The River of Grass

The River of Grass

  • By: Steve Kantner
Everglades bass may not be lunkers, but they're plentiful when the conditions are right.

WHAT’S POSSIBLY THE BEST BASS FLY-fishing in the known universe—at least, for anyone counting numbers—awaits anglers in the Florida Everglades. The majority of Everglades bass aren’t large and average four pounds or less; but, when water levels fall in the “River of Grass” battalions of bass and panfish pour into wilderness canals and the surface fishing ramps up to critical mass.That water drop is a seasonal event and typically occurs during spring. Along with an influx of predators, forage is flushed from marshes and into those canals. The ecosystem revolves around supply and demand, and wherever there’s competition, the players yield to their appetites. That creates a topwater free-for-all that lasts several months and fly fishers can cash in on the bounty.Much is written about bass fishing with flies, and it appears that a substantial percentage of fly fishers are content to pursue bass with subsurface patterns, while only a few diehards cling to methods rooted in the origins of our sport. I refer specifically to the use of surface lures—a practice dating back to the late-1800s. Cork-bodied flies and deer-hair poppers—better known as bass bugs—exemplify that tradition, which borders on a religion, in my opinion.If popping in the Everglades is a religion, Jack “Bass” Allen is its prophet. Allen, a self-styled guide, raconteur and angling historian who’s lived in Fort Lauderdale for longer than anyone can remember and, in his own words, “specializes in small fish,” could repeat the popper credo in his sleep: “Some of these bass may be small, but they deserve our respect.”He backed-up that statement by acquiring a nine-foot, 2-weight rod that he claims “casts very nicely with a three (weight line),” and “makes even small bass fun to catch.” He adds, “It’s all in the hit.”While there’s no argument that a foot-long bass is a hoot on a buggy whip, you’ll find more than just dinks cooling their fins in the Everglades. I state from experience that largemouths weighing between five and seven pounds lie in wait for a well-placed popper. For weeks at a time it’s possible to release more than 50 bass measuring between 15 and 20 inches in a single day—all on poppers. Be warned, however, that fishing of this quality is dependent on seasonal conditions.Timing the GladesBasically, South Florida experiences two distinct climatic periods. The first, a hydro-period (call it the rainy season), extends from around the third week in May to a week or two before Thanksgiving. During that five-month interval nearly two-thirds of the region’s 60 inches of annual precipitation fall. That’s when the Everglades marshes fill to overflowing. Sometime later, running concurrently with the arrival of the first winter cold fronts, that deluge abates, the marshes begin to drain, and the bass fishing perks up.When people talk about the Glades, they’re describing a vast sunken region stretching from just south of Lake Okeechobee to the shores of Florida Bay. What qualifies as actual Everglades encompass slightly more than one million acres. The area is often described as America’s largest marsh, but it consists almost entirely of emergent grasses, such as cattails and saw grass, that extend beyond the horizon like a semi-tropical cornfield. Of primary interest to fly fishers is a network of manmade canals that traverse this grassy hinterland and are easily accessed from several major roads.Only two actual thoroughfares—Interstate 75 and US Highway 41 (also known as the Tamiami Trail)—bisect this sunken prairie. Bank fishing is limited, but numerous opportunities exist for those who launch a small boat or canoe.Those highways parallel canals dug when construction crews created the road bases. Need I mention that no one around here fishes from bellyboats or wades, due to the threat of alligators? As a matter of fact, these reptiles are so ubiquitous that the Everglades portion of Interstate 75 is called Alligator Alley.Unbeknownst to many Floridians, a minor gradient exists between big Lake Okeechobee to the north and the shores of Florida Bay. It may seem insignificant, but it’s enough to keep the water moving south, which helps explain why the northernmost portions of the Glades (Loxahatchee, the Holey Land) empty first, and why the bass blitz begins there every winter. The presence of moving current also explains how Marjory Stoneman Douglas found a name for her classic tome, Everglades: River of Grass.By late-April or May, bass fishing sizzles in the Miami-Dade and Broward counties area. The key to productive fishing is water level, meaning how far it has receded. Anglers find out by looking for watermarks on bank-side rocks and vegetation. Interested parties also check at launch ramps and adjacent pilings. Still, the most-reliable clues are provided by the fish.As the water drops in winter and spring, bass are forced into canals. Wherever the latter occurs, fish should be visible to the naked eye, especially to those anglers wearing polarized glasses. In fact, by late February or March anglers should see packs of small bass chasing baitfish along the shoreline.If you decide to fish, don’t yield to the traditional slow-twitch mentality where you’ll cast into quiet pockets and wait for the ripples to disappear. Instead, cast to every section of the bank and keep moving forward—these fish are marauders.During spring in the Glades, the weather is pleasant with temperatures hovering in the high 70s. Fish hit throughout the day, although the action escalates as water temperature warms. Later on, in May and June, the best fishing usually takes place at dawn or dusk, or after cooling afternoon thunderstorms.May and June is when fly fishers catch lots of large bass. To approach those fish, the master, Jack Allen, employs a 14-foot johnboat equipped with a small electric motor. I capitalize on the stealth approach by fishing from a 14-foot canoe, complete with “dull dead grass “ finish, a drift sock and a bent-shank paddle. The strategy each of us employs is to prospect a particular bank, including sections with no emergent vegetation, by making repetitive short casts coupled with moderately fast, unevenly-syncopated retrieves. Around here, bass aren’t necessarily luxuriating beneath bonnet weeds or lotus pads.I fish on a regular basis with a guy I call Laswell the Lawyer. He’s been addicted to popper fishing for a dozen years. Laswell represents the “new” generation of popper fishermen and wouldn’t think of casting anything else. But, like Jack Allen, he simplifies things. To Laswell, all poppers are equal, as long as they’re painted pearl, green or chartreuse and tied on size-4 hooks. If they’re rendered partially snag-free by the addition of a horseshoe-shaped weed guard, fashioned from a piece of 10- to 16-pound test, so much the better. Speaking of chartreuse, Allen told me about questioning a local fisherman about productive lure colors for the area. The local responded, “Everything worked okay, as long as it was ‘sharp-truse.’” As they say in Laswell’s business, “case closed.”No matter how good the fishing gets during spring, there’s still the matter of casting. In Allen’s case that sometimes involves an inexperienced client. Not surprisingly, that ever-resourceful angler fashions a fail-safe approach.“I over-line my rods by fishing a seven or eight-weight line on a four-weight rod,” Allen says. “The rig practically casts itself.”Allen isn’t fussy about bass bugs either, choosing instead to follow a minimalist approach that champions Styrofoam fishing floats for bodies, and limited dressing on the hook.That said, I still remember joining Allen’s friends, including the late Bob Kay and the inimitable Capt. John Donnell of Islamorada, in experimenting with an endless variety of bug-making materials. Then, as now, I prefer the cupped and slotted, tapered cork bodies available from companies like Wapsi.I’ve learned to epoxy my hooks in place without thread-wrapping the shanks. I paint the heads white with artist’s gesso and color them with pastel acrylics before dabbing on eyes and assorted spots with a nail head. I finish the bodies with a single application of gloss coat, before adding a calftail tail, a webby hackle collar, and rubber legs that I pull through the body with a homemade contraption that resembles a bobbin threader.I finish bugs by punching two holes in the body from top to bottom with a bodkin and pull a loop of Mason’s 10-pound through the holes after coating the ends with cyanoacrylate glue. When inserted correctly, this makes for a first-class weed guard.Steve Kantner lives and fishes in South Florida.