Here’s a scenic trip that will give you multiple shots at good-sized snook and high-flying baby tarpon…but only if you’re willing to be on the water before the crack of dawn and then navigate a couple of long, mesmerizing, but snag-filled mangrove tunnels that elicit epithets more freely than they yield fish. As a bonus, you will see huge flocks of birds, flotillas of alligator gars, and plenty of gators.
The put-in is a small, heavily used public park about five miles east of the intersection of the Tamiami Trail and Route 29 in Carnestown near Everglades City. A word to the wise: It is mandatory to be on the water very early to beat the kayak ecotours that descend practically every day on this popular route—and more so on weekends. If you sleep late and tarry, you may not find a parking spot and on the water will have to dodge colorful, careening kayaks often piloted by novices.
January is a good time of year to make this trip, especially if the weather has been dry in November and December or several good cold fronts have blown through. Reduced freshwater flows will mean more saltwater that will lure bait and gamefish up into the lakes, and cooler weather attracts snook and tarpon to the shallower, warmer inland waters. Also, the East River has a strong tidal flow so depth is not usually a problem. Let’s go!!
This trip snakes through four mangrove tunnels of increasing length and width that connect a series of five lakes, the lower southerly three of which are the angler’s destination. The launch point in Lake #1 is a good, hard-bottomed sandy spot in a county park. The first waypoint is a narrow, almost hidden mangrove tunnel at the southeast corner of the lake. On the way you will pass by a series of four small islands that are absolutely loaded with egrets, herons, and ibis that roost there overnight.
The short mangrove tunnel leads into Lake #2, a skinny, shallow body of water that in about one-half mile empties into another mangrove tunnel at its south end. Halfway down to Lake #3, this tunnel opens into a small pond that has two exit points into mangrove tunnels. The one the angler wants is at the southeast corner of the pond. If you continue to the southwest, that tunnel will loop back north into a large, shallow lake frequented by gators and alligator gar, but few game fish.
The southeast tunnel, after approximately ½ mile, opens into Lake #3, called Kidney Lake by the ecotour guides because of its shape. The good fishing starts here. Then it’s onward to Lake #4 through another, longer and wider mangrove tunnel—very scenic but very snaggy. Going can be slow, taking almost half an hour for the one-half mile paddle to Lake #4.
The route continues at the southwest corner of Lake #4, which follows another mangrove tunnel, this one wider but even longer. The paddle to Lake #5 can easily take 45 minutes and more if you fish along the way. Again, underwater snags are numerous.
Lake #5, which I call Skate Lake because of its shape, is the largest in the chain and subject to a strong tidal flow being much closer to the Gulf. Power boats can reach this lake as the East River channel widens substantially. You can continue south for another half hour from here to the Gulf, but you will have to watch the clock and tides closely. Even on a strong incoming tide it is at least a two-hour paddle back to the put-in without much time for fishing along the way.
I take my usual three rods on this trip—two 6 ½ foot medium/light spinning rods with 2500 series reels and one 6-foot wand for casting in the tight quarters of the mangrove tunnels. With the size of the snook and tarpon, 30# fluorocarbon leaders are highly recommended.
My quartet of favorite lures on the East include the redoubtable white curlytail mounted on a one-eigth jig head, a gold Zipper-Dipper paddletail, a white Yozuri floating/diving 3D crystal minnow, and a baby-bass colored stickbait mounted weedless for casting under the mangroves.
I ride my Hobie Outback pedal kayak on this route, but have learned a hard lesson—remove the pedals and use a paddle when navigating the gnarly mangrove tunnels that are laced with sunken mangrove limbs and roots. I managed to bend the fins on a new set of expensive reversible pedals, requiring a week for repairs at Naples Kayak Outfitters. I also strongly recommend using a single-bladed paddle which makes maneuvering in the tunnels much easier than a longer double-bladed.
The Trip (January 2017)
I am on the water before first light, relying on my headlamp as I load up the yak. Getting here early is essential to get the jump on the madding crowds and to allow the serious angler to navigate the long mangrove tunnels and reach the fishy Lakes #3 and #4 before the hoi polloi descends downstream. The bonus for the early bird is to witness the fantastic flights of hundreds of birds leaving their roosts at the south end of the put-in lake (Lake #1).
As I pedal past a series of small islands that dot the far end of the lake, I feel like I am in a scene from Hitchcock’s movie “The Birds” as egrets, herons, and ibis noisily swoop and swirl overhead, the sound of their big beating wings reverberating in my ears.
