ROPE-A-DOPE ON THE COCHETOPE??

For some of my earlier outings on Cochetopa Creek, see:

https://hooknfly.com/2015/10/05/three-perfect-days-on-cochetopa-creek/

Mid-June 2022

As I finished cleaning the last window on my place near Salida, Colorado, I figured I had earned a fishing trip.  I had driven in from Florida, my winter getaway, on the heels of a big late May snowstorm in Colorado and whiled away a week tidying the cabin till the cold weather lifted. 

Now that domestic duties were successfully completed without serious injury and the dust had literally settled, I was ready to feel the tug on my fly line.  But now that rascally young girl La Nina was giving all of us anglers fits just like she had done back in Florida.  For months the wind howled down there in the Everglades, keeping my buddies and me off the water days at a time.  The same scene was being repeated here in Colorado.  Fly casting into 15-30 mph winds is not exactly a relaxing interlude. 

Fortunately–and after another week holed up in my cabin writing and reading–the forecast is for the wind to die down in a couple of days, at least for a few hours in the morning.  But now I’m hit with a double hex—the nearby Arkansas River, my home water, and neighboring creeks are too high because of runoff from late snow on the Collegiate Peaks.  Plus, most streams over the pass in the drought-plagued San Luis Valley/Rio Grande watershed are just a trickle already.  So, I decide to treat myself to fishing some private water on one of my favorites off Highway 114 near Gunnison—Cochetopa Creek.  The Gunnison watershed got decent snow over the winter, and according to the state water gauge near Parlin, Cochetopa Creeks is running at 30 cfs, a bit low but based on my experience should still be eminently fishable.

I’m up early at 5:30 a.m. and on the road over Monarch Pass by 7:00, the plan being to start chasing trout by 8:30.  The traffic is light, and I’m suiting up on schedule.  I’m carrying two rigs.  The first is a new 8 ½-foot 4# TFO BVK lightweight wand with surprising backbone.  Based on many days experience sampling the waters of Cochetopa, I’m using a #16 Royal Trude dry to imitate small hoppers or caddis flies I’m likely to see on the water teamed with a #18 Tung Teaser to emulate the small mayfly nymphs I expect will be scurrying around under the streambed rocks.  The second outfit is a 9-foot 5# Sage rod with a double-nymph offering—a #18 Two-Bit Hooker up top trailed by a #18 bead-head sparkle caddis nymph.

The Fab Four (clockwise from top): Royal Trude, Tongue Teaser, Sparkle BH Caddis, Two-Bit Hooker

I walk 10 minutes downstream from a turnout on 114, staying back from the water so as not to spook any fish.  The pasture is carpeted with golden pea, feathery purple Rocky Mountain iris, and the appropriately named meadow foxtail. 

It’s so good to be back in nature, surrounded by all this beautiful, delicate flora.  I see a nice-looking stretch of water and sidle up to the creek.  It’s lower than I expected, running around 20 cfs, probably due to upstream irrigation diversion—it’s that time of year. 

Cochetopa Creek

The water is also very clear with lots of wispy green tendrils of aquatic vegetation waving in the current and covering the bottom in shallow stretches.  I shake my head–that should make things interesting!  Nothing like a little green goo on a nymph to elicit expletives.  I slip carefully into the water and check under some rocks to see what’s on the menu.  I turn one over and I spy some small mayflies fleeing for cover and some crusty caddis cases that reveal their green denizens with a gentle squeeze.  At least the expected trout victuals are here.

I walk slowly upstream in the shallow water and don’t see any fish.  I get to a slightly deeper run where the current plunges over some bigger rocks, but come up empty after a half dozen casts, except for the green slime on my nymph as it bumps on the bottom.  Ten minutes later I am still looking in vain for anything with a fin.  I’m starting to grumble to myself—this was reputed to be lightly-fished private water with lots of eager fish.  I don’t smell the stench of a skunk yet, but my ebullience is waning.  Has someone played Rope-A-Dope with me and my checkbook??

Before long I come to a big bend in the creek, which on Cochetopa usually means deeper water.  Above me, the current rushes along the bank, creating an eddy, and then turns the corner and plunges headlong down the shoreline.  I can’t see the bottom, a good sign.  I loft a cast upstream above the bend and watch as the dry bounces jauntily over a riffle and then plunges into the deeper stretch.  Just as it hits the bend, the fly disappears!  With the patented quick reflexes of a septuagnarian, I set the hook.  My rod bends double, the weight of the fish and heavy current combining to put a major strain on it.  Fortunately the new rod has plenty of spine, and I’m able to ease the trout out into calmer water.  He’s not done yet, but after some slashing back and forth, I’m landing a fat, feisty brown trout who poses for a quick photo. 

