The Biscayne Times

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Dec 14th
Five Things Fishing Has Taught Me About Life PDF Print E-mail
Written by Arnold Markowitz, Photos by Silvia Ros   
October 2017

Lessons learned from decades of dropping hook and line into Biscayne Bay -- and five places to do just that

S06272010_markowitz_0021o long ago that Google never heard of him, a man named Charlie Pujols had a bait store at the north end of the Port of Miami, which was being moved from the mainland to Dodge Island. A few of the old port’s cargo warehouses still stood, tottering, between the bait store and Miami Bayfront Park. That’s where I met a new friend, Biscayne Bay. The bay didn’t speak aloud -- though I thought I heard it whisper, “Shut up and fish” -- but it had a welcoming manner and let me hang out with it whenever I had time.

I went to Charlie’s late at night, after work at a place a lot of local people still called the Miama Hurled. The city was changing fast in the late 1960s but it wasn’t unusual to meet people who spoke the Y’all dialect.

At 1:00 a.m. we could walk across the street from the Herald to Charlie’s, where Bicentennial Park is now, and buy a package of frozen shrimp or squid or mullet, which I’m pretty sure cost less than two bucks each. We would sit on the concrete bulkhead, fishing until the sky grew light. If you sat right on the concrete, bugs would nip your rear end and crawl up your pants legs. I kept a cheap folding lawn chair in the trunk of my cheap car. If I got hungry or thirsty, I could put down my rod and reel (also cheap) without concern for theft while I walked a few yards to Charlie’s store for a Cuban sandwich and a beer, both cheap.

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Half a dozen to half a hundred people might be there, depending on whether the shrimp were running. When they were, we bait dunkers were joined on the bulkhead by family teams of shrimp-netters. They brought Coleman lanterns, big coolers half full of ice, and long-handled dip nets with fine mesh.

The shrimp always came with an entourage of predatory fish, most desirably the edible snook and snapper, but also the inedible tarpon, and once in a while you could catch one. Usually we fished for mangrove snapper, seldom big but plentiful and good to eat. If you cut your bait into little pieces and stuck it on little hooks, you could catch moonfish, also known as lookdowns. Their sloping foreheads and the placement of their eyes made them seem to be searching for a lost contact lens.

On the first night at Charlie’s, I caught a cutlass, commonly called a ribbonfish, even though it resembles a shiny fighting sword more than a ribbon. With its great fangs, it looks so ferocious it could frighten you half to death when you pull it into the light. I cut the line at the hook and dropped them back in the water. Others left them for dead on the ground. I had never seen or heard of them before, and I’ve never caught one anywhere else.

It didn’t matter much what I caught or whether I caught anything to keep. If I spend half a day preparing and drive a long way, it matters only a little more. Fishing is supposed to be a contemplative sport. When the fish aren’t biting, don’t fuss. Contemplate. It’s still better than almost anything else you could be doing.

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W06272010_markowitz_0108e caught a lot of hardhead catfish off that seawall near Charlie’s, and handled them carefully. They keep a shot of poison under the skin that covers the spines of their fins. If one pokes you, it teaches a painful lesson.

With a small towel for traction, I learned to grip catfish tightly around the gills, pressing the pectoral fins against the body while I used pliers with the other hand to remove my hook. It’s like the way you hold a snake so it can’t bite you. Snakes are squirmy but not slimy and are easier to grip than toothless catfish, which are squirmy and slimy.

Over the years I unintentionally caught and deliberately released hundreds of hardhead catfish before one twisted loose and a pectoral fin jabbed me between the right thumb and forefinger. The hand reddened and swelled. At Jackson Memorial Hospital I took an agonizing injection directly into the wound. Then I was sent to a specialist in Hialeah.

Yes, a catfish-wound specialist. I forget his name but I remember what he told me. He developed the specialty during his training residency in Corpus Christi, where he treated hundreds of people who limped in from the Padre Island beaches. Catfish gathered there in enormous schools, waiting in the shallows for someone to step on them.

“Tell me again how this happened,” the catfish specialist said after treating and bandaging my hand. I repeated: I was trying to get my hook back when the fish twisted and stabbed me.

