This is the first time I’ve read prose written like script-writing. I really like the way Bill weaves present-day Miami with its history. It forces the reader to flip-flop his/her own images of the city with a slideshow of grasslands and palm trees. Maybe my mind is still on the porn convention, but I saw it as a story that begins with Miami as a slutty, used up hussy and ends with her virginal pristine origins. I don’t know if that’s what Bill intended to communicate, especially because we all know I’ve got issues with my Christina upbringing and my liberal lifestyle and often project that shit into someone else’s art…but it doesn’t matter. To me, good writing is speaking to the reader, and encouraging him/her to enter the realm of his own brain for a few moments – I think Bill did that even though I have no interest in fishing.
By William Kearney
2:00 A.M. South Beach clubs are peaking. Inside, boys and girls move en masse like molecules humming to the same frequency, communal yet solipsist [I love this word, thanks for spelling it wrong – I looked it up…and i can’t believe how succinctly it sums up exactly what I’ve been wondering about “Americanized” yoga…I put it on the biscaynewriters.com web site I loved it so much…if you’d like to contribute a word every month, let me know. I’ll call it “word of the month by Bill K” or something like that…]. Outside, doormen leverage the massive and endless flow of want. Homeless men cast their lines next to pizza joints while on the street, fully tweaked Mercedes, stretch Hummers and retooled muscles cars cruise slowly, thumping bass lines along Washington Avenue, Miami’s steroid version of a hometown drag.
Three hundred yards away, at the end of Washington Avenue, the barrier island known as South Beach ends in a deepwater cut. The cut leads freighters and holiday cruise ships in and out of the port of Miami. It’s also the conduit through which Upper Biscayne Bay empties and fills in accordance with the pull of the moon.
2:00 A.M. and the tide is in the midst of its 6-hour flow back to the Atlantic. A school of mullet is carried across a dark point. Behind the point, in the blackness that is water at night, sit several pre-historic animals as big as men. They are tarpon. When seen in daylight they have a lulling grace, an ease of character that belies what they are capable of. They know about the tide. They know about the bay and the turtle grass and the shrimp and mullet that hide there, the pieces of life that will flush by. That is why they have chosen this spot among hundreds of others. As the mullet pass the point, several are taken into the mouths of tarpon. The rest skitter across the surface for safety.
Drifting out with the tide is a flats boat. This is where my friend Alex and I stand. We each have finely tuned graphite rods: spools of expensive thread tied to a perfectly balanced chunk of lead molded around a hook and adorned with plastic shrimp. As we drift we cast our lead jigs to the point in hopes of fooling a tarpon or a smaller but more coveted snook. The jigs are dense and about 4 inches long. I can’t imagine how fish locate them down there. And because I am new at this game I cast cautiously. In doing so I fail to reach the point, I engage the reel too soon, I swing my jig into open water, away from the edge, the shadow, the predator’s advantage, [settle down on the hyperbolic adjectives!] rendering it meaningless.
Alex has spent hours in this very spot. He and his friend Dave found it and devised how to fish it over the past 10 years. Alex’s cast shoots through the darkness and lands exactly where it should. His jig descends on a free spool, allowing the lure to drop straight down along the wall instead of swinging on the circumference of a tight line. As the lure descends he keeps a fingertip on the outgoing line so as to sense the slight lapse of tension that says the jig has reached bottom. [Are you using such dry description to personify Alex as a serious, don’t-fuck-with-me jig specialist? If so, the language works. If not, it drags and loses the reader.] He is a jig specialist. Though bait will catch more fish over a given week, it’s a less focused and less refined process. Live bait is a middleman, an agent doing the work for you. If Alex catches a fish on a jig it is a direct relationship between him and the fish. The animal on the end of the line is there because of the other animal’s knowledge and skill. [This is a good line. Play with it – tighten it up a bit]
In the pod of tarpon there is a smaller fish. Eighty pounds. Maybe 10 years old. For that reason he is quicker than the older, truly large fish. He is the first to reach Alex’s jig. What Alex feels, instead of the slight lapse of tension, is a weird and early surge. He clicks the reel into gear and snaps back. He braces wide, keeping the rod wedged between his ribs and upper arm. There is an impact against him and he is pulled toward the front of the boat. He staggers and regains his balance then holds the rod close in, as if guarding an infant. The reel hisses in reverse as the line is pulled away [passive voice] through the black spaces beneath the boat. I have never seen a reel hiss like this. I have never seen a man really struggle with a fish. My angling has, to this point, involved freshwater fish in Pennsylvania and New York, where bass rarely weigh more than a roasted chicken.