Let The Fun Begin!

Another brownie follows a few casts later.  That’s more like it.

I continue upstream and start to see a few smaller fish fleeing here and there.  Then I come to another tempting looking bend in the creek. 

Rainbow Liar

Again I cast above the pool and let the fly scoot along next to some driftwood.  Nothing doing!  I start to lift the fly as it starts to slide underneath the overhanging branches of a tree, but suddenly something erupts on the surface and smacks the fly.  This one is bigger, and when I see a silver flash, I know it’s a nice rainbow.  The fish dives deep and when I move him, jets upstream with me in hot pursuit.   I catch up with the fish and stop the run. He doesn’t give up easily, rocketing away whenever I get him close to the net.  Finally, after several more frantic runs, the fish submits–a colorful, healthy 13” bow!

Rainbows Join The Hit Parade

Now the bite becomes steadier although not yet exceptional.  Soon I see why the water is so low—a sizeable irrigation diversion dam across the creek is sucking out about half the flow!  The good news is the dam has created a nice pocket of fast water that gives up two more rainbows, one on the dry and one on the Tongue Teaser nymph.  Today most of the bows are where you might expect–spots with more flow, sometimes in shallower runs.

Mounting the dam with the grace of a mountain goat, I continue upstream and find a long stretch of three-foot deep, slow-moving water.  It looks inviting, so I work it carefully, staying low and throwing long casts.  But I see no fish and get no action.  Then out of the corner of my eye I see a showy rise a hundred feet upstream close against the opposite bank where the current looks stronger.  As I creep carefully into casting position, I notice some yellow mayflies flitting in the air, then some yellow caddis.  More fish rise, feasting on the tasty morsels. 

The Honey Hole

I kneel and throw a cast up and across stream.  It lands in the short grass just above the water, and when I twitch it onto the surface, a good fish explodes and gulps the Trude, his golden body reflecting in the morning sun.  It’s a fat, sassy brown trout.  Now the fun really begins.  On my next cast, something tries to gulp down the dry, but misses.  Not to worry.  The flies continue to slide down against the bank, and suddenly the dry unceremoniously gets dunked as a substantial fish grabs the nymph.  The trout zooms downstream past me as I try to put the brakes on. It’s nip and tuck, and I fully expect the leader to snap.  But somehow I manage to ease the critter, a good rainbow, out of the current and into some slack water where I can wrestle him to the net.  He’s a respectable 14-inch fish, that will be the biggest of the day.  Not bad for a small creek!

As more and more mayflies and caddis flies pop to the surface and flutter about in the air, the fishing gets really hot—the proverbial angler’s nirvana.  I pick up another half dozen from the same stretch, half on the dry and half on the nymph.  The best approach is to cast into the grass and then slowly coax the flies into the water.  When the action slows momentarily, I switch to the double nymph rig and fool a couple of 12-inch brownies who can’t resist the allure of the Two-Bit Hooker! 

After 30-minutes of action, I move upstream where the lies are trickier.  The only deep holding water is at the bends, each of which seems to be guarded by overhanging branches that promise to claw at and snag anything passing by on the surface.  At the first good hole, after sizing things up, I cast 15-feet upstream of the bend, and watch as the dry glides past the curve in the creek and towards the beckoning branches.  I crane my neck to keep an eye on the fly, and just before it is snatched by the snag, it disappears.  Throwing caution to the wind, I sweep my rod sideways and set the hook, fully expecting the fly to be embedded deeply in woody tendrils.  There’s a short pause, then the line moves!  It’s a nice brown trout who makes a fatal mistake of leaving his protected haunt for open water.  After a good battle, I ease him into the net.  On the next cast, his sister can’t resist.

Now the mayfly and caddis hatch is turning into a mini-blizzard.  I decide I should get a closer look at the bugs so that I can appropriately identify them by their Latin names to impress my more serious angling brethren.  I forego using the little extendable bug net in my vest to capture one of the dainty insects, instead opting to relive my former illustrious, glory days in the Chicago lawyers’ basketball league where we players made up for our lack of skill with truculence on the court.  With a leap into the stratosphere that gave me my nickname—Juris Dr. CJ.  (Remember Julies Irving??), I soar at least an inch above the water’s surface and…manage to come down empty handed.

