Barron River Kayak Fishing Trifecta Near Everglades City, FL

img_9827What do modern product marketing, Collier County, Florida, and the Barron River here in the Everglades have in common??  They all owe it to Barron Collier, a wealthy Yankee who made a gigantic fortune back at the turn of the 19th Century with his
modest little brainchild:  img_9828Putting ads in New York street cars to woo a captive audience.  He was only 19 years old when he started his business!!

His namesake Barron River sidles alongside of Everglades City, providing a deep channel into the Ten Thousand Islands of the Gulf of Mexico.  Upstream, it provides access to some untrammeled wilderness and good fishing for the adventurous kayak angler.

Back around the late 1880s, the Everglades were a true backwater—the few hearty locals made a living through agriculture (grapefruits, tomatoes), hunting, fishing, and skullduggery.  The nearest sheriff being several days away by boat in Key West, it was home to outlaws, n’er do wells, and other assorted misfits as documented in Peter Matthiessen’s fascinating epic, Killing Mr. Watson.  An early account proclaimed seven unwritten rules of that wild country:

  1.   Suspect every man.
  2.   Ask no questions.
  3.   Settle your own quarrels.
  4.   Never steal from an Islander.
  5.   Stick by him, even if you do not know him.
  6. Shoot quick, when your secret is in danger.
  7.   Cover your kill.

The area’s bountiful sunshine and fish and game were discovered by wealthy northerners seeking to escape frigid winters and sportsmen, beginning the transition to a tourist destination.  Collier came visiting the area at the invitation of one of his rich buddies, and like many Yankees to follow, he got “sand in his shoes.”  Soon he had purchased almost a million acres stretching south from Fort Myers, including most of the land in a little village called Everglade, which he promptly renamed Everglades.  The river that served Everglades was originally

img_9820
Dredging The Everglades For The Tamiami Trail

called Potato Creek for the potatoes planted there by the Seminole Indians.  It had been renamed the Allen River after a local pioneering settler.  It was promptly renamed the Barron River.  Collier started promoting agriculture and development in the area, promising the state legislature he would help finish construction of the Tamiami Trail highway from Tampa to Miam–IF they would slice off a big chunk of Lee County (Ft. Myers) and create Collier County with Everglades as the new county seat.  DEAL!!

He delivered on his promise to speed up work on the road that would finally link the west and east coasts of Florida–a startling engineering and construction feat using giant dredges to plow through the swampy Everglades muck and then blasting through hard limestone with 2.5 million sticks of dynamite.  The official opening day was April 26th, 1928.img_9818  As he financed building of the highway, Collier also turned Everglades City, the nerve center for construction, into a model corporate town complete with wide boulevards, traffic circles, and a full array of handsome community buildings like a bank, cleaners, grocery store, barbershop, church, school, and hotel.  Everglades City had its own electric streetcar, the only one south of Tampa.  He was way ahead of his time in many ways.

Today, the two-lane Tamiami Trail has ceded its importance to Interstate 75 twenty miles to the north, known as Alligator Alley.  Everglades City has faded into a shadow of its former glory, losing its status as county seat to Naples thanks to Hurricane Donna in 1960 that flooded the town to a depth of eight feet, inundated the county courthouse, wiped out hundreds of houses, and damaged over a thousand more.  The town now sports a modest permanent population of about 500 people.  But the good news is the fishing is still terrific for anglers who descend on the area, especially on weekends.  Even better, most of them overlook the Barron River, right on the town’s doorstep, where feisty tarpon, snook, and redfish abound.  Better yet, a substantial amount of the river, especially what I call the North Fork, is accessible only by kayak.  Three of my favorite trips on the Barron River—the North Fork, the Main Stem, and the South Branch—follow.