When the show dies down, I get ready to cast, but first taste the water, and find it’s very salty. Not surprising–the last two months have been bone dry, so there’s very little freshwater coming down from the Everglades to the north. That’s a good sign for my chances to jump some bigger snook and baby tarpon. And while that mini-drought means some of the other upcountry creeks are almost too skinny to navigate, the East has a good tidal flow and depth if you catch it right. It’s coming in now and high, but almost ready to turn, so I don’t fiddle around long casting in Lake #1. I want to make sure I don’t have to paddle the lower mangrove tunnels at low tide.
The entrance to the short, heavily traveled mangrove tunnel leading to Lake #2 is hidden under some overhanging mangroves at the southeast corner of Lake #1. It has a few twists and turns and deadfall snags that are a harbinger of things to come. I push into Lake #2, scattering a bunch of bait fish at the mouth. This lake is long and skinny–some guidebooks claim it is an old canal. It’s very shallow and home to plenty of mullet and gar, but I have only caught a few baby snook here. It gets pounded by fair-weather fisherman who don’t explore further downstream and certainly sees a lot of ecotour traffic later in the day. So I hurry to the far south end and the mangrove tunnel that will lead to Lake #3.
Here’s where my pedals should have come up, and the paddle taken over. This mangrove tunnel, like the two that follow, is loaded with big limbs and other assorted snags just below the surface, many invisible until I ram into them with a bone-jarring crunch. I throw a few casts here and there, but with no results, then the tunnel widens into a shallow pond about one-third of a mile down, with sawgrass and gator skids on its north bank.
I’ve caught a few small snook here in the past, but come up empty today. Time to move on. There are two exits to this pond. The one I want that will take me to Lake #3 is at the southeast corner of the pond. If you continue to the southwest, you will find another mangrove tunnel that eventually curves around back to the north into a large, very shallow lake that is favored by alligator gar and alligators. I have never caught any fish there.
The southeast mangrove tunnel bends and twists like a serpent for another half mile or so into Lake #3, which is shaped like a kidney. Be ready! There are some good snook here at the mouth. I see some activity in the shallows to the left as I emerge—probably a snook—but no dice after several casts. Same results with a couple of casts parallel to the bank on the right. So I let the current carry me out into the lake, then spot a pair of beady eyes and a snout in front of me where the water drops off. A six-foot gator sinks out of sight. I make a mental note to keep my hands in the boat if I have to unhook a fish.
I am surprised I didn’t get any hits at the mouth on the white curlytail Gulp mullet, but see a few splashes down the north shoreline, way back up under the mangroves, so skip a weedless stickbait under the overhanging branches. WHAM! It’s immediately nailed by a decent snook. Then another that goes about 20 inches. The snaggy vicissitudes of the mangrove tunnels are fading quickly in my mind!! I continue down the shoreline switching back to the curlytail, and a couple of casts later something big explodes on the lure at the edge of the mangroves in open water. An acrobatic snook elevates clear of the water, shaking his head, then heads pell-mell to dangerous mangrove roots along the shore. I throw the new pedals in reverse and back away from the deadly roots at warp speed. It works!! Instead of the fish dragging the kayak into the mangroves where he’s virtually certain to break off, I am able to pedal backwards into open water. In a few minutes, the beauty is at the boat. I reach into the water to release him, then remember the baleful eye of the gator—he’s lurking somewhere nearby–and quickly hoist the impressive 28-inch fish into the kayak for a photo opportunity and quick release. Now we’re talking!!
I continue my circuit around Kidney Lake, working the deeper west shoreline and get a few strikes, but come up empty. By now the tide has turned and is rushing out quickly, so I decide I’d better head down to Lake #4. But I can’t resist pitching a cast at the fishy-looking mouth of the mangrove tunnel at the south end of Kidney Lake, and a baby snook is my reward. Then a few hundred feet into the tunnel, I use my six-foot rod to cast in a tight spot and boat a nice 22-inch snook on the curlytail.
Now it’s time to motivate—the water is getting very low and more and more snags are rearing their ugly heads above the surface. At one point I have to jump out of the kayak and pull the boat over a big limb just below the surface. I leave scar marks on numerous other snags that I scrape over with the pedals. There damn well better be some hungry fish in the next lake!
After almost 30 minutes of pedaling, paddling, and gnashing my teeth, I see a light at the end of the tunnel. I pull over to the bank to get my rods ready—the last time I was down here I hooked and lost a major league 30-inch plus snook at the mouth after making a backhand cast from where I sat just inside the tunnel along the lake shoreline to the right. He got into the mangrove roots before I could get into open water and pulled free. But today the big guy is AWOL, so I glide out over the very shallow sandbar into deeper water. In the distance, at the far south end of the lake at the outlet I spy fish rolling…and they don’t look like mullet. As I get closer, I see the boils are tarpon and snook feeding. It’s a scene out of an angler’s dream!