“How much do you pay for fish hooks?”

Back then, in boxes of 50, they cost, let’s see, a fraction less than three cents apiece.

“What did they charge you at the emergency room?” Something like $250.

“It’s going to cost you another hundred here,” the doc said. “Now, how much did you say a fish hook costs?”

See? Fishing teaches valuable lessons: dangerous wildlife, petty economics.

 

Fishing Hole 1 The Oleta River is one of Biscayne Bay’s best off-track places for exploration and discovery. Unless you’re awfully intense about catching fish, it’s a wonderful boat ride in case you’re skunked. The two-mile north branch begins in Greynolds Park West. Use the entrance at 17530 W. Dixie Hwy., follow the road to the fork, bear right, pass the boathouse, and go another half mile. Just before the picnic pavilion on the right, pull over and look for a gap in the mangroves to launch your kayak or canoe. On weekends a paddle-boat concession operates there. Much of the mangrove-trimmed route up to 202nd Street feels more like the Everglades than North Miami Beach or Aventura. There are nine finger canals and three manmade lakes along the way. The waterway is a spawning nursery. Look for small barracuda, snook, and jacks below Miami Gardens Drive. North of there, fish for butterfly peacock and largemouth bass. Snook may be in mangrove patches.

 

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O06272010_markowitz_0134ne time on Biscayne Bay, I watched history almost being made. The Vietnam war might have ended sooner -- or not. The Watergate scandal might never have happened. President Richard M. Nixon might have fallen into the bay and been squished between a houseboat and the concrete bulkhead of a helicopter pad.

To set the scene: Nixon had a friend, Charles G. Rebozo, who owned a bank on Key Biscayne and a waterfront house on Bay Lane. Nixon took over the place next door. The Coast Guard barricaded that side of the island south of the Key Biscayne Yacht Club channel, guarding it with two speedboats propelled by schmillion-horsepower Magnum Marine engines. A helicopter pad, still there today, was constructed over the shallows.

Fishermen weren’t happy. The barricaded zone was one of the bay’s best places to fish for spotted sea trout. Incoming waves and boat wakes rebounded off the bulkhead of the helicopter pad, creating turbulence.

Early in 1972, Nixon made his mission to China, reopening long-frozen diplomatic relations. It was a significant geopolitical achievement, yet one that failed to thrill the public. Someone thought that should be corrected.

Returning from China, the president went to Key Biscayne, where it was arranged for two decorated houseboats full of Republicans shouting Hooray! to clear the security zone and pull up beside the helicopter pad.

Nixon was let out to greet them, and we media were let in to watch. We were not made to stand behind a barricade. No Secret Service agents interfered as I approached the stern of the nearest boat. Rubber fenders hung over its rail, protecting the hull from scrapes while creating a gap of several inches between it and the helicopter pad.

Nixon, not the spontaneous type, looked unsure of what to do. An aide spoke to him. He stepped to the edge of the pad to shake hands with people on the boat. They had to reach across the gap.

The water was choppy, the boat bobbing sideways as the captain tried to hold it against the helicopter pad. He was not invited to tie up. I started to shout, “Be careful!” `

Nixon and an athletic-looking gent on the boat stretched toward each other. As their hands touched, the boat bobbed away and Nixon was caught leaning over the water.

I’ve lost the name of the guy on the boat. I remember he owned a chain of dry-cleaning shops in Wheeling, West Virginia. He had muscular forearms, bigger hands than Nixon, and a stronger grip. He grabbed Nixon’s hand firmly, stiffened his arm, leaned across the watery gap, and held tight until the boat bobbed back to the pad and the president recovered his balance.

If not for that effort, Nixon likely would have fallen between the pad and the boat -- dunked for sure, with a realistic chance of being squished when the boat bobbed back.

Later someone said to me: Suppose you’d been that guy on the boat -- what would you have done?

I think I have more conservative than liberal fishing friends. I don’t know if they’re ashamed of Nixon, but this I do know: Fishing is apolitical.

