South Florida's Best Fishing Hole, the L-67A Canal, Falls Victim to Environmentalists

Rick Persson founded a group to save the canals.
C. Stiles

Iron wires dangle from a boat in a cool brown river deep in the Everglades. On this breezy April morning, a few hundred volts crackle through the metal strands into the water.

Barron Moody sweeps a net through the murk and pulls up six bass stunned by the electricity. The fish shimmy side to side in slow confusion, their wet scales refracting yellow and blue in the sun. Moody tosses them into a half-full holding pool.

"It's unbelievable, right?" says Moody, a grinning middle-aged man deeply tanned by his daily toil in the Florida sun.

Moody is a biologist from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and it's his job to keep an eye on the birds, gators, and bass that live in the River of Grass.

In a few hours, Moody will count the fish in his boat before returning them to the canal. A few years ago, his colleagues found 8,000 fish in one stretch of this 26-mile canal that begins where Griffin Road ends west of Davie. Fishermen were hooking almost two bass per hour.

You may not know it by its name, but the L-67A Canal is one of the best fishing holes on planet Earth. From its starting point in Broward County, the canal stretches south through Miami-Dade County and dumps out into the nothingness of the Everglades. Every weekend, locals and tourists haul boats here to float over the cattail-choked culverts and reel in big bass.

But it may not survive the next generation. If Everglades restoration projects go forward as planned, this canal will be backfilled with dirt.

"It's a shame," says Rick Persson, a retired Miami Beach firefighter leaning on the wheel of his sleek boat. He smiles at Moody's bounty of fish. "Kids now won't be able to enjoy this when they're my age."

Persson has fished the L-67A for more than 30 years. He used to hop in a pickup with his dad every weekend, hitch up a rusty old sloop, and drive home nine hours later sunburned and stocked with bass dinners for the week.

"When I started coming out here in the '70s with a johnboat and a ten-horsepower motor, the canals were totally clear," Persson says. "No one had quite caught on to how good the fishing was."

Now that he's retired, Persson travels the country to fish in big-money tournaments. Whenever he's home, he drags his new yellow-and-black Skeeter bass boat to the waters where he caught the fishing bug. And most days, he ends up with a better haul than at all the more famous lakes and rivers he visits on the road.

As environmentalists absorb the biggest infusion of cash in a decade from the federal government and celebrate an historic half-billion dollar land-buy from U.S. Sugar, Persson and like-minded activists around the Glades are raising concerns about whether restoration will accomplish anything.

In a larger sense, they're just writing the latest chapter in a centuries-old struggle between man and nature, a battle that humans decisively won in the 20th Century before we realized the cost of our victory.

In its natural state, the Everglades wasn't a swamp but a massive, molasses-slow river. All the water in the Kissimmee Valley poured into Lake Okeechobee. From the vast shallow pool, water seeped south across millions of acres of muck.

The solution for how to fix this mess of a wasteland seemed easy: dam up Lake Okeechobee and build canals to shunt its waters east and west to the Gulf and the Atlantic. A long list of famous men went broke or died trying to make this work. Hamilton Disston dredged the first ditches in the late 1800s but died without seeing a profit from his enterprises. Henry Flagler, the oil magnate and father of South Florida, ultimately declared even his massive fortune insufficient to battle the Glades. And Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, the fiery, floppy-mustached governor, died from gallstones before his dream was realized.

Laying out all the American hubris toward the Glades, Broward once said: "Yes, the Everglades is a swamp. So was Chicago 60 years ago."

Eventually, the Army Corps of Engineers dammed the lake, dredged miles of channels, and reclaimed hundreds of thousands of acres of swampland.

Of course, it didn't take long for the corps' success to lead to killer fires, dust bowls, and saltwater-infested groundwater from Boca to Miami. Until last summer, the Everglades' salvation depended upon a plan voted into law in 2000 that has three key steps: dams and ditches would be removed, restoring some natural flow; Lake Okeechobee would be cleaned; and enormous reservoirs would be built to hold the lake's runoff in the summer and pour water south in the dry months.

By last year, the 2000 plan had all but fizzled. The cost has soared from $7.8 billion to $10.9 billion, according to a report to Congress by the National Research Council. And the Army Corps has completed none of the draft's 68 projects.

So last June, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist put all the projects on hold and announced that he had secretly negotiated with one of the Glades' largest land owners, U.S. Sugar Corp. The company agreed to sell the state 187,000 acres for $1.7 billion. Last month, all the parties involved agreed on a final sale, scaled down to half size by the staggering economy.

Lost among the bitter fight over whether to buy sugar land are the fishermen who may lose their prized spot. On a recent afternoon, Persson and fishing partner Al Ovies cast into the shadows on a placid strip of the L-67A canal.

The pair make a convincing argument that undoing damage here doesn't mean divorcing from the canals. Persson and Ovies met at a bass fishing club in the late 1980s. Dismayed about the restoration plan, they formed a coalition to save the canals in 2001 called South Florida Anglers for Everglades Restoration. They started attending South Florida Water District meetings and talking to corps officials.

"When we started going to meetings, I'm convinced a lot of these guys had no idea that anyone even fished these canals," Ovies says. "They thought it was just a water conveyance they could get rid of and no one would miss."

Ovies and Persson both agree that restoring the natural flow of water to Everglades National Park would be ideal. But both doubt that it's possible. They worry that the corps will backfill one of the state's premier fishing holes on an untested theory.

They're not alone. Jon Fury, a biologist at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission since 1985, says he believes water flow to the Glades could be fixed by removing levees but leaving the canals intact.

Fury says he has found few places that match the L-67A as a fishery. By his math, the canal generates $1.1 million for Florida businesses every six months.

"To simply backfill these canals because it's the easiest solution you see, I'd have to say hold on," Fury says. "You're going to ruin a really important fishery."

But Tom Van Lent, an Everglades Foundation scientist, describes the L-67A and similar canals as "an artifact of what we've done to destroy the Everglades." He is skeptical of any plan that would keep the canals. "Maybe we can have an occasional hole where bass can have a refuge," Van Lent says. "But there's not going to be the same access. You're not going to be able to drive in from the city and launch your boat in 20 minutes from the dock right off the trail."

That's a tough pill to swallow for a man like Persson, who spent so many long languid afternoons on the canal with his dad, who died in 2005.

The old firefighter's eyes are distant and glassy behind his sunglasses as he casts and reels, casts and reels, drifting down the same water he's floated a thousand times before.

Suddenly, his arms go taught. Tendons flex out of his weathered flesh as his fishing line jerks hard. The line goes tight.

Persson jerks up, expertly driving the hook deeper into whatever's fighting beneath the murky surface. He reels. A foot-long bass flips back and forth, fighting in the air.

This time, in this tiny conflict waged in a canal carved out of the swamps, man has won.

"Beautiful," he says.

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