November 18th, 2002

The Premiere OnLine Magazine for the Fly Fishing Enthusiast.
This is where our readers tell their stories . . .

Casting in the Aquarium
Jason Tinling

By Jason Tinling, Lancaster, PA

Fishing has been a part of my life for as far back as I have memory, and while that time frame arguably grows shorter with each passing year, it's still a fair amount of time. As a pre-teen and teenager, if it was Saturday and my Dad and I weren't going fishing then I would be up at dawn, devouring the morning assortment of fishing shows on ESPN. Whether it was a spring creek in the Midwest, monster trevalle in the South Pacific, or Jimmy Houston catching farm pond crappies with his kids, I loved it all. One of the strongest memories from those early morning sessions was for any show where the host was after peacock bass. I was in awe of their beauty, humbled by their strength. I remember one of the hosts describing the experience as "dropping a line off an overpass, and tying into the most drop-dead gorgeous tractor trailer you'd ever seen." "Some day", I told myself as I watched in silence. Some day.

A business trip to Miami, in November? With time to fish? Yeah, I can make that meeting. The child within me thrilled at the opportunity to make good on a promise made years ago.

The plane touched down in Miami to weather in the mid-80's, and the memories of the 40 degree weather I had left behind at the Baltimore Airport were burned from my mind. After picking up my car and getting checked into the hotel, I quickly pulled the 6 wt rod out of its travel tube and dug the reel out of my luggage. Out came the vest, and some fishing information pulled from the Florida Fish and Game website. I headed off to Antonio Maceo Park, the boat launch on the Tamiami Canal. What the Fish and Game papers forgot to mention was the big "No Fishing" signs posted on the shore around the boat docks. I drove blindly along various streets, trying to follow the bending path of the canal, with moderate success. I finally found a small patch of shoreline that wasn't somebody's fenced property and pulled up onto the grass.

I rigged the gear quickly, and headed over to the water. The water was deep and tannic, the flowing current pulling long strands of weed downstream to wave and undulate. I worked both sides of the bank knowing that the small Clouser minnow was being held close to the surface by the swiftly moving current. I lay casts under the small bridge crossing over the water. The papers had said to fish under bridges, that peacocks liked to hang out around them.

A disturbance of water downstream caught my eye and I began to wander down the bank. Several feet of body rose to the surface of the water, and like any good Yankee raised in Southern California, I immediately assumed it was an alligator and was half way to the car before my breath caught up with me. Common sense finally caught up as well, and I realized that there was little chance that most any alligator was going to come straight up 5 feet of nearly sheer bank to get to me. I kept my distance anyway. After longer observation I realized that the disturbances were not alligators, but a pair of manatee feeding in the weeds along the shore. The fishing being non-existent, I sat down quietly and watched the manatees as the setting sun threw pink and orange hues over the surface of the canal.

Pavon

Wednesday presented my "real chance" to get some fishing in, with meetings wrapping up at mid-day. I sent a pleading email to a friend who was familiar with the area, and she encouraged me to be a good explorer, drive further, look closer, and fish! In practice, great idea. For the antsy teenager inside me burning to fish, this was hard advice to follow, but I did my best. After the meetings wrapped for the day, I was back at the hotel changing into fishing clothes and heading out the door. I headed west on the Tamiami Trail, eyes splitting their time between the road in front of me and the canal to the right of me. I made mental notes as I drove along.

"Side canal at 97 Street."

"Some open shore line around 110 Street."

Mayanchic

After what seemed like an eternity of driving that probably wasn't more than 20 or 30 minutes, I drove past a wide stretch of open property along the bank and had to stop. I pulled off the main drag to a paralleling side street and parked the car. The wind blew briskly into my face as I walked towards the water. A quick look showed more deep, fast, tannic water. Gotta try, though. I spent a half hour flailing against the wind that seemed to be perpetually in my face, regardless of how I turned. Top water, sub-surface, it didn't make a difference. I still hadn't even seen a bluegill!

After putting the Clouser I was fishing across my back seemingly as often as I put it in the water, I headed out. The blowing wind seemed to suck the spirit and enthusiasm out of me as it pushed me back across the open lot to the car. Ready to give the valiant effort, I pulled back onto the side street, headed back towards one of the other mental notes that I had made. The road turned sharply, pulling me away from the canal and leading me to who knew where. I followed easily, looking for a cross street to take me back to the road I was looking for. As the car drove under the freeway, the road crossed a small bridge and a thin blue sign caught my eye. Snapper Creek Canal. Hadn't noted it on the drive up, so maybe it's not connected. Something nagged at me to at least take a look. I flipped the car around and headed back, pulling up the street beside the canal and parking it.

