“The life of man is of no greater importance to the universe than an oyster.” –David Hume
I’m always looking for a new kayak fishing day trip that doesn’t require a Herculean paddling effort, one that I can feature in the Everglades kayak fishing guide I’m working on. So sitting comfortably on the lounge chair on my sun deck on late afternoon, margarita in hand, I conducted a virtual tour on my cell phone GPS app and spotted an intriguing area I had never explored. Just northwest of the national park headquarters in Everglades City lies a broken jumble of mangrove islands and oyster beds in Chokoloskee Bay that looked promising and whetted my appetite.
Fast-forward to 6 a.m. the next morning, and I’m launching my kayak at first light and pedaling towards a series of islands flanking the main boat highway from Everglades City into the Gulf—Indian Key Pass. Ecotour boats, the local crab fishing fleet, and fishing guides based in Everglades City all use this deep channel as they speed through the maze of mangrove islands on their way out to blue water almost six miles away. Oddly, but propitiously, all is quiet, and on this and subsequent trips I will rarely see anyone fishing here during the week despite it being only a mile or so from the put-in. It’s what might be called the parking-lot phenomenon: Power boaters sniff and turn their noses up on close-in fishing spots, because they can’t possibly be good so close to the parking lot, with such easy access by the hoi poloi. So they zoom out at high speed to more remote fishing grounds—sometimes an hour or more and miles away. The payoff for being contrarian? I have the place all to myself.
After about 20 minutes, I’m crossing the channel as the sun rises, a pair of osprey on their nest loudly objecting to my presence. I start casting around the big island created by spoils when the channel was dredged years ago. Now it’s covered by a thick mangrove forest and flanked by sand spits and gnarly looking oyster bars. I loft out my first cast with the old reliable white curly tail grub on a red jig head, and it’s immediately blasted by something. A high-strutting, tail-walking lady fish erupts from the water and cartwheels one way as the lure flies the other. I laugh. A good start. A dozen sea trout and ladies come to the boat in the next half hour before I resume my trip to the west to another island along the channel replete with a series of oyster beds that look like mini-islands as they emerge with the falling tide. The tide has gouged out a deep hole of 4-5 feet between the island and the oyster beds as it rushes out towards the Gulf. Fish will hole-up in these spots, waiting for the tide to turn and wash up over the beds, giving them enough water to chase small bait fish and crabs that use the oysters as refuges. I flip my line towards the edge of one of the beds, let the lure sink a bit and start cranking it in slowly, jigging it up and down to imitate a crippled fish. Two or three more turns of the reel handle and ka-bloowee. Something nails the grub and tears off into deep water. It’s big, and starts to tow the kayak in a circle then dives beneath the boat. I scream and lunge forward with my rod to reach over the bow and follow the fish, keeping my pole from being bent under the kayak which likely would result in a loud snap as it busted in half. Success!! He’s still on and my rod is in one piece. Now I get a glimpse of the bruiser as he roils the surface, bronze fins glinting in the light of the rising sun. It’s a hefty redfish, a prized quarry around here. In a minute or so, the red is next to the kayak and subdued. A quick picture and measurement—he’s a respectable 26 inches—and the big boy is swimming back to his lair.
I’m feeling pretty smug as the first of the fishing guides in their motor boats go whizzing by in the channel. As I catch and release some nice trout and ladyfish in the holes and channels around the oyster beds, I do my best to make sure they can see my rod bending double. By now the tide has changed, and I start to weave in and out of the oyster beds that are starting to disappear. Near one bed that features a solitary mangrove bush, I see something chasing bait in water only a couple of feet deep. Maybe another red or a big trout? I pitch the lure as close to the oysters as I dare, not wanting to get snagged by the sharp shells. Something big boils around the curly-tail grub, and I see an outsized, yellow-tinged tail break the surface—then my reel starts to scream as the behemoth strips line and heads for the oyster bed. If she makes it, it will be curtains for my leader on the sharp shells. I haul back hard on the rod and turn her, but the momentum of her run sends my kayak sliding into the oyster bed with a loud crunching sound. Now I’m facing one way as the big snook heads the other. I frantically push off from the oysters with my paddle with one hand while holding onto the rod with the other. Then she makes the fatal mistake of turning and running right back at me. I reel like a whirling dervish and finally bail out of the boat to subdue this leviathan. I’m literally shaking in my flats wading boots as I quickly measure her—this beautiful female snook, sporting gorgeous yellow fins and the distinctive lateral line of her kind–goes 36 inches, the largest snook by six inches I have ever caught, so big I can hardly lift her. My whole hand fits easily in her mouth as I reach down in to remove the hook. No worse for the wear, she swims off insouciantly looking for her next meal. What a start!! Maybe I should just quit now and head home….but of course I don’t.
