The school is strung out for 300 yards, the dark mangroves of Cape Sable in the background, the water barely ruffled, broken by silver tails, heads, bellies, and entire bodies. There are dozens of fish, 100 or better, the closest within an easy cast of my Tarpon Toad. On the poling platform, my guide, Chris Wittman, shakes his head slowly, afraid to break the spell. “I hope you know how special this is,” he says softly. “You could fish a very long time and not see tarpon like this.”
The pain of missing four tarpon eats in a row, thanks to lifting the rod on the set, still stings. Now I lay out another cast to the silver kings, and let the line and fly sink. I focus on my hands and the fly reel because I don’t want to see the strike—I want to feel it. There is total silence on the boat. I tell myself I will not lift the rod tip. I will not set the hook until I feel the fish eat, turn, and run. I retrieve to the beat of a mantra in my head: strip-strike, strip-strike, strip-strike. Strike!
The tarpon leaps clear of the water the instant I feel its weight, and this time I don’t lift the rod. “Stick him!” Wittman yells. “Stick him!” I give a hard yank. The fly feels as if it’s buried in a fence, and then the tarpon skies again, shaking so violently, it flips 180 degrees. “Stick him again! Keep sticking him, Eddie!”
I stick him until he’s stuck for good, and then the leaping and the surging, the head shaking and hard charging back under the boat begins. The tarpon shows one more time—a sea-shattering 15-foot vault I meet with a deep bow to lend slack to the fly line—and the rest of the fight is a tug-of-war. It’s not a huge tarpon. It’s not even an overly large tarpon. But it is a tarpon, and when a beast like this comes to the boat with a fly in its jaw, its measure is in the angler’s heartbeat and breath rate, not inches or pounds.
Once I have broken my small-water habits, I jump three more tarpon in the next hour and fight another to the boat. The commotion finally puts the tarpon down for good, and I wipe sweat from my brow with a sleeve. My arms are quaking.
“Epic,” Wittman says. “That’s the only word that works.”
But he’s not talking to me. I catch him glancing at his pal and fellow guide, Daniel Andrews, standing at the console of the flats boat. They’re stoked for the fishing, and equally pumped that I finally figured out the tarpon strike. But what each has experienced is a bit of karmic payback. The last hour has been proof not only of what the beleaguered fisheries of South Florida still have to offer, but also that the last three years of their own personal sacrifice, fear, family upheaval, and hard work are paying off.
The water woes here have grown to be as much a part of the state’s lore and legend as swamp tours and spring-break shenanigans. Year after year, a horror show of environmental ills seems to plague what is arguably the most important fishing destination in the Lower 48. Toxic algal blooms blanket mile after mile of beach, shuttering tourism economies built largely on world-class fishing for tarpon, snook, redfish, bonefish, and snapper. News outlets around the world publish photographs of beaches mounded over with dead fish and marinas awash in a green, guacamole-like goop. Farther south, in Florida Bay and the famed Keys, saltwater flats, nearshore reefs, and mangrove shorelines are being starved of the fresh water they require. Hot, hypersaline water kills off the vast sea-grass beds that are the foundation of the food chain. Bonefish flee the flats. Tarpon vanish. Oyster beds rot.
The last three years have been particularly traumatic. Wave after wave of red tides, blue-green algae, and brown algae have suffocated the state’s famed Indian River estuary and Mosquito Lagoon on the Atlantic coast, the west-coast waters where the Caloosahatchee River spills into the Gulf of Mexico, and the massive Lake Okeechobee, whose waters used to feed the Everglades and Florida Bay. In 2017, a red-tide bloom that cropped up off the Gulf coast in October lasted until the early months of 2019. Then-governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for seven west-coast counties. A 26-foot-long whale shark floated belly up off the Sanibel beaches, its muscles, liver, intestines, and stomach contents tainted with the red-tide brevetoxin. More than 100 sea turtles and millions of fish washed ashore. For two weeks, the city of Sanibel spent $75,000 a day cleaning dead grouper, tarpon, and baitfish off the beach and out of canals.
