The dead fish rose from the deep and blew in on the wind, eventually clumping together in the canal nearest to the shuffleboard courts. Killed by this month's record-setting cold streak, tilapia were drifting by the thousands into the waterways running through the Holiday Shores Park retirement community on Lake Seminole, the decomposing bodies coming to rest just outside many residents' front doors. The smell was taking over the well-groomed streets, permeating even the clubhouse.
"It was bad. It was really bad," said Carolyn Sperry, whose flower boxes and small dock were surrounded by putrefying fish for several days.
When the bloated carcasses became too much for residents to stand late last week, they sought help from the city and county.
But Largo officials said they couldn't help. Holiday Shores' address was just outside city limits. Plus, Largo had enough dead fish on its hands — 38 tons hauled from its lakes over the past two weeks.
The county also declined to step in, saying its resources already were spread thin.
Pat Knight, chairwoman of Holiday Shores' community board, said officials advised her to let nature take its course. The dead fish eventually would sink or be eaten by birds, alligators or other scavengers.
"We couldn't let our homeowners live with the stench," said Knight, 69.
They called an emergency meeting.
Rather than spend thousands of dollars to hire professionals, they went with sweat and stink.
On Monday, 60 senior citizens armed themselves with nets, pitchforks and rakes.
After two days awash in scales and guts, the residents were battle-hardened fish fighters, hauling nearly 8 tons of dead fish out of their park's canals.
"That's a pile of fish," said resident Dave Sperry.
The numbers of dead fish showing up across the state have jolted even those who study fish kills.
"We're not shocked that the fish died, but the numbers — this devastation statewide — can be shocking even to us," said Gary Morse, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
So many have died, the state has closed or shortened fishing seasons for certain species like snook, and the county is waiving fees to dispose of dead fish at county landfills until Feb. 1.
The struggle of the Holiday Shores community to deal with dead animals on such a scale was not easy — or pretty.
"I almost blew my lunch this morning," Knight said Tuesday, slimy rake in hand.
Lots of trial and error was involved.
"It was a little MacGyver, a little Gilligan's Island," Knight said.
The community's first push came in the form of heavy machinery: three boats roped together, their engines directed at full churn toward the floating fish. But their fleet wasn't big enough — instead of pushing the blanket of corpses out into the lake, the fish simply pooled in an eddy.
"We needed more boats," said resident Tom Moffatt.
The fish, mostly introduced tilapia, continued to float inland with the wind. Residents tried to string noodle-like pool toys across the canal entrance, but that proved fruitless as well.
Residents eventually used a volleyball net to corral several thousand fish into a dead-end in one of the canals.
Then the real work began.
They rustled up dish and garden gloves, and began scooping the fish into trash barrels and kitty litter buckets.
They hefted load after load onto golf carts, to be moved to the street and thrown into a tall steel trailer they rented for $50 a day.
In all, three loads of fish were taken to the county landfill by resident Bob Dunn, who owned the best truck in the park, a Chevy Silverado 1500. At the landfill, Dunn raked the fish into piles and flung them out of the bed whichever way possible, leaving the fishy aftermath to the bulldozers.
"This is what old people do. This is senior power," Knight said after the work was finished, and many showers taken. "These are seniors who took it upon themselves to dip out these damned fish on their own."
Dominick Tao can be reached at (727) 580-2951 or [email protected]