oriental accent -- to chastise us: "No problem. Very dangerous for you guys in there. Water very deep. No fishing."

Then she locks the gate.
Summer is hot. It's also the season for bass fishing. In the mid-Eighties, the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission released 20,000 peacock bass in South Florida's meandering man-made canal system. They didn't mean for some of the fish to end up next to Miami expressways, but lots ended up there anyway. Waterways have a knack for connecting, and between amateur lake-stockers and the natural flow, the fish have found their way into retention and detention ponds everywhere.

Peacocks are a South American species, so they like their environment warm; they cannot tolerate a water temperature below 60 degrees. Unlike some fish, peacocks readily eat during the most scalding part of the day, so swimming next to baking asphalt is no problem. After two five-year studies, these particular peacocks were specially bred for release in South Florida. Unlike me, they love the heat and don't mind the automobile congestion.

Paul Shafland, an eighteen-year veteran of Game and Fish, is the driving force behind the peacock release program. Director of its non-native fish research laboratory (located in Boca Raton), he calls the program "very successful." The 20,000 butterfly peacock bass and 110 speckled peacock bass (which grow three times larger than their butterfly cousins) were introduced to consume the spotted tilapia -- another exotic fish, but one that serves little or no purpose in South Florida's aquacology. A second benefit that Shafland envisioned: peacocks would provide sport for urban fishermen, "especially kids who live in residential areas," he says. "They're the future of fishing." The fish have since moved beyond the canals, but that's the DOT's problem.

The big speckled peacocks need years to reach maturity, and Shafland was able to acquire only 110 because breeding is difficult. "We just don't have the tank space to over-winter them for years," the ichthyologist explains, referring to the species's inability to endure lower temperatures. Shafland says he hasn't seen speckleds in a couple of years, and chances are they've been fished out, although in the summer of 1991 a ninth-grader named Willie Smith reeled in an eleven-pound, six-ounce speckled from Black Creek Canal near SW 211th Street in South Dade. Smith turned the fish over to Shafland, who at the time told the Miami Herald that "I've fished for them in South America, and even down there this fish would be called El Grande."

Stomach-content examinations and other current research indicate that the butterfly peacocks are doing their job A 75 percent of their diet consists of tilapia, Shafland says. But the peacock A as colorful as its name implies and more aggressive and harder fighting than the native largemouth bass -- will also dine on plastic worms, lures, baitfish. In other words, there's a good chance they might go for the little goodies Andy and I dangle in front of them.

Andy has taken me to get live shiners one afternoon. We check out the lakes of Tropical Park, where I know there's bass, but rain hits and the lightning is too intimidating. Andy whips out a book of maps and we plot alternatives. It's late afternoon, and automobiles are beginning to line up as we arrive at a canal near the Palmetto and SW Eighth Street. There are houses on the other side where some workers are sandblasting a pool. I could live with that. Using white, eight-pound test line, I cast out a shiner. After a while I reel it in and look at my line. It's turned brown. I can't live with that.

We look at the map again and decide to go to an enormous lake near 836, where Andy has caught fish in the past. Heading there, we see two car wrecks within a block of each other. Andy eases down the perilous hillock abutting 836 that encircles the huge lake. Once down and in, Andy drives all the way around the body of water, declaring this approach "less conspicuous" than other routes in. I'm just glad we're here, not in a wreck.  

At one point I walk over to a part of the lake where water streams in from the Snapper Creek Canal. I hook up a decent-size butterfly peacock bass, but the hook comes off my line and I lose him. That damn broken drag on my reel again. Andy catches a peacock, then another, then El Grande A a beauty that must weigh three pounds. I finally land one myself, only because the fish has swallowed the hook and can't shake free as the others had. Andy catches another one and calls me over to have a look. There in its mouth is the hook I lost moments before. Some fish never learn.

