Down in southern Florida, where the air conditioner is man's best friend, the 20th century has left a scar known as the Tamiami Trail, 260-odd asphalted miles of junk and hokum. Along the scar Indians peddle their folkways for nickels and dimes, and Coca-Cola signs bloom in lush jungles of smashed automobiles. South of the scar, however, south of the Trail, south of the alligator farms and Seminole "villages," lies one of America's last great wildernesses, the Ten Thousand Islands of Florida's mangrove coast, a mixture of land and water so cunningly contrived that man has not yet discovered a way to louse it up.
The Ten Thousand Islands have become a refuge from the 20th century, a green haze obscuring the Whataburger stands and muffling the steel clamor of the Trail. For the deer and the panthers still to be found there, the Islands are a vast shadow that conceals them from man, but what the deer and the panthers do not know is that for a man the Islands can be a concealing shadow, too. They can cushion him against the harshness of his civilization with tranquil silence, and at the same time they can offer him one of nature's fine challenges, a chance to catch a rare, wise fighter of a fish, the snook.
But a fish that has 10,000 islands to hide among is not an easy quarry. To find it, you must know a man who understands the snook and understands the islands, too. Rocky Weinstein qualifies, a backcountry guide who will take you where the snook are, and the tarpon, too, if you suggest it. Rocky works out of Everglades, Fla., a onetime boomtown where the population is 300 and the boom has echoed away to a long-gone pop. In 1960 the Collier Company, a huge land-holding organization whose founder, Barron G. Collier, was responsible for putting the town on the map, moved its headquarters from Everglades to Naples, Fla.; and this departure, following hard upon the crippling winds of Hurricane Donna, left more holes in the community fabric than the chamber of commerce has yet been able to fill. There is an empty bank building, even an empty Juliet C. Collier Hospital. It is on Storter Avenue, next door to Rocky. Gretchen Weinstein, Rocky's wife—they were married in 1961, six years after Rocky, an ex-nightclub manager, came to the Everglades from Norfolk, Va.—was for many years a nurse in the hospital, and she remembers well the fractious Saturday nights when the town rang with sawmill workers chopping down one another on the main street.
"In those days," she recalls, "we sewed up men two at a time, the doctor working at one table and I right beside him at another."
Nowadays, however, about the only noise Saturday night produces in Everglades comes from the air conditioners sucking life into the drugstore and the Tropical Bar on Broad Street, where the young men of the town gather to bowl against one another on a miniature alley in the corner. Like people in a small town anywhere, many of them are suspicious of outsiders, especially if the outsider happens to be a man like Rocky Weinstein who has capitalized on such a homegrown commodity as snook and tarpon.
"Sure, I know Rocky," says a tall young man drinking a beer. "The guy's got a talent for publicity. I can say that much for him."
This is one view of Rocky's success, and it is true that influential friends like Ted Williams have gotten his name around. But another, more generous view that one also hears is that Rocky simply works harder than most guides. This, plus the fact that he knows the water, has earned him the respect of a lot of people.
"You can't fish with him five minutes," says one of his customers, "without picking up some of his enthusiasm. I don't know anybody else who can make just the sight of a fish an exciting thing. Rocky can do that."
Rocky runs his business from a small room off the kitchen, a combination workshop-office where he keeps up his equipment and answers letters. To reach a letter he has to unearth it from a clutter of flies, reels and leader coils; to answer it he has to rebuild the pile in order to find writing room on either of the office's two large tables. Rods are racked against one wall, and more rods, some of them without guides, stand in a corner behind the chair he uses when tying the long streamer flies he likes to use for snook. Over the years he has built up a list of customers who use his equipment as well as fish with him, and filling their orders for flies and rods takes a lot of his time. Only a few of his customers come from Florida. Most of them are from Arkansas, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois—inland states where the ocean is a dream.
"Ten years ago," he says, "there weren't a dozen people who knew anything about fly-fishing in salt water. Today there must be hundreds."