FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.
If you want to look at birds and alligators, I can take you to the Everglades and we can ride around in the boat," bass fishing guide Don Marks said last week. "If you want to catch fish, we're better off right here."
Right here was a ditch behind a row of apartment buildings in earshot of traffic on Interstate 95. Technically it was part of Lake Ida, a neighborhood impoundment just outside Palm Beach, but Marks likes to work the drainage canals that feed the lake, where he used to fish from the bank on lunch hours when he ran a small business nearby and where he's landed several largemouth bass of 10 pounds and better.
Bass fishing guide Don Marks releases a chunky largemouth in a drainage canal near Palm Beach. Planes overhead, nearby traffic and heavy smoke from chimneys didn't keep the fish from biting.
(Angus Phillips For The Washington Post)
So off he went, alternately gunning the engine of his speedy bass boat or idling under low bridges till he reached a familiar spot. "See that banyan tree?" he said, pointing to a leafy giant amid the cabbage palms and chain-link fences. "There's always a fish under there."
To make his point, Marks tossed a purple rubber worm toward the bank, let it sit on the bottom for 20 seconds till he felt a tap, then reared back to set the hook on a plump largemouth that fought like fury before coming to the net. "Seven pounds," Marks estimated, hastily tossing the bass back in before anyone had a chance to get it on a scale. Well, maybe six. "She would have been heavier if she hadn't just spawned out," said Marks, defensively.
A half-hour and a half-dozen one- and two-pound bass later, I was speed-reeling a rubber worm in at the end of a cast when a ferocious fish the likes of which I'd never seen raged up from the depths to smash it. "Peacock bass!" shouted Marks, rushing once more for the net.
The fire-orange fish weighed in at about three pounds, he guessed, a trophy for this aggressive species, which was imported from South America. So it went that overcast morning as three of us fished the urban ditches from 8 a.m. till noon, boating in that short time 17 bass and proving once again that, humble as it may look, there's no place like home.
I added "Lauderdale area drainage canals" to my list of urban fishing hot spots and reflected on the boat ride back on the many unlikely places where angling proves better than you'd expect. Just because planes are roaring overhead, traffic is whooshing alongside and smoke belches from chimneys doesn't mean you can't catch fish.
First on the list, of course, is our own tidal Potomac River, where in a month or so largemouth bass will move onto shallow spawning beds from the District downriver to Quantico and beyond to angrily attack any lures tossed their way.
Largemouth fishing is predictably excellent on the river in April and May, with some of the best spots scattered around and below the Wilson Bridge. But even before that, hickory shad, herring and perch will move upstream by the millions to spawn around Chain Bridge, followed closely by big striped bass.
The District's famous river and Fort Lauderdale's lakes and ponds join a list of urban hotspots where fishing is sometimes better than more famous waters nearby. I always chuckle (well, not really) when fighting morning rush-hour traffic from the Chesapeake to get into Washington to fish spawning runs there in April.
Here are some others:
San Francisco Bay: Sometime next month, as soon as schools of anchovies move inshore and are available in bulk for bait, charter boats will depart daily from Fisherman's Wharf downtown to fish from Alcatraz to the Golden Gate for salmon, halibut and striped bass, all three of which are regularly caught in the 10- to 20-pound range. One of the best urban fishing experiences you can have is live-lining the pencil-thin baits into the rocky banks where big, hungry fish lurk, especially when all three species are spectacular table fare.
Miami area: Most East Coast saltwater fly-rodders consider the Bahamas the hot spot for wily bonefish. Few know how abundant big bones are in Biscayne Bay in the shadow of Miami's skyscrapers. My biggest on a fly, an eight-pounder, came from there and a number of guides still operate out of the city. Two recommended ones are Rick Brito (954-410-5882) and Carl Ball (954-565-2457).
Also, several freshwater guides work the close-by waters for bass, including Don Marks (561-733-9060) and Alan Zaremba (954-961-0877).
New York: The striped bass run in the Big Apple starts in mid-April and fishing runs through the fall as blues and sea trout join the mix. I have yet to do it, but the notion of catching a big, wild striper on a fly in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, as many have done, is mighty appealing. Capt. Joe Mattioli (908-612-2575) runs fly-fishing charters out of Staten Island.
These are just a few unlikely urban fishing holes. Some are better than others. I was deeply disappointed by an attempt to fish the Mississippi at Minneapolis for bass, but pleasantly surprised at the quality of walleye fishing around Cleveland. Boston Harbor is supposed to have a nice striped bass run, and Norfolk/Virginia Beach is famous for fall fishing around the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
The message is, when you travel for business, pack a rod and negotiate an extra day. Spring is coming. Your don't know what you might find out there.