Casting for Tarpon and for Hope in the Everglades
An adventure on a poling skiff deep in the Everglades backcountry with one of the state’s most sought-after guides casts light on the biggest threats to Florida’s ecosystem, offering a glimpse at the worsening conditions but not without glimmers of hope that our fisheries can be saved.
Nature here is embattled, but the beautiful light abides, along with the stillness and timeless silence. Captain Benny Blanco has cut the motor of his Hell’s Bay poling skiff, and it drifts above its rippling reflection. We’ve just emerged out of a maze of mangrove islands, through which Captain Blanco unerringly steered the skiff, at optimum speed, looking like a Formula One driver with his fabric face shield pulled up to his sunglasses. Now we rest at the mouth of a caramel-colored creek, looking out across the many-miles-wide expanse of Whitewater Bay. About a hundred yards distant, at the mouth of a different creek, there’s a sudden flash of silver. We’re about five miles northwest of the Flamingo marina where we launched, and are now deep in the Everglades backcountry, where we’re hoping to cast for tarpon—and for hope itself.
“We’ll just watch a while,” Blanco says, scanning the bay with peregrine eyes. He’s thinking aloud about the barometric pressure, the wind speed and direction, the tidal push of the water—what it’s like right here, right now, for tarpon. Are conditions to their liking? Will they “lay up,” as anglers say, gobbling whatever floats along? Blanco describes the mood of tarpon laying up as “happy and relaxed.” The best guides form deep connections with their fisheries, he told me earlier, and with what nature is telling them.
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“There’s a high-pressure ridge over the Bay now,” Blanco says. “See how the clouds are piling up?” Indeed, there’s an immense cottony Rorschach in the sky and on the Bay. “The tarpon can feel the weight.”
I don’t doubt it. The tarpon is a perfect creature, in its way, perfectly attuned. I once spent an unforgettable half-hour or so snorkeling amidst a school of feeding tarpon and witnessed the power, the speed, the eyes like horses’ eyes, the indignant undershot jaws blowing open wide as the tarpon repeatedly charged a mass of synchronized silversides. Now I see another flash, as another tarpon rolls—no one knows why they do this—sending a semaphore of light back at the sky, and I feel the old, old hunter’s glee. To sight-fish for tarpon, to see those massive living jewels, and skillfully present a lure, and see a big one take it? That’s the holy grail of sportfishing. Aficionados will spend small—and not so small—fortunes in the pursuit.
Megalops atlanticus is a slow-maturing creature, but with its 80-year lifespan it can reach 8 feet in length and bulk up to 350 pounds—bigger than an NFL lineman. Tarpon breed in the deep, open ocean waters—anywhere from Virginia to Brazil. The tiny spawn make heroic journeys to shallow estuaries where they grow big and beautiful. And tough. With mouths like concrete, they are hard to hook, harder to land. Anglers speak of “jumping” a tarpon, having one on the line just long enough to see it burst from the surface like a Polaris missile. A fight with a well-hooked tarpon can last hours, featuring many leaps up to 10 feet high. Mad as hell, it will shake its gill plates, making a sound like a rattlesnake.
Tarpon are one of the most sought-after game fish on earth, and these days Captain Benny Blanco, as one of the most in-demand guides in the Everglades, earns a comfortable portion of Florida’s $8 billion annual recreational fishing business. The 43-year-old South Florida native, who’s been fishing the Glades since he was five and been a pro for more than two decades, is a frequent guide for deep-pocketed obsessives. He’ll be out on the water and get a call from Manhattan or Aspen. It’s Mr. X or Y, jonesing for a “silver king” adrenaline rush. And they’ll be here the next day if Blanco green-lights them. “They’re great people, but certifiable,” he laughs. The tarpon-mad.
Blanco was the go-to guide for the great Peter Matthiessen, author of Killing Mister Watson. “He knew more about Florida history than anyone I’ve ever met,” Blanco says. Zen master Matthiessen and the guide weren’t always seeking tarpon nirvana. The Everglades National Park is the only place in the world where you can catch all of sportfishing’s Big Five: tarpon, bonefish, redfish, snook and permit. For Buck Leahy, an aerospace consultant and a once-or-twice-a-year client for the last fifteen years, Everglades fishing is about snook, redfish, and sea trout—in that order, and always catch and release. “Relentless” is how Leahy describes the guide. And passionate: “I’ve never fished with anyone who loves being out on the water more,” he told me by phone. He recalled one very windy day, so windy Blanco’s scheduled clients canceled. Leahey and his brother jumped on the chance.