I wait for one of the rollers and cast 10 feet in front of him. A snook immediately nails the curlytail, and the fight is one. He thrashes the surface then heads for the mangroves, but the reversible pedals and a stout rod put an end to that nonsense! It’s a beautiful 25-inch snook.
As I release the fish, a sizable tarpon rolls not more than thirty feet in front of me. I fumble the cast, and it lands right on top of him…but not to worry, he inhales the lure without hesitation. I set the hook and a big three-foot baby tarpon blasts off high into the air. My drag screams as he tail walks then completes a 360 degree flip that sends my lure flying back at me. I can’t help but laugh at his acrobatics.
For the next half hour, I have a blast sight fishing for tarpon and snook as they continue to feed. The water is tea-colored, but very clear so I can often see them zoom in to nail the lure. I hook and lose a three-foot snook and then another three-foot tarpon before I finally boat another fish—a two-foot tarpon that would put any gymnast to shame. By the time things quiet down, I have caught and released four more snook, all over 22 inches, and another baby tarpon. I have hook nine tarpon in all and boated two—my usual ratio is one out of every three tarpon I hook, I actually catch, so my average is off today, but who’s complaining. I have caught most on the curlytail, but a few on the gold paddletail. The 3D Minnow, usually a reliable snook treat, gets shutout.
It’s almost 1:30 and time for lunch, so I peddle back to the north end of the lake to the now almost-exposed sand bar where I can get out and stretch my legs. It’s got to be a quick break because the tide is really roaring out now.
By two o’clock, I’m slipping through the final mangrove tunnel, headed for Lake #5. It’s a long haul, especially with the water level so low—I pay the price for catching all those snook and tarpon in Lake #4.
Thirty minutes later I finally break into Lake #5. It’s much larger and different in kind than the others upstream—a strong tidal flow and accessible by power boats. It’s known locally as Crab Pot Lake, but crabbing season isn’t into full swing yet, so the crab pots haven’t been set yet. I like Skate Lake better for a name, given its distinctive shape. In any case, there’s way too much water to explore here in the hour or so before I have to turn tail and scoot back upstream—it will take me all of two hours if I don’t mess around too much on the trip back.
I can see on my GPS that most of the lake is shallow except for a fairly deep, dark channel running right down the middle to the south end, so I follow it, pedaling hard against the current that has finally turned. When I get to the narrow neck leading into the south bay of the lake, I cast into the deep hole created by a back eddy off the main current. I let the curlytail sink to the bottom and then begin to jig it back slowly.
A few cranks of the reel and something big pounces on the lure. It doesn’t surface, so probably not a snook or tarpon. Feels like a big redfish as it shoots off in a sizzling run, then reverses course and staying deep heads out to sea. I finally turn the rogue and bring him to the surface. AARRGGHH! I see a big gafftopsail catfish on my lines as visions of an East River Slam—tarpon, snook, and red—vanish.
After releasing the cat and cleaning all the gelatinous snot he leaves on my line, I resume casting. Something smaller nails the lure further downstream…a little ladyfish. Then another. I net five small ladies over the next half hour just off to the side of the main channel out of the current, but no snook or reds. Maybe next time I’ll get down here sooner to have more time to explore, but now it’s 3:30 p.m. and must head home if I want to get any fishing in at all and still make the put-in by dusk.
As I reenter the mangrove tunnel on the way back to Lake #4, I see something swirl up against the bank. I grab the short six-foot mangrove rod and throw a backhand cast in that direction. I get a strong hit, but flub the strike. In too big of a hurry. That scene is repeated three more times within the first quarter mile of my return trip. Next time I need to fish the tunnel exit stretch more carefully—that’s where the snook were hiding!
It takes me a good 30 minutes to get back to Lake #4, and now the tarpon and snook aren’t rolling. But I still manage to catch a nice 22-inch snook along the shoreline just outside the mouth. By now the sun is sinking fast, so I reluctantly put the rods away, facing to the rear so they won’t snag in the mangroves as I careen up the three remaining mangrove tunnels, full speed ahead. By 5 p.m. I am back in Lake #2, the long skinny one. Mullet are everywhere, and as I peddle up the east shoreline, I am spooking some big fish—most likely alligator gar, but maybe some snook or reds? When I get back to the Lake #1, I decide to pitch a few casts around the islands as I watch the flocks of birds coming home to roost for the evening.
To my surprise, I lure a couple of small baby snook along the west shoreline. It’s a fine ending to a great day. The launch site is all quiet and parking spaces empty, the ecotours having pulled out hours ago. I toy with the idea of pitching a surface plug after dark, but the lure of a fresh grouper sandwich at Camellia Street Grill in Everglades City is too strong….and did I mention the Yuengling brew?