Dr. J Doing His Juris Dr. CJ Imitation

After several more valiant but unsuccessful attempts to snatch one in flight, I opt to crawl into the tall grass and find a succulent stonefly that manages somehow to elude my grasp.

Cagey Caddis Eludes Capture

Well, hell, the trout are feasting on yellow ones today.  That will have to do for the aspiring entomologists!

Feeling a mite less cocky, I decide to proceed upstream where the action continues with a succession of 11-13” browns, oddly most favoring the nymph despite the hatch.  Around noon, I come to the upper end of the property signified by a menacing looking barbed-wire fence.  I want another fish or two before calling it quits for lunch, but that last pool looks like double trouble.  Not only will I have to use a tricky sidearm cast to sneak the flies under the overhanging branches but will then have to perform some gymnastics with the line to keep the flies in the foam/feeding lane near the shoreline. 

Got To Be Fish In There!!

The first two efforts fail abjectly, although I escape getting snagged.  However, the third time is the charm, and as the Trude sidles up against the bank in the foam, it is jerked under.  Success!  After a worthy tussle, another brownie comes in for a quick pic and release.  Another two quickly follow with nary an errant cast.

Success! Ok, Maybe A Little Luck.

Feeling somewhat smug and with the wind kicking up on schedule and my stomach starting to growl, I decide to call it a day.  I clamber across the creek and into a wide meadow.  In the distance a rugged bluff towers over my SUV. 

As I soak in the scene, I come to a boggy-looking area that is covered with a raft of lovely little yellow wildflowers, a variety I have never seen before. 

I am intrigued, so wade carefully into the marsh and pull out my cell phone app called “PictureThis” that is remarkably good at identifying wildflowers.  I snap a shot, run it through the app and violà, the plant is identified as Gmelin’s buttercup.  Here’s what the app has to say about this wildflower, quite a surprise: “Gmelin’s buttercup is a perennial flowering plant that can be found in wetlands and other wet habitats.  In some cases, it can be completely aquatic, floating on water.  The species is relatively rare in the wild and it is considered endangered in Wisconsin.  All parts of this buttercup are toxic to animals including livestock.”

Who would have thought the high point of this excellent day of fishing, catching and releasing upwards of two dozen handsome trout under a beautiful blue mountain sky, would be a rare wildflower? That’s why so many of us love to fish the small out of the way creeks, close to nature, with solitude…expecting to discover the unexpected.

Taking A Hike In The Everglades…And Stumbling On A Hidden Bass Lake

April 2022

I’ve been hard at it the past two days writing a fishing article for Florida Sportsman and decided to come up for some fresh air. It’s sunny outside so looks like a good day for a little hike in the Everglades near Everglades City. I’ve had my eye on nearby Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, the largest in Florida and one that protects thousands of acres of uplands that are prime habitat for the endangered Florida panther. But who hikes in the Everglades??

When I first moved to the Glades about seven years ago, I had no idea you could hike anywhere around here–just too darn wet I thought. In the summer torrential rains cover the Everglades with several feet of water. But I have since learned that during the winter and spring months, the Glades get very little rain. That’s when the marshes dry up, and saltwater from the Gulf pushes far inland via tidal creeks. When I first hiked a trail in the Fakahatchee Strand several years ago, I was struck how similar the landscape was to the prairies of Kansas where I grew up–wildflowers among the tall grass, grasshoppers everywhere, birds hiding in the cover, and hawks soaring overhead. So off I go!!

I arrive at the unmarked trailhead around 9 a.m. as the sun starts to heat things up. High 80s is the forecast. I don my kayak water boots knowing that it’s likely I will encounter pools of water and spongy ground here and there. Then it’s into the wilds. I have the whole place to myself!

Everglades Prairie

The terrain is dry, spongy and a little wet in places, but eminently navigable.

I don’t have to walk far before a giant grasshopper takes flight a few feet in front of me. I scurry after the big guy and using my patented grasshopper hunting technique (one hand in front of the hopper to distract him, then snatch him from behind with my other hand) am soon admiring his outrageously beautiful, distinctive colors. He’s over two inches long, an Eastern Lubber Grasshopper.

