Late March 2019
After a couple of days last week navigating and casting in the tight, sometimes maddening, quarters of backcountry mangrove tunnels, I’m ready for an easy day of fishing in my kayak. One of my favorite close-in trips starts at the historic Smallwood Store, just a long stone’s throw from my winter abode on Chokoloskee Island, Florida. The route wends its way past some productive oyster beds then snakes up channels to cross Rabbit Key Pass before circling back to the Lopez River and back home. It’s a trip that always produces a grab bag of fish with a good chance at a slam—a redfish, speckled sea trout, and snook, with feisty jack crevalles and high-stepping ladyfish to keep you busy throughout the day. Let’s go!!
At seven miles, the complete route makes for a good day’s paddle, but can easily be cut short at any point before reaching Rabbit Creek or the Lopez River. A good put-in is at the Smallwood Store, where a sandy beach makes for an easy launch. Be sure to drop the launch fee of $10 through the small slot on the store door before embarking and leave your vehicle back up the road so as not to block the store’s tourist parking.
The route heads south to the first good fishing spot, an expansive series of oyster beds that are easy to see on Google Maps.
Be careful, particularly if you shove off early morning in dim light, because you will be sharing the Chokoloskee Pass Channel with motor boats. If I am going out at down, I break out my portable light and display it prominently on the front of my yak.
The route then offers several options—four channels angle off of Chokoloskee Pass and wend their way south towards Rabbit Key Pass, offering good fishing along the way. You will then cross over Rabbit Key Pass, again watching out for those pesky motor boats, and weave through a series of islets toward a big shallow bay that is drained by a small, but navigable creek connected to the Lopez River to the east. I have dubbed this water Rabbit Creek as it parallels Rabbit Key Pass and connects the Rabbit Key Grasses to the southwest with the Lopez River.
Once you reach the mouth of the creek where it joins the Lopez River you will turn north and head back home, fishing the many islands and oyster beds that dot the return trip. If you are fishing seriously, this trip will take a minimum of 8-10 hours, but as noted above can be cut short by turning around before crossing Rabbit Key Pass.
The Trip (Late March 2019)
I’m on the water by 7 a.m., a few minutes before the sun begins to peek over the horizon. I’ve dutifully slipped the $10 launch fee under the door of the Smallwood Store. My first stop is a maze of oyster beds about 10 minutes due south of the put-in. The tide is high and has just started falling, so I have no problem gliding over the first line of oyster beds that lines the east side of Chokoloskee Pass.
I like to explore amid the roughly parallel lines of beds so I can fish either side as well as the deeper holes the tides have gouged out in betweenI start out with a popping cork and bronze colored DOA shrimp, a lure that has proved itself here in the past. On my third cast, a big redfish surfaces, his bronze scales shimmering in the sunrise, and tries to gulp down the shrimp. Somehow he misses! I keep flinging the popping cork rig, thrashing it across the surface to make as much noise as possible to attract fish, but strike out. So I fall back on my old reliable white Gulp curlytail mounted on a 1/8 oz. red jig head. I’m using a 6 1/2 foot rod and a 2500 series reel with 30# test line and 30# leader. On the first cast something nails it hard, and I can tell by the strong, vibrating pull it’s a nice jack crevalle. He comes to the boat, followed by a school of his ravenous buddies. Let the fun commence. For the next half-hour I catch and release a bunch of jacks and lady fish.
I see lots of surface activity over the oyster bars to the east, and switch to a Zara Spook surface plug. I immediately get some strikes and swirls, but can’t connect. So it’s back to the curlytail, which reveals the marauding fish as some big ladies. They keep me smiling with their tail-walking ways, reminding me they are first cousins to the prized high-jumping tarpon.
A few motor boats have seen me hauling in fish and are cozying up a little too close, so I aim my kayak to the west and cross over the channel to a series of islands that often produce reds and snook. But my first circle around one of the islands produces a big goose egg as well as scaring off the resident white pelican.
I figure the poor results are attributable to the water being too high and up in the mangroves, which allows the fish to get beyond casting range as they snack on crabs and baitfish seeking shelter there. It couldn’t have anything to do with my lack of skill.
