On my drive from Everglades City to Naples, Florida, for weekly provisions, I routinely hustle by Collier-Seminole State Park.
For the past three years I have been meaning to plan an outing down the Blackwater River in the park, a trip I need to make to complete the kayak fishing guidebook to the Everglades environs that I’m working on. But I’m always put off because I know the park, being so close to Naples, gets heavy use, especially on weekends when canoes and kayaks descend for ecotours. The image of being engulfed by a flotilla of brightly colored boats filled with chattering tourists has limited appeal. But with my annual migration to Colorado looming, I figured it was time to bite the proverbial bullet and get on the water. I’m glad I did…SO glad! When I start to do a little pre-trip research, my interest is definitely piqued. None of the dozens of posts by visitors mention any serious fishing. I find almost no information about fishing in the park on official websites aside from some general remarks about it having both salt and freshwater fish. I do finally discover on Pinterest one post by a nature tour company offering guided kayak fishing that features a photo of a happy angler with a big snook. Maybe the place is a sleeper!
Collier-Seminole State Park is a great place for family outings. It is well-maintained and features a big playground, picnic shelters, bank fishing, a campground, canoe/kayak rentals, nature tours, and lots of history. The huge walking dredge, a national historic engineering landmark, was used to build the Tamiami Trail, and a recreated Seminole Indian village are of particular note.
The day I was there when I pulled out late afternoon several families were riding bicycles while others were throwing casting nets into the lagoon near the ramp.The park, created in 1981, covers more than 7,000 acres of mangrove swamp including everything that goes with it—seeing alligators, manatees, swallowtail kites, jumping manta rays, and slithering snakes were some of nature’s gifts during my day of paddling. The park’s name is a bit of an odd mishmash including as it does the name of the wealthy advertising mogul Barron Collier who opened the Everglades for the white man by running a road from the west to the east coast of Florida, sounding the death knell for the old ways of the Seminole Indian tribe, the Native Americans who lived and thrived in the watery environment. (For more on the fascinating Barron Collier, see my article on the Barron River from November 2016.) But modern Florida is replete with odd juxtapositions like this. After all, Mar-A-Lago and all of its political intrigue aren’t all that far from this wild place.
Collier owned most of what is now Collier County—over a million acres–and originally created a park here to preserve a rare stand of Royal Palms. Later it was donated to the county and was named to memorialize Collier and those who fought on both sides of the Seminole Wars in the 1800s. The county donated the land to the state in 1947.
For the angler, the park and the Blackwater River break down nicely into three areas. On this trip I fished the section I call the upper Blackwater River that runs from the put-in near the park entrance to the west fork of the river that leads to Mud Bay. This section contains plenty of water to keep dedicated angling aficionados busy for a full day. The other two sections that I’m saving for another couple of outings are the lower Blackwater that wends its way south from the Mud Bay fork to Blackwater Bay and the west side of the park that includes Mud Bay down to Palm Bay.
Be sure to grab a park kayaking route map at the ranger station, but better yet, have a GPS app on your cell phone to help navigate and keep you oriented.
Moving water is a big plus in snook fishing, but the tides here are hard to predict. The nearest tide gauge is for Pumpkin Bay, miles downstream and to the east. Today the tide at Pumpkin Bay peaked at about 7 a.m. and then began to fall. However, I found the tide falling on the Blackwater when I put in at 8:30 a.m. and not turning till about 12:30 p.m., a five-hour difference.
The water temperature is about 75 degrees and will warm throughout this sunny day. Air temperatures will reach about 85 degrees, but much of the route is in shade, making for a very pleasant day.
The park opens at 8 a.m. and closes at dusk, unless you have been lucky enough to score a camping permit and are staying overnight, which would allow you to be on the water earlier and later. So I am at the entrance at 7:45 a.m., champing at the bit to hit the water. An attendant opens the gate promptly at….8:05, and I barrel past her straight to the ranger station to show my state park pass (there is a park fee) and see if I can get any info on the fishing. The ranger says only that the fishing supposedly gets better the further down the river you go. Brilliant!
To my relief, the ramp and commodious parking area at the south end of the developed portion of the park are deserted, so I hurriedly unload my gear and Hobie Outback yak and am pedaling downstream by 8:30.
Fortunately, the hordes of mosquitos and other bugs the park is known for are apparently still in bed. The first section of the river, about a half-mile long, looks to be an old canal that is straight as a board and deep—not the most alluring fishing stretch.
