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A fish tale

8/6/2009

The shrill screech of George "Skip" Soulé's overheating two-stroke Mercury rings out across the shallow flats of Flamingo National Park off the Everglade tip of south Florida.

In zipping around in search of redfish, Soulé has collected gobs of the fish's favorite food, turtle grass, in the engine's intake. The boat, a 53-year-old molded fiberglass hull Challenger, coasts to a stop. He and his guest are stuck.

The veteran guide is unfazed. He's been trolling these flats almost since the park opened. It wasn't too far from here that almost 25 years ago he guided what may well have been the first television show dedicated to redfish.

Decades before the redfish was more than a third-tier catch, before it merited tours, magazines, or even regulation, fishermen like Soulé were casting for the fish because of the animal's attitude and beauty. And while his short stint on TV might earn him a sliver of the credit for the ensuing redfish craze, the unassuming Soulé remains an old-school throwback to fishing for the sheer, simple joy of it.

"We'll wait until it cools," he says. He's a sturdy and youngish 70-plus years old, with a white bristle broom of a beard and a red bandanna around his neck. This is his natural habitat, and he is in no hurry. Perhaps three miles to the north, the shoreline stretches low, broken by a flock of flamingos, just skittering pixels in the distance. Not that you'd want to hike.

"You'll see why God gave you a crotch," Soulé says of the muck. "Otherwise, you'd go straight down like a torpedo."

To the south, assorted anonymous keys, islands like stubbly, deflated inner tubes on the horizon. The midday sun leaks through the broad, gray clouds and inks the water's surface with a copper sheen that obscures any redfish prowling the muck.

The day had begun flawlessly. Morning was just breaking outside Soulé's house when he packed a couple of sandwiches in a cooler, dropped it in the keep of the 50-year-old fiberglass boat and steered his 1998 Ford Expedition through the tomato and fields that stretch across the southern nub of the state. He turned into the main park road, past the Panther Crossing sign and Dade County pines that stand like oversized asparagus at the edge of Everglades, a path he has taken literally thousands of times, on weekend fishing trips, on guiding expeditions, in leading his son's scout troop years ago.

The light trickling into the sky illuminated the jagged clouds in pink and blue hues above the tawny plain. "I haven't been to the Serengeti, but people who have been tell me this looks just like it," he said. "It is a thing of beauty."

A few more miles through the thickening dwarf cypress trees, past the parking lot full of trucks, and Soulé launched his craft into the drink at Flamingo. He sped through the boat lane under the watch of gulls on poles and pulled into the flats.

The redfish, Soulé's favorite quarry, were elusive. It was easily two hours before he finally spotted one wriggling its way through the rust-colored grass that swayed just beneath the surface. It darted away. Likewise, the occasional black-fin shark would have none of the green Bass Assassin soft bait, although a greedy gull took a swipe at a white lure, which Soulé selected among the weedless spoons and skimmer-type jigs he also uses out here. Jellyfish bobbed past like tiny translucent carousels.

Soulé stood on the platform, directing the boat with a javelin-sized graphite push-pole, occasionally motoring to other waters, finding little. Now the engine has overheated and this turns out to be as good a place as any to cast idly on a slow day.

"You could fish a lifetime in here, and never learn it all," Soulé says.

Then Soulé notices the third manta ray of the day, stirring up a brown cloud as it glides along, perhaps 10 yards from the port side.

"There's a fish on the ray," he says.

The first fish

The first fish Skip Soulé ever landed was probably a mangrove snapper or a ladyfish, caught with dead shrimp bait cast from a sea wall in Miami Beach. He would have been in elementary school, fishing with a hand line he kept in his back pocket, after his parents moved him and his little brother Paul from Canton, Ohio, in 1941, when he was 7-years-old.

In junior high and high school Soulé stopped fishing, though he did excel as a blocking back on a Miami High School football team that he says captured a mythical state championship his senior year. When asked about Soulé, fellow South Florida fishing guide Jerry Murphy, a friend of 15 years, begins with this detail: "Let's put it this way: Skip is a Jewish fella that wanted to go to Notre Dame and play football."

Instead, Soulé went to the University of Florida intending to study political science, until actual politics intervened. As a man at a state university, Soulé was required to enlist in an ROTC program. Once the Korean War wound down, and his Marines summer program closed, he volunteered for the draft, just to get his service out of the way. Eight days later he was on his way to two years of Army service, spent mostly in Fort Benning and as a military policeman in Verdun, France.

It had been less than a decade since the end of World War II, and the countryside still bore fresh scars. Soulé, figuring he might never again see Europe, traveled to Paris, where he saw Charles De Gaulle on the Champs-Elysees, and to Belgium, where old World War I trenches still wormed across the landscape. One French monument was nothing more than the points of bayonets jutting out of a cement slab. It had been poured over a trench in which lay hundreds of Allied soldiers the German forces had overrun.

"Those years had nothing to do with fishing," Soulé says, "but they had a lot to do with my life."

After his service Soulé intended to complete college, but instead wound up entering the construction business, starting as a laborer and a carpenter and working up to superintendent, and eventually, in 1979, opening his own firm. Along the way he was fishing practically every weekend and during the week, when he could slip away.

