Big Fish, Little Ponds

In the murky water hazards of Florida golf courses, something magical awaits: big-ass bass, tarpon, and snook. Tie on a fly and keep your mouth shut—we're going in.

It came from a Pond!     Photo: Leonard Gertz/Gallery Stock

I FIRST HEARD ABOUT the underground world of Florida golf-course fishing three years ago, when a buddy sent me a photo of a huge largemouth bass he'd caught in a pond at his in-laws' retirement home near Sarasota. The picture was a classic "grip and grin," in which the triumphant angler holds up his quarry and smiles like an idiot. The three-inch fly looked like a tiny crumb in the fat fish's cavernous maw. "Biggest bass I've ever caught," he said. Right then I decided that whenever I visited my folks, who live in a golfy gated community in Fort Myers, I'd set the six-iron aside for a six-weight fly rod.

Urban anglers have the housing boom to thank for this fishery. Builders decided they had to plop their stucco ranch homes around golf courses in order to sell them, a pricey development scheme that ultimately proved unwise. By the time the housing bubble burst, southwest Florida was littered with a surplus of golf courses (and, naturally, golf-course ponds), some still in business, some gasping, some dead. Most contain plenty of fish, and the largemouth isn't the only species you're likely to find.

At a North Fort Myers tackle shop I visited during a recent trip, the man behind the counter told me never to be surprised by the watery creatures I might run into on a golf course. "It isn't just bass in there," he said, pointing to a wall-mounted tarpon hanging in a frozen leap. "Some of them are almost too big for those little ponds. I've hooked ones up to 70 pounds."

"You'll probably have better fishing luck going to some golf-course pond than going up to Lake Okeechobee," concurred Mark Ward, a Naples-based guide who specializes in prized species like snook, redfish, and tarpon. In addition to bass, Ward has seen 30-pound tarpon roll in streetside ponds more than a mile inland from the Gulf of Mexico. He once caught a few Mayan cichlids—a colorful panfish native to Mexico and Central America—in a small water hazard. "How they got in there," he says, "I don't know."

There are three leading theories as to how the ponds get fishy. The most obvious is that they're often connected to canals or natural bodies of water that already hold bass. The second possible way is via birds, which carry eggs on their feet from one pond to the next. The third is a shadowy notion I like to call Enterprising Angler Theory, the idea being that fishermen quietly stock the ponds because they know the fish will survive and grow, unmolested by people who, unlike them, aren't into skulking around.

How the fish get in the ponds is ultimately irrelevant. What matters is that they're there, which to me is an inherently thrilling proposition. I live in Washington, D.C., where the local fishing opportunities are just fine, thanks. But they aren't Florida fine, and as a fisherman I get worked up simply by entering Sunshine State airspace. Throw in the golf-course equation—the fact that I can drag one of my poorly dressed flies through a small, confined body of water and come away with anything from lunker bass to thrashing snook—and suddenly I'm convulsing with excitement.

Alas, it's not the easiest subculture to crack. Every Florida fisherman worth his weight in plastic worms seems to know about it, but the topic is hush-hush: no chat rooms, formal clubs, or governing bodies. When aficionados discover productive ponds, they squeeze them like state secrets. I learned this the first time I tried to pump a fly-shop owner for some promising golf-course leads. He refused to cough up a single course name, though he did offer this bit of self-serving advice: "Don't piss off the golfers. You'll ruin it for all of us."

As indicated by the paranoia, the legality of this sport varies from course to course, especially since Florida retirement communities regard themselves as something like sovereign nations. A few wise rules to follow: Always practice catch-and-release; obey the posted NO FISHINGu signs; fish until you're told not to, then buzz off for good; and dress nice. Khakis and a golf shirt will help you blend in. And if you're caught, you're more likely to be treated like some resident's preppie nephew than a random scumbag begging for prosecution.

RISKY THOUGH POND ANGLING may be, there's no denying the exhilaration of sneaking onto a golf course to fish. Every cast is made with a glance over the shoulder to the putting green, wondering if that silver-haired hacker in the checkered pants will reward your gumption with a call to the sheriff.

On this visit to Fort Myers, I've gotten warmed up—the fishing equivalent of hitting driving-range balls—by casting for a few on my parents' home course. I'm in place on the eighth hole by dawn of the first day, mist still burning off the water.

