Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Palolo Hatch

Kingfish and snapper at Bud n Mary's Marina

Islamorada has gained international recognition as the sportfishing capitol of the world. Twice a day, reports come on the radio from captains all across the Keys boasting how 8-year olds and arthritic retirees are landing fish. Lots of fish. It seems everyone down here has a glorious story about landing a monster tarpon or snook. I will go ahead and blame it on the cold snap, which killed all the fish, because I just can’t cope with the idea that I’m so remedial or unlucky as to stay in the Cub Scout status of Keys’ merit badges with my one mangrove snapper.

A palolo worm and hand-tied fly to mimic the pattern

Just last week the famous palolo worm hatch came to a close. During the full and new moon phases in May and June these guys come out of the hard coral to spawn in the ocean side of the Florida Keys. Instinctually, they head in the same direction until reaching their breeding grounds. Giant tarpon gather by the hundreds to eat these tasty little creatures and following the foodchain, so do the anglers.

Anglers on Atlantic side of the Florida Keys waiting for rolling tarpon

Pete Frezza blind casting for tarpon

Pete Frezza, a local guide and biologist, took me out to see the last leg of the palolo hatch in hopes of catching a tarpon on the fly. We poled around for a few hours along the shallow banks but the worms proved sparse and the tarpon skittish.

After the motor died, Pete push-poled us to a spot on the flats

We decided to cut our losses and head for the flats to do some bonefishing, but on the way, the engine made a clicking sound and shut off. We were stuck. A few miles from the boat ramp, poling along would have landed us home around midnight so we decided to call for a towboat.

Water abstract

A Florida Gator fan at heart, I love orange and blue anything.

While we waited, I made some images of the metallic patterns of the setting sun reflected in the water, quickly turning a disaster into an interesting photo opportunity.

A slow stripping motion with the fly line mimics the movement of the palolo worm

Perhaps it was my fault; my karma for proudly posing with a dead tarpon in January. I obviously have no business fishing in the Florida Keys. Maybe I should just leave the saltwater angling to the pros and geriatrics.  

Our rescuers, TowBoatUS

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


A strangler fig wrapped around a large cypress tree.

A swamp by any other name would be just as sweet, right?

No way.

A cypress dome in Big Cypress National Preserve

For the longest time I’ve dreamed about photographing the Fakahatchee Strand and Big Cypress in South Florida. Finally, two weeks ago I got to briefly test the waters, making one of many-to-come trips.
Densely packed swamps, the overwhelming epiphytic conquest, and secretive wildlife all reveal the Baroque character that is the Florida tropics.  Like Borneo, Machu Picchu, or Bora Bora, the name alone carries a reputation all its own and with it the allure of some foreign Pandora that demands exploration and inspires wonderment.

Pond apples adorned with mosses, ferns, and orchids.

The Calusa, Timucuans, and Jororo tribes had it right. All of my favorite places around Florida have names with a built-in personality and timelessness. To name a few: Kanapaha, Apalachicola, Panasoffkee, Myakka, Pithlochocoo, Alachua, and of course, the Ichetucknee.

Tillandsia and cypress trees

Cypress knee cluster 

It’s the antiquity of it all; like a lost civilization, overgrown and forgotten, you can only imagine the once wildness that was the entire state. In a few well-hidden places, little pockets of exclusive backcountry help remind me that this was what Florida must have looked like 18 million people ago. And I wonder, should the Timucuans or Calusa still be around would they be so spiritual or optimistic? What kind of name would they give our Miami or the bustling streets of Orlando? 

Halloween pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina) 

Wildflowers in the sawgrass prairie

Sunday, June 20, 2010

My Walden

An image I made back in 2000 of Hogtown Creek on Fuji Film. I practiced
exposure and composition religiously, trying to find ways of showing the 
beauty I saw in what would become my most beloved place. 

I started getting into nature photography around my junior and senior year of high school. Most days I would leave Eastside High and set out to explore the backwoods of Alachua County. One area in particular held a very special place in my heart and I would frequently wake up before sunrise in order to catch first light before the bell rang for first period. It’s known as Hogtown Creek but there are very few people who actually know where it is. Sometimes I wouldn’t even bring my camera and instead would just sit and read by the water. It became my training grounds as a naturalist and as a photographer. It became my Walden.

Low water on Hogtown creates whitewater over the limestone bedrock.

I rarely go back home without stopping by to see how it’s changed and to rekindle my love affair with this unique place.

I used to sit in this elm and read Thoreau for inspiration.

The same tree, ten years ago. 

Planar Elms line the creek and in the summer damselflies dance around the grasses. After ten years, it hasn’t lost any of its magic.

Ebony jewelwing female.

I now find myself with a whole slough of Waldens from Florida to Honduras; secret landscapes with limited access, which helped shape my understanding of the natural world and define my career as a photographer. I’m so grateful to have these little sanctuaries for the soul. 

Kanapaha Prairie at sunrise. 

Cattle on Kanapaha Prairie.

Spider webs connect pickerelweed flowers like communication centers.

Again, my favorite live oak.

There are photos to be found everywhere on Kanapaha Prairie

Like every great relationship, the more you stoke the fire, try new things, and open your channels to its unique voice, the hotter it burns. There are always new nooks and crannies to explore, new experiences to share, and that's the beautiful thing about nature. No matter how far we may stray or unintentionally take it for granted, it will always welcome us back with open arms. 

Fall 2007. Every season offers a new gift in Hogtown Creek.

Smooth, like Keith Stone

My dad and Belle, taking a nap on the prairie.

For Keith Stone, the ideal father's day would probably consist of sipping whiskey with me, my mom, and my two brothers by the horseshoe pit, shooting a few rounds from the rifle followed by a midday nap in the hammock, and ending with a hearty steak and potatoes dinner. He's a man's man, a mustache and cowboy boots kind of man, born and raised in rural southwest Virginia. So I'm sure that when I first started running around enthusiastically chasing butterflies with my camera and becoming a frequent visitor at the botanical gardens, he wondered where he went wrong. 

Butterfly orchid (Encyclia tampensis)

When I tell my dad, who mows the lawn with a pistol and owns three different chainsaws, that I just went out looking for flowers this weekend, he might wince a little, but should know that out here, it’s totally a "manly" endeavor. 

If you can get past the constant discomforts of sweat, bugs, and unyielding heat, then Florida summers are actually pretty nice. Right now in the Everglades orchids of all types are in bloom. These little beauties aren’t hard to find if you know where to look. Exploring for orchids has actually become one of my favorite things to do on the weekends. The ironic thing about these very delicate and sexy flowers is that they thrive in such harsh places. Just to find one in bloom you end up traversing razor sharp grasslands filled with stinging insects until arriving at a cypress slough where you trudge through venomous snake territory and gator infested waters. 

I wouldn't go to these lengths had my dad not instilled in me an appreciation for the outdoors, that, and the thick stubborn skin of a country bumpkin. 

So, happy Father’s Day! To the dad who always taught us to take advantage of each day and to always take the time to stop and smell the flowers--well, as long as no one else is watching.