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I Still Smell the Flats

As if I had been there just yesterday


I still smell the flats. I can see the mud at low tide, glistening in the midday sun. Small spikes from mangrove seeds dot the brown mud, and a long-legged great white heron stalks its prey at the water’s edge. A school of finger mullet makes a wake in the shallow water that is now beginning to ebb. I wait as my mind tries to conjure up a big snook striking and sending these baitfish flipping on the shimmering mud, and I still smell the flats.

It is low tide in one of the myriad mangrove creeks accessible along the southwest Florida coast in Everglades National Park. It is a sight and smell I witnessed so many times that today I need only close my eyes to see again.

The water is completely off the flats and the redfish and snook that patrol these flats, feeding at high tide, are in the creek as far out as the creek mouth. The shore birds and wading birds are everywhere, poking and prodding in the mud, and fishing along the edge. A pair of skimmers comes rocking down the creek with their lower bill barely in the water leaving a slight trail. One hits a baitfish and breaks formation swinging high to swallow its catch.

Over my left shoulder a flock of flamingos, almost looking like they were freshly painted that hot pink color, glides by. Every few minutes a white crown pigeon that migrated up from Cuba or over from the Bahamas flies at tree top level. They always seem to be flying the same direction, as if they had a rendezvous of some sort. Game birds and considered very tasty in the Caribbean, they are protected here. In fact, all of the wildlife here is protected.

Somewhere on Cape Sable is the grave of Guy Bradley, an Audubon Society warden, who was murdered by plume hunters in 1905. His death led directly to federal legislation banning the killing of wading birds. I found his grave once a long time ago.

According to somewhat conflicting stories, Bradley was shot while trying to apprehend plume hunters on the Oyster Key bird rookery, and his body was discovered somewhere near Flamingo. The large key in Florida Bay just to the west of Flamingo is named Bradley Key in his honor. The marker that originally identified the location of his grave is now in the park visitor’s center.

I still smell the flats. Like an old friend that beckons me to go fishing, the odor will forever linger in my mind. We used to be able to pick up the smell on the old Ingram Highway, now a paved road that leads from Homestead to Flamingo. As we approached Flamingo, it was always a special treat to be the first to find the smell. It was a game we played.

As a kid, I had a number of games to play on the way to Flamingo. As he drove, I would count with my father the number of swamp rabbits sitting along the edge of the road; one hundred and one, one hundred and two. They were everywhere on the roadside, and seemed to be more numerous the closer we came to Flamingo. We counted deer, box turtles and snakes. Sometimes in the early morning dark a lightening show from a lingering thunderstorm completely lit up the grass prairie.

Nine-Mile Pond. The last curve in the road that headed now in a straight line for the ramp at Flamingo was at Nine Mile. We stopped there more than once. I remember one terrible day that we headed home early. Normally we fished until the sun was one thumb notch up from the horizon. That meant we had thirty minutes of daylight left, just enough time to make it back to the ramp safely. We stopped to see the last and southernmost body of freshwater on the Florida peninsular. A sign asked us – actually warned us – not to feed the alligators. As we stood at the water’s edge, two very large gators made their way toward us from the middle of the lake. It was obvious they were used to being fed.

Somehow, on all those days when it was just me and Pop, I was always the one that seemed to count the most rabbits. I was always the one that picked up the smell of the flats first. He never won. Oh, sure – I know why. But it takes me longer to realize some things than I really wish it would.

I still smell the flats. I will always smell them when my mind wanders to a time when fishing was great; a time when a boy could be a boy with his father; a time when even a peculiar odor could evoke life long memories.

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