Bottom Fishing

By Peter Mandel
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 13, 2002

Fishing in the ocean. There is something rare and pure about it. Salt air, and anticipation, and sun stinging your back. Ernest Hemingway once wrote to a friend that there is no pleasure like "being on the sea, in the unknown wild suddenness of a great fish."

I'm all for wildness, and for fish, though I had never caught one. But as the weather turned cold this fall, I found myself flipping through deep-sea fishing brochures from Florida's Gulf Coast.

This is the place, I think, where I can reel back the soft air of summer. Plus, I am told that it is where real fishermen bait their hooks.

On the advice of a friend, I fly to Tampa and drive to the nearby town of Madeira Beach, which sits on the water just north of Treasure Island and St. Pete Beach. It's a resort town redolent of the 1950s and a center for charter boats, and when I take a walk down to John's Pass, a strange cluster of shacks built on wharf pilings, I find a row of billboards listing captains eager to take out anglers.

I'm excited about battling with big fish in these bathtub-warm, light-green waters. I imagine cutting into char-grilled tuna. I am eerily confident.

I am ready to cast my line.

It's late afternoon and I've ducked into a bar called the Bamboo Beer Garden. I don't see a whole lot of bamboo, but there is a little forest of small bills Scotch-taped to the walls, currency from around the globe.

This is where my fishing friend said to come -- the place to look for Capt. Dave Zalewski, the town's most respected sea salt. His boat, the Lucky Too, sails from the Charter Boat Center on Gulf Boulevard, and this is basically all the bartender will tell me, though she does hand me a mildewed business card, and the phone.

"The gulf is like a desert," advises Dave, over a crackly connection that sounds like I have reached him 50 miles from shore. "You say you want to get out there? Well, in a way, you'll be dropping your hook into the Sahara. All that underwater sand."

"Sand, sure," I say. "But what about the fish?"

"I'm getting to that," says Dave. "To find fish in a desert, you have to find the oases. And in the gulf out from Madeira Beach, from St. Pete, from Clearwater, the oases take root in parking lot-size chunks of limestone. Sponges and algae grow in the cracks of the parking lots. Fish eat the algae."

"These parking lots," I ask, "is that where we're going to fish?"

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