November 8, 2015
“Most people cannot see beyond the Tamiami Trail to the heart of this vast region. Many look but few see. Few see the harmony of nature’s creation; few understand the relation of terrain to animals, of animals to plant life, of plant life to water, and of water’s importance to the survival of man, beast, and plants.”– From an historical study of the Big Cypress Swamp
One of the real joys of living in Everglades City is being able to explore hidden wild creeks that flow slowly out of the Everglades, under the Tamiami Trail, then through the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge or the Big Cypress Preserve into the Gulf. The Big Cypress Preserve covers almost 600,000 acres. It is still home to the Seminole Indians who sought refuge here and were the only tribe never to surrender or be subdued. One of my favorite haunts in the preserve is called Halfway Creek, a twisty turny creek deep in the preserve. It gets its name because its mouth is located halfway between Everglades City and Chokoloskee Island. Even on weekends it is rare to see anyone here although less than an hour from the teeming masses in Miami.
I like to start my kayak trek early, on the water before dawn to get downstream to the first lake, so I can catch the incredible flights of great white egrets, ibises, and roseate spoonbills as they flock
out of their roosting hideaways deep in the marshes. Numbering in the thousands and filling wide swaths in the morning and evening skies, it’s a tribute to conservation laws and brave game wardens that brought them back from the edge of extinction when plume hunters had their way back at the turn of the century. At the time, choice egret plumes for women’s hats sold for more per ounce that gold! Of course the fact that the fishing is good in this backcountry also has its own allure!! Halfway Creek is slow-moving, the current flowing upstream and down as the tide rolls in from Chokoloskee Bay, over five miles away. That tidal flow is the flume highway the snook, tarpon, and other big fish ride in to hunt for mullet and other delicacies, especially in winter when the water here is much warmer than the ocean.
But now in November, before any cold fronts have moved through and lots of freshwater flowing in from all the rain in October in southern Florida, the snook and other saltwater fish are a bit scarce in the upper reaches. I taste the water and can barely catch a hint of salt. Confirming my taste buds, a good size alligator surfaces near some mangroves fifty feet away. Gators prefer freshwater,
but can tolerate some salt. As I drift downstream, I make some casts along the shore and something zaps my lure. Something scrappy, but doesn’t feel like a snook or redfish….hello Mr. Cichlid (p. sicklid) An exotic species from Central America, Mayan Cichlids are freshwater fish that resemble large native sunfish. These cousins to Tilapia can tolerate brackish water and have spread throughout South Florida. Using their broad flat bodies, they turn sideways and put up a good scrappy fight. Handsome little guys, they will be a welcome diversion till I get to the saltier snook water downstream.
Fifteen minutes later as I paddle through a lake where the creek widens, I’m surprised by a respectably sized 20-inch snook that slashes out from underneath the mangroves to nail my lure—a white curly tailed plastic grub mounted on a fluorescent chartreuse 1/8 ounce jig head. That would be the delectable of the day and catch most of the fish to come, although I do get a few on a Heddon Spook, a big noisy topwater lure that often elicits explosive strikes. Later in the winter I will see baby tarpon rolling on the surface here and big manatees enjoying the warm water. Now it’s just me and the birds. Some Ospreys are already soaring overhead, looking for an unwary mullet in the water below. By my unscientific observations, I calculate osprey are successful in nailing their prey about 40 percent of the time when they make their kamikaze dives from on high at speeds approaching 100 miles per hour. Not bad—a .400 hitter in baseball would be a shoo-in for in the Hall of Fame!! One perches on a mangrove branch, keeping close watch on me.
The Halfway Creek kayak/canoe trail has been marked by the National Park Service, and when I get down past the HC3 marker, I veer to the right towards a narrow channel that opens up into another big shallow lake and begins a big loop that will rejoin the main branch miles downstream. My first cast into the channel results in a mini-eruption as a nice snook tailwalks across the water. Then the line goes slack, cut off by the sharp gill plates that snook know how to use to win their freedom. I tie on another lure and on the next cast it too is nailed, but this time by a long ugly critter called a long-nose gar. Sporting rows of nasty sharp teeth in an elongated snout, these fish are throwbacks that have been around for literally millions of years. They are prehistoric looking and indeed are often called living fossils. They can breathe air as well as water, so can survive in waters others fish dare to tread. They are ravenous eaters of fish, birds, and small mammals. Removing a hook from those menacing jaws while the muscular slippery gar gyrates in your hand is a nerve-wracking experience.
