Outdoors contributor Ryan Brod is a Registered Maine Guide, fly-tyer and educator at University of New England. His writing has appeared in “River Teeth,” “The Maine Review,” and “Gray’s Sporting Journal,” among others, and he’s at work on a book of outdoor essays.
I’m 1,700 miles south of Portland, standing atop the casting platform of a Chittum Skiff poled by my friend, Rich, who is also my fishing guide. We’re somewhere near Flamingo, in Florida Bay, and I’m holding a 9-weight fly rod in one hand and a tan shrimp fly in the other.
It’s mid-March and a cool north breeze has followed me down from New England. Back home in Maine my father is tapping maples. Here, the only trees are mangroves that comprise the myriad islands speckling the horizon.
Up ahead, in extreme shallows, wading birds stand like white totems. The tide is low but rising. Expansive grass mats — some of which are entirely exposed — give the impression that we’re gliding not through Florida Bay but instead through some strange tropical field. Early morning glare makes it impossible to see into the shallow water. If we have any chance of fooling the resident redfish and snook, we must spot them before they spot us.
Sight fishing is hunting with a fly rod. There’s a lot of waiting and watching. I like the anticipation; at any moment a fish might present itself. I’m paying Rich for his guiding experience and extensive knowledge of the Florida backcountry but also for his trained eyes — he scans the water for shapes, shadows, irregular lines.
The reds and snook blend in perfectly with the mottled sand and sea grass floor, so it takes skill to find them. As Rich poles along the shallows, trying to be as stealthy as possible, we spot dissipating puffballs where spooked snook kicked up silt.
Rich stops poling and we eat some cold leftover pizza and wait for clouds to pass. Halfway through the folded slice (meatball with ricotta, if you’re wondering), Rich says, “Ryan, look at that tailing redfish over at 10 o’clock.”
A long cast away, the copper-blue tail wags above the surface as the redfish digs for a meal of its own. The fish is in no hurry. It hasn’t sensed our presence.
“Cool what happens when you just sit back and let nature do her thing,” Rich says. He silently climbs the poling platform and I scarf down the rest of my pizza. I grab the fly rod and get ready.
Since this particular redfish is bulldozing along the bottom, kicking up silt and debris, I have to land my fly close. Otherwise, the fish will never see my offering. Rich positions the boat for my cast, which is short of the target.
“Just let him see it,” Rich says.
I wait until the redfish slides across the bottom to take another shot. I strip the shrimp fly in short bumps. Seeing the fly, the redfish quivers, kicks its tail, and eats it with flared gills.
“Got him!” Rich says. I strip long and come tight to the redfish. After a short fight, I guide the 8-pound red into Rich’s waiting hands.
“Great fish,” he says, briefly reviving the redfish, then releasing it.
As the tide rises, we push farther into the backcountry. I marvel at the life on these flats — rays gliding past, pelicans dive-bombing baitfish. Juvenile sharks v-wake over deeper flats; catfish glide lazily and mullet dimple the surface.
As we scan for gamefish, I tell Rich about chasing carp back home in Merrymeeting Bay: how difficult they are to fool with a fly, how their slow, wagging tails resemble those of feeding redfish, how they spook at the slightest disruption. I tell him he should come up and chase them with me this summer.
If Maine’s spruce-fir northern forests offer an insular feeling — a kind of closeness or even claustrophobia — Florida’s backcountry offers vastness, openness, a seemingly endless expanse. I wonder if the great deserts conjure similar feelings. The tide keeps rising.
Rich calls out from the deck. “OK, Big snook, 12 o’clock in the sand hole, see it?”
It takes my eyes a second to adjust, but then I spot the dark shape lurking over light-colored bottom. “Got it,” I say. I take a backhand shot and sweep the shrimp fly toward the snook, which charges and eats.
If you’ve never caught a snook, imagine a combination of northern pike and striped bass. Sleek, powerful, explosive in short bursts, violent strikes once they commit.
The snook zooms off the flat, pulling most of my line with it. The snook jumps twice like a tarpon, water spraying from its mouth. I fear the fish will wear through my thirty-pound leader.
“That’s a good one!” Rich says. I know the rarity of catching big snook like this one, and I’m nervous as hell.
“Just take your time,” Rich says, as if reading my mind. “Nice and smooth.”
I gain line as Rich poles after the snook. There’s a back and forth for what feels like 10 minutes. I worry a shark might find the easy meal at the end of my line. When I get the snook close to the boat, it surges again. Finally, the fish tires. Rich leans over the gunwale. With a loud shout of approval, he lifts the snook into the air.
It’s a beautiful specimen: silver-gray body, golden fins, with its trademark black lateral stripe — as if the snook possesses its own horizon line. We snap photos and then Rich revives the snook carefully. We high-five and holler. There’s no one around to hear us, just the wading birds and pelicans, and the fish feeding and hiding in the backcountry. I watch the snook glide over sand and grass until it disappears.