 

Fishing Hole 2 Another section of the Oleta River runs from Snake Creek Canal to the Intracoastal Waterway, with its mouth opening on the south side of the Sunny Isles Causeway. Motorboat access is best from the Intracoastal. Snook and snapper swim here. Further upland, if your boat is low enough to get under the NE 163rd Street bridge, you can enter Maule Lake at its southeast corner. Tarpon may congregate in the middle. Follow the north shore of the lake eastward to another channel that can take you into Little Maule or back to the Intracoastal.

Maule Lake can also be reached by paddling south from the launch site inside Greynolds Park. You have to paddle under the bridges that span Biscayne Boulevard, W. Dixie Highway, and the railway. Incoming or outgoing, the tide often runs through that shallow, narrow inlet fast enough to overpower a solo paddler going the opposite way. It’s a job for two.

 

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F06272010_markowitz_0168ishing teaches you to value what you have. You learn not to fret much about the great fishing you can’t afford because it’s half a continent or half a world away.

Biscayne Bay is about 35 miles long, with most of its southern section in Biscayne National Park. Numerous scientific studies have documented the decline in the abundance and size of virtually every fish species, despite state size and bag limits.

The decline began earlier in the northern part of the bay. People who have fished it for a long time will say you should have been there 10 years ago. Others will say no, 20 years ago. Better yet 30, 40, or 50 years ago.

I know such a person: Alan Sherman of Miami Shores. He knows what the fishing was like in all five of those decades. Sherman grew up on the bay, had jobs in his youth running head boats offshore from Haulover and Castaways marinas. They’re called head boats because they charge fishermen X dollars a head. Sherman makes his living by guiding fishing-doers on the bay. In ancient times he could stick to the north end with confidence that his clients always would succeed. Not any more.

Perhaps more than anyone else, he has witnessed the decline of north bay fishing from fabulous to great to still pretty damned good if you know the place well and search for fish until you find them.

Says Sherman: “I don’t really want to be negative about the bay. On the other hand, I miss the huge amounts of ladyfish that once were everywhere, especially in the Oleta River in the late ’50s and into the ’60s. These fish would feed on schools of small bait fish that no longer are there. The thousands of tarpon that would roll on the surface in Maule Lake near Eastern Shores are gone.

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“Dumbfoundling Bay was loaded with fish and shallow mud flats that housed sawfish, large schools of snook, a few redfish, black drum, tarpon, sea trout, huge schools of mullet, large jack crevalle, sharks, ladyfish, and occasionally bluefish, mackerel, and kingfish. Today that portion of water has been dredged so that builders could put up giant high-rises that house thousands of people.

“These giant high-rises have cut off the sun that once shined on the entire bay, changing the way the water once was. The dredged areas, some as deep as 30 feet, have become stagnant, and only a few schools of tarpon that can breathe air from the atmosphere can live there.”

The scientific studies convert to data what Sherman and the bay have experienced daily for decades, although it took him a while to understand fully what he was seeing at close hand as it was going on. Sherman again: “In the ’60s, I remember that the area known as Interama [now FIU and the SoLēMia development] was being used as a landfill. I didn’t know at the time that hazardous materials were being dumped there, but around then I noticed the waters from the Oleta River south starting to become less clear and the fish populations in these areas starting to diminish.

“It occurred to me that there might be a correlation between the discolored water and diminishing numbers of jacks, ladyfish, snappers, snook, and tarpon because of the landfill, but then again it could have been from the increase in chemicals that were being pumped into the bay from Greynolds Park dam or the one in the Biscayne Canal that many years later would come to light.

“Also in that same time span, a lot of construction and dredging was taking place in the Eastern Shores area -- an area that I always thought of as a gathering area for snook, mullet, jacks, and ladyfish. Today you see hardly any mullet, ladyfish, and snook in that area, and the huge schools of tarpon are almost gone in Maule Lake and Dumbfoundling Bay.”

 

Fishing Hole 3 The area between the Intracoastal and Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach, on the north side of the Julia Tuttle Causeway, may be too well known and too popular. Still, if you’re there at the right time (a gamble), the fishing for sea trout can be splendid. Stay west of the boat channel that roughly parallels Alton Road. An artificial reef running parallel to the causeway is productive at times. The Tuttle’s easternmost bridge can be good for tarpon and snook, but watch out for the current swirling through there. Work with wind and current to set up a drift across the flats, then circle around and take another drift.

