An angling odyssey through Central Florida.
The Everglades, River of Grass, peerless natural phenomenon: It’s a classic tale of rags to riches. Backtracking this Cinderella flow, we found it drooling from northwest Orlando, scrubbing floors and groveling before the wicked step-family, with only a couple squirrels and twittering blue jays to cheer it up. Unlike the promising beginnings of the Mighty Mississippi, born in a clear, burbling Minnesota brook, the storied Nile pouring from the magnificent cauldron of Lake Victoria, or Mario Cuomo, former Governor of New York, born from a poor but proud immigrant family, the Pride of Florida shifts points of origin constantly. It depends on which Balboa Street resident is watering his lawn, suffers an overheated radiator or just spilled his drink. The source of the Everglades might even be one enterprising dog touring the ironically named Robinswood subdivision, a labyrinth resoundingly unlike Sherwood Forest. After negotiating a 300-mile gauntlet of villainy, the expanded stream flows into Florida Bay, marrying the handsome prince who nobly turns a blind eye to her accelerated old age.
“Look,” I blurted, “this is cosmic. The street’s actually named after an explorer.”
“More likely a boxer,” Mark pointed out realistically.
The question is not so familiar as “which came first—the chicken or Walter Cronkite,” but it is just as fascinating: Is Shingle Creek the source of the Everglades or is the Everglades the reason for Shingle Creek? To “developers” this southward drainage is simply a godsend that grants them dry land to build on, allowing the system to serve the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Me and Mark Benson, we just like nice places to fish.
Mark grew up riding his bike to fish along Shingle Creek, afflicting him with the chronic, unreasonable sort of affection that springs only from fond memories of boyhood. He and some buddies formed an unholy alliance, calling themselves the Florida Creek Freaks, blew up a one man raft and on at least one occasion screamed and paddled in circles to escape a large gator that probably would have behaved likewise if it had a raft. With no stained childhood to improve the aroma, I always just thought of this putrid, litter-decorated channel through industrial parks as a nasty-ditch metaphor for European man’s relationship with nature. In fact, it never even occurred to me that the creek had ever been more, that the greenish water I saw slipping under highways might be the ghastly remains of a once lush ecosystem. Mark was determined to show me that, beyond establishing a theme of abuse that will run to the Gulf, the Source of the Everglades has dignity befitting its title and great fishing to boot. I must admit his first catch was astounding.
Bad luck for us that in the same general area where Ponce de Leon explored mystical subtropical forest in search of the Fountain of Youth, Mark and I were trying to find adventure among asphalt and power lines, looking for water whose promise of eternal youth might be found in its capacity to embalm. Probably we sought a link with Florida’s glorious past, some assurance that Mother Nature’s drainages can be debauched and crippled, but still they remain, in storage for the day when our oil-based civilization farts out its last backfire and they can invite again the wild fauna to a drink. We had the maps and expert opinions to establish the neighborhood where it all starts, north of which drains somewhere else. Having surveyed that, we started hunting the farthest upstream crud we could fish in.
“Look at that!” Mark yelped, slamming on the brakes like Hernando De Soto would have done if he’d had a DeSoto. With appropriate reverence we stepped from Mark’s big, old, white SUV and peered down upon Infant Shingle at the bottom of a small culvert, two giants over the River Swilliput.
Sufficient hose dribbling, escaped motor oil, dog pee and other urban boons had coalesced into a 4-foot-wide, inches-deep corruption of nature rolling south. It was not so much green as gangrene, a muted puss-grey, vomited milk of magnesia cry for help, oozing over a triple-stemmed bouquet of hydrilla. Its banks were equal parts concrete, garbage and weeds. “What are you doing?” I said as Mark tied on a teeny Beetlespin.
To fish, one must be an optimist, but a grasp of reality is also helpful. He looked at me and shrugged, “What the heck?” The big guy squatted at the bottom of a concrete slab, making baby casts downtrickle and calmly reeling back in again. Had the ditch carried a few more flushed toilet’s worth of opaque liquid, I might have imagined three-eyed, ulcerated gargoyles holding by the enticingly decayed Styrofoam ice chest Mark was targeting.
“Who knows?” I conceded. “You might catch the world-record bass.”
I calculated Mark’s chances of catching anything more slippery than a bottle upside the head from a littering motorist at slightly lower than me being crowned Miss America in an ABC retrospective. Angling in your buddy’s urine stream would be the exact equivalent.
My gaze ran along the weeds and cracked plastic bottles to the open under-driveway pipe that was swallowing this alien gurgle. When I looked back at Ponce de Quixote, he was squatting in the same spot wearing a grin equally astonished and smug, shaking with mirth at the bass dangling from his line.
Being from Florida, I’ve caught fish in some silly places but this was truly ridiculous. Mark released the perfect, robust 3-incher and stood up, beaming like a toddler rising from his first use of the potty. In all probability he had just immortalized himself by catching the farthest upstream bass in the Everglades. We could only marvel at how it came to be there and the fascinating downstream journey that must lie in its future.