I’m about ready to head towards Rabbit Key Pass when I remember the long oyster bar that juts out from the east end of the island. I can see it’s submerged by the still-high tide, but spy the tell-tale ripples where the current is rushing out over the bar. I cast into the deep hole below the bar and immediately get a jolting bite—another big ladyfish, followed by several more. Then something bigger crushes the curlytail, and the fight is on. When the big boy finally comes to the surface, I’m surprised to see it’s a 20-inch sea trout, a real beauty! It’s the first trout I have caught in this spot. But the second cast produces a twin of the first one, followed by more ladies and a jack before the action subsides.
The Eastern Oysters (Crassostrea virginica) that built the beds where I hooked those big trout are one of the true keystone species of the inshore waters of the Everglades and Southwest Florida. In other areas of Florida and on the outer edges of the Ten Thousand Islands bordering blue water, seagrass flourish, providing shelter and sustenance. Inside the maze of the islands where most of the fish hang out, oyster beds are king. Young oyster larvae drift in the current until they find a 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 parts, one oyster can strain 50 gallons a day and up to 70% of the organic matter in the 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 commandeered by small spawning fish. All this food makes the oyster bars magnets for bigger game fish, flocks of birds, and animals like raccoons. 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.
Scouting for oyster bars is easiest at low tide—you can see exactly how far out from the shore they extend, which way they curve, if they are pierced by narrow channels, and where there are drop-offs into deeper holes where fish love to hang out. If you don’t have time to scout, then pull out your GPS or Google Maps, because the larger beds are often clearly visible from a satellite view. I discovered one of my favorite spots exactly this way. I spotted what looked on my GPS be a giant submerged oyster bar—a large expanse of white sand stippled with dark speckles. When searching with your GPS, also look for narrow channels, areas of obvious sand build up, and other indications of a healthy tidal flow—these are the places oysters love. They need a good current to wash food their way. I pay particular attention to narrower channels off the wide main passes carrying heavy tidal flows, especially if they feature big S curves where oysters like to grow. I usually have better luck here than in the broader channels, the current not ripping quite so fast and the big sharp bends covered with oysters providing deeper holes and swirling back eddies that carry lots of foods to waiting fish that don’t have to fight a heavy flow.
When you are on the water, look for changes in water color—dark splotches extending from a point or along a shoreline often mean an oyster bed below. Similarly, when you spot a distinct change in water flow, for example, from consistent waves to a rippled surface, or a rippled surface to a calm, slick area, it’s a good chance a line of oysters are lurking just below the surface as well as fish. Then there’s the tried-and-true method of accidentally running up on an oyster bar with your boat, not recommended but highly effective.
Finding some promising oyster bars is half the challenge. The other is fishing them–oyster shells are razor sharp and love to eat lures, bait, boat hulls, and wading boots. I use distinct strategies and techniques for three different situations. When the tide is low and the main part of the oyster bar is exposed, I first throw casts parallel to the beds, about 5-20 feet out. 1/8 ounce jigs and smaller with a curlytail or tipped with a shrimp, shallow diver plugs like the 3D Minnow mentioned above that imitate a small frantic baitfish, or a popping cork with a DOA or live shrimp about two feet below threaded on a jig are all good choices. Once I have fished the edges thoroughly, I looked for a deeper hole that is typically above or below the bed off to the side of the main current, often featuring a slow back eddy carrying lots of goodies for the fish. A heavier jig with a curlytail or Gulp shrimp to get down deeper will often produce here, but sometimes I go against the grain and run the popping cork through the hole. Don’t be surprised if a good trout zooms up off the bottom to nail the shrimp. Jumping out of your boat and wading the edge of the bed at low tide can be a good stealth strategy—walking just outside oyster line so you are not crunching the shells.
When the tide starts to rise and shallow water floods over the oyster bar one-to-two feet deep, I like to switch to a walk-the-dog top-water plug like a Spook Jr. If that doesn’t produce, my next option is a weedless gold spoon or a Rage Tail crab pattern rigged weedless. I favor the Rage Tail because of its claws that flutter realistically when retrieved. A typical popping cork and shrimp is usually too big and heavy for use in very shallow water over the beds and will often spook feeding fish, especially reds that have their backs out of the water or are tailing. Instead, try a tiny two-inch weighted clip-on cork with the shrimp suspended only a foot or so below with the hook buried in the tail so it is weedless. This rig makes less of a splash and is less likely to hang up on the oysters. Of course the fish can be lurking 5-10 feet out from the oyster bar in water that is just a little deeper picking, off bait fish and crabs being washed out of the bed.