Everything we catch goes right back in the water, although the tender white flesh of peacocks does make for fine dining. Personally, I find the freshwater in South Florida too dirty for me to consider eating anything that comes from it.

Besides, Andy is big on the catch-and-release method. So is Paul Shafland of Game and Fish: "We strongly encourage obeying the bag limits, which in this case is two fish per person per day. The closer people follow the regulations, the better the fishery will be. These fish are more valuable in the water than on the table. We don't have to convince anyone to go for peacocks. We just have to convince people to release them."

My friend Zap doesn't always follow those rules. "I caught five peacocks this morning, bro," he tells me on the phone in early August after my safari with Andy. Alas, Zap's good luck occurred in a canal that was not technically adjacent to an expressway. I forgive him, and we begin a series of trips along the Florida Turnpike and SR 836 in hopes of repeating his multiple hookups -- and landing another fish to rival Andy's El Grande.

Zap, a veteran of numerous stealth-fishing expeditions and a great driver hardened by two decades of wheeling around South Florida, has a wife and three young children. I arrive at his house near Tropical Park to find his wife, Vilma, busily attending the baby, Dylan. Katrina and Little Carlos scurry underfoot. Before de-parture, we must run a few errands. Parking's tough, the traffic a bitch. We pack up our small rods and light tackle, Rapala lures and fake worms and live-bait hooks and coolers. Finally we escape.

The heat is like a bad drug, and dark clouds hover over the Everglades to our west. Zap is jabbering about "structure" fishing, how we have to find the structures, man. I have no idea what he means. As we roll along the turnpike, an osprey, small fish in its talons, flies over us.

We decide to stop at a canal that runs under the turnpike near SW 117th Street. Parallel to the turnpike and crossing the canal is an elevated railroad track. I figure that'll serve as a structure. Zap negotiates the embankment, and we park a few yards from the turnpike. The water is alive A there's a turtle, and a bunch of bream, and an orange-colored fish even though there shouldn't be any orange fish here. Zap gets a hit but fails to hook up, and soon we spot several peacock bass, none interested in our lures. We notice that someone has tied some baited lines to the railroad trestles A one of which has a fish hooked to it. Zap climbs up on the track and pulls the line from the water. A big oscar, which he releases. It's just not right to leave your lines unattended, especially near a structure.

Further south we spot a lake looped by the guardrail of an exit ramp, so Zap parks off the road. A family frolics near the shore. They have rifles -- pellet guns, apparently -- and are shooting into the water. Zap almost steps into a watery pit covered by weeds. We cast out our lines. It begins to rain.

Driving south again, we behold another inviting lake -- where some kids are already fishing -- and we try to figure out how to get to it from the turnpike. "Geez," Zap says looking up at a road sign, "we're all the way down to 312th Street!" You lose track of distance when your highway goal is catching fish, not getting somewhere.

We exit where a tent city used to be, loop around 302nd Terrace, and try SW 157th Avenue. "We need a helicopter," Zap points out. Not only are we unable to locate the lake we saw from the turnpike, we have now lost sight of the turnpike itself.  

Then we spot this strange-looking gentleman with a strange-looking dog on a leash. After some prodding, the strange man finally says, "Un buen lago grande," and points north. We follow his directions to...a liquid rectangle next to a playground. "This is the wrong lake," Zap tells me unnecessarily. "This is a dead lake. No fish has ever been near this lake. I'm gonna go kick that guy's dog's ass."

We search deep South Dade -- still in tatters a year after Andrew -- before giving up. "It's looking dry," Zap says. "And this is one depressing goddamn neighborhood."

After finding our way back to the turnpike, we outrun the thunderstorms by bolting north. At another lake a family is enjoying the great outdoors -- by setting off firecrackers.

As we fish more lakes next to the turnpike -- watching the birds and turtles, scoping for fish and other pond life, being the hell out of the traffic -- I fill in Zap on the adventures Andy and I had.

