A fairway runs through it
Casting rules aside on Tampa's golf course ponds

By Paul Abercrombie
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 8, 2009

We crouch, tiptoeing with cartoonishly exaggerated slowness toward the water's edge. Our extreme stealth is only partly about not spooking the fish. We're mostly hiding from the guy in the golf cart cruising by barely two fly-rod lengths away this misty early morning.

You see, my pal Scott Borders and I are fishing on a golf course. Or rather, on water hazards. The things that golfers try to avoid.

Yet as the Tampa trial lawyer and I land and release a dozen hefty largemouth bass over the next hour, I can't help wondering: Are we the only ones who know what great fly-fishing can be had on golf courses?

Well, yes and no.

Everyone knows that, as the tourist brochures claim, Florida is a golfer's and fisherman's paradise. Fewer seem savvy to what great fly-fishing there is on the Sunshine State's umpteen golf-course ponds. These Lilliputian lakes, infrequently if ever plied by anglers, often hold lunker largemouths as well as more-exotic species. Judging from the number of fly fishermen I've spoken with who admit to haunting water traps, our ranks appear to be growing.

What's more, ours may be the ultimate recession-time sport-fishing experience.

Consider that chasing bonefish in the Florida Keys can set you back a few grand. You'd be lucky to hunt redfish by boat for a third as much. But to fly-fish golf-course ponds, you need neither a boat nor a guide nor, for that matter, even a tee time.

What you often do need is a willingness to bend -- okay, break -- a few rules.

Fishing is forbidden on many of Florida's private and public golf courses, though some will let you dip a line if you ask nicely. Of course, a ban on fishing all but screams: "Lots of big fish here!" Not that rules deter most anglers hooked on golf courses. Scott's lawyerly advice for those caught rod-handed: "Run like hell."

Which Scott and I are fully, if sophomorically, prepared to do this midweek morning as we work a pond on the fifth hole of the course at a private golfing community (whose identity I'm withholding to protect the guilty) located 15 minutes north of downtown Tampa.

We'll start fishing here, Scott explains, not only because it's a good spot (he once pulled a seven-pounder from this pond) but because it'll take the day's first golfers a while to reach us. Many players don't mind sharing a course with fly fishers, but all it takes is one complainer to ruin the fun. A golfer himself, Scott packs a two-piece rod in his club bag. "It's my 15th club," he jokes.

After tying black bug poppers to our lines, we space ourselves about a quarter-turn of the pond apart and start casting, aiming for clumps of submerged grass and other likely cover for bass.

Manicured lawns and few trees may make for nearly snag-free backcasting, but fishing golf ponds has its challenges. Especially for a guy who grew up fishing for trout in bramble-lined Northeastern streams.

So I soon discover, after Scott's bug disappears with a loud slurp. A brief fight and Scott has landed our first fish, a nice three-pound bass. He'll catch several more, and bigger ones, before I get my first, a puny bluegill.

By the time we see another human -- a groundskeeper driving a golf cart, who spies us and gives a friendly wave -- I'm starting to get the hang of it. I'm doing as Scott says -- bringing line in with short, constant tugs, to make the lure stutter across the water's surface -- when I realize it's gone with a gulp. I somehow remember Scott's advice to "strip strike" rather than "trout strike" the line by giving it a good yank first to set the hook before raising the rod tip. After a brief but satisfying tussle, I've landed and released my first links-bound largemouth. About two pounds and, tallying the number of casts, a par 37.

We move on to a pond on the sixth hole. Scott is hauling them in four or five to my one. As we fish, Scott shares more tips on how to catch golf-course fish and how to avoid being caught fishing. Among the lessons for the latter: In general, it's best to start on the back nine in the morning, reversing the order if fishing at dusk, because many golfers will be finishing up on the last holes or will already have headed to the bar. Also, if a club lets in only those with reserved tee times, simply set a tee time, then cancel it by cellphone after you've cleared the guard shack.

Above all, watch out for the golf course rangers, officials who travel the course, tactfully encouraging poky players to speed things up and otherwise helping golfers. Common at courses without caddies, they can be the outdoor equivalent of mall cops itching to make a bust.

Soon, with the sun rising and golfers on the horizon, Scott and I head back to his SUV, parked in the driveway of relatives who live in this community. From Scott's high-wattage smile, you'd think he'd just pulled plump rainbows from the Deschutes River below Oregon's snow-capped Mount Hood (he has) or won a tug-of-war with a bonefish in the Bahamas flats (dozens of times).

"We just caught some really nice fish. And all before going to work," he says. "It's hard to have a bad day at the office after that."

If you prefer your links fishing sanctioned, visit the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando, which runs a G. Loomis-sponsored fly-fishing school on its golf course. Here, master instructor Ben Stein will help work out casting kinks and give you a chance to put your lessons to the test on 44-acre Shingle Pond.

A recent visit left me with an improved single-haul cast and a greater appreciation for the quirks of my newest piscatorial passion.

Deftly piloting us in one of the school's three Hyde drift boats, Stein reaches out and stays my casting arm. "No sense even trying," he says of the small submarine of a fish I'm eyeing. A longnose gar, its toothsome jaws will make quick work of my 12-pound test leader.

An avid Florida golf course angler while growing up (he neither confirms nor denies more recent adventures), Stein says it's not uncommon to find yourself pulling against saltwater species such as young tarpon, which find their way to the ponds via interconnected waterways. That's not counting the more exotic non-native species, pets dumped by owners or escaped from fish farms.

And then there are other golf course hazards. The lake we're fishing is home to water moccasins and a dozen or so man-size gators. "You can see why we require guests to fish with a guide," Stein says with a laugh.

Paul Abercrombie, a Tampa-based writer, is the author of "Organic, Shaken and Stirred."

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