Not until 1960 did he get his first boat, and around that time, his prime target went from snook to redfish. The Miami Sportfishing Club started in 1964, and Soulé remembers being among the elder members at the ripe age of 31.

"We really taught each other. It was amazing," he says. "That's where I learned how to fly fish. That was the beginning roots to what I have evolved to. It was all light tackle, plug tackle, spinning tackle and the fly."

They modified their rigs to include platforms for trolling the flats.

They soon were harvesting so many redfish that they began to self-impose catch limits, decades before such restrictions were legislated.

Before long, though, catching redfish in Flamingo became next to impossible. Yet, from his perspective in South Florida, a dry spell might have spurred demand for the fish.

"It's like back in college: The gal that you couldn't have was the one that you wanted the most," Soulé says. "The fact that they became a little harder to get — the 70's was a disaster, I don't know why. I saw things start to pick up a little bit in the 80's. Maybe my skills had been honed a little better, and that had something to do with it."

It was 1983 when Flip Pallot, a friend from the fishing club, invited Soulé to guide a six-person production crew onto the flats in Flamingo to catch redfish for a network television fishing show. Over five days, a couple of cameramen and a soundman followed him around with 16-mm cameras, recording footage for a 30-minute show and promos.

"There weren't any shows" about redfish back then, Soulé recalls. "The only shows were bass shows. And they were horrible. There's so much now. And I catch it every once in a while. I wasn't a guide — neither was Flip. We were just tuned in. I think the interest in redfishing has greatly increased because of these shows. They only see the good stuff. They don't see the three days it takes you to hunt."

After the show aired, he took some grief from his high school buddies, but enough people recognized him that, looking back, he says it would have been an ideal time to start guiding. Twelve years later he finally did leave his firm to take up guiding, though he still does consulting work for contractors. His busy season runs from March through June. The rest of the year, he guides only on weekends. On the most extraordinary day of guiding, his customers caught (and released) 44 redfish.

"He'll pole a lot more than most of the guides," Soulé's brother Paul says. "He'll get up there on that platform and work. Most of the guides try to figure out how to get the fish to come to them. He goes after the fish."

That tendency has gotten Soulé into at least one serious fix, out on the Flamingo flats. A couple of years ago he was out with Jerry Robinson, a guide in the Keys and a friend of Soulé's since they met in the Miami Sportfishing Club 40 years. The two men noticed the tide going out, and knew they should head back to the canal. But there were simply too many fish to abandon.

"Every time we tried to get out," Robinson says, "the fish were tailing all over the place."

The water didn't wait for them, and they were left like a fiberglass lawn ornament on the turtle grass. They spent the evening pushing the boat to within a quarter-mile of navigable waters, then, tired and wet, they climbed back in to catch a few hours of cold, damp sleep. A couple of hours before dawn, they got enough water beneath them that they could ride back in and get some breakfast.

"Beautiful sunset, beautiful sunrise," Robinson recalls.

You could come up with harsher punishments for Soulé than an entire day spent on the flats in Flamingo, though.

"Look at the opportunity we have in this area of the world, to see what we can see," he says. "Thank God it's preserved. There will be plenty of redfish if we don't destroy their habitat. And man can destroy anything. We're good at it."

It's that mentality that made him loath to just pull fish out of the water when he went to Louisiana to hunt for ducks a couple of months ago.

"I wouldn't go there to redfish," he says. "I'm not into just taking fish. It's the style of fishing I like. Numbers don't mean much to me, never have. Sight casting to me is the epitome of fishing for redfish."

It is a simple way to fish. Stand in the boat. Pick a spot on the water. Cast.

And keep your eyes peeled.

Soulé has only in the last few years needed bifocals, just one way in which consistency has been a hallmark of his life.

"He's fished essentially the same way for 30 years," Paul Soulé says. "Before that, he was experimenting and learning. If it's a redfish, Skip pretty much knows where it is."

"He uses formaldehyde in some of his mixed drinks, I guess, because he's pretty well preserved," says Murphy, Soulé's guide friend. "He pretty much always stays the same. You have to be that way to be in that business, because let's face it, every day is not a catching day. In the business we're in, we meet a lot of people in higher tax brackets than we are , but on the water, that doesn't matter.

"The façade is gone. Everyone is who they really are out there."

The last fish

After six hours of practice casts, the little pitch to the ray is a cinch. Soulé turns out to be exactly right: the fish near the ray spins and latches onto the bait. Yank. The fish runs hard to the boat's aft, zigs, strains.

"Let him run himself out," Soulé says. "Now take in some line."

It takes less than two minutes to pull a handsome Jack Crevelle out of the murk. It gasps with a nasal gronking sound as Soulé weighs it (4 lbs.), snaps a quick photo and releases the opalescent beast back into the drink.

The engine has cooled enough that Soulé can fire it up and scoot back to deeper water, to the channel, back home. The catch was a fine one — even if it wasn't a red. The guide will live to fight another day, though.

"A redfish won't fight you any harder than that," Soulé reflects. "But he'll be prettier than that."