As the tide covers the bar more than two feet, then the popping cork with shrimp, alive or imitation, rules supreme in the Everglades. I favor the 3” DOA shrimp in glow/copper crush color. Shallow divers and suspenders like the 19MR 3/8 ounce Mirrolure also work well, especially for snook, jacks, and ladyfish. I also use a white curlytail grub (Gulp calls them “swimming mullet.”) on a 1/8 ounce jighead, making sure I crank it as soon as it hits the water to avoid hangups.
In all three situations it is essential to keep your hook sharp. If you snag a lure on the shells, the chances are good it will be dull, and you will miss that next strike. I keep a hook hone at the ready in my shirt pocket to tune up the hooks periodically and without fail after a shell bites.
It’s late morning by now and I am weaving my way up one of the four channels that connect Chokoloskee and Rabbit Key Passes. While there are a lot of variables—tide, water clarity, water temperature, etc.—I usually manage to find several hot spots as I work my way south and southwest in the channels. I look for points with oyster bars extending out into the current or areas where two channels meet and create shallow flats or deeper holes. With a little pre-trip reconnoitering via the satellite views in either Google Earth or Google Maps, you can get a very good sense of where these features are located before you go. Often when you get on the water it is very difficult to pinpoint the most likely spots, especially if the tide is high. This trip I hit one spot near the confluence of two channels that is loaded with big keeper trout—I catch six out of that one spot plus a smattering of ladies. Further up the channel I hit a another spot where an oyster bar extends out into the current off a mangrove island. It’s loaded with snooklets up to 15-inches.
But in the midst of all the fun with the snook, a big red inhales the white curlytail and the fight is on. He runs right at the kayak and prepares to dive under the boat—a potentially disastrous move that can result in another broken rod. However, I outfox the two-foot critter by throwing my Hobie pedals into reverse and zipping away from him. The fight is nip and tuck for a couple of minutes, but eventually I bring him in for a quick photo and release. He’s a beautiful, bronze trophy, completing my slam!!
And then to my surprise a few casts later I get another red, albeit smaller. Now if I could only get a tarpon, I would have a Grand Slam. Nevertheless, I congratulate myself on what we call down here a “poor man’s Grand Slam”—redfish, sea trout, snook and substituting for the tarpon the ladyfish cousin!!
By now I’m feeling a mite peckish so pedal on in my Hobie across Rabbit Key Pass to a good shaded lunch spot on a point that’s also a magnet for jacks and ladyfish. I fish around several small islands on the way south where I have caught trout and ladyfish in the past, but draw a blank this time. But as I near the oyster bar lunch spot, I am surprised by another keeper trout then a couple of more truculent jacks that protest loudly with their hallmark grunts when brought to bay. Not a bad way to end the morning, just as the tide starts to turn. I pull the yak up on a sandbar next to the oyster bar and start unloading for lunch, and what to my wondering eyes should appear but a school of 20-inch snook riding by on the current, just a few feet offshore. I scramble to grab my rod and fling a backhand cast and a prayer in the general direction of the fast-disappearing fish. Surprise!! One turns around and nails the curlytail then jets for deep water! After a worthy tussle, the snook slides in for a quick release. A good punctuation point for a good morning, and what will be the biggest snook of the day.
One of the nicest features of the Hobie pedal kayak is the removable seat with pop-out legs that provides a comfortable chair for lunch-time lounging. I set up for my feast in a shady sandy spot just above the oysters and take in the scene.
