Two backcountry kayak fishing trips in December led me to settle on a New Year’s Resolution: I will seek a balance in all things between exploring the new and cherishing the old and familiar in my life.
There is little that excites me as much as exploring new waters, especially in remote pristine wild areas. What’s around that next bend in the lake or what is lurking in that alluring dark hole in the mangrove tunnel at the S-curve in the creek? The lightly traveled Fakahatchee River that springs from the Everglades near the Tamiami Trail then wends its way to the Gulf of Mexico is a perfect example. The put-in point is just across the road from a popular tourist site—a recreated Seminole Village with thatched roof huts. It is one of the few backcountry creeks I haven’t paddled. Indeed, I have never seen a vehicle or boats at the clearing in the mangroves where you can launch a kayak. Why? The answer seems to be captured in Jeff Ripple’s Kayaking Guide to the Everglades in which he warns this is the toughest, most challenging route in his excellent book.
I soon find out his pointed caveats are well-taken. In just a few minutes after launching my kayak, I run into a mangrove tunnel that is seriously overgrown. I pull out my big clippers and chomp the channel in front of me back open as hordes of delicate orb weaver spiders scurry for safety, their webs collapsing, sometimes over my sputtering face. Fortunately, they are harmless and don’t bite, but this is definitely not country for arachnophobes!
I finally emerge into the first long pond where the channel widens. My kayak looks like a mangrove salad, with leaves, twigs, branches, and air roots everywhere, topped off by homeless orb weavers scampering about. I see some forage fish breaking the surface ahead, but all my casts are fruitless. As I peddle slowly, peering into the crystal clear, stained water with my polarized sunglasses, I don’t see any fish at all, let alone the snook and redfish I am pursuing. I sample the water….it’s still very fresh with little taste of salt. Until there’s more salt and a good cold front drives them up from the Gulf waters, the ocean-going fish are going to be scarce.
Then unexpectedly at the confluence with another shallow creek, something big swirls at my lure (an old-reliable white curly tail grub on a red jig head). Was it a big snook? Or just a toothy alligator gar? I can’t tell. I make a few more casts at this likely looking spot, but no dice, so I keep heading downstream, casting and enjoying the bird life—endangered wood storks, egrets, ibis, and limpkins. Limpkins, a big unique marsh bird, are found in the USA only in Florida. They seem to enjoy startling the daylights out of me with their loud rolling wail.
But before long, I am hacking through another, even more tangled mangrove tunnel. The orb weavers parachute into the kayak as I swipe my paddle at their enormous round perfect webs that span the mangroves at the ends of every tunnel and often in between. The tunnel is so overgrown I can’t even cast, so naturally I spook a good-sized snook where the tunnel widens into a shallow pond—he was sitting there waiting to get an easy meal floating by on the outgoing current.
That stiffens my resolve to get down another mile or two where there will be more current and more salt and maybe more fish–or perhaps up a side channel that my GPS shows snaking through mangroves into another series of lakes. Not to be. It must be years since anyone was back in here, and the mangroves have totally overgrown the creek and have shut off the side channel as well. It would take hours to whack my way through the tangle. Maybe later in the winter when I will have a higher risk/reward ratio as the fish migrate up here. Ah well, at least the sun is shining after some early morning fog.
I find a wide spot in the tunnel and slowly turn the kayak around and head back upstream. Already the orb weavers have started spinning new webs to replace the ones I swept away. I make some casts along the shoreline along the mangroves where fish like to hide out, get a couple of little strikes as I glide back into the first lake, but don’t see what hit. Up ahead I spy some beady eyes and little snout just above the surface—a curious alligator. I paddle towards him slowly, quietly and manage to get a nice shot of him. As I snap away, he submerges quietly like a little submarine and then bolts away—I can see his wake for a second in the shallow water. Then all is quiet. I paddle over to see if he’s hiding on the bottom. But’s he’s gone, leaving no trace even though the water is clear and only a couple of feet deep. Amazing that a five-foot long creature can evaporate like that. Yikes….guess I won’t be wading here any time soon.
Soon I am back at the confluence where I had the big swirl. No action this time, so I decide to explore the side channel. Here the mangroves have been kept at bay by freshwater flowing out of the Everglades. On both sides are seas of tall marsh grasses waving in the wind. It looks a little like a tall grass prairie in Kansas where I grew up. I spy some wading birds feeding in the shallows, but no fish.
Unexpectedly, I see a dark torpedo-like form off to my right—it’s a monster 30” plus snook slowly finning in water only a foot deep. He doesn’t appear to be spooked by my presence and saunters slowly off towards the shore line. I grab my rod, take a deep breath, then cast sloppily right on top of him, which of course sends him scurrying for safety. Aaarrgghh!! Not going to be my day!
I decide it’s time to head back to the SUV, pull out, and try one of my old favorites–a secret unmarked kayak route down the road a few miles I discovered several years ago by accident. It always produces fish. I don’t see anything in the water till I am almost back at the put-in, then of course a spook another snook, this one smaller. Grrr. He jets off under some gorgeous little yellow flowers that dot the surface. These pretty little things are actually carnivorous insect eaters, luring their prey to a slow death.
Despite my lack of success fishing, it’s been fun, if a little exasperating. I’m not used to getting skunked (that’s angler talk for not catching a damn thing). But I love the thrill of exploring something new, unknown, with just a tad of edginess because the gators and maybe a wayward shark. The Fakahatchee is unspoiled and like a new friend, fascinating. I’ll be back in a month or so when the rains have subsided and more fish have hopefully wended their way up the twisty river from the Gulf, miles away.
