Sometimes you have to disappear.
Not because something’s after you but maybe because you were chasing too much after it. The world has an odd way of falling at your feet when you disown it. When you put it in its place and go back to basics — that’s a good thing. And in my forty-six spins around the sun, I’ve always found that kind of reset to be refreshing and necessary.
A reset on priorities. Reset on goals. A way of blocking out the noise. And when it comes to fly fishing, a chance to invent a new dynamic in a well-worn, storied sport. That’s inspiring.
I called Rico in Texas early Monday morning. “Hey, how’s it going? I’m looking for a 16 foot panga. Do you have one?”
He didn’t. And what the hell was a yankee from Michigan with all that snow six months a year going to do with a panga, anyway? He gave me a lead, though. Some guy in the backroad cypress swamps of Alabama outside of Mobile might have one. Three days later I drove down, hitched her to the truck and brought her home.
Wait. I’m getting ahead. Back to disappearing.
When you’re in a cartel, you move a lot — name changes, aliases, ocelot credit lines at wig shops. All to avoid the disdain, humiliation and potential prosecution of a respectable community, society’s norms. Conventional wisdom in fly fishing has always been surrounded with targeting “worthy” gamefish, and we’re in a drum cartel.
Now to truly understand the gravity of what I’ve just said you have to know the gravitas of the contraband. We’re talking about a fish called the freshwater drum — not a redfish. AKA the dreaded Sheephead. The Gaspergou. The Croaker. It’s one of the most despised fish species in all of freshwater. A fish that makes walleye fishermen grimace and curse like drunken sailors at its mere mention. And here we are casting to them, intentionally.
Our ringleader founded this network and runs it like Tony Montana. We call him “El Gaspo”. In the beginning, El Gaspo’s texts came in almost daily, “My house 6:00 AM.”, “Got new material.”, “Drop it fast, then tick the bottom.”, “Gotta keep it moving, keep ’em engaged!”
Photo: Ryan Fries
As more cryptic messages chimed in, wives started to wonder if we were really fishing or were involved in some kind of illicit activity. Boaters looked at our platforms and push poles — foreign appendages in the Great Lakes — in utter confusion. Looks which later turned to disgust when questions like, “Whatcha fishin’ for?” were met with, “Freshwater drum!”.
But we couldn’t stop.
Out on the freshwater flats we moved drum by the kilo — casting articulated patterns, built with hydrodynamic depth charge and stealth in mind. We collected drum by the netload, exporting our product locally and eventually up the coast. Pure, uncut white, Great Lakes strain. A native fish, with silver, translucent and gold hues. Native Americans and early settlers dismembered them for pearl colored otolith jewelry. Their underbellies embodied how far we’d fallen from dry fly fishing for trout in fabled streams to the seedy nether regions of roughfish angling. Sometimes, when you fall too far you never find a way out. Thankfully, we never did.
Word was starting to get out too through the interwebs. DMs were hitting The Gram. “Really appreciate what you guys are doing out there”, “So cool”, “Keep going!” Rival cartels scanned image backgrounds for data. Blinded by the platinum bling of drum dorsals and golden flanks, they only saw the product, unaware of the demeaning dance we had to do to bring it to the street. Most could never admit to another angler that they too might consider fishing for sheephead. And how could they? How could they live with the stigma and still come home to a loving family with any sense of decency? How could they look in the mirror at a man who, to the rest of the world, had become some sheepheaded monster?
I’ll tell you how.
Photo: Ryan Fries
Spot a cruising drum on an ultra-clear flat, sixty feet out, nose down and put a cast on him. Then watch it run down the fly, sniff it, then spin off. Perplexed, you strip a couple more times and he comes back dancing with the retrieve, on and off the fly, all the way to the boat. What’s he going to do first, eat it or spook? His mouth flares, you strip, lift and come tight. Rod bent, it runs for the reeds.
When I got the panga, I knew it had a reputation as a smuggling boat. I knew it wasn’t your Four Winns waterski-style vessel. The kind you see in 4th of July pics with happy shining faces. But I didn’t have a choice. El Gaspo put out the word. We needed more transport. Some of the waters we needed to cross were too turbulent and there was fresh product out there. We had to diversify the fleet. Drum runners don’t take vacations.
As soon as I got her home, shipments started coming to the door. Unmarked boxes filled with fiberglass and aluminum. I called Alex at an off-grid aluminum chop shop just outside of Flint. I needed a poling platform — cash payments only. I built storage ports in the hull for product, drum weaponry, and ammo. CO patrols are everywhere on this water.
Photo: Ryan Fries
Three weeks later she was up and operational. Our territory expanded. We’d cornered the lion’s share of the drum market. Whole segments of the largest delta north of the Mississippi were now in the hands of a few key players. And as we poled through the transparent and turquoise freshwater flats, anglers looked the other way, friends didn’t return phone calls, mothers covered the eyes of children. But those true fanatic fin addicts, who, like us, look at every fish in the sport (except rock bass) as a gamefish, quietly let us know they were on our side. A look. A nod. A DM. Especially those from the salt. Ah yes, they knew the hustle well. Cartels have been running flats down there for decades.
Now it’s freshwater’s turn. No pretenses. No “golden bonefish”. No “freshwater barracuda”. No coattail riding. We’re not trying to be cute. It’s a damn sheephead.
Photo: Ryan Fries
Detroit is our home base. Home of J Dilla’s Slum Village. But we’re expanding now. No more low-key slumming in the Drum Village. We did that, then disappeared. We lived in the shadows in order to learn the trade — inventing a whole new niche. Now it’s time to move up the Northern Coast. More product, more clientele.
Tony Montana once said, “You need people like us …You need people like us so you can point your fingers and say there’s the bad guys.”
The 3rd Coast Drum Cartel is here and on the rise. Say goodnight to the bad guys.