And just as I finish my obligatory RC Cola and Almond Joy dessert, I spy a school of jacks or ladyfish wreaking havoc on some hapless bait fish just off the edge of the oyster bar in deeper water. Indeed, it’s time to move on as the water is rising and beginning to lap at my little ice chest. I load up, shove off, and make a cast that is met with a resounding jolt—jack on! For the next few minutes I boat fish-after-fish until the jacks and ladies figure out the faux bait.My next waypoint further south is the big, shallow bay that provides access to Rabbit Creek. The route is circuitous, wending its way around islets and through narrow channels, but it’s worth to fish carefully. I have landed some big reds and trout off the points and in eddying backwaters off big “S” bends. This time some snooklet are cooperative, then a big 20” trout hanging out under some mangroves surprises me. Not the usual spot to find a trout, but who am I to complain.
After 45 minutes more of casting and cruising, I round the bend into the big bay. It’s changed dramatically since I was here last year pre-Hurricane Irma. The bay, always shallow, is littered with deadfalls that have become the favorite perch of hundreds of small shorebirds that greet my arrival with righteous and loud indignation.
Bait abounds as usual, but also as usual I find that the fish, mostly snook, are hugging the deeper water of the west shoreline. I land a bunch more snooklet on the curlytail, then arrive at the creek access point.
The tide is now flowing down the creek fast and furious, so I anchor up at the mouth and pitch a cast upstream into the current and let it swing back to me in the calmer water. Something slams the lure and takes off under the mangroves lining the channel. I’ve learned from hard experience not to try to horse the snook out of the tangle of mangrove roots, but let him try to come out on his own under just a little pressure. It’s still only a 50/50 proposition, but this time works. He wiggles out of the mass of roots somehow and jets into the current, and exhibits a nice tail-walking display before I decide to execute a skillful long-distance release. I proceed to catch another three snooklet, which eases the pain somewhat of losing the biggest snook of the day.
Then it’s off to the races down Rabbit Creek. I paddle out into the current and swing downstream to the left/east towards the confluence with the Lopez River, about three-quarters of a mile away. I have caught a few big trout in this section of Rabbit Creek, but honestly it’s an enigma to me. There are good-looking holes at every bend, but the fishing has been spotty at best and today is no exception. I manage a few snook, but only at the mouth of the several feeder creeks along the way. In my defense, the fast current makes navigating and casting at the same time in a mangrove tunnel a bit of a challenge, but the creek has never lived up to expectations. Still it’s a beautiful, shady scenic float.
A half-hour later I am out the mouth of the creek where it pours into a shallow flats and meets the big, wide Lopez River, the main access channel to the Everglades Waterway and backcountry. I recall the first time I saw the name “Lopez” on a map of the Everglades and puzzled how a Hispanic name got attached to it way out here in the wilderness. So I did a little digging and learned that Gregorio Lopez moved his family from Spain to this area in 1873 when it was a true wilderness and end of the road. He built a beautiful house just up the river from here a mile or so on an Indian shell mound and proceeded to make a good living, first as a plume hunter and then chasing alligators. Gregorio’s real claim to fame, according to some, is that he helped jump start the tourism business in Southwest Florida by purchasing a yacht called the Star that he used to ferry anglers to hotspots down the coast.
His home site is now the first campsite out of Everglades City on the Everglades Wilderness Waterway.
I also discovered that the family cemetery is right next to the famous Havana Café and literally a stone’s throw from my home on Chokoloskee, located on another elevated Indian shell mound that has kept it safe from periodic flooding like the five-foot wave that washed over the island in 2017 thanks to Irma.
With a tip of my cap to the hardy Mr. Lopez, I swing to the north and probe the islands and oyster bars on the way back to Chokoloskee, but with spotty results as usual. I do discover an island that has a new waterway that has been cut through it, courtesy of Irma, and score several decent snook on the white curlytail at either end.
By 5:30 p.m. I’m back at the oyster beds where I started and the tide has already rolled over and submerged them. Now I have them all to myself, and immediately get a couple of big lady fish. Then I see something roll on the surface over one of the beds and cast in that direction. I crank the reel a couple of turns and BAM, something strikes hard. A red? Snook? No, it’s a big trout that bores deep and twists the kayak around before coming to the boat. It’s a fitting way to end the day—that makes almost a dozen speckled sea trout I have caught today, all over 18-inches, all fat and healthy, my best results of year….and not wanting to gloat, out of modesty, garnering a slam–not too shabby for a septuagenarian!