Instead I take a little break to have an apple and pose for a victory photo. Sitting right next to the oyster bed in only a foot of water, I watch the tide wash over the bar. Small bait fish dart skittishly around the edges. Can’t blame them with the likes of that big snook lurking everywhere. I overturn a clump of oysters, and little mud and porcelain crabs scurry for safety among the shells. I snatch one for closer inspection, and he returns the favor by pinching my finger with a Lilliputian claw. He casts a baleful glare on me with fierce looking eyes. With a chuckle I grant him his freedom.
The Eastern Oysters (scientific name) that built the beds that pock this flat are the true keystone species of the inshore waters of the Everglades and Southwest Florida. In other areas of Florida, sea grass flourish and provide shelter and sustenance, but not so much here. Rather, young oyster larvae drift in the current until they find a hard substrate—maybe a sandbar—then start building shells that will be their homes for the rest of their lives. As they grow they filter phytoplankton out of the water for food, helping to clarify it and remove pollutants in the bargain. In these waters one oyster can strain 50 gallons a day and up to 70% of the organic matter in that water that flows over them. The remainder serves as food for subsurface organisms while the shells themselves provide shelter for crabs, shrimp, and small fish. The shells are built one on top another in topsy-turvy fashion, creating three-dimensional hiding places. Some of the shells are empty and are commandered by small spawning fish. All this food makes the oyster bars magnets for bigger game fish. Over time, mangroves will invade the bars, send their roots down into the sand and create forested islands. Without the oysters, the environment here would be radically different, and the fishing marginal.
Not surprisingly, these seemingly unremarkable oyster bars are truly the key to estuarine health in these parts AND to my fishing success! Where man has channelized the Everglades for development or farmland, the surge of freshwater into parts of Chokoloskee and other bays has killed the juvenile oysters, decimated the beds, and hurt the fishing, as guides will readily attest. Here in the national park, they are healthy, but closer to civilization; oyster bed restoration efforts are being undertaken in an attempt to repair the damage. The next big bay to the northwest—Fakahatchee Bay—is what the biologists call a “pristine estuary,” but nearer to the urban sprawl of Naples the picture is less rosy. As ever, it’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature, the unexpected and unintended consequences often being severe if not catastrophic.
After finishing off my apple and taking a selfie showing my exalted status as a fishing expert, I start hopscotching along the oyster beds to the northwest. Here there water is mostly shallow with fewer deeper holes to harbor fish between tides. Still there must be fish here because I see a pair of dolphin, dorsal fins out of the water, searching for prey. Every once and a while one will accelerate at breakneck speed and corner its prey up against the beds churning the water into a froth. I let the dolphin scoot by, then resume casting. These shallow flats around the beds are perfect spots for good-sized sea trout.
I have switched to a popping cork with an artificial shrimp suspended about 18 inches below it, a rig that I can cast over the top of the barely submerged oyster beds without getting hung up. I heave a long cast out over one of the beds and give the cork a quick “pop,” the sound of which seems to attract fish searching for crabs and shrimp. As if on cue, something jerks on the cork, pulling it under the surface. I am onto a nice fat 18” sea trout. Further up the bay, I find a cut in a long mangrove island where the tide is flooding in. On each side of the natural channel, only a few feet deep are oyster bars and deeper quiet eddies. I put the curly tail grub back on, and in quick succession it produces four fat, feisty trout in these honey holes. I rarely keep fish to eat, but one of the trout is injured so I clean him quickly to add to the Mediterranean seafood stew that’s cooking up in the crockpot back at my beach bungalow.
After stowing the trout in a plastic bag in the cooler, I peddle through the chute and head west into the maze of mangrove islands. I find a narrow entry channel where the incoming tide is ripping in strong, carving out several deeper chutes among the oyster beds before spilling into the bay. It looks like a good place to stretch my legs and wade on the edge of the beds. I fling a cast below a riffle that cascades into some promising looking darker colored water with some depth and begin to retrieve the grub in a rhythmic herky-jerky fashion to imitate an injured bait fish. Something hefty grabs the lure and the fight is on. The mystery fish battles hard, refusing to come to the surface. Maybe a redfish, because a snook would be jumping by now. Finally I winch the fish to the surface….and it turns out not to be a fish at all, but a bonnethead shark! Luckily the lure is in the corner of his mouth so his small, but plentiful and sharp teeth didn’t sever my line. I gingerly wriggle the hook free with my long-nosed pliers, and he jets off. To paraphrase Forrest Gump, fishing here is like a box of chocolates! Before moving on into the mangroves, I pull a dozen good-sized ladyfish and trout here from the same spot.
Then it’s off into the maze, following a serpentine course, throwing casts into the deeper holes created where the fast-moving current swirls past island points. The catch is a smorgasbord to ladyfish, jack crevalle, trout, and mangrove snapper. Nothing big, but lots of fun. I pay particular attention to the GPS here, looking for narrower stretches with big S-curves off the main flows between the islands. I usually have better luck here than in the broader channels, the current not ripping quite so fast and the big sharp bends providing deeper holes and swirling back eddies that carry lots of foods to waiting fish that don’t have to fight a heavy flow.