Unfortunately, many dues-paying golfers are up, too, so I do a lot of cart dodging and weed hunkering. Eight carts send me running for cover in the space of an hour, and during one of my escapes I'm nailed in the groin by a waist-high sprinkler that I fail to notice in time.

But it's worth it: by 9:30 I've reeled in four bass, including a nice two-pounder. When I decide to knock off, I emerge near a tee box, a swamp creature with a fishing rod. Four old golfers, waggling and leaning on their drivers, look confused.

"Catch anything?" one finally asks.

"Got my share," I say, before heading off to the back nine.

The next day, seeking wilder territory, I drive through North Fort Myers toward Tampa, past billboards advertising stern-faced DUI lawyers and huge gun shows, eventually coming to a new outbreak of gated communities and manicured fairways. I turn down a country road where chickens roost atop fenceposts, heading into one of those desolate Sun Belt pockets where the housing boom crested and then dribbled backwards, leaving behind vacant home-sites overrun with grass. FROM THE $150'S! the signs scream. BEAT THE TAX CREDIT!

It isn't long before I stumble upon an ungated development in Punta Gorda, sandwiched between two golf courses. About half the homes seem to bear for sale signs. I hop out and walk with my spinning rod toward the first promising piece of water I see. Once my shadow breaks the shoreline, I notice two sudden boils that turn into wakes headed for the center of the pond. I know from experience that this isn't the characteristic splash of a bass. Have I just spooked a pair of snook in the shallows?

I tie on a garish lure and throw my first cast upwind along the bank. I've retrieved it only a couple of feet when the lure abruptly stops and line peels off the reel. A few moments later, I'm releasing a feisty 22-inch snook. I recall how hard I worked for my first snook on an artificial lure three years earlier, paddling in a kayak and flogging the mangroves all afternoon, finally inducing a barely perceptible strike from a nine-inch juvenile.

Another cast, another snook. Whoa! Fishermen pay guides hundreds of dollars to catch just one of these fighters.

I work my way down to a corner of the pond, where there's a woman sunbathing on a lanai with two yellow Labs at her feet. After a few casts I hook something substantial. Whatever it is, it fights with a slow, lazy burrow, like a Walmart bag filled with water. The fish flashes broadside near the surface, and it isn't until later that I determine what it is—a blue tilapia, an invasive species in Florida, native to North Africa and the Middle East.

The fish breaks off, taking my lure with it. As I stand there with the slack line in my hands, I notice a man stepping out of a BMW convertible and walking toward me with more purpose than I like to see.

"You got permission to fish here?" he asks. Not a good start.

"No, sir, I don't," I mumble, staring down at my shoes like a shamed delinquent.

"Two guys wouldn't leave last week," he goes on. "I had 'em arrested." The development, he tells me, is "deed restricted," meaning it's effectively private, even though there are no gates. Lesson learned.

"I'm on my way," I say.

He hops back into his roadster and peels out. I head for my rental, carrying one less lure and a lot less dignity. Still ... two snook!

THOUGH THE ACTION is usually good, not every golf-course pond in Florida has been blessed by the fish fairy. Fortunately, I tend to find out quickly when a pond at least holds largemouth. These fish are so aggressive that it's usually just a matter of a few ugly casts before one devours my fly, making me feel like a competent angler. But the bass don't always reveal themselves.

Such is the case one late afternoon when I bike to a private golf community up the road from my parents' club. The guard, wearing a broad-brimmed sheriff-style hat, is disarmed by a friendly wave as I coast through the gate, rod in hand. Dressed in a collared shirt and slacks, I must give off the air of social acceptability.

With just a couple of hours of sunlight left, I turn down the golf-cart path and cruise along a fairway, expecting to have the front nine all to myself. It turns out I'm a little early. The last solo golfer of the day has just sunk his putt on the fourth hole and climbed into his cart. As I round the green and pass him, headed the wrong way on a one-way path, he ekes out a wave, his mouth open in bewilderment.

This development was billed as one of the more lavish boom-time settlements in the area. Never having fished it, I've always pictured a stucco Xanadu beyond its high beige walls, the fish leaping from pond to pond. Yet I catch no fish. I spy a few glimmers of aquatic life—dimples on the water here and there, some fingerlings suspended in the shallows—but after two hours all I have to show for my efforts is five dirty golf balls.

