Fishing Alligator Alley

Noyo Confidential disappeared into the Everglades, into the misty swamps of Alligator Alley last week. I decided to skip the column because I didn't want to do anything that remotely smelled like work. Hey, I was on vacation. May and I commandeered Grandma's car, put the top down, and started driving from Port Charlotte in the general direction of the Florida Keys. After a few minutes with the top down we realized that it was really very hot, about 80° in a blazing sun, so we put the top back up and put the air conditioning on.

Everybody in Florida, it seems, fishes. Alongside almost every road lie drainage ditches filled with water, and more than likely there's someone fishing in the ditch. There are short tule grasses, and water lilies around the edges of the ponds, and folks pull over their trucks onto the grassy shoulder and park. They take out folding chairs and coolers and find a shady spot and start working the water with bass plugs. In the Big Cypress National Park, at the northern edge of the Everglades, we saw Seminole Indians working hand lines in the roadside ditches.

We stopped at a deserted public access off Interstate 75 and walked into the swamp along a dirt path. The swamp water was gin clear. I could feel alligators looking at me. I told May the whole thing made me nervous and wondered aloud what the swamps would be like without roads and convertibles with air conditioning. Everything looks the same and there are no landmarks. You could leave a trail of bread crumbs, I suppose, but they'd be pretty soggy and hard to find upon your return. It would also lead the alligators straight to your position.

By this time in our trip, my fascination with alligators was getting a little tiresome for May. As a boy in Philadelphia my experience with alligators was confined to the little stuffed ones my cousins brought back from their grandparent's home in Florida. It was rumored that large albino ones lived in the Philly sewer system but I never saw one in the toilet bowl, although I often checked.

I always wanted to survive a close encounter with these meat eating reptiles, and soon enough we saw a small one, about as long as my arm, sunning itself just off the dirt path in the mangrove swamp. I pointed it out to May and stood there for a while, smugly overcoming my deep fear of these animals, before I really got the creeps and decided it was time to go back in the car and keep driving. No matter which way you turned, you got the feeling that a very big alligator had its cold fish eye on the back of your neck.

The little boy in me wants to go back there some day and poke an alligator with a stick, and see if it will snap and hiss at me. Okay, a really long stick. I'm pretty sure this urge determines US foreign policy.

We drove on down to the Florida Keys, all the way to Key West that night. We stopped at a roadside seafood restaurant and lucked into some real stone crab cakes with clam strips. They made the crab cakes with roasted red bell peppers and the clams were fried in a cornbread hushpuppy batter. It really hit the spot. The Florida Keys are a fishing mecca because of the underwater geography of the area. To the north lies Florida Bay, with flat shallow bottom; to the south lies the Atlantic Ocean and deep offshore ledges.

The next morning we made an obligatory pilgrimage to the old town part of Key West, which almost seemed shadowed by a leviathan cruise ship at the docks. The ship was three times taller than any building in town.

I suggested we make a tour of Key West's Ernest Hemingway Museum, a big, two-story square house a block from the water's edge, surrounded by brilliant bougainvilleas and exotic plants from all over South America. It looked cool. May agreed and for ten bucks apiece we were immediately taken inside and annoyed by a tour guide. Instead of talking about the author, he talked about the rarity of the antiques on the premises, family squabbles over the possession of the furniture, and made bad jokes.

We left the group and wandered around the grounds. May took interest in a few of the 31 six-toed cats, all descendents of Hemingway's own pets, who live at the house. She found a couple of frisky kittens and played with them while I looked at the museum's bookstore. I found a photograph I liked of Hemingway next to a very large blue marlin he landed off Key West back in the 1930s. There's that big smile on his face and a glass of some tropical drink in his hand and a desperate sadness in his eyes. It was a good picture.

While we were in the Keys, we got news of the family of Cubans who had rigged up a '59 Buick for the 90 mile trip across the water. I saw a picture of it in the paper and it had the tail fins and everything. "When you absolutely, positively have to leave a Communist dictatorship by tomorrow morning..."

I'll continue my report on our Florida adventures next week. You won't want to miss the story about our fishing trip on the Gulf of Mexico on a charter boat. Get this: when we got on the boat, one of the other fishermen on board for the day, pointed to my daughter May and asked me, "Is she just coming along for the ride?" Ride, my ass, buddy. She came to fish. A couple of hours later, she's filling the box with fish and half of these guys are seasick. The ocean was like a pool table.

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