I resist the urge to fish some of the quiet closed bays that open up off the channels, rarely finding fish tucked away where there isn’t any current or oyster beds (which need flow to feed). The exception is on cold days when fish, especially reds, will layup in the sunny backwaters out the wind to warm up.
What I do look for on the GPS are very narrow cuts between islands where the water still flows but the channel is completely overgrown from above with mangroves….mangrove tunnels. These are great hiding spots for snook, particularly later in the day as they seek out shadows because of their light-sensitive eyes. On the GPS I look for evidence of light-colored sand bars or the speckle of oyster bars that indicate the tides are flowing through these cuts. I spot one that looks promising and head towards it. I find the mouth, and drop my anchor just outside the tunnel, then pitch a cast into the tunnel and let it float down deep under the overhanging mangrove roots. Something flashes out from under the mangrove, and soon a hard-charging baby snook of about 18” is at the boat for a quick release. I catch a couple more in the short tunnel, using my small 6 foot rod (vs. the typical 6 ½ and 7 footers) which is easier to cast in close quarters. The snook are definitely back after a mysterious hiatus, one theory being all the freshwater drove them further off shore and another they simply went further inland to explore and hunt In all the new territory opened to them because of the flooding. I am leaning towards the latter explanation since snook can stand a lot of freshwater and some guides have reported seeing them north of the Tamiami Trail. Either way, my favorite fish are back!!
Emerging from the tunnel, the channel then executes a big bend, turning back on itself several times over the next quarter of a mile. I have found what I call snapper row. It’s loaded with chunky, toothy mangrove snapper that favor the deep holes at the bends and dote on the cover provided by some mangrove trees that have toppled into the water. At the second bend I hook something hefty that bores deep. I’m thinking another nice red but then feel the fish spinning as it nears the surface and know it’s a Gaff Topsail Catfish. AARRGGHH. Saltwater cousins to channel catfish I used to catch as a kid in Kansas, these critters are hard to unhook due their predilection to spin wildly when pulled from the water, their sharp dorsal fin threatening to impale anything that gets near. And they slime up the last two feet of the leader with a gelatinous mess.
By now it’s almost two o’clock and my stomach is growling. I find a little shade under some mangroves where I can still catch a breeze. With the January rain and recent warm weather, the microscopic, but voracious no-see-ums are out in force so a little wind helps keep the pesky nuisances at bay. After a gourmet lunch featuring some blue cheese and a barbecued steak sandwich washed down with the mandatory RC Cola (aka quick energy) and topped with a coconut almond joy, I head for what looks on the GPS to be a giant submerged oyster bar—white sand stippled with dark speckles. Turns out it’s a washed-out mangrove island surrounded by a hard-bottom sand flat pock-marked by small oyster beds. Some of the dead mangroves are still sticking out of the surface, and bait fish are everywhere, especially on top of the oysters that are covered with a couple of feet of water. I tie on a small lipped shiny white plug called a 3D Minnow that looks a lot like the little bait fish darting hither and yon. My first cast near a downed mangrove results in a hard strike and 20-inch snook. For the next half hour I catch trout, ladyfish, snook, and mangrove snapper (which I rarely find in shallow water like this). One of the trout goes 20 inches, a good one in these waters, and the last circuit around the flat in my kayak produces a hefty 26-inch snook that tail-walks and zips off in long runs before coming to the boat and her freedom.
Now it’s almost 4 o’clock, and I have a long trek back to the put-in, so I head north towards the far shoreline where the Ferguson River spills into Lane Cove, then start to paddle along the shoreline, keeping my open for activity among the oyster bars the dot the coast here. Mullet are everywhere, jumping happily and roiling up the water along the bank and oyster bars. They are vegetarians, but attract other fish who feed on them and also on the critters they churn off the bottom. But then I see something bigger break the surface—a portly redfish is slowly working his way around a point encrusted with oysters, looking for crabs and shrimp, his bronze dorsal of the water. I can see him plainly, but he doesn’t spook although I’m only 20 feet away. He probably doesn’t see that many boats out here. I carefully throw my grub a few feet in front of him and lift it slowly off the bottom as he passes by. He nails it without hesitation, and I set the hook. Damn, missed him. But without hesitation he lunges forward and nails it again. I yank, but the hook doesn’t find home. So he nails it again, and this time I have him on, but as he rockets away, the hook pulls loose. MERCY!! The red leaves a giant wake in the shallow water, spooking several others as he jets to the next county. Which wouldn’t be so bad given the fabulous day I have had, except the scene is repeated two more times in the next 30 minutes as I exhibit some stunted fishing skills. Fortunately no one is there to witness this display of piscatorial ineptitude or hear my epithets that echo across the deserted waters. But as the old saying goes, that’s why it’s called fishing, not catching.
My bruised ego is salved on the way back by a magnificent sunset just as I reach the take-out. Thirteen hours on the water….it’s good to know the old bod can still do it!! As Shakespeare said, “Then the world’s my oyster.”