"You want Billy?" asked the man behind the counter at Bud & Mary's tackle shop. "I've got eight Billys. Which one you want?"

Billy was supposed to be our fishing guide in the back country, I explained, so the fellow stuck his head out the back door and yelled, "Billy!" at a crowd of sun-baked characters standing around the shrimp tank, and a half-dozen heads turned.

One Billy finally claimed me, marking the inauspicious start of an inauspicious day.

I told him what we wanted.

"Last year, we went into the back country with a guide named Sid Bryant and sight-casted to redfish and speckled trout in clear water. We had a ball. I want to do the same thing today."

"Well," said Billy, "we've been having good luck with speckled trout and pompano."

"Sight-casting?" I asked.

"We go out to these sloughs and channels," he said, sidestepping the question. "We've been doing real well."

We danced around the subject for a while. I asked him if I needed polarized sunglasses.

"Only if we go sight-casting," he said, which should have made it clear enough we weren't.

But when you're a northerner going fishing in the hot sunshine in the dead of February, and you've been waiting all winter to do it, sometimes enthusiasm overwhelms objectivity. In the interest of getting going, I dropped the debate and started loading gear in the boat.

My partner was Kenny Bryan of St. Michaels, Md. As we sped along into Everglades National Park in Billy's fast skiff, I regaled Bryan with tales of high sport in the shallows off the tip of the Florida mainland.

"He poles the skiff along, see, and we stand up scouting the water for little puffs of mud where the redfish are feeding. It's so clear you can see everything. You have to figure out which way the fish is moving and cast just ahead of him, but not so close you spook him. So there's a lot of skill in it."

This type of fishing is an exciting change for denizens of the Chesapeake, who never get to see what their lure is doing in the murky depths of the Bay.

But what we got instead of high sport in gin-clear water was eight hours of bottom-jigging in murky channels, and then a nice motor breakdown 12 1/2 miles from nowhere.

Billy ran us through the shallows of Everglades National Park for 45 minutes, then throttled back when we reached the very edge of the Gulf of Mexico.

He found a 10-foot-deep channel, dug his push-pole into the soft bottom and tied the boat off.

"Put a little piece of shrimp on your jig and cast out anywhere in the green water," he said.

"Anywhere?"

"Yup," he said, "this channel drains into the Gulf and the trout and pompano come up here to feed. They could be anywhere."

We did this a while and caught a couple of speckled trout and a pompano. I prodded Billy. "How about a little sight-casting?"

So he moved to another spot, which was exactly like the first place, and when I bellyached he moved again, to another place exactly the same.

After a couple of hours of this, Bryan and I figured we'd better just relax and enjoy it. We assumed there was a reason why Billy wouldn't go in the shallows -- wrong tide or something -- and he was just bad at explaining it.

We caught a dozen keeper trout and a bunch more throwbacks, and at 3 p.m. Billy fired up his big Mercury and pointed for home.

But halfway there, in the most desolate backwaters of the national park, with nothing but deserted mangrove islands in sight, the Mercury ate its water pump and we came to a halt. We were so far from anywhere Billy couldn't even raise a radio response.

He was mad, and started throwing things over the side. When he threw a crust of bread, I said, "Careful, captain, we might need that."

Bryan told me later, "I thought he was going to hit you when you said that."

Rescue came in the form of Forrest Haynes, another guide, who was poling along the shallows looking for a tarpon.

Haynes took us aboard. Billy stayed with his boat, waiting for a tow home.

"You guys do any good?" Haynes asked as we headed in.

"A few trout," I said, "but what we really wanted to do was sight-cast."

"That's what I love, too," he said. "We had a dozen redfish up to 12 pounds yesterday, sight-casting. But to tell the truth, I don't even care if we catch one. I'd rather spend all day sight-casting clear water and catch nothing than catch fish all day in cloudy water."

Enough said. Next time I go Florida flats fishing, I'm going to tell the man, "I'm looking for Forrest."

There's probably only one of them.