In the next lake, which I call Goofy Pond because of its uncanny resemblance on a map to thebeloved Disney character with his big floppy ears and funny hat, the Mayan Cichlids are on patrol. Practically every other, cast prompts a strike, but because they have small mouths hook ups
are a crap shoot. A few baby snook swipe at the lure, but elude me. The result is the same in the next lake, even in spots where the snook are usually schooled up. Seasons change and so do these waters, never the same from trip-to-trip let alone month-to-month. To be successful means understanding the rhythms of the weather and water temperatures, tides, wind, and other variables. I’m just getting a grasp on it all through experience and listening to the old timers back at the marina (who have more treadwear on them than even I).
Finally I come to the first of a series of mangrove tunnels, canopied over with tree limbs. Here the
creek narrows and picks up speed, flushing baitfish to snook lurking in the deep bends. The casting is tough, but using a small, lightweight six-foot rod that’s easy to handle in tight quarters, I quickly catch and release a couple of small ones. Then I make a long cast into a shady spot downstream, and as the lure starts to sink, see a silver flash, then a split second later feel a jolting strike. It’s a hefty snook that cartwheels out of the water then plows headlong upstream right at the kayak. He sees me and veers off, making for the gnarly mangrove roots and branches dipping into the water only a few feet away. I toss the anchor while pulling the rod back double. He wins this skirmish and dives into the snags, too strong for my lightweight tackle. Grabbing the line, I can feel him wrapping himself around the roots to saw off the leader. Resolute not to lose this leviathan, I bail out of the kayak into belly-button deep water and bounce across the firm sandy bottom to see if I can extricate this trophy. Holding the rod high above my head with one hand, I follow my line down into the tangled roots and branches with the other. The line goes slack and my heart sinks. NOOOOOO, I scream. Then I see the big bad boy rise from the dark hole next to the bank like an apparition, just a few feet away from my hand, somehow still attached to my line. I snap off a few more clutching branches, and he’s in my grasp! I’m shaking now, but with a big smile on my face! Laying him along the ruler in my boat, he’s almost 30 inches, a very big one for this backcountry creek, the largest I have ever caught. A few quick pictures, and he’s swimming back to his dark haunt. I start to laugh, thinking how I must have looked bailing out of that kayak and plunging across the creek, then sober up thinking how the heck will I get back in my boat in this deep water. The answer—I have to walk and bob next to the kayak for a quarter mile downstream till I find some shallows where I can remount. Ah, but worth it!!
The rest of the afternoon, I have steady action for smaller snook, several that go two feet. I hook and lose five or six acrobatic leapers who earn their freedom, leaving me shaking my head and smiling. The fishing gods giveth and they taketh away. A mile or so downstream from where I landed the big snook, I decide to explore a feeder creek that heads north through a mangrove tunnel. I can see from my GPS the side creek opens up into a series of lakes and channels that look promising. With the help of my trusty pruning shears, I reopen the passage that has grown shut. I can see where someone cut back the mangroves a few years back, but it doesn’t take long for them to grow back. I can see light at the end of the tunnel, and then emerge into a beautiful small lake studded with mangrove islands. I spook a big fish. Mullet? Snook? Redfish? I can’t tell. Although the lakes are beautiful and fairly deep for the backcountry—three to five feet—I don’t see any more fish. It may be a different story, however, in the winter when these waters will warm up, getting good sun and being sheltered from the wind. I’ll be back.
It’s almost 3 pm by now, and I usually head further downstream another mile or two where more snook are probably awaiting in a couple more stretches of mangrove tunnels. It’s a two hour paddle back to the car from here. Do I fish for another hour and load up in the dark, or head back now and have a more leisurely paddle? Wait a minute….I’ll be here all winter and spring, at least till late May. I’ll have plenty more time to explore and work on that fishing guide to the Everglades backcountry that I am pondering in my head. I see the tide has just turned and is running back upstream. I slowly turn the kayak and ride the current home, gliding silently, smoothly back through the twisting mangrove tunnels. As I emerge from the last tunnel, a rainbow paints the sky and the water. Got to see what’s over that rainbow!