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Say that you have been driving south for two days and despite road exhaustion you are delighted to escape the flinty April cold of Michigan. Just outside of Miami you make a jog on the Palmetto Expressway, then another jog through the truck farms and you are past Homestead. Closer. In the immenseness of its greenery the flat swampy terrain resembles nothing so much as a giant snake farm, but you know that not far on the left is the Atlantic and on the right, out beyond the miles of mangrove and saw grass, is the Gulf of Mexico.
Route 1 is stacked with trailers; from the air it would appear that you are trapped in a slow crawling trailer caravan, an imitation freight train hauling the weary to the sun for an Easter weekend rest. But you don't want to rest. You want to fish for a month, every day all day, way past the point of boredom or exhaustion or possible sunstroke or disgust. At Key Largo and on down to Big Pine you keep noticing there's a steady breeze out of the southeast, maybe 20 knots, and it has roiled the water and you hate it, but even this doesn't matter. You itch to be out there, to be staked on the edge of a flat in a skiff looking for tarpon or permit or bonefish or perhaps the waving-flag tail of a mutton snapper.
A flight down from Miami is even more dramatic. Following the Keys south, then west, at 5,000 feet you imagine that you can see the great sweep of the tide shifting from the Atlantic to the Gulf and back again. And the passing of the tidal thrust through so many configurations of land masses and small mangrove keys creates rivers. It occurs to you that you are not fishing a series of mangrove islands and their adjoining flats at all but 20 or so rivers whose courses may be seen only from the air.
Rivers or flats, the Keys are a wilderness of water, and a stranger could fish for a long time without even seeing any of the vaunted species that make angling here such a quantum experience. There is simply too much water: close to 750 square miles between Bahia Honda down through Key West with a slight crook southwesterly out to Boca Grande and the Marquesas beyond.
The stranger will waste his time blundering around from flat to channel with his nose in a series of imprecise charts and an inscrutable tide book. He will get lost, or at least run his boat aground. So the only sensible thing to do in order to save time and grief and raw nerves, stovein hulls and gouged bottoms—and ultimately to catch fish—is to book a guide. In this vast stretch of country there are perhaps a dozen good ones, not to be confused with the backwoods handyman retards you might have encountered on other sporting ventures.
We are far out on the Gulf side of Jack Bank; it is still very early but we have a good tide. The light is bad, however, with thunderheads piling up, pushed by a 15-knot wind out of the south. The thunderheads reflect the sun and form a sheen on the water that is almost impossible to penetrate; while the water is only three feet deep a 100-pound tarpon can pass by unnoticed. These are scarcely good conditions for the neophyte but he realizes he needs them to excuse his ineptitudes.
The guide, Woody Sexton, stands on the deck of the skiff holding a long push pole at midpoint so that it is balanced in his hand. He is breathing hard because he has just finished chasing a pod of tarpon upwind and uptide but they stayed out of range.
"I see more fish," he says.
"Where?" The customer's voice quavers.
"About 12 o'clock straight off the transom, about a hundred yards moving from left to right."