Outdoors

From body snatchers to walking catfish. This is what freshwater fishing looks like

Alex Martin and his friend Michael Gandara with the tiger shovelnose catfish they caught in South Miami.
Alex Martin and his friend Michael Gandara with the tiger shovelnose catfish they caught in South Miami.

If you plan to stroll through John Pate’s front door and skip past the trophy-crowded shelves that decorate his wall, you’d be well advised to plan differently. Every one of those trophies has a story, or a photo, or (especially) a lesson behind it, and if there’s one thing Pate doesn’t respect, it’s a house guest who doesn’t want to learn.

He is, after all, a teacher.

But he’s better known as a fisherman.

Since the 1980s, Pate has been one of South Florida’s most prominent bass anglers. He’s fished — and won — tournaments. He’s guided trips out of Holiday Park. And he has the pictures to prove it.

On a recent morning, he reached for the highest shelf in his living room and pulled down one of his many trophies.

“See that?” he asked, his finger tracing the lateral line of the largemouth bass etched in glass before he headed down a hallway. “It’s hand-etched.”

He attributes some of his success to pouring his own plastic worms. Soft plastics are a staple of any freshwater tackle box, but most people buy them in stores. He planned to demonstrate how to make them about 20 yards from a backyard canal.

In another canal, somewhere south of Pate’s Coconut Creek home, you could probably find “Monster Mike.” If Pate is to freshwater guiding what Michelangelo was to art, Monster Mike is Jackson Pollock.

You won’t find him pouring worms. He pushes boundaries, using “Finding Nemo” toys to make lures, or fishing from a floating air mattress. In a recent video, in place of a traditional rod and reel, he used a roll of tape fastened to a wooden stick. And he has a darn good time doing it, guiding his clients (on foot) through Miami’s canal system for a true “urban angling” experience.

His gimmicks and enthusiasm have gained a sizable following on Instagram (over 150,000 followers) and YouTube (over 600,000 subscribers) thanks in part to his cameraman and producer, who calls himself “Bryan the CEO.” He didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

Before he retired, Pate grew his customer base almost exclusively by word of mouth. He took clients deep into the Everglades in search of the revered largemouth bass. Monster Mike, meanwhile, has built his empire as the self-proclaimed “DIY King,” using Dunkin Donuts or McDonald’s burgers to fish for anything and everything in South Florida’s canals. And the canals have plenty to offer.

Monster Mike has boasted on Instagram about catching Amazonian peacock bass, Asian grass carp, South American oscars and African jewel fish. These are just a handful of the non-native fish species documented by Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and there are plenty more that aren’t officially documented. South Florida, any local angler will tell you, is a place where you truly never know what’s on the end of your line.

But why? And how are non-native fish affecting the environment for native species like Pate’s precious largemouth bass?

Those questions, it turns out, are difficult to answer. But they’ll shape the future for South Florida’s freshwater fishing experience, hopefully in a way that benefits traditionalists and modernists alike.

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Largemouth bass Florida Museum - University of Florida

ORIGINS

One of the earliest freshwater fish to invade South Florida was the Southeast Asian walking catfish, first documented in Broward County in 1967. It gets its name from its ability to slither across dry land to find water.

It exploded into South Florida canals in the late ‘60s, along with warnings that it would decimate native populations. Florida’s FWCC now calls those reports “erroneous,” and more than 50 years after its introduction, the now-ubiquitous walking catfish’s numbers have decreased, and it has “not had major detrimental effects.”

This is a common theme among exotic fish in South Florida, according to Joel Trexler, a Florida International University ecologist who studies fish in the Everglades. He said it was first observed by pioneering ecologist Charles Elton in his 1958 book “The Ecology of Invasion by Animals and Plants:” Invasive species have a tendency to boom, then bust.

“People bring species around,” Trexler said. “It’s just a subset of them that become a problem.”

South Floridians know that subset well. The python invasion has led to a government-sanctioned bounty hunt and has decimated native mammals, with the U.S. Geological Survey reporting a 99.3 percent reduction of raccoon populations in the southernmost reaches of Everglades National Park. Bobcats, opossums and native rabbits haven’t fared much better.

But freshwater fish don’t capture the imagination in the same way as strangling tubes with teeth, and according to Trexler, it’s also much harder to describe their impact. The question of whether they’re “good” or “bad,” he explained, is complex.

He said one perspective is that Everglades National Park is a museum of what Florida looked like before urbanization. So any alteration to that museum would be “bad,” because it corrupts the historical environment.

But another perspective is that if an exotic fish became abundant in the Everglades and helped restore its population of wading birds as a consistent food source, it could be considered “good.”

One could also be indifferent — non-native fish are almost impossible to eradicate.

walking catfish -- u.s. geological survey.jpg
Walking catfish U.S. Geological Survey

“Once fish get out and get loose, you can’t get rid of them,” Trexler said. “So the reality is that we have these invasive species, and we can continue to just get all upset that the museum has been tainted by non-native fish, but we’re not gonna be able to do anything about it.”