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“He worked his ass off poling in that wind, and put us onto the biggest snook of our lives.” Another fond memory: Blanco poling the skiff into a creek, where they surprised a ten-foot bull shark that nearly swamped them. And cruising by a sunning saltwater crocodile, a toothy dinosaur as long as the skiff and as big around as a 50-gallon barrel. “I haven’t waded in the water down there since,” Leahy said. “I stay in the boat!”
On this spring day, we’ve had a taste of that wildness—a baby bull shark, a little croc tailing away underwater—and already caught and released a few small snook and redfish by spin casting swimbait. These fish are the class of 2017, hurricane babies, born when Irma’s record rainfall gave the glades a much needed freshwater bath and every living thing drank in a big gulp of life. Leap-frogging from fishing spot to fishing spot, we’ve penetrated deep enough into the back country to feel a psychic twinge of the terror and awe of the old Everglades, the unfathomable, uncrossable swamp that claimed nearly half the state of Florida and bogged every wheel of progress.
The swamp was a hunter-gatherer’s paradise (with mosquitos!) then a naturalist’s dream, with bird traffic like I-95 and gator holes overflowing with everything that squirms. And water, sweet water, the pioneers said, flowing south at a dawdling pace, fresh and pure.
“Horrible,” Blanco finally pronounces the conditions for tarpon. The wind is piling up the water in ways not to the tarpon’s liking. Apparently, they are creatures of strong preferences, like Melville’s Bartleby. “But hey, it’s sunny and breezy and no bugs.” We’ve gone back to spin casting at the creek banks, to the music of rod tips swishing. The hits come fast. A master puppeteer with the lure, Blanco catches at least three redfish or snook to my every one. “Well, I have been doing it all my life,” he says.
While we toss our lures, he tells me about working with Project Healing Waters, taking double-amputees into the back country and fishing with clients on suicide watch. “They’ve all been helped,” he says. “It’s not about the fish. There’s a magnetism in this place, something unquantifiable. Something that we desperately need to hold onto.”
Lately, he’s been juggling his high-paying clients with hosting a TV show, Florida Sportsman Watermen, which began airing this spring on World Fishing Network, the Sportsman Channel and Fox Sports Sun. Even though it comes at the cost of family time with his wife and three daughters, it’s a platform he can’t give up because of the voice it grants him. “It’s irresponsible for anyone who makes a living on the water not to try to make a difference,” he tells me. Along with delivering the show’s strong conservation message, he’s expending a lot of time and energy on political activism with a coalition of guides, Captains for Clean Water. The group has been making itself heard online and in Tallahassee since the super-red tides of 2016–2018, bolstered by excess nutrients flowing from Lake Okeechobee, decimated fish stock on both coasts of South Florida. “Guides are the eyes and ears on the spot. We have to be the voice,” he says.
So he tells me again: Sure, it’s still beautiful here. People might think the fishing is great, if they weren’t here in the glory days. But a guide knows when his fishery is dying. Benny Blanco lives in a state of emergency. He hears the sirens all the time. The park needs more fresh water, desperately. This is serious as a heart attack.
“The Everglades is in cardiac arrest!” Blanco says.
NATURE’S SQUEEZE PLAY
In her classic The Everglades: River of Grass, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas sums up Central and South Florida’s water management as “one chaotic gesture of greed and ignorance and folly.” That gesture is now over a century old and still ongoing. But the first real “success” in the campaign to drain the swamp was the completion in the 1930s of a system of levees, later named the Herbert Hoover Dike, which corralled the vast freshwater supply of mighty Lake Okeechobee. Instead of sloshing over the banks and meandering south, excess water began to be shunted west to the Caloosahatchee River and east to the St. Lucie via man-made canals, or parceled out for irrigation. With that garrote, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cut off entirely the sheet flow of fresh water to the south, and the River of Grass ceased to exist. Eighteen-hundred miles of canals and dams later, all the dreams of the rich and powerful and clever men who saw money to be made once the water was tamed have come to pass: cattle grazing to the north of Lake O, sugar plantations to the south, a bounty of fruit and vegetables with a year-round growing season and a real-estate boom that hasn’t stopped resounding yet.
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But protean nature always scoffs at mankind’s puny bonds, and imposes, in both blatant and mysterious ways, limits on our growth. The inevitable waste products of agriculture and municipal areas have turned Lake Okeechobee into a cauldron of chemicals and microbes. The nutrient and sediment-laden brew sent west and east via canal-to-coastal estuaries acts like a steroid for blue-green algae (the highly visible green glop) and fuels extensive and long-lasting red tide events. The red tide super-bloom of 2017 carried over to what activists are calling “Toxic 18.” Instead of the limited fish-kill of a normal, naturally occurring red tide, this one was killing everything from manatees to sea turtles, dolphins and crabs. The toxins were in the air as well, leading to public health concerns. Drug stores sold out of surgical masks, pictures of green glop and belly-up fish flooded the internet and tourists fled with their dollars. Fishing guides were phoning out-of-state clients, telling them, “Don’t come.” By the end of the summer of 2018, the red tide had killed some 2,000 tons of marine life and cost businesses more than $8 million.
