Lud Johnson's big 85 horse Johnson Javelin smoked and burbled as we inched up Roberts River at the southern tip of the Everglades. We had perhaps six feet of meandering creek beds to maneuver in, with mangrove roots menacing the little skiff's bottom and twigs and branches snapping as we crunched through.

We were looking for tarpon - sleek thundering tarpon, shallow-water fighting fish that would leave a strong man's arm quivering with exhaustion before they are boated.

It wasn't looking good. In past forays Johnson, a barrel-chested, deeply tanned horse of a guide, had caught glimpses of the shiny fish rolling and basking in the quiet stream as he powered to a hidey-hole where there was room to cast. Today, no sign.

It was out second stop. Earlier, we had roared across Coot and White Water bays in the Florida back country, only to find Tarpon Bay not living up to its name. The cool, brackish inland waters at Tarpon showed only occasionally the gentle, rolling wakes that mean tarpon.

And those that we did spot were spooky and lit out for deep water as we crept near.

Signs now were even worse. All we could see in Roberts were great brown alligators sunning among the mangroves as coots, herons and egrets dove for bait fish.

Johnson cut the motor and snapped a 15-foot fiberglass pole from the gunwale. He poled us slowly through the mangroves until an opening appeared. A smile lit his dark face.

"Hot dog!" he whispered. "They're here."

It's one of the prettiest sights in sport fishing, the rolling of a school of tarpon. They work like porpoises, arching their backs and glittering slabsides into the sunlight, then dipping back into the water. From the rolls you can guess where they are going as you pass through them.

Johnson tied on mirror lures to our light tackle. These were small tarpon, but even if they'd been monster 100 pounder we'd have gone after them the same way - 12 ot 15-pound test on dainty fiberglass rods and spinning or bait-casting reels.

It was completely still in this backwoods glade. A big gator was sleeping 25 feet across the pond. Mosquitoes and cicads buzzed in the root forest all around. The water was crystal clear; its taste only hinted of salf.

I tossed first, throwing over near the gator where a school had rolled. The mirror lure, shaped like a minnow with three sets of triple hooks, hit kersplash and slowly sank. Half way down I stopped it with a jerk, then brought it slowly in jerking and working it as it came.

On about the fifth cast the tarpon hit, first knocking the lure then taking it. You could watch the entire fight in the clear water. First he dove, then he cut right, the drag screaming as the reel spat line. His first leap was 15 feet away from the boat. He dove deep and came tearing up to and through the surface, shaking his head like an angry lion as he tried to spit the hook.

The leasps weren't high but they were strong and graceful. The tarpon got two more in before it tired and gradually I could reel it into the boat.

It was about 10 pounds of fighting muscle, dark on the backbone where tarpon are normally silver. Johnson said it was because of the fresher water uncountry from the inlets to Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. We released the handsome fish.

The catch was to be the highlight of three days of fishing the back country and was to teach me a frustrating lesson: don't demand sport fishing in a meek fishing town.

We went for tarpon because the brochures promised tarpon. And they promised snook, another sport fisher's dream. If that's what you demand, that's what your guide will take you after.

But the fact is that the fish the natives go after this time of year are redfish, sheephead, snapper and trout, none of which get over 10 to 15 pounds, but all of which you can catch and catch by the bushel.

We finally gave up after burning 80 gallons of fuel in two days without another decent cast at a tarpon and not a nibble in out offering at the snook holes.

In our third day Billy Cunningham and I took his bigger skiff out in the Gulf of Mexico, up past the Shark River to Roger's River, where we bottom fished and jigged for meat fish and had a whale of a day.

I'm not the first man to be frustrated by Flamingo. It has a long history of dashing men's dreams.

Until the National Park Service took over the Everglades in the late 1940s and set up a ranger station here, practically every effort to settle the marsh, mangroves and swamps around Flamingo was an abysmal failure.

Farmers tried to raise cattle on the marshes but in summer the mosquitoes grew so thich the animals couldn't breathe. Others planted coconuts and oranges only to see hurricanes roar up the Gulf, smash the farms and salt the land.

Real estate developments were trumpeted, but when prospective buyers got the their plots a rainstorm might spring up and wash out the marl and coquina road back to civilization. "I've seen four or five Cadillacs stuck for a week along the road," said Capt. Pete Mills, who has chartered out of Flamingo over 20 years.

In fact, the only enterpreneurs who found lasting success here were moonshiners and smugglers, until the government moved in.

Today, Flamingo sits like a brilliant green jewel on the fingernail of Florida. A land that mostly isn't land, but silty islands of mangrove roots utterly impenetrable to man.

What's impenetrabe to man generally is good for the rest of the animal world. So it is in Flamingo, where gators and birds have managed to outlast the plume and hide poachers that plagued the pre-Park Service Everglades.

Today you can watch magificent birds from you picnic table in the campground or the window in your hotel room. Egrets, Louisanan heron, blue heron, ibis, greasy brown cormoranes, white and brown pelicians, roseate spoonbills, coots and other ducksl, ospreys and bald eagles are common. If you take a ride with John West aboard his little tour boat he can show you one of the last remaining wild flamingo colonies - 10 to 30 birds that nest offhsore in the Florida bay.

There's plenty more for the naturalist to see. Park Service trails lead along the canals that were dug years ago in an abortive effort to drain the marshes.

The trails provide insight into the mysteries of elevation. Over a course of miles, differences of a few feet in elevation can take you to mangroves to saw grass marches to cypress swamps to hardwood "hammocks" where oak and mahogany grow. There's one spot in the park that advertises its elevation - all of four feet.

But if you want sport fishing think about the Florida Keys, just 30 miles away by water and a four-hour drive by land.

That's where I'm headed.