But his analysis doesn’t apply to the canals and man-made lakes of South Florida. Since they’re artificial environments, their purpose is recreation over preservation. To be clear, anything that ends up in South Florida canals could end up in the Everglades, so a “precautionary principle” is applied.

Trexler said it goes like this: You never know what impact something you release in your backyard is going to have, even if most times such introductions are benign. Releasing anything is best avoided. Because even though establishing a new fish might make for fun fishing, it could also eliminate largemouth bass from South Florida.

South Florida’s first spotted tilapia was captured in 1974. It has “rapidly become the most abundant fish in the canal system of Miami-Dade County,” according to the FWCC, “where it made up about 25 percent of the fishes by number and weight.”

In response to the proliferation of tilapia, Florida’s FWCC introduced butterfly peacock bass to South Florida canals in 1984. FWCC scientist Paul Shafland championed the fish, leading experiments to assess their potential harm to native populations. He found that since they’re largely lake fish in their native Amazon, they were unlikely to harm the marshlands of the Everglades.

They also can’t tolerate temperatures below 60 degrees Fahrenheit, so they’d be limited to South Florida. And they’d help control the tilapias, on which they prey. And they’d create a fun backyard fishery that could get kids interested in the environment.

Over three decades later, urban angling in South Florida has boomed thanks in large part to the introduction of the peacock bass. It’s created a fishery that’s worth, per a 2010 article in “Game and Fish,” $8 million.

“It certainly has created a successful fishery,” Trexler said.

The peacock bass have also done their job. Tilapia, though still common, no longer dominate.

Peacock bass, with their iconic trio of vertical stripes, are the main targets of Monster Mike and most other urban anglers. But they’re not the only exciting exotic fish stalking South Florida waters.

PLAIN WEIRD

Alex Martin once caught a 6.5-pound peacock bass in a Kendall pond. The state record is 9.08 pounds, so this was a sizable catch — easily Martin’s biggest.

But even though peacock bass are the most sought-after South Florida canal and lake fish, with a range that extends to just about every major body of water in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, the 23-year-old from South Miami will tell you without hesitation that it wasn’t his most exciting sighting.

“What I like doing is adventuring,” he said. “I’ll go on Google Maps and find new bodies of water.”

Early last year, that spirit led him to a secluded pond in South Miami.

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Butterfly peacock bass

He chummed the water with “Kit & Kaboodle” cat food when a pair of pacu appeared. Pacu are common aquarium fish native to South America that are often released when they outgrow their tanks. It was an unusual find. But then, an even stranger fish appeared: A tiger shovelnose catfish.

“It was the most exciting thing to discover that,” he said.

Shovelnoses are also popular aquarium fish that tend to outgrow their tanks. This one looked to be about three feet long, with a big white belly and distinctive black tiger stripes on its silver body.

It ate Martin’s cat food, but he couldn’t get the cat food on a hook, and it wouldn’t bite at bait fish. He planned to return. That, to him, would be the catch of a lifetime. He returned about eight times over the next several months. One June 20, it finally took a bait fish.

“We have different bucket-list-type fish” in South Florida, he said.

Just look at the pacu. In their native range, they can grow to over 50 pounds and look like monster piranhas, minus the carnivorous teeth. And while there’s no proof that they’re breeding in South Florida, Martin said he’s seen them multiple times. So has Drew Rodriguez, another local guide. And reports to state agencies about them span at least a decade.

Another uncommon catch is the redtail catfish, a human-sized behemoth from the Amazon with a black-and-white body, a red tail and a mouth to match the width of its head. They were featured on an episode of the Animal Planet series “River Monsters” titled “Body Snatcher.”

Speaking of “River Monsters,” host Jeremy Wade told the Miami Herald in 2015 about seeing an arowana — another popular aquarium fish — in a canal near Miami International Airport.

Pate also said clients have seen “giant Amazon catfish” that they described as “sharks” in the lakes near MIA.

Aside from these fairly uncommon non-natives, there are plenty of established varieties: Oscars, orange-and-black aquarium cichlids which some consider game fish but most consider bait-hoarding pests; snakeheads, slender-bodied, toothy predators that were first reported in northern Broward County in 2000 and have thrived there since, gradually expanding their range and eating everything in sight, including fishing lures; clown knifefish, a silver fish with a long, feather-like anal fin that gives it its name and a tendency to jump when hooked that gives it a reputation; mayan cichlids, “atomic sunfish” that can live almost anywhere, eat almost anything and wear green and orange stripes, like an aquatic UM mascot; and midas cichlids, bright orange fish that, if you didn’t know better, might look like large goldfish; among others.

Rodriguez, who guides canal charters for peacock bass and Everglades charters for largemouth, said his clients love the goldfish-like midas cichlids. Anything different, really. And it’s never too hard to provide.

