Fort Lauderdale author and fly fisherman Steve Kantner idled slowly west on the grassy, linear park swale between Orange Drive and Griffin Road in Davie on a recent weekday afternoon, examining the broad, leafy ficus trees lining the banks of the C-11 canal.
If the asphalt jogging path was tacky with crushed berries, Kantner stopped the car and peered cautiously around the spreading ficus trunk, looking for the ripples of fins breaking the canal surface.
A drive-by check of the first 20 or so trees yielded nothing.
But Kantner finally came upon the motherlode just south of Vista View Park — a huge tree dropping berries in the water on the northwest breeze and a school of large grass carp rolling and swirling as they gorged on the wild fruit.
“It’s like what they say about asteroids: ‘It’s not if, it’s when,’ ” Kantner said happily as he broke out his 7/8-weight fly rod.
Kantner, 66, discovered the correlation between falling ficus berries, spring income tax season and post-Labor Day about 20 years ago.
A skilled fly fisherman and respected chronicler of the sport, he began tying ficus berry flies that are nearly impossible to tell apart from the real thing.
His early “Kantner Berries” were tied with deer hair and painted magenta and worked just fine.
But his latest iteration, dubbed “Otto’s Incredible Inedible Eggs” after a regular client, are 10-millimeter cork balls with a Gamakatsu SC 15 size 4 hook glued with epoxy and painted with Avon “Cherries Jubilee” nail polish. And they seem to work even better.
In a half-dozen casts under the magic tree near the park, Kantner caught and released three grass carp to about 20 pounds. He made it look easy, but in actuality the feat required a good deal of finesse.
“It has to be exactly the right size, the right color,” he said. “It has to land like a cigarette ash on the water. No drag on the fly. You screw up any part of this and you can’t catch it.”
Grass carp are notorious for wariness and wiliness, evading most attempts to catch them. But that’s a good thing. Native to Asia, these fish have been stocked in canals by the South Florida Water Management District since 1987 for one reason only: to devour as much aquatic vegetation as possible, particularly exotic hydrilla, which slows water flow, clogs floodgates, breeds mosquitoes and sucks oxygen out of the water needed by fish and wildlife.
“They’re like underwater cows,” said Mike Bodle, a senior scientist with the district. “They’ve been very beneficial and very important to water conveyance and flood protection for us.”
Water managers buy the fish for $3 to $4 apiece from a farm in Arkansas. The fish are rendered sterile, or triploid, by adding an extra chromosome to keep them from reproducing and taking over the ecosystem.
They can only be stocked in closed water bodies under permit from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Because they are sterile, they have to be restocked each year. The largest triploid grass carp in Florida was about 15 years old, 56 inches long and weighed 75 pounds. But in China, they grow much bigger: up to five feet long and 100 pounds.
The FWC does not prohibit sport anglers from fishing for grass carp but requires that all fish be released immediately and unharmed. Poaching carries fines.
When Kantner used to guide shore-based anglers as the “Land Captain,” he was particular about who he would escort on grass carp excursions.
“I needed to know their mind was right,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for these fish. I didn’t want anyone to hold them out of the water too long.”
Kantner said the appeal of grass carp fishing is that it’s the closest thing in South Florida to Western dry-fly fishing for large brown trout.
“These carp have long memories. They seem to be impassive,” he said. “But they are like an Asian ascetic. They have a sense of their surroundings. They’ll scream line, and I’ve had several of them jump.”