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Chasing Reds and Sea Trout at Sea Rim State Park Near Port Arthur, TX

October 28, 2016

On the fourth leg of my annual migration from Colorado to Florida for the img_9695winter, I decide to stop at one of my favorite places in Texas, Sea Rim State Park near Port Arthur, to hunt some redfish and speckled sea trout in the backcountry marshes. The contrast between this working port–lots of oil and gas refining, barges, etc–and the beautiful saltwater marshes where I like to explore is stunning. Butimg_9676 the redfish and trout do not seem to mind. Lots of people fish the coastal surf at the park, but I head the other way into the solitude of the backcountry. After fighting off mosquitos and fire ants at the quiet little Breezy Oaks RV Park where my mobile fish camp is ensconced just up the the road from Sea Rim (So good to be back to the South!), I drop my $3 entry fee in the box near the launch. Soon I’m heading down the long canal to Fence Lake just before sunrise, a cool, gentle breeze helping to push me down the mile-long access channel.

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Hunt For Red October Out Of Port O’Connor, TX

Day 1:  October 26, 2016

I’m on the third leg of my annual migration from Colorado to Florida, navigating from Carlsbad, New Mexico, to Port O’Connor on the Texas coast near Corpus Christi. My goal is to explore the backwaters of Matagorda Island by kayak and chase some reds and trout.  img_9590It’s slow going on the road at first, dodging around the dozens and dozens of big trucks carrying natural gas from the Permian Basin fracking wells in New Mexico and Texas. Somebody should remind Mr. Trump that the USA is now the biggest energy producer in the world! This route smells like gas, with dozens of methane flares lighting the terrain. I read on-line that methane from oil and gas production now exceeds that of cattle (honest!!). Then all of a sudden I see the other side of the Texas energy story–hundreds and hundreds of big wind turbines generating clean power from this windy landscape.

My destination, the tiny burg of Port O’Connor, is a quintessential end-of-the-img_9700road place. The road really does end here. It’s home to just over a thousand people. Sport fishing, hunting (ducks and gators), and commercial shrimping are the economic generators. There’s lots of interesting history here. The French and Spanish explored the area in the late 1600s, and nearby Indianola was the second busiest port in Texas in 1850, second only to Galveston, with a daily steamship run to New York City! That led to construction of an iconic cast-iron 55-foot high lighthouse in 1850 that survives today. It was my southern beacon as I kayaked the backwaters img_9630around Matagorda Island, where it still stands. The port and lighthouse were flash points in the Civil War (Texas was a Confederate State), the Yanks and the Rebs trading ownership several times. After the war, two massive hurricanes in 1875 and 1886 wiped Indianola from the face of the earth. Port O’Conner, built later nearby, was the successor, but never reached the former glory of Indianola. It’s a conservative place today–lots of Trump/Pence signs, and I don’t spot any ladies wearing “I’m a Nasty Woman” t-shirts. Oddly, I see one lonely Johnson/Weld yard sign. Go figure.

But I am not here to talk politics, but instead to chase what I am told are the prodigious numbers of redfish swimming around Matagorda Island, a barrier island about 12 miles offshore from Port O’Conn0r.   Indeed, the denizens of POC (as it’s called locally) have dubbed the tenth month of the year “Red October,” not because of anything to do with the Commies, Russian subs, or Putin…notwithstanding all the Trump yard signs.

I arrive on a Sunday afternoon and spend the day nosing around, checkingimg_9593 out the marinas, tackle shops, and the lone grocery/convenience store.  I hear it’s usually windy this time of year, so better get out early.  Donnie at the excellent Rod and Gun shop has an impressive array of lures, and clues me in on what’s hot and what’s not.  I am shocked to see dozens and dozens of boat trailers of erstwhile anglers lined up at every marina, but hear to my relief that it’s much quieter during the week.  The real challenge is going to be finding a way out to the best fishing spots—a 12-mile one-way paddle on the marked POC kayak trail is out of the question unless I want to camp out several days on Matagorda Island.  My limit is about 8 miles a day roundtrip if I want to get any serious fishing in.  Fortunately, I find a local guide, knowledgeable and amiable Captain Jim Reed (361-648-5688), who will shuttle me and my yak out early in the morning, let me fish all day, then pick me up late afternoon for the reasonable price of img_9629$150.

I set up my mobile fish camp in the excellent Beacon 44 RV park in POC, fix an early dinner, and hit the rack early for a 5:30 a.m. alarm call to make the launch with Capt. Jim at 7:00 a.m.  Then it’s lights out.

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