The Flats Off Little Crane Key
I look towards the horizon as I hang my toes out over the edge. I’m perfectly balanced over the water. Ahead, the sky reflects perfectly, mirroring blue to starboard and the deep purple-grey of thunderheads off to port. The green of the grass flats mingles with the turquoise blue of the sandy tidal channels that innervate the shallows. In my right hand a nine-foot, seven-weight fly rod hangs gracefully. It is a thing of beauty. It too is perfectly balanced, its length weighed across the smooth cork handle offset by a gleaming anodized reel. This scene is real to me when I close my eyes. I can still feel the sun and salt air on my face even though its been well over a decade since I last experienced something like it.
Sport fishing has an unparalleled aesthetic and lore in my mind, particularly the shallow water South Florida scene of the later 20th century. From Stu Apte to Flip Pallot, Chokoloskee to Cudjoe Key, Thomas McGuane to Carl Hiaasen, G. Loomis to Exofficio, this is the stuff of my daydreams. Despite the romantic place that fishing has in my heart, I hardly engage with the sport anymore. The beginning of the end for me was when I became certified to scuba dive in my early teens. I was always a bit of a fish nerd at heart and it turned out that I preferred to hang with them below the surface than ruin their day by ripping them from the water. Over time I even came to view the quintessential sportsman’s conservation practice of catch and release as inhumane. Many fish are so stressed by the act of being caught that they do not survive the release anyway. Today, having passed time as an avid sport-fisher, a commercial fisherman, and a marine biologist in lives past, the most fishing I do now is to occasionally take a fish for a fresh meal on an ocean sailing passage.
Beyond my concern for a fish’s wellbeing, I abhor much of the modern recreational fishing industry. For one, the popular industry has lost my preferred aesthetic. The soft colors and beautiful marketing that once exhibited class, subtlety, and a peaceful yearning to be outdoors have largely been pushed aside by something new. Today’s dominant brands in all things from boats to clothing push garish color, more horsepower, testosterone, and redneck dominance. The actions I see exhibited by the adherents to this new culture have less to do with an enjoyment of nature and the art of fishing, than they do with man’s dominance over nature, the ability to purchase such manhood, and an unbridled urge to kill. This, however, still, is not my biggest gripe with recreational fishing.
Today, I live, sail, dive, and swim on Florida’s south east coast. Every time I venture outdoors I am dismayed by the visible impact that we have on the coastal environment that serves as our playground. Among the most common plastic trash to wash up on our beaches are bags from lures, leaders, and sinkers. Bait boxes and buckets float throughout the gulf stream. Our reefs are entangled in monofilament. Majestic turtles, sharks, and manta rays are, more often than not, foul hooked and streaming leaders. These organisms and others like manatees bear the scars of our propellors. It only takes a glance at any body of water from Jupiter Inlet to Lake Worth Lagoon on a summer Saturday to know that recreation boaters burn more fossil fuels on a weekend outing than in their combined weekday commutes. I recognize that my lifestyle too has an outsized impact on these environments, but what irks me most is disregard and denial of our impacts.
Sponges and Skull Entwined in Monofilament
We are motivated to fish for many reasons. Some of us fish to supplement the paltry meals we can otherwise afford. Some of us enjoy the luxury of a 100,000$ annual grouper dinner (once the cost of the boat, fuel, and gear are factored in). What for one person is a hateful display of dominance over nature, can be an act of love for another by spending time with family in a meaningful way. I still understand the attraction of recreational fishing. But I do not understand the denial of our impact. The recreational fishing lobby is only out-gunned, appropriately so, but the strength of the national gun lobby. Every year this lobby fights against environmental regulation and shifts blame towards the commercial industry. I subjectively argue though, that it only takes a glance at our coastal waters to see that the numbers of recreational fishers exceeds the commercial boats exponentially, and to recognize that this combined impact will never be sustainable. I see recreational boats discard or lose trash overboard more often than I witness fisherman engaged in coastal cleanup. I see more bag and size limit laws broken than I see active conservation efforts. This past year, the recreational fishing industry even bought the loyalty of Florida’s Republican and Democratic senators in an effort to neuter our National Park Service’s ability to protect contained marine environments, lest it interfere with recreational fishing rights.
When I daydream of fishing’s days past, I am uncertain as to whether these times were ever really as great as I imagine. After all, those legendary guides and the men who paid them were really just another vision of white men diverting themselves by showing dominance over nature, even if that vision was more nuanced. I imagine them in the same way I often indulge in fantasies of what it would have been like to be a colonial lord in Africa or South Asia. The dreams have similar attractive attributes and both ignore qualities that have since been or should be labeled morally wrong. Thus, it is probably best that I enjoy daydreams of times past and leave sportfishing behind in lieu of my current pursuits. My heroes will be remembered for their great acts, but also for their flaws as all good protagonists are. One day, my life may be looked back upon as ecologically ignorant too. But, in the end, at least by me, it will be remembered fondly.
My Currently Preferred Means of Flats Exploration