As he drove south heading for some wider water we both could cast into, Mark turned to me and asked why I was softly singing, “Here he comes, Miss America.”
“We can all dream, can’t we?” I replied simply.
“Build it and they will come,” Mark profoundly stated the State Motto of Florida.We caught up with Shingle Creek across town at the Millenium Mall. There we could stand by the sizeable canal and gaze awestruck at vast, hollow stacks of air conditioned concrete designed to make humans pilgrimage there by the thousands to offer earnings in exchange for useless items.
The canal was flowing high and fast from recent rains and we got no strikes. Back in the truck, Mark looked at me knowingly and said, “Enough of this stuff. Now for the good part.”
Mark got his buddy Phil, and I brought my kids and we caravaned with two canoes to the intersection of Shingle Creek and the Beeline Highway. Mark practically had the giggles he was so excited, reminding me of Fido when you reach for the food bag. On the verge of presenting the longest love of his life in all her glory, trees and everything, he was fit to bust waiting for us to behold it. It was like he had found pictures of his wife predating the macabre lawn mower-blender accident and he wanted us to see how she used to look and why he fell for her.
We paddled under the bridge and forged upstream into some pretty fishy looking canal water, sure enough, featuring occasional saplings and aquatic grasses. The creek was running high and we caught nothing, but I’d seen what Sir Mark of Rottingham could do in Robinswood, so anything seemed possible.
Eventually we reached an area where the woods had been parted so we could view the Orange County Convention Center, always a bonus when fishing. Mark became angry and railed at yet another insult to his beloved stream. Here water that might have flowed naturally into the creek had been diked off into a milky impoundment, sheet flow that received no circulation, possibly to serve somehow a planned golf course. We disembarked and walked the bank of Mark’s degraded heartthrob. My 9-year-old Ely justified the fishing poles by coming up with nice bluegills and redbreasts on breadballs. Then Phil spotted some small bass and devoted his Beetle Spin to their capture. Where the small spinnerbait failed, squirrel-tail jig succeeded and I got two of the feisty fellows. Then 10-year-old Sam got a fat stumpknocker. Fire ants necessitated occasional hops into the cool water but it was fun. On the return trip, some redbreasts validated Phil’s Beetle Spin.
Back on shore, Mark heard a vehicle suddenly take off up on the highway. When I reached my car, it was missing its front indicators, bulbs, lenses and all. It began to look like you can take the creek out of the city but you just can’t take the city out of the creek; I did wish it had been Mark’s car.
Later, we returned to the stretch downstream from the Beeline to Tohopekeliga, the lake that absorbs Shingle Creek’s identity. From there south, it flows secretly in the Kissimmee River, ameliorated by a grander enterprise. This time we brought Mark’s Go-Devil-driven Gheenoe.
Well, I didn’t start calling him the Swamp Fox for his looks. Mark knows this area like the front of his back and he found us a canal to launch into. Brought to it blindfolded, I’d have guessed the location to be a sewage lift station. Or Shingle Creek. The surface of this off-white water was being constantly dimpled and splashed.
“Judging by the odor, I’d expect to find a lot of crappie in here,” Mark discerned.
I nodded gravely. We were frustrated in our attempts to obtain a strike from one of these brave inhabitants, trying both Beetle Spin and Mylar minnow. A Guyanese castnetter lifted the veil from our eyes when he dumped a load of South American armored catfish on the St. Augustine grass. If they continue forging upstream, these hardy delicacies may someday swim in our bathrooms, a ready dinner solution when you don’t feel like driving to the store. Let’s hope they can’t walk.
When the actual creek came finally into view, it was a balm for our eyes. The swirled whitewash of the canal stopped at the edge of the flowing tannic water as if Shingle Creek were fighting it off. We happily turned downstream, the pleasure of breathing returned, and this testament to Mother Nature’s tenacity started growing on me.
It happened with the abruptness of sitting on your downtown porch with a garbage truck idling in front of your house, your next door neighbor running his blower and the mayor striding up the walk to get your soul. Retreating inside, you turn on the Discovery Channel and suddenly you’re motoring down a blackwater creek in dappled sunlight shafting through a cypress cathedral. Looking ahead, you can’t believe it, but you’re seeing a deer swim across. Fish are feeding everywhere and they’re native largemouth bass and you find yourself yelling at Mark Benson to stop so you can start fishing.
It was just after the hurricane season to end all hurricane seasons and trees regularly blocked the creek so we frequently had to stop and fish before figuring out a way to move on. It was brimming with predators, so much feeding going on, we expected a strike every cast. That’s the way Shingle Creek was until it hit the big lake: a beautiful, skinny ribbon of wild Florida. I could see at last why Mark loved it. I like it myself, now. From here on, when I think of Shingle Creek, the real part is what I’ll picture, this repentant sinner who finally manages to get it right in the end.