In a few minutes, after fending off the pesky mosquitoes, I’ve loaded up the kayak and am driving to my hush-hush spot. Here the water is high, but there’s more current and more salt in the water because it’s much closer to the Gulf. I smile as a paddle the familiar shallow channel that leads away from the busy Tamiami Trail, small bait fish scattering everywhere….another good sign of fish to come. I wrote about this route last March in an article for Florida Sportsman. It feels like an old friend, but something is different. As someone wrote, you never paddle or fish the same river twice…even if you are on the same river. It dawns on me it’s the mangroves. As sea level in the area rises, more salt water intrudes into the marsh, and more salt water means more mangroves and less marsh grass. The mangroves are starting to take over the channel in spots, choking it off and changing the area’s ecology. Scientists worry that it could be bye-bye to this part of the Everglades sometime in this century along with all the species that call it home, including the Florida panther (the eastern cousin to the mountain lion). I’m reminded the mangroves also make it tougher to cast as one of my lure sails into the waiting branches. And believe me, mangroves with their thick bundle of leaves and flexible branches don’t give up lures easily. I have to paddle over, stand up in the kayak, and extricate the hook buried in a branch. In revenge, I pull out the clippers and try to open things up. But over time it will be a losing battle—I see little mangroves sprouting along the north side of the channel where two years ago it was just marsh grass. The mangroves have already taken over the south side in many stretches
Soon I break out into a series of beautiful small, shallow lakes….and they are loaded with mullet and other forage fish. Got to be some snook in with them! As the increasingly strong current sweeps me downstream through alternating lakes and mangrove tunnels, I search for signs of fish—dark silhouettes along the shoreline, wakes of bigger fish pushing water in front of them, forage fish scrambling to safety. Nothing.
In the last lake before the creek plunges into an almost mile-long mangrove tunnel, I see a school of big mullet—vegetarians—swirling in the shallows. Knowing that snook and redfish often shadow these schools, hoping to pick up crabs, snails, and other goodies the mullet stir up from the bottom, I arch a long cast into their midst and slowly work my curly tail grub back to the kayak. Just as I’m about to lift the lure from the water, something grabs it hard and bores away. Then the line goes slack. A nice snook. Several more casts into the school of mullet, but no bites. Fish winning in shut out!
Now it’s into the tunnel as I float downstream. There are numerous good-looking spots, particularly at deeper bends in the creek that create warmer hiding places, but aside from a few snapper, they appear barren….until I get to my all-time favorite spot. The creek does a 90 degree bend to the right, creating a pool at least six feet deep and a slow back eddy where fish lay as the current washes food right to them. I anchor up in the current and make a cast, counting to 10 to let it sink to the bottom. WHAM! I am onto a decent fish finally! After a good fight, a feisty redfish comes to the boat. Not a big one, but who’s complaining. For the next 15 minutes, I get strike after strike, catching and releasing four reds, a snook, and several fat mangrove snapper. I continue floating downstream, looking for a sandbar where I usually jump out of the kayak, stretch my legs, and have a snack. It’s there, only a couple of bends downstream, but almost submerged in the high water—just enough room left to beach the kayak.
As some storm clouds begin to gather and spit a little rain, I decide to head back upstream, stopping at the honey hole again and catching another snook and a decent redfish. Thinking it’s all fished out now, I paddle through the hole and see a school of a dozen two-foot long snook slide by me in the depths. I have to laugh.
On the way back, I take another route that forks off the main channel and rejoins it later upstream through a side lake. I’ve hooked some muscular snook here before, one almost three feet long that broke me off after a spectacular jump. I make a long cast to the edge of a downed mangrove at the fork and BANG, a nice snook nails the lure and dives towards the tangle. I anchor the kayak quickly so he won’t pull me into the mangroves, and put the pressure on, my rod bending double. I turn him away from the roots, then he shoots straight towards me and under the kayak. I get him to reverse course and bail out of the kayak to grab the fish. A quick picture of this gorgeous almost 24-incher, and he’s heading back to his lair. Funny how one good fish can make the day.
I get out and wade almost chest deep through the side channel under a canopy of mangrove, towing my kayak behind me clipped to my belt. This is another spot that has produced in the past. As I round a bend and emerge from the channel into another shallow lake, a couple of nice snook scoot by me, heading pell mell downstream. Oh well. Maybe next time. That would be the last snook that I see, although I do spook a big redfish in a shallow channel near the car and manage to catch a fat little cichlid (p. siclid), a handsome invader from Central America, and hook an alligator gar at the little pond at the put-in point where the water is fresh, which they prefer. But nature gets the last laugh. Just as I decide to call it a day, the rain comes. Instead of making a run for it—the launch point is only a hundred yards away—I decide to hole up under the Tamiami Trail bridge and wait it out for a few minutes. After twiddling my thumbs for a half hour scrunched up under the low-slung span, the sun finally begins to peek out, and I paddle quickly in, load up, and head home.
Back at camp, relaxing with a glass of wine, I think how peaceful I felt paddling and fishing this so familiar route, knowing it like the back of my hand, yet still intriguing because of the subtle changes I see each time out. It’s an old friend that I will cherish. It’s given me so many good memories and revealed so many of its secrets to me, but not all.
I am hoping for more days like this in 2016, and the chance to share it with friends—new and old. That is the balance I will pursue in the coming year–exploring the new and scintillating, both places and people, and cherishing the old and familiar in my life that give me so much comfort and satisfaction!