The race for food takes fish from their comfort zone

Traveling tarpon lead to not-so-secret fishing spot

On second thought, maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to tell Justin Casey the secrets of one of my favorite fishing waters. On third thought, maybe it wasn’t a bad idea but I shouldn’t have given him so much information.

On fourth thought, is it my problem that Justin Casey is the most over-prepared fishing-doer in all the world? He always has at least double what he needs of everything, because what if something unexpected happens?

Perhaps if I hadn’t told him about the tarpon 10 miles upland, in water meant for freshwater fish, he wouldn’t have gone there with tarpon rods and reels as well as all his other gear. His boat would have been less crowded, and he wouldn’t have stepped on his favorite 5-weight fly rod.

Enorme ́ Barrigón put a consoling hand on my shoulder.

“Everything you told Justin Casey, he would have found out anyway before he went fishing. He broke his own fly rod. It’s his own fault. Here’s a beer. Be happy.”

Enorme ́ is in charge of beer here at the Fish or Cut Bait Society, but he likes to call himself “executive director of the beverage program.”

Go ahead, call him pretentious. He won’t mind.

He was collecting on the tabs that members were running, and even though I didn’t owe anything, he stopped beside me because he saw I was feeling low.

A good bartender notices such things. Enormé isn’t a bartender — he plays guitarrón in a mariachi band — but if he were a bartender he would be a good one.

Anyway, last month when Justin Casey overheard me telling someone else about the tarpon and other saltwater fish in a certain freshwater place where the standard prey are bass, peacock and snakeheads, he shouted “Dibs!”

I raised my eyebrows and glanced at Headwind, my regular fishing partner. Translation: should I tell Justin where it is?

Headwind glanced back at me and shrugged his shoulders: Translation: Okay.

I’m sorry I can’t tell everyone here where it is, but I can describe it teasily and tell you how tarpon happen to be that far from saltwater.

There’s a flood control structure at an edge-of-Everglades canal intersection. When it’s about to be opened to let high water out of a smaller canal into a bigger one, a secret agent scout fish code-named Paul Revere leaps onto a horse and dashes forth hollering: “The minnows are coming! The minnows are coming!”

“Fish ride horses?” Enormé just asked me. Headwind shushed him: “Don’t interrupt the author. He has literary license.”

As you know now, if you didn’t before, some saltwater fish range pretty far upland through brackish water and well into freshwater Everglades territory.

Tell them, Headwind: “Most of the saltwater fish we see there probably started that long swim in their natural habitat — mangrove shorelines, spoil islands, flats and shallow reefs near the Intracoastal Waterway. They’re usually jacks, snook and tarpon, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there are others.

“Some of them go upland during winter cold snaps, looking for warmer water. Others make the voyage when the food in their usual hangouts is scarce, or the competition is annoying. Those are predatory species, and they are not fussy about their diets.”

Tyro, the new guy, interrupted to ask why the saltwater fish stay way up there instead of swimming home to saltwater. Headwind said not to get ahead of the story.

“Eventually they come to a flood control dam. There they appoint a scout fish to spy for indications that it will be opened soon. Then they disperse to have a look around.”

Sooner or later (Headwind continued), the scout rides and shouts. The fish race to the dam. It’s pretty exciting, like a Bimini start to a billfish tournament.

Up goes the gate and whoosh, up current go those fish, gulping down the forage fish.

Some of the gamefish, greedy and impulsive, swim far past the dam gate to grab more than their share.

Some of them go too far. Some of us can relate to that.

The flood gate stays open only so long. The fish still upstream hear it shut. They look back and say Oh, dirtyword. We’re stuck.

Some of them go back to the upstream side of the gate, waiting for the next opening so they can escape to the main canal.

“It’s gonna be a while,” Headwind said. “Pretty soon the food supply near the gate runs low. The tarpon, snook, jacks, and who knows who else, have to go farther upstream to find food.

“Freshwater forage tastes kind of bland to them, but they get used to it because they have to. If you’ve ever been in jail, you know what I mean. I suspect Jimmy Buffet’s salt shaker was stolen by a tarpon.”

Tyro the new guy asked us if we go to those waters for the saltwater fish. Headwind said no, we go there for the freshwater fish but since we began seeing the others we usually carry one saltwater rig. We don’t want to lose a snook hooked on a 10-pound test bass fly leader, you know?

I told all of that to Justin Casey last month when he called dibs on the spot. Now, just as Enormé Barrigón was urging me not to feel bad about Justin’s broken fly rod, Justin himself walked in.

Everybody wanted him to tell us about breaking his rod. They thought knowing his story would make them feel a little bit better than clumsy or stupid next time they step on one of theirs.

“As you know,” Justin began, “my canal boat has three vertical rod holders on each side of the console and two racks under each gunwale.”

Tyro asked him if that’s the right way to spell “gunnle” and Justin looked at me and I nodded and he told Tyro yes.

“Anyway, that adds up to 10 rods in the racks plus an 11th in my hand. Not enough, but it’s a small boat so I deal with it.

“When I’m casting a fly rod, the spinning and plug rods in the vertical holders are in the way so I have to lay them on the deck. It gets crowded down there. I stepped on the 5-weight fly rod while trying to avoid stepping on the spinning rods.”

Tyro asked Justin why he needed 11 rods for a one-day fishing trip. Justin looked at him as though he were crazy.

“In case one breaks,” he said.