Here in the Everglades backcountry, Benny Blanco and I seem far removed from that ongoing catastrophe. We’re far from the cattle ranches, farms, fruit groves and septic tanks that pollute Lake O. But every time the Army Corps of Engineers releases that water to the east and to the west, which happens several times a year, the Glades is deprived of the freshwater source it desperately needs. Before the water of Lake O was confined, before it was polluted, it was a vital link in the Everglades Ecosystem. Now the water here isn’t as clear as it was in Blanco’s youth, and it’s saltier. Cast by cast, I’ve been receiving a tutorial. In the River of Grass, that grass was sawgrass. Now saltwater intrusion is collapsing the sawgrass marshes of the Everglades. Invasive species? Yeah, they’re a problem. Blanco will kill a python if he sees one. But that’s a cut on the hand. It’s the water, the lack of fresh water. That’s the heart attack.
Nature’s plumbing scheme, following the whims of meteorology and physics, creating the wonders of the unblemished peninsula, was for the fresh water to flow all the way from what is now Orlando to the Florida Keys. Fresh mingled with salt in the vast shallow pool between the Glades and the Keys. Mostly cut off from the Gulf by mud banks and mangroves, the merging waters became Florida Bay, Florida’s largest estuary and a vital breeding ground for recreational and commercial fisheries. These days Florida Bay receives only a quarter of that historic fresh water flow. The brief influx from Hurricane Irma highlighted the resilience of the Bay and of the national park as a whole, occasioning the births of the little redfish we’re catching today, as well as record numbers of nesting wading birds. But the dry season of 2015 had already killed 40,000 acres of seagrass, about 10 percent of the seagrass in the Bay. As more water was lost to evaporation than could be replenished, the salinity in parts of Florida Bay spiked to twice that of normal seawater. As the hypersalinity killed seagrass and oysters, the die-offs fueled algal blooms—another cascading disaster. And as the creeping seawater, unseen, penetrates the Floridan Aquifer, it poses a threat to the drinking water of 8 million South Floridians.
Pollution to the east, pollution to the west and salt from the south—nature’s squeeze play. Heart attack? That sounds about right.
HEADWATERS AND HEADS OF STATE
Dr. Stephen Davis, wetland ecologist for the Everglades Foundation, prefers a different metaphor. “It’s like you’re driving on a country road at night and you’re about to run out of gas. You’ve been at the wheel for hours, running on fumes. And then, there, up ahead, you see a light. A gas station! We have hope,” he told me in a phone interview.
And a plan that might work. After all, environmental science has come a long way since the days when Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward (1905 to 1909), ran on the stance that Florida should “drain that abominable pestilence-ridden swamp.” When President Truman dedicated the 1,509,000-acre Everglades National Park in 1947, there were plenty of environmentalists angry at the relatively stingy apportioning, but no one fully grasped the ecological issues. The Park was seen as a garden enshrined, not as a limb crudely amputated. But by the 1980s, gangrene had clearly set in. As Michael Grunwald recounts in The Swamp, Governor Bob Graham read about the issue in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue in a scathing article decrying South Florida’s disintegrating water quality and the coral and fish dying from Pennecamp State Park to Palm Beach. Alarmed and soon scientifically informed, Graham created Save Our Everglades, intending to restore the natural flow from Okeechobee to the Everglades by the year 2000. Instead, that was the year the U.S. Congress passed—amidst more outrage, alarm and bipartisan enthusiasm—the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (or CERP).
It’s an effort simple enough for a hashtag, #senditsouth, and multifarious enough to be called “the world’s largest, most complex, eco-oriented jigsaw puzzle.” To simplify a file cabinet as big as Florida’s phallic Capitol building, CERP calls for the diversion of the toxic west and east discharges from Lake Okeechobee south into a massive reservoir to be built in the Everglades Agricultural Area. “Think of reservoirs like batteries, storing the energy,” Davis told me. From there, the water can be transferred in controlled releases to artificial wetlands, filled with filtering plants (“like surge protectors”), and then sent on its purified way to the thirsty Everglades National Park—once the Tamiami Trail is raised in strategic places.