“We’re so blessed in South Florida,” he said.

This industry, after all, could only happen in South Florida, with its year-round warmth and its deep, box-cut canals that connect just about every body of water in the city and suburbs, creating an economic environment where all kinds of characters can thrive.

White sturgeon are the largest freshwater species in North America. Specimens up to 8 feet in length are fairly common, and big ones can exceed 10 feet and weigh several hundred pounds. Sturgeon cannot be harvested in Idaho, and anglers must follo

ALL ABOUT PEOPLE

Pate’s sliding glass door opens to a patio full of fishing equipment. There are 21 rods bundled together in a corner, along with a microwave-sized box of plaster molds and other boxes and bags of mold-making accessories. Each mold is made from a shoebox top filled with plaster, each worm designed over the decades. There are about 30 in that box. More in the garage. Some have his initials carved into them. Some have a date, going back to ‘85.

Almost like a studio.

He started with “nipples,” essentially trimmed pieces of plastic worms. He either buys excess trimmings wholesale from plastic worm manufacturers or cuts whole worms into pill-sized pieces. He mixed some chopped green-and-pepper shad with a couple handfuls of clear plastic worms and some green glitter in a standard measuring cup. His goal was to have a fairly transparent green color, which he said works this time of year. He stuck it in a microwave for a minute and took it out, hoping to avoid foam.

“Smell that stuff?” he said. “Very toxic.”

He lubricated a foot-long stick with fish attractant and stirred. The aerosol fish spray smelled like rotten Febreze. Then it was back in the microwave for 30-second increments. Two trips repurposed the baits as plastic pudding.

He spritzed vegetable oil from a condiment bottle into three molds atop the microwave, then poured the melted mixture. Steam rose from the edges.

After a couple of minutes of cooling, he peeled them out and left them to harden on a patio sill. For demonstration purposes, he grabbed an older yellow worm and trimmed the excess plastic to make sure it would swim perfectly.

It coiled like a snake in the canal, at least until it got stuck in some bamboo on the backswing. He tore off the tail and said it would work just as well. He cast in every direction on the canal with precision, dropping the bait right next to branches, right into wakes or just shy of the opposite bank.

Each cast was a new lesson. “Use your arm. Don’t use the reel,” he said. “Play around with it. Take your time.”

He taught about watching weeds for movement, looking behind the bait rather than directly at it and different wrist techniques to make the bait more lifelike, along with his most important lesson: “I can show you everything I know,” he said. “But if you don’t make it better yourself, you’re not doing it right.”

Rodriguez doesn’t get tremendous business from social media, but it helped him get started. Until two-and-a-half years ago, the 33-year-old was a locksmith. He’d fished for peacock bass in local canals until it became “too easy” around his 12th birthday. He switched to largemouth bass.

He got into guiding when a friend saw him posting pictures of his recreational catches on Facebook. The friend, Captain Shane Procell, told Rodriguez that if he were interested, he could send extra clients his way. Thus he became Captain Drew.

While Pate said his greatest aim was for his clients to learn and pass on that objective to other potential clients, Rodriguez described his guiding goals as giving his clients the best possible experience.

Many of Rodriguez’s clients come from outside Miami. He keeps his prices high — $600 for a full-day trip — to keep it that way.

He likes to give out-of-town clients a chance to experience what makes fishing here unique, and he said they can see it right away. They sometimes describe the water as an aquarium — especially folks from the frozen north.

“Here, on a slow day,” Rodriguez said, “you might catch more fish in a day than you do all summer up there.”

He added that while his business mainly spreads by referrals, either from Procell or past clients, social media has helped him in one unexpected way: Monster Mike.

Since Monster Mike only does urban angling charters where he walks clients from bank to bank, he recommends boat charters. Drew’s Guide Service is one of three listed on his website.

Rodriguez said that at one point, traffic from Monster Mike’s site to his exceeded the number of visitors from Google. It exemplifies the power of a new type of business model in the freshwater fishing industry — one based in flashy videos heavy with personality and inventive fishing, from a McDonald’s straw rod to a tape measure reel to a backpack aquarium.

“He goes beyond the distance,” Martin said. “As you can see in his videos, this guy will go in the water and sacrifice his body to make sure his customers get what they want at the end of that line.”

As he and Rodriguez continue to climb in the profession, Pate is on his way out.

He used to be the go-to recommendation at Holiday Park, but he said he turned over that account about four years ago. He’s now mostly retired, though he still talks about maybe returning to this or that tournament, and maybe selling some bait to his buddy Mark Escobar at BJ’s Bait and Tackle.

At one point he took a phone call from Escobar and reminded him that though he’s not the hog slayer he was in the ‘80s, he’s still around.

“It takes more than a devil to beat down a swamp rat,” he said. “We’re swamp rats. We’re hard to kill.”

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