On my way out, I decide to try one last pond, behind a row of condos. But every time I cast my popper, a five-foot alligator races greedily after it. When I move down the shoreline, the gator follows. I hurl a stone to the other end of the pond, misdirecting him long enough to get in a few casts, but he soon catches on. At a condo porch nearby, a gaggle of French-Canadian women have decided to enjoy the spectacle, squealing with laughter as the gator rushes me.

"You fish for alligators?" one of them shouts.

"Not on purpose," I say.

"He's going to catch you before you catch a fish!" another says.

This gator encounter is hardly unusual. There are an estimated 1.3 million of them in Florida, abounding in lakes, canals, drainage ditches, and ponds. Yesterday, I had the misfortune of hooking one in a pond behind a Sweetbay Supermarket. After ten seconds of mutual panic, he mercifully tossed the hook and swam off.

Still fishless, I tell myself Xanadu is barren: the development, only three years old, is probably too young to have nurtured any leviathans. I decide to burn the last moments of daylight at a planned community down the street. As the sun glows a deep rust through the cypress trees in the west, I hike down to a long pond lying behind a row of neo-Mediterranean cookie-cutter homes. Through a back porch, I see a flatscreen TV filled with the visage of Chris Hansen, the smarmy host of NBC's pedophilia-themed show To Catch a Predator.

So, yeah, this isn't exactly backcountry fishing. But I don't mind if the hum of a lawnmower drowns out the cicada choir. After just a few casts, I bring another healthy-looking largemouth to hand.

MY LAST FEW DAYS in Florida, I stick close to home by fishing my parents' development. Poking around with a map of the course in my pocket, I've gotten to know which ponds hold fish and which don't. In this respect, fishing your home course is a lot like golfing your home course. There's solace in its familiarities, in having each bunker, hazard, and dogleg in your mind's eye. Which is why I save my last outing—night-fishing with a fly rod—for the links I know best. I make my way to the third hole just before dusk.

Night fishing is an entirely different experience from day fishing. After dusk, you recognize the light for what it was—a distraction —and instead operate on a heightened level of hearing and touch. The rod feels more responsive, the fish's take more sudden. The simple comforts of sight are gone. By moonlight, each shadowy crack in the cart path looks like a cottonmouth, and each frog you startle out of the reeds sounds like a crashing alligator. Nothing is taken for granted; every cast feels earned.

My plan is to fish the remaining holes on the front nine, then push into the morning if the bass are still biting. After the sun sets, I see only the flicker of porch lights and TV screens on the opposite side of the ponds, and I hear only the glug of my popper as I drag it over the water, waiting for the splash of a hungry fish. I have my best luck along the seventh, which has become my honey hole, having hooked but lost a 20-inch bass in the reeds there earlier in the day.

I reel in half a dozen before I move on.

Riding my bike, I peel off the ninth hole and onto a residential street, where I'm immediately lit up by a pair of lights from behind. It's what I've been dreading: a golf cart. Is it the night crew? No one will believe that I was just out for a spin—fishing rod aside, I'm wearing a headlamp, dirty jeans, and shin guards designed to protect against snake-bites. I pedal harder, hoping I can outrun their 48 volts, but soon I'm sweating and the cart's gaining ground. I coast to a stop and turn to the idling cart, ready for my lecture.

But then I see that the driver is sporting a blue blazer and a tuft of gray hair, while his date is wearing a black cocktail dress and has a drink in her hand. They're just a couple of tipsy snowbirds, winding their way home from a party in a three-horsepower carriage.

"Catch anything?" slurs the woman, a pretty blonde in her sixties. Her question gets me thinking about that landlocked tarpon I never met, my trip now drawing to a close.

"I caught my share," I offer, "but not what I was hoping for." Looking vaguely disappointed, they start off with a lurch. The couple is beneath the halo of a streetlight when I see the woman turn around in her seat. She has that carefree, gin-and-tonic glow that I've been seeing all week, that of a retiree who knows no calendar here in paradise. She steadies herself with an arm on the cart.

"There's always tomorrow!" she shouts.

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