It’s going to cost a lot. “It’s coming. Soon. And a lot more than you would ever believe,” President Trump said about funding for Everglades restoration during a recent visit to Lake O. The cost was originally estimated at $7.8 billion, but “more than you would ever believe” is probably closer to the truth. And it will take “ages”—read: 30 to 50 years. The state will have to buy 60,000 acres of land in the Everglades Agricultural Area, some it from reluctant sellers (Big Sugar). In an early snafu in December 2018, the South Florida Water Management District granted the sugar industry an extension on a lease of land that should’ve been released already for digging reservoirs. “It’s like you pull into the gas station, but it’s closed. But you see another one down the road,” Davis chuckled, ruefully. “History may repeat itself.”
He meant, nothing much will happen except a lot of lawyering. But the good news is that the bad news is so bad it’s caught the attention of politicians. As Davis pointed out, Governor DeSantis, who’s making all the right noises, sees the ties between the economy, the water supply and tourism. Such is the visual power of an algal bloom, which has made Florida waters a national concern. Even Sen. Scott has his green hat on. U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala called Everglades restoration “life or death for the people of Florida.” As Mark Twain said, “Water flows uphill towards money.” If enough people agree it will cost more to do nothing, then maybe money will attract the water back south.
AN ANGLER’S PRAYER
Today, fishing with Benny Blanco, and listening to his heartbreak, every cast has been a prayer for connection. Not that I don’t take hope from Blanco. He’s a strong, vocal, committed wise-use conservationist, and he has hope (he has children, so he has to). “I fully believe we can fix this,” he tells me, and he knows more than I do, and feels the anger and political momentum of his watermen colleagues, a coalition 30,000 strong and growing. But I’ve only recently come off of six hours on the Florida Turnpike—the River of Cars. There, evolution in its blind indifference carries on with survival of the most profitable.
Blanco hooks a ladyfish, a silver ribbon with pterodactyl jaws—a trash fish but a beauty. As he’s letting it go, I feel a particularly fierce strike on my lure. “I’ve got a big one!” I say, which gets a laugh from Blanco. He can tell from the bend in my pole exactly what I’ve hooked: another juvie. For a big man, he has a surprisingly high-pitched giggle, which is a pleasure to elicit. My fish is indeed another juvie redfish, but a cool one, with a dozen vivid black spots instead of the usual one on each side near the tail. Blanco snaps a picture with his phone and I toss it back.
The clouds have turned dark as the day wanes. We’ve seen no more rolling tarpon. The heavier tackle has stayed in its rack. But I wasn’t really after the holy grail of sports fishing. I just wanted a reminder of my Florida boyhood days, when I coveted all the latest gear and stalked the bluegill and catfish and whiting with the patience of a heron, and every fishing trip was like an extra Christmas. And those pleasures, the guide delivered.
We have a long boat trip back, and likely a wet one, but before I settle back and hold onto my cap, I ask if we can stop by an old Calusa Indian shell mound Blanco mentioned to me earlier. Finding it takes an
impressive piece of guiding because there’s hardly anything left. The Calusa were killed off by men and diseases sometime around the 18th century. Unlike the lofty mounds to the west in the Ten Thousand Islands area, this one is a faint bleached
crescent on a mangrove island barely a foot above the water. Since there’s nothing like it anywhere nearby, Blanco speculates that the Calusa, the original human inhabitants of the Glades, must’ve rafted the shells out here to build a lookout, to prepare to greet the Spanish with spears
Blanco poles to the jungly shore and I step gingerly off the skiff, crunching on shells into the shaded interior. There’s no trash, there are no footprints (well, mine, behind me). Perfect stillness, perfect silence. Perhaps I’m the first person to bother pacing these worn ramparts since the days of the Calusa. It crosses my mind that if Blanco took off, I would be fatally screwed. That’s a gift of the wild, knowledge of the tenuousness of everything. That and a feeling of being truly insignificant, but in a blessed way, as a tiny part of something ineffably powerful and fine beyond our words.
As I’m about to step back onto the skiff, I look down through the tannin-stained water at the shoreline and see the weirdest thing. It’s a big horseshoe crab shell, a couple of feet underwater, impaled on a jagged mangrove root. I’m still trying to figure out how it got into that predicament. These crabs’ shells are not easily penetrated. Rogue wave or rogue wake? I reach down to try to wrench it loose and am met with the uncanny scuttling of legs. The thing is alive! It doesn’t come off easily, but I manage to free the creature without further cracking the shell. I let it loose and it drifts, threatening to go belly-up. But when I reach farther down and settle it onto the bottom, right-side up, it takes off at top horseshoe crab speed, along its merry prehistoric way.
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