Just three years ago, in 2016, Wittman and Andrews were guides working the waters of Fort Myers, Charlotte Harbor, and the Sanibel Island coast. When the red tides of 2016 hit, Andrews says, anglers for tarpon, redfish, and permit disappeared. Wittman figures they lost 80 percent of their bookings. Furious and more than a little desperate, the two captains started a Facebook page called Captains for Clean Water (CFCW) to organize charter captains. “To organize for what,” Wittman says, “we had no idea.” They held a kickoff event at the Fort Myers Bass Pro Shops, hoping that a few more guides might come to talk about what they might do. Three hundred people showed up.
CFCW’s growth and impact has been incredible. In its first year, CFCW raised $60,000. The next year, $600,000. Membership and supporters have grown to more than 30,000, and CFCW members didn’t stop at just writing checks. They showed up in legislators’ offices and packed public meetings. The group revived a long-dormant culture of people largely disconnected from the political process—but no more. “People see that we come from this grassroots, sunburned, hardcore, hard-boiled, hard-fighting group of fishing captains and people who love the water,” Wittman says, “and they think: Finally. Maybe this will work. Maybe this will help tip the balance.”
That’s the thread of the story I’ve picked up during more than 18 months of reporting on the state of Florida’s saltwater affairs. There’s a new governor with a decided sense of urgency about the region’s ecological calamities. There is new state and federal funding for massive projects to help alleviate South Florida’s water problems. There is still a pang of loss for parts of Florida that will never be regained, and an urgency that can border on panic over just how monstrous the water issues remain. But over the past few months, I’ve picked up a feeling that was entirely new.
Maybe things are changing.
How Did This Mess Happen?
For millennia, fresh water flowed into the Kissimmee River from as far north as Orlando, and then drained slowly south into the massive, shallow Lake Okeechobee. Clean water spilled over Okeechobee’s southern rim into large sloughs, such as Taylor Slough and Shark River, and innumerable small tidal creeks that trickled into Florida Bay. This is the famed “River of Grass” that delivered to Florida Bay a life-giving pulse of clean, fresh water each year. But this multifaceted ecosystem—fresh marsh and salt, brackish estuary, mangroves, saw grass, beds of sea grass, ribbons of reef—no longer functions naturally. The entire state has been replumbed with canals, reservoirs, channelized rivers, ditches, levees, dams, and pumps. Nowhere has this engineering had such a landscape-scale impact than in South Florida.
Hold one hand out with the palm up and the fingers together, and you have a rough scale model of some of the most iconic fishing grounds in the world and how they’ve come to be in such dire straits. In the shallow bowl of your palm lies Lake Okeechobee. The deep channels between each finger follow the rough course of Taylor Slough, Shark River, and all those myriad mangrove-lined waterways that dribbled critical water to the Everglades and the Florida Keys. But in 1915, an extension of U.S. Highway 94, dubbed the Tamiami Trail, was built straight across the state through pristine wilderness, gashing through what would become the Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park. The road follows the line across the base of each of your four fingers, and 2.5 million sticks of dynamite were used to blow open a canal beside the road, which is now a de facto dam on the River of Grass, choking off the fresh water that once flowed through the Everglades.
Lifelines—the wrinkles that spill off each side of your palm—tell more of the story: They trace a pair of man-made canals that opened up navigation all the way across Florida, connecting Lake Okeechobee with the Atlantic on the eastern coast and the Gulf of Mexico to the west. As Orlando and Miami grew, massive sugar farms, cattle farms, and housing developments covered thousands of acres of the drained and strangled Everglades. Much of the runoff from those altered acres finds its way to Lake Okeechobee, which is often choked with an inland algae bloom of putrid-green cyanobacteria that feeds off an overload of nutrients. The lake’s waters no longer flow down your fingers, cleaned by millions of acres of intact wetlands. Instead, during high-water periods, billions of gallons of toxic goo spew out of the lake through those two man-made canals in the folds of your palm—St. Lucie Canal and west through the Caloosahatchee River.
There are other issues South Florida suffers from, including a rising sea level and an insidious cycle of drought and storm. And that’s long been part of the problem: There are so many factors at play that it’s easier to place blame than to work toward solutions. But the bottom line is that, historically, even after Highway 94 was built, enough clean water flowed through South Florida to cover 2 million acres to a depth of 12 inches. Today, less than half of that water makes the trip, and what does is degraded.