I’m also nervous that at any second a bevy of nature tour boats will descend on me, scaring all fish to Key West. I’m using my usual Everglades rig—a light/medium 6 ½-foot rod with a 2500 series spinning reel loaded with 30# test line and leader with white a curly tail lure mounted on a ¼ oz. red jig head. I try a variety of lures throughout the day, but it is the only one that produces consistently
I pitch casts here and there towards the bank, but without much hope as there appears to be little decent holding water in the canal for snook, my main quarry. I don’t see much bait fish activity either.
But hope springs eternal in the form of a small creek that flows in from the west about three-quarters of a mile downstream at Marker #56/58. I can see the tide is running out, so there is a nice current flushing out of the creek that should be carrying bait to any fish waiting in ambush at the mouth. I pitch a cast up under the mangroves guarding the creek mouth, let the lure sink, and begin to crank it back….and get a half-hearted little bump. That’s it. A dozen more casts get zero action. Flabbergasted, I decide to take a look up the creek, and see that while a bit overgrown, it appears just barely passable. I spy some tempting holes and bends that just have to harbor fish so an lured in.
For the next half hour I pick my way slowly upstream in the creek, employing a variety of back-handed, pendulum, and other casts from contortionate positions in my kayak that all come up empty. I do catch my fair share of snags from all the downed trees courtesy of Hurricane Irma and do throw a few errant tosses into the clutching mangrove trees for good measure, before finally running into an absolute impenetrable thicket of deadfalls that ends the exploration. I am hoping I am far enough from the main branch so that no one can hear the oaths bouncing off the banks.
I navigate back to the Blackwater and continue downstream. The river starts to bend and curve, looking marginally better, but still no action. I have been pitching casts for more than an hour and have nothing to show for it—my worst results of the entire year! I am starting to think I may get skunked, and that I have wasted a perfectly good fishing day.
But just short of a mile from the ramp, the river widens, and I can see some shallows where bait fish are frolicking. I loft a cast that miraculously avoids some overhanging mangrove branches, and something immediately slams the lure viciously. It’s a snook that tailwalks on the surface before diving deep in a heroic struggle. Using all of my angling skills, I finally coax the feisty critter to the net. It’s a real trophy, pushing 8-inches!!
Who says good things don’t come in small packages. A skunking avoided!! My spirits lifted, I cast into the same spot and another snook blasts the offering; he’s even bigger, pushing a foot long!! I end up catching another half dozen in this wide spot, one nudging 15-inches.
Now I am casting and probing more seriously. From here till I get to the fork leading to Mud Bay and continue to Mud Bay itself, I explore areas where the river widens with shallows as well as several more feeder creeks.
One side creek sliding in from the west leads all the way to a couple of hidden lakes north of Mud Bay and definitely rates future exploration!
As the sun continues to warm things up, I’m starting to feel some mojo as I continue downstream. In one stretch, I see a fish busting bait under the mangroves. I skip the lure under the overhanging branches and roots into an opening and reel it back towards the boat. Just as I lift it from the water I see a small snook in hot pursuit, but he spots me and veers away. I cast to the same spot and this time the water explodes! My rod bends double when I set the hook. I’m onto a big girl who jumps, head shaking and gills covers rattling, then jets for the mangroves. I throw my pedals in reverse in a frantic effort to keep the snook from pulling me into the trees on the other side of the river. Finally I winch her into open water and bring her to the boat. I reach for my net and of course have forgotten it again. Yikes! Fortunately the snook is played out by now, and I handle her without incident for a quick photo and release. She goes a tad over 24-inches. Now we’re talking!!
Things get even hotter around noon as a I fool a 27-inch beauty sunning herself in only two-feet of water, and then a few minutes later am surprised by a high-strutting 30-inch baby tarpon that executes a half-dozen jumps before succumbing.
Not only is the lake very shallow, but it’s bottom is pure muck and the thought of dragging the kayak through that has me turn-tailing and scooting back upstream. I have to fight the current back to the fork, but from there I can ride the tide back north to the ramp, picking up a snook here and there on the way.
When I finally get back to the big lagoon at the ramp, I see some fishing chasing bait at the far east end that has some good-looking structure in the form of dead mangrove trees toppled into the water along the shoreline. Under the watchful eye of the big resident gator, I cast into the tangle and am shocked when a big snook chases and swirls at the lure, but misses it.
Who would have thought with all the boat traffic the lagoon gets, a big girl would be hiding in plain sight. Try as I may, I can’t coax her to take another look. Story of my life, my cheeky fishing buddies might observe.
But I am feeling very satisfied as I beach the kayak and am greeted by a flight of pesky no-see-ums. It’s been a terrific and very surprising day that started out like a bad joke. Rest assured I’ll be back—lots of water to explore. But now it’s on to Paradise Found restaurant in nearby Goodland for some good eats and music on the water, Florida style.