I tell Zap about that big lake near 836, and another one at NW 25th Street and the Palmetto, so encased by foliage as to be inaccessible without a canoe. How others are fenced so tightly there's no space between chainlink and water to cast. And how some are easily fished because some nature-lover has used bolt cutters to chop holes in the fencing. I think this last gives him some ideas.

No one feels the loss of free and wild fishing spots more keenly than my brother Doug. He loves nature for its own sake. We grew up in a part of Miami cut through and through by canals that had been dug in the three decades before World War II to drain soppy South Florida so it could be covered with houses and sidewalks and buildings and, of course, highways. As kids we fished these canals at every opportunity.

Fishing near the turnpike on a recent afternoon, Doug and I aren't having much luck catchwise, but we're seeing some neat stuff. Even in the shadow of the DOT's asphalt, nature can still put on a show. At one point I take a tiny hook tied to a piece of line and bait it with a minuscule breadball in an effort to catch baitfish. In the jumble of underwater weeds just in front of me, I see a head poke up, duck back down. What the heck? I gawk as the tiny head ascends again and again. Finally more of it comes up out of the vegetation -- a young water snake, probably a brown or banded, about a foot long, attempting to catch "baitfish" for himself. Later, when we explore the other side of the highway four lanes away, where we see a guy fishing the canal, we scope what could be the same snake. Cool.

At another spot a female peacock bass is guarding her young. Dozens and dozens of baby peacocks peck at our baits. When big fish swim in, the mama bass chases them off, effectively eliminating our chances of hooking anything.

A bearded man pulls up in a van. "Any luck?" Nah, man, there ain't no fish here -- see any structures? "Oh, there are plenty of fish here," the man says. "Snook four feet long. Crappie. Giant piranha. Cichlids. Pacu. Shad. And a big oscar, but with hairs like a catfish. Something with three black triangles on its side and an orange spot on its head." Doug, ever the level-headed nature veteran, looks cockeyed at the man and suggests that perhaps these are mutant fish from outer space. The man continues listing species after species, only a few of which are native to South Florida waters.

Doug and I glance at one another and smirk. The man climbs out of his van, slips on a mask and snorkel, and plunges into the lake. His fish tales take on new credence, and we cast our lines once again.

Eventually we grow thirsty and tired of hearing envious motorists hoot and holler at us as they cruise along the nearby expressway.

During my next trip with Zap, we find Blue Lagoon -- a series of large lakes on the south side of 836 near Red Road -- irresistible. In 1991 the Herald ran a story about how Jose A. Fuertes caught a peacock of 5.76 pounds and several largemouth bass, using a Rapala lure in Blue Lagoon. We exit 836 at Red and drive into the parking lot of the Holiday Inn. Another dead lake, at least from the spots we're trying. A spectacular snow-white crane is perched on a rock -- bird's eyeing the vast lake. He doesn't see any fish either.  

Not much farther east, on the other side of 836, we backroad our way to another seemingly worthwhile spot. As we curve off the expressway at Perimeter Road onto Tamiami Canal Drive, the lake comes into view, along with about a thousand people who have parked around the edge of it and are now tearing through the water on waterbikes and Jet Skis and outboard-motor-propelled skiffs. I sort of wish I had a gun, at least a pellet gun.

"What's that?" Zap suddenly says, pointing toward the water. Oh. A tire. I see something, too, I announce. Just some trash.

We return to 836 to seek new and less-humanized adventures. "We'll have to go to my spot once you're through with expressways," Zap says in an effort to keep spirits up. When we stop at the next pond, I pop open a beer and make a mental note to dispose of the bottle properly.

On the way home, as we wait in traffic, Zap turns serious for once in his life. "Bro, you remember how this place used to be when we were kids? Look at this shit. They really fucked it up. And now my kids are going to grow up without it. By the time they're our age, it'll all be gone."

He calls me the next day for another fishing trip, but I have an appointment on the other side of town and I know traffic is going to be a bitch.


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