Without its periodic pulse of fresh water, Florida Bay goes hypersaline. Sea grass dies in massive patches. Blue-green algae blooms, turning clear water into pea soup. That overwhelms the vast sponge beds that would otherwise filter the water and provide habitat for fish. The devastation flows south, toward the Florida Keys. Everywhere, the food chain collapses. It’s a lot for a bunch of pissed-off anglers to deal with. But they, and other activists, seem finally to be gaining traction.
Is This the Dawn of a New Era?
At a boat dock in Islamorada, Capt. Eddie Yarbrough sidles up to Dr. Steven E. Davis III, a wetlands ecologist for the Everglades Foundation. “Are we supposed to be happy with all the news from Tallahassee?” Yarbrough asks Davis. “Sure seems like a lot of folks are.”
Davis brightens. “I really think so,” he says. “We’re hoping this is a new era.”
For years, conservation groups like the Everglades Foundation, National Parks Conservation Association, National Audubon Society, and others have worked to turn the tide on Florida’s water crisis, and in the last year, significant steps have been made. Much of the hope is pinned on the state’s new governor, Ron DeSantis. In January 2019, during his first weeks in office, DeSantis announced $625 million in funding for Everglades restoration and signed an executive order to secure $2.5 billion over the next four years for water resources and Everglades work. Not long after, he asked for the resignations of the entire South Florida Water Management District Board, the supremely powerful commission that oversees water issues across most of South Florida and had been stacked with many supporters of the powerful sugar industry. He also named a chief science officer and created the Office of Coastal Protection and Resilience, and joined forces with two U.S. senators to ask the Trump administration to increase federal funding for South Florida water projects. In Washington, D.C., the President signed a bill sending $200 million to the Everglades. The money will accelerate progress on nearly 70 projects outlined in the state’s Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, including ongoing work to raise 6.5 miles of the Tamiami Trail to help reconnect the historic flow of water south.
“Our jaws dropped,” Davis says. “It was like an environmentalist’s dream list.”
And then there is the S.B. 10 reservoir. In 2018, after fighting over it for years, Florida legislators approved the construction of a 10,100-acre reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee—built in the heart of the sugar industry’s lands—that will capture and hold excess water, clean it via constructed wetlands, and send it south to the Everglades and Florida Bay. Last-minute negotiations cut the size of the Everglades Agricultural Area Storage Reservoir Project, along with its potential positive impacts, and completion is nearly a decade into the future—but even at a smaller size, the reservoir should reduce the cyanobacteria-laden discharges from Big O to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries by an estimated 55 percent.
In a morning loop around Florida Bay, Davis points out acres of dead turtle grass, clouded waters, and vast clear flats where new sea-grass beds are taking hold. These are the fragile, tenuous signs that Florida Bay has pulled itself off the floor one more time, after a massive die-off in 2014 and 2015 wiped out an estimated 62 square miles of sea grass. No one knows how many more body blows the bay can absorb. I mention to Davis that the entire ecosystem seems to exist on a knife edge—ecologically, politically, and temporally.
“You’re right,” Davis replies. “Because as exciting as all this is, it’s not what happens down here that is the most critical.” He jacks a thumb over his left shoulder, pointing toward the shore of mangroves and the mainland of Florida, toward Tallahassee and Washington, D.C. “What happens up there is what matters most.”
How Have the Gamefish Fared?
Thirty-five miles south of my tarpon glory at Cape Sable, I’m being fed a steady diet of humility, thanks to picky bonefish ghosting the edges of a broad flat west of Islamorada. I’ve been told that more record bonefish have come off this one flat than any other in the Florida Keys. I’ve also been told that these are probably the hardest to catch of any bonefish in the Sunshine State.
It’s small consolation that I’m being handicapped by our real purpose here: To catch and tag bonefish with acoustic tags that will allow scientists to track their movements. Time and again, I suck bonefish to within inches of my fly, pleading for an eat, while Dr. Ross Boucek, a fisheries biologist and Florida Keys Initiative manager for the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, and Matt Pourbaix, the trust’s development coordinator, work spinning reels. It takes at least a 20-inch bonefish to handle the acoustic tag, and when Pourbaix hooks a good fish, all other lines come out of the water. He fights the bone to the boat, then Boucek slips overboard into waist-deep water to spread out a floating surgical harness made of netting and pool-noodle sections. But as he lifts the fish onto the makeshift operating table, it spits the hook and slides out of the contraption. Gone. Boucek’s shoulders drop. When I lose a fish, all I’m out is a good memory and bragging rights. Boucek watches as a trove of scientific data slips away.
