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Shelter Island fishing columnist has the Florida blues

LARRY WINSTON PHOTO | An alligator makes its presence known to our columnist.
LARRY WINSTON PHOTO | An alligator makes its presence known to our columnist.

Greetings from Bonita Springs in the southwest quadrant of Florida. Fish On has been here for several months, aware of the cold, damp weather on Shelter Island and has no doubt it has been a tough couple of months. The accident reports in the Reporter indicate that even the deer are going stir-crazy and trying to end it all by throwing themselves at passing cars.

Well, I’ve got a tale of woe, too. The only reason I was put on this earth was to fish and it just isn’t happening this year in Florida. Usually, the winters here are dry with long stretches of warm weather and mild breezes. Not this year. We are in the middle of an El Nino winter that is really making me crazy.

El Nino is an on again, off again weather system originating in the equatorial Pacific affecting the Southeastern U.S. with cooler and wetter conditions than normal. According to the weather forecasters in the fall, it was supposed to spawn severe storm tracks with wild thunderstorms, high winds up to 80 m.p.h. and occasional tornados along with night temperatures in the high 40s and record rainfalls.

They have been spot on this year with tornados in our area, but what has really killed fishing has been the rain. Rainfall in January 2016 in Lee County where I live was a whopping 13 inches compared to the historical recorded average of just 2 inches for the month.

Because of all the rain, Lake Okeechobee, that famous, huge puddle in Central Florida, is at a near record 17 feet in depth. It’s so full that it’s straining the major dike (called Hoover Dam) causing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to open the flood gates and dump billions of gallons of fertilizer-rich, dark, brown water into our local river to relieve the stress on the dam.

That terrible water is rushing down the river and into the beautiful clean, clear salt waters of the Gulf of Mexico, creating a huge, discolored body of brackish water befouling our beaches, killing fish and plant life and discouraging folks from fishing, boating or just being near it. It is creating havoc for the tourist industry; local politicians have gone to Washington to plead with Congress for a cessation of the water dumping.

But hang on, it gets worse.

The dirty water dump has caused the majority of the shallow-water fish in our nearby bays and at the edges of the Gulf to pack up and move on to cleaner water until things get better here. That means that I can’t productively fish in salt water anywhere nearby, leaving the ponds and lakes in land to fish for fresh water bass and other species as my only shot, usually a pretty good bet.

But because of the dirty saltwater situation and the lack of fish to pursue, the hoards of local birds are stressed, too. (I warned you this was a tale of woe.) Pelicans, cormorants, herons and ospreys that rely on the departed fish for food have moved inland to feed on the freshwater fish in our local lakes and ponds. They’re really putting a hurt on them on an almost weekly basis in every pond.

The birds are amazing in how they cooperate to scour the ponds. It starts with scores of cormorants forming a straight line from shore to shore across a pond and swimming downwind, diving as deep as 15 feet, catching as many fish as they can as they go. As the birds progress down the pond, the fish move toward the shores hoping to flee around the edges of this line of murderers and are picked off by the other swimmers, like pelicans and diving ducks.

Finally, as the panicked fish try an end run in the very shallow water near the shore, herons load up on them, too. Of course, the ospreys and an occasional eagle are active in the assault, so it’s quite a sight and noisy, too. After the cormorants have covered the whole pond they fly back to where they started and do it all again until all the fish in the pond are either eaten or hiding.

They won’t be found for a quite a while and certainly won’t eat any lures I send their way.

You’d think that was the end of the sad tale, but wait.

After the weather turns warmer and the birds leave the ponds alone for a day or so, I try to fish in those breaks of warmer weather. But so do some other creatures and they are not happy to share their spots with me. Florida has a whole array of dangerous varmints (alligators and snakes) that are also having a tough winter. They usually behave reasonably well during normal winters with lots of sun so they don’t send the tourists packing. But since they have no way of regulating their body temperatures, they rely on the sun to do it for them.

When the alligators, which have been forced to hide out in the deep waters of the ponds to avoid freezing for a few days, come out to feed and to bask in the sun to warm up, they are very territorial. The same story is true of the many varieties of snakes that have not been out of their dens because of the rain and cold. Both species are fairly cranky and hungry and are willing to contest a location I want to fish and have been more than a little aggressive this year than in the past.

LARRY WINSTON PHOTO | A cottonmouth snaking through the grass, claiming territory.
LARRY WINSTON PHOTO | A cottonmouth snaking through the grass, claiming territory.

Now, I am not talking about just little problems, I am referring to 10-foot, 400-pound gators and 4 1/2 -foot long venomous cottonmouth snakes.

Check out the photos — that should give you an idea how jumpy you can get when they are just a few feet from you.

See you next time!