There are no other Everglades in the world. They are, they have always been,
one of the unique regions of the earth; remote, never wholly known.
Nothing anywhere else is like them.
Marjorie Stoneman Douglas
That half inch of snow and 25 degree temperature at my cabin in Salida a week ago were sure signals to head south for the winter, so I loaded up my travel trailer and hit the road. Four long days later—Jack Kerouac where are you–I cruised into Everglades City which was basking in a bright sun and 90 degree temps. Nirvana!
After getting set up in camp (I’m still looking for a condo down here), I hit the water the next day. It was another fine sunny day with a nice breeze as I headed out in my kayak to explore the hundreds of islands that dot the waters just offshore in Everglades National Park. Being here is like cruising into another world. I love the high peaks, cool dry air, icy trout streams, and meadows rampant with wildflowers of Colorado. Here I cherish the mysterious allure of the islands and marshes, the incredible diversity and richness of nature—lush vegetation, flocks of birds, scads of fish, and critters like the gators and crocs, and the outrageously Kodachrome sunrises and sunsets that all the moisture in the air generates. Did I mention the Florida Cracker culture—quite an education for a Midwest Kansas boy. This area was the setting for Peter Matthiesen’s highly praised historical novel, Killing Mr. Watson, which is filled with memorable and semi-lawless set of rascals whose descendants still live here. More about that in a future blog.
The tide is low, so I head for the nearest oyster bars that are like feeding troughs for hungry redfish and snook that root around among the rock-like piles of shells for crabs and other tidbits when the tide comes in and submerges the bars. The water is a little murky from all the rain and wind this past week, so I on my spinning gear I tie on a root beer colored plastic curly-tailed grub with a fluorescent chartreuse tail that the fish seem to be able to see better. On my third cast something jolts the lure, and after a good tussle, a long, sleek ladyfish comes to the boat. We call them poor-man’s tarpon. They are smaller cousins to the hard-fighting, high-jumping tarpon that often exceed 100 pounds are probably the most sought after game fish in tropical waters. Belying their name, diminutive ladyfish (a 24-incher is a big one) are aggressive, acrobatic, slightly deranged combatants that always put a smile on my face. It’s not unusual to have one vault into the boat! A good way to start a day’s paddle!! Over the next hour I miss a bunch of strikes—my delicate fly-fishing reflexes have to get adjusted to the more jarring salt-water bites—but manage to land a couple of snook, a nice sea trout, and a good redfish. Not a bad start. A poor man’s grand slam sans tarpon!
The rest of the morning I cruise in and out of the myriad islands and oyster bars, catching and releasing a fish here and there. It’s Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates—in addition to the reds, snook, trout, and ladyfish, I land a gyrating saltwater catfish, ravenous jack crevalles that hunt in packs, and mangrove snapper. You never know what’s coming next. There are big sharks that are hunting here too—a guy caught a seven-foot lemon shark at the marina last evening! Like Colorado, it’s exhilarating to realize you may not be the top of the food chain.
Good size rays also frequent these shallow near-shore waters. I see something big creating a large swirl over one of the fast-submerging oyster beds. A big red? No, even better—a huge spotted eagle ray. I watch for a minute as he feeds, then when he senses my presence, the ray gracefully flaps his wings and disappears into deeper water. What a gorgeous creature!! Makes my day!
Around noon, as the tide starts to turn and run out, I start to head back to
the dock. The wind has picked up, and so I duck in and out of the islands seeking a little shelter that makes paddling easier. But I can’t resist a few casts. I throw my lure into the shadows back under mangroves that line the shore. The water explodes, and a nice snook bolts out into the current, tailwalks, then bores back towards the mangrove roots to saw me off. My rod has plenty of backbone, and I horse him away from the tangled mass just in time. I unhook him, snap a quick picture, and he bolts back into the shadows. A good way to end the day. But the cherry on the cake is the big green sea turtle that surfaces as I round the last point. He takes a quick look at me, flaps his flippers, and dives. The sun is setting as I get back to the docks, the pelicans waiting patiently for any treat.