I headed over to the water and peered down. Shallower. Slower. Still a little stained. But what's that color? That bright orange down there near the bottom? Most likely it was a leaf or two of some tropical tree, it's yellow color turning orange as it filtered up through the tannic water. But that boil of water as I began to turn was fish. Definitely. I put my 6 wt back together as I threw on my vest. The first cast, and as I lifted the fly quickly to the surface a small fish smacked it and headed back towards the weeds. The coloring and the bright red-orange on the tail were giveaways. It was a peacock bass!

Spotted Peacock

I worked up towards the small bridge, flipping the fly into the gaps in the weeds, across the channel, down the bank. The fish were definitely interested, taking a look at the fly as it moved by, but it had to really be moving to draw a strike. As I placed a cast to the weeds beside the bridge, I made two quick strips of the fly and it suddenly stopped. It didn't get grabbed, it didn't get hit, it just stopped. And then it tried to bury itself in the weeds. Leaning back on the rod, it arched and bowed as the fish slid out of the weeds and bullied its way up the channel. The clarity of the water made the depth deceptive, and the fish I thought was a foot long and just below the surface transformed into a 15" fish 5 feet down near the bottom.

Back and forth, in and out of the weeds the struggle went, until a gorgeous peacock bass lay on the surface of the water. About this time I realized that my camera was back in my luggage at the hotel. Well, there were bigger concerns at the moment, like how to land the fish. The rod was already dangerously bowed under the weight of the 3 pound pavon, and there was no way I was going to dead lift it up the 3 or 4 feet of bank with the rod. While I pondered, the fish suddenly got a second wind, leaping from the water like a smallmouth bass, jumping and flipping. I eyed a small cut in a few yards up the bank and walked the fish up slowly. After a couple more jumps I lifted the rod back until I could reach the 10# leader and carefully lifted the fish from the water. The thick body, sloped forehead and bright orange lower jaw rose out of the water like some bizarre aquatic clown. I clamped down on the lower jaw with my thumb and tipped the fish back, holding it high in the air. The iridescent golds and olives of the body glowed in the light of the early afternoon sun, as the strong bars and intricate tail spot contributed their somber black to the carnival of color. For fear of upsetting the residents in the apartment complex behind me, I held on to the holler of elation surging inside of me. I dropped the fish back into the water and it disappeared quickly into the weeds.

Spotted Tilapia

I crossed over the bridge and headed up the canal. I landed several more stunning bass, none as nice as the first one, however. I caught beautiful spotted tilapia, which in the water appeared to be golden olive with 3 or 4 black spots running along their lateral line. Out of the water, they turned into deep olive fish with iridescent, pearly scales, and no spots to be seen. Their dorsal fins looked as thought the top quarter of them had been dipped in fluorescent red, and had then been touched up at the tips by an artist with a liner brush and a bottle of the purest white paint. I caught a jaguar guapote, a thick, aggressive fish, with a body that was crappie-like in basic shape. Its body was a rich cream color, mottled with heavy brownish-purple spotting. The jaguar name comes from the two small, sharp teeth located in both jaws. The teeth are spaced about 2/3 of a thumb width apart, although I thankfully did not find this out with an ill-advised lipping.

As I worked up the canal, an interstate worth of cars streaming along behind me, I caught fish of color, and strength and of beauty. Not only tropical specimens, but thick, acrobatic largemouth bass and feisty, hungry bluegill. I must admit that the best largemouths I saw were in the 5 pound or better class, but I was unable to tempt them.

I had ended up in a gravel bottomed curve in the canal and I saw a large mixed school of peacocks and largemouth prowling through the water. I switched over to a large Semper Fleye in all chartreuse, hoping to tempt these big fish with big food. I managed to catch a couple of foot long butterflies on the fly, and like all the fish that day, they had wanted the fly moving, and moving fast. I noticed a large peacock hunkered down near the bottom. I let the fly settle down just past him and with two long, quick strips, streaked the bait past him. In a flash of orange and white he rolled over on the fly and inhaled it. I set the hook swiftly and he responded with 3 quick, strong shakes of his head. Unsatisfied with the results he was getting, the fished streaked up the canal, line disappearing through my fingers in a blur. Again he burrowed down, shaking his big, thick head. And the hook pulled free. 5 pounds or so of angry butterfly peacock shot up the canal and away from me.

As in most things in life, balance is important, and it took a strong dose of bitter to help temper the sweetness of the day. It helped me to appreciate the wonderful time I had, and the boy inside me smiled at a promise kept. ~ Jason


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