Despite the millions of dollars bonefish bring to Florida, these fish are better known to anglers than to scientists. Because there is no commercial fishery for the species, there’s less impetus to study their population. Fishing is almost always catch-and-release, so there are few regulatory constraints. The Bonefish & Tarpon Trust was formed in 1977 to help fill in these gaps of scientific knowledge, but Florida’s water woes have underscored the need for answers just as they are confounding the search for understanding.
“It’s one step forward and five steps back,” Boucek says, explaining that the water-quality issues have put a stop to an enormous amount of habitat and fisheries restoration work.
And the consequences hammer the fish in different ways. For bonefish, the troubles come when there’s too much water arriving at the wrong time. With South Florida’s altered hydrology, hot, hypersaline water pours down from Florida Bay toward the mangroves and flats of the Keys, displacing fish that typically stay within a very small home range unless they are spawning. “When you displace a fish,” Boucek says, “you reduce growth and you increase predation risk.” It’s a one-two punch that leads to lower reproduction.
For tarpon, it’s the massive pulses of fresh water—and the toxic loads they’ve carried in the last decades—that kill off the sea grass, which jump-starts the downward spiral in the health of the ecosystem. Scientists have tagged more than 100 Atlantic tarpon since May 2016, and those fished have registered more than 65,000 detections. Tarpon have shown massive latitude in their movements: One 55-pound male detected in the lower Keys in May 2018 wound up near Ocean City, Maryland, the next month. But these fish can also gather en masse—which puts them in peril. Boca Grande Pass is one such gathering place, and it is the epicenter, Boucek says, of the toxic freshwater releases that jet out of the Caloosahatchee during the Lake Okeechobee drawdowns.
For the moment, scientists are mostly trying to keep these fish from bottoming out while they deal with the water-quality issues.
“It can get depressing to think about these problems at such a huge scale,” Boucek says. “But that’s part of the benefit of such a wave of advocacy and support on behalf of water quality across Florida. It elevates the discussion at all levels, and it seems like these issues are on everyone’s mind now.”
He tells me about recent efforts to educate anglers about prop scars in the delicate sea-grass beds of the Keys flats, and studies on handling practices of saltwater fish and mortality. When word spread about a recent study of snook mortality tied to anglers holding the fish up by the lower jaw for photos, he began to see pushback on social media. “People are now firing off when they see pictures of these kinds of actions,” he says. “If we could replicate the social media movement with snook on tarpon and bonefish, it would be huge. When you begin to understand that there are things you can do in your own political sphere that really matter, and even things you can do in your own boat, that has to help.”
What Lies Ahead?
It seems more so now than in recent memory that there is hope for the future of Florida’s fisheries. Awareness has moved beyond Florida Bay and the Everglades, to a global community. Whether they live in Florida or play in Florida, anglers are beginning to understand that they have a role to play in solving the South Florida water crisis. And for the people who make their living with a boat and a rod, there’s much more at stake than a good day on the tarpon flats. There’s a national park, a World Heritage site, and an international biosphere reserve in their backyard. There are boat loans to pay and families to feed.
After our 90 minutes of tarpon bliss, after the school has vanished, Wittman, Andrews, and I don’t say much. We drift in the dead center of one of the most critical flows of water in all of South Florida, where the outfall from the Shark River slough wraps around the state’s peninsular tip, funneling fresh water into the vast estuary of Florida Bay. With all the tripletail and tarpon around the boat, I hadn’t given my surroundings much thought. But then it occurs to me that this could be the wildest, most remote, and longest stretch of saltwater shore I’ve ever seen in the Lower 48. I ask Wittman about that.
“So, from the boat ramp at Flamingo,” I say, “where we put in, and around Cape Sable, and all the way up the Gulf coast to Everglades City—that’s got to be, what, 50 or 60 miles? And in all of that, there’s…nothing?”
Wittman is uncharacteristically quiet, and whether he is staring at the water, the mangroves, or the sky, I can’t tell.
“No,” he says. “There’s everything.”