Alex Rodriguez, my fishing partner, arrived from Cuba when he was two on the Freedom Flights. By the time he was six, he and his mother were night-fishing the bridges of Dade County for snapper and the like and Miami Vice and Scarface were stamping the Miami fantasy onto the American psyche. From those bridges Alex would spy spotted eagle rays coasting by, parrotfish nipping their way along rocks, jack crevalles corralling bait against seawalls. He also watched tarpon and the occasional snook hunting the shadow lines of the bridge. As a teen he left the snapper fishing to his mother and began an obsession with catching the big boys, particularly snook. It was tough going. While fishing 3-4 nights a week he might catch one fish on live shrimp. But it was during this time that Alex ran into Dave Justice, a self-proclaimed cracker whose family had settled in Florida long before the state was a holiday destination. Their friendship would lead to an exploration of Biscayne Bay based on the love of catching tarpon and snook.
Wild animals have a density of strength that becomes particularly obvious with a fish the size of a guard dog. The first run leads us 100 yards across the inlet to a gravel bar where the fish decides to sulk. On shore, new condos stand against the low pink of urban clouds. Alex pumps the rod and gains a bit of line. “This is the bum spot,” he says, nodding to the gravel shoreline. “Dave and I used to fish it. It was good like, ten years ago. Dave was playing a snook, running along the bank, and boom, he falls down. He tripped over something. Like a log. But it was a bum. Just sleeping there. The fish got away. Dave was like, fuuuuck. The bum was like, “Fuck you.” (ha ha)
The tarpon attached to Alex’s line sets out on another run, this time swimming with the tide to the ocean. Alex fights and I steer the boat. As we follow, a massive freighter enters the cut from the Atlantic. With any luck the fish will stay along the edge and not cut the line off on a rock ledge or cross in front of the freighter.
The fish stays clean. The freighter, a huge, droning monolith, passes and we ready for its wake. Alex crouches low on the deck. “Take the waves at an angle.” As the waves hit he puts his free hand down for support while keeping tension on the line. “You don’t want to fall in here, boy,” he says. “I seen bull sharks here after my fish.” They were somewhere down there in the darkness. Or not. There’s no way to know. They follow tarpon migrations and take chunks out of fighting or injured fish.
Tonight’s tarpon is part of one of the planet’s longest evolutionary winning streaks. Our chimp-like ancestors didn’t lift their knuckles off the ground to peer over prairie grass until about 5 million years ago, while tarpon took shape 125 million years ago in the Upper Jurassic period, a volatile phase of earth history when Africa and South America were beginning to drift apart into the continents we recognize today. T. Rex and Utahraptors hunted North America and tarpon fry hid in mangrove swamps. Spielberg would have been historically accurate with tarpon swimming in the lagoons of dinosaur thrillers. All told, our 50,000 years as a separate species is swallowed 2,500 times by the tarpon’s existence. Or are we as old as it took to make us?
After 10 minutes of pulling, giving and gaining line, Alex has the tarpon within sight. It seemed strangely calm, as if aware of the concept to stalemate. By angling the line Alex pressures the fish closer. He is certainly looking at us. A little closer, a little closer. As soon as Alex reaches to grab the line the fish explodes, slamming against the boat and soaking us. Suddenly the night seems more like “Wild Kingdom” than a fishing trip. The tarpon is off on another run, this time straight down.
In short order Alex’s rod tip is conspicuously still.
“He’s got me on that ledge.” There’s tension but no sign of a swimming motion or movement in any direction. “Damn”. I swing the boat out into the channel in an attempt to free the line. As I do Alex’s rod snaps up, plain and unbent. The line drapes at his shoulders. “Fuck fuck fuck fuck.” He stamps his foot but has a smile on his face. Somewhere down there a tarpon eases into slow water, resting.
* * *
Small ripples catch and bend the reflection of dock lights and blackness. We idle slowly by moored freighters on our way to a second spot, this one inside Biscayne Bay. Ahead, the water shows a curious disturbance. As we ease closer two dolphins keep a leisurely cadence, heading toward downtown Miami. Strange to hear lungs emerge from the world below. They breathe as we do yet flourish down there. Dolphins, when they pass through an area, cause fishing to shut down. Like sharks, they will take your catch, often tearing into fighting snook just as a coyote might take a tethered cat.