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P06272010_markowitz_0271eople who live alongside the bay don’t often fish the obvious waters where they live. You seldom see anyone on the seawall of a waterfront home with a hook and line over the side. Once in a while there’s a floating bait bucket tied to a post or a cleat, a clue that someone there fishes somewhere, sometimes.

Some of them have no docks, or docks that sag in ruins. Why spend extra money to live on the water they use so passively? I asked a dockless friend who lives on a finger channel in Keystone Point, and she said she lives there because she likes it.

At night, bright dock lights close to the water will attract forage fish, and the forage fish will attract game fish -- especially my favorite, the common snook.

People who have dock lights often neglect to turn them on at night. Maybe their FPL bills are too high already, I don’t know. It’s frustrating to go into channel after channel with scarcely a light lit. I have fished for snook under such conditions in other places where, local people swear, owners perversely keep their lights off on purpose. They consider the fish their private property.

If I ever return to night fishing, I will keep a gas lantern on my boat. I will slip into one of those channels, hang my light from one of those docks, and wait for the fish to find it. I will publish a story about it, and then people who think they own those fish will sit out in the dark with shotguns, waiting for someone like me to come along.

Little by little by little -- you’re learning this here faster than I did there -- I figured out that to catch snook, you must look for them in snook habitat, such as mangroves or places where forage lures them, such as lighted docks. You have to present the right bait, natural or artificial, in just the right way, which varies with time, tide, and location.

Working all that out requires the patience that fishing is supposed to teach us.

 

Fishing Hole 4 Along the Venetian Causeway, east of the toll plaza, snook often lurk in the shadows of bridges that connect the causeway’s six islands. Weave a boat among them slowly, casting bait as close as you can to seawalls, bulkheads, and docks. Some of those are lit at night, with prey and predators meeting for dinner. Stay outside the circle of light, casting bait into it. Often you can hear the loud splashes of fish attacking shrimp and other forage.

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Ocaptureccasionally a snook is caught accidentally while fishing for something else, or just dunking bait for whatever fish may find it. I caught my first snook that way because the bay and I had developed a relationship. I believe it felt sorry for me.

I was in a wheelchair with a cast on my right leg, a trophy for reckless base running during a softball game. My home was an efficiency on NE 25th Street in the second apartment building from the bay. It wasn’t a good place to fish, but it was the best available.

I’d wheel the chair out there, carrying rod and reel across my lap with a package of bait in a bag dangling from the left handgrip, and a book in another bag dangling on the right.

That was not sport as much as therapy for cabin fever. Now and then I’d get a bite from a puffer or lizardfish, very scarcely a too-small snapper. Tides and currents brought to my bulkhead Styrofoam cups, empty cigarette packets, an impressive selection of tubular latex products. I was able to indict Salem and Newport smokers as the worst litterers. Second place: drinkers of canned Busch beer, the popular-priced kin of Budweiser.

On the day the bay felt sorry for me, I ran out of bait early. Back in the apartment I searched the fridge for substitutes. I had learned that if you run out of bait and you’re nowhere near home, open your cooler and raid your lunch. Chicken (skin on) stays on the hook fairly well. Hard salami emits grease, an attractant. Prosciutto falls apart too easily. If you’ve caught a few fish, fillet one and use the guts. Almost any fish’s liver is good bait. Liverwurst is useless.

This time, scavenging around the fridge, the best I could do was a stale drumstick from Colonel Sanders’ store.

“No fish would eat this,” I told myself.

“What else you got?” myself asked.

I cut the chicken leg into strips, stuck one on a hook, flipped it into the bay, and got a bite.

For dinner that night, I ate snook.

 

Fishing Hole 5 Biscayne Bay’s spoil islands, distributed more or less evenly along the Intracoastal, are the products of long-ago dredging. Several are maintained as parks by Miami-Dade County. Snapper, sea trout, ladyfish, and pompano can be caught along the edges.

None of these five fishing holes is a secret. All are known to supply good fishing, but not all the time. Successful anglers keep moving, seldom giving any spot more than half an hour to produce action. When the bite dwindles here, they move to there.

This story first appeared in July 2010.

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