We’ve left the tarpon at the inlet because the actual goal for the evening is for me, the tropical neophyte, to catch a snook. A tarpon is fun and bombastic and can break your nose at the boat, but a snook is an ethereal prize of tropical inshore fishing. “There are guys who’d rather show a buddy a snook than pick up a $500 pay check, ” says Florida Wildlife Conservation biologist Ron Taylor. “Once you get hooked on fishing snook you kinda gotta get divorced.” They seem to strike many as a seductive riddle, the answer to which Nature doles out fish by fish, but rarely generously. I’ve begun to think of tarpon as dogs and snook as wild cats. Tarpon move socially and don’t mind being seen. They roll in broad daylight, they note charter boat RPM’s and gather at fish cleaning tables for food scraps. While feeding, they recklessly smack shrimp and give their locations away, and will even vault pell-mell from the water chasing mullet or topwater lures. They’d throw keg parties if they could. Snook, on the other hand, kill explosively but are relatively discrete. The sound of a snook feeding under a bridge is a crisp, staccato pop. Minimal exposure. They tend not to scavenge. They find corners, gullies, shadows from which to peer out at the world, moving through Miami’s underwater topography without notice, exploiting natural and manmade ambush points. When hunting the beach they cruise the wave trough where churning sand and bubbles cloak their presence, just as a cat might slink along a hedgerow. They can be found in 60 feet of water, resting along offshore reefs, or in 6 inches of water, hiding among mussel beds in the Everglades. Any fish with this many choices is bound to have to think about those choices. A snook will always behave like a snook, but that is not a particularly rigid format. A big, 40-inch snook is capable of eating anything from a 1-inch shrimp to a 16-inch ladyfish. And they feed both day and night, but prefer the dark, where they are better hidden from both predator and prey. To this end, their eyes are equipped with a highly complex optic system. They have rod and cone cells like us, but also have a group of cells called the tapedum lucidum, which takes ambient light and amplify it much the way that phosphorescence algae does. In other words, they get an exaggerated image sent to their brain despite near black conditions. Though snook usually see you first and dissolve from sight, they sometimes show up at your feet. I’ve seen them waft closer as if to examine the two-legged creature tossing comic objects into their waterworld. And unlike tarpon, they are quite delicious, with a flavor akin to the clean, slightly sweet flesh of striped bass. Around Miami they are extremely savvy. Learn enough about them, though, and there will come a night when you win, when the timing of the fish’s instincts and choices allows the ancient practice of human trickery to prevail.
Alex and I idle along new condos near downtown Miami. Most units are dark. A television casts blue rhythms across the ceiling of another.
“See this point here?” Alex says, motioning to a subtle rip between Miami and Brickell Key. “This point used to be awesome for snook. There was something they really loved. I don’t know. But they did the construction. This building is new. For some reason the snook don’t like it. They took off.”
“They’re still around?”
“Yeah, they’re still in the bay. They’re just somewhere else.”
We ease up current past prime human [you can delete this] real estate at the mouth of the Miami River. A curiously vacant waterfront lot sits between a hotel and a small bridge. It was once the site of a 1950’s apartment complex that has since been demolished to make room for a 40-story luxury condominium. Workers preparing the site for redevelopment discovered a series of strange cuts in the limestone bedrock. Upon further inspection the cuts were found to be part of a circular pattern 38 feet in diameter. Depending on whom you asked, the circle was either a Tequesta Indian ceremonial plot or the remnants of a septic system for the previous building. The discovery of the “Miami Circle,” as it came to be called, pitched opposing parties into an unusual archeological debate. The landowner and the tax-minded city of Miami joined forces behind the septic tank argument while Native American groups, various archeologists and Miami-Dade County officials argued for the preservation of the site, claiming the circle was used about 800 years ago to anchor the frame of a Tequesta ceremonial lodge. In either case, it was clear the site was being used by the Tequesta as a campsite at around the time Christ was born.
The first humans in the Florida peninsula arrived 12,000 years ago to a land that was grassy and dry and about twice as wide as it is today. Sea levels were lower and the climate more cool and dry. Culture was defined by the availability of big game. That would soon end. Extinction and climate shift force the Clovis people to adapt, garnering resources from plants, small game and eventually the sea. When northern ice age coverage began to melt about 9,000 years ago sea levels rose, creating a fecund coastal eco-system ripe for human exploitation. With greater access to calories, Archaic Indians became more numerous and static. Additionally, Caribe culture migrated in from the south, infusing Florida tribes with a strong maritime tradition. It was from this mix that the Tequesta people arose along South Florida’s coast. The arrival of Europeans, of course, proved disastrous. Disease and warfare lead to the disappearance of the tribe during 18th century. In the aftermath the mouth of the Miami River was used as a frontier homestead and trading post by the Brikell family.
And? I assume it’s not done, right?