As I look him over more closely, the hopper starts to foam. I’ll later read that this dark-colored secretion, resembling tobacco juice, is noxious to birds, not to mention odious to humans. Such is the life of a big-game hunter!

A bit later another grasshoppers whirs away from me, but with my quick and nimble septuagenarian moves, I corner him. Turns out it’s a juvenile Easter Lubber Grasshopper who is sporting different, but equally impressive colors.

Juvenile Eastern Lubber Grasshopper

I also start to notice the petite wildflowers hiding among the tall grass and reeds. I admire the delicate pink Rose of Plymouth, a salt-tolerant marsh flower that is threatened or endangered in some parts of the U.S.

Rose of Plymouth Wildflower

Then there is the aptly named Sweetscent–an herb with small flowers and a pleasant camphor-like aroma. It’s another wetland flower, one that is often used in dried flower arrangements.

Sweetscent Herb And Flower

A few minutes later a giant Marsh Marigold catches my eye, another salt-water tolerant perennial plant that sports its big flowers on six-foot vines.

Marsh Marigold

The dry, spongy ground suddenly dips into a little creek that appears to be flowing somewhere, so I follow it. I crash through a tangle of brush, reeds, and tall grass and what to my wondering eyes should appear but a hidden crystal-clear lake that just happens to have some fish finning in the shallows. An angler’s dream.

Hidden Lake

Another oddity of the lower Everglades just north of Everglades City where saltwater normally rules, is the existence of a number of freshwater lakes like this one. The crust below the marsh in many areas is limestone, and in some places freshwater springs have created these lakes that harbor freshwater fish like Largemouth Bass, Long-nose Gar, and Bluegill. In others, the lakes are the result of mining limestone gravel for highways in the area like the Tamiami Trail and Alligator Alley (Interstate 75).

I wade into the clear, cool water and immediately spook a big largemouth bass then a school of smaller fish–maybe bluegill or Mayan Cichlids, a freshwater invader from South America.

Angler’s Dream

Suddenly something erupts in the cove, a big gar performing some acrobatics while chasing prey. I start to see gar spawning on the edge of the limestone shelf along the shoreline.

Feeding Gar
Spawning Long-Nose Gar

It’s almost noon now, and the sun is beating down hard. After ogling the fish and scenery between bites on an apple, I begin to saunter back to my SUV. On the way, I come across a stand of Bald Cypress.

Bald Cypress Sporting New Needles

Being follicly-challenged, I have a special affinity for this odd tree. It is what the botanists call a “deciduous conifer.” It’s unique–the only conifer to shed its lacy needles every fall, becoming “bald” for the winter, then regrowing them in the spring. Oh that I be so lucky! Bald Cypress flourish in marshy areas, its wood highly valued for water resistance.

I next stumble across the only sign someone has been here before me–a small flip-flop sandal. I wonder what the story is behind that? Who left it? Why only one?

The Flip-Flop Mystery

In my head, I also start to hatch my fishing trip for tomorrow. I’ll be back early in my kayak to see if I can score a rare Everglades fishing freshwater slam–catch a bass, gar, and bluegill in a single day.

Deep In Thought

Then it hits me. Maybe I can start a new fishing fad and organization–call it BassGar! Could be a huge dollar deal!! I start dreaming about big fishing tournaments where the kayaks are plastered with sponsors’ ads and the contestants are wearing jumpsuits dressed up with emblems of their wealthy corporate patrons and backers. Just like Nascar! I can almost hear the boys in the yaks yelling “booyah” when they hook a big one.

But just then I catch sight of my favorite Everglades bird, the graceful swallow-tail kite. He soars overhead surveying the scene.

The Graceful Swallow-Tail Kite

As I admire his elegance, my nutty BassGar scheme quickly fades away. Who could possibly want to disturb this remarkable country, this solitude? We need to protect more, not fewer, of these special places! A walk in the wilds for everyone would do this country a world of good right now.

On The Angling Road Again

Late March 2022

Last month I enjoyed a week-long visit with my old college roommate and buddy, Morris Douglas Martin, at my place on Chokoloskee Island in Florida. Morris flew in from Kansas where we both grew up, and we proceeded to chase snook in my motor boat a couple of days during his stay. We got some nice fish, but I think the highlight was the afternoon we decided to relax and do some road fishing along the historic Loop Road in the Everglades. Our quarry was anything that would bite, except gators, of which we saw quite a few. We had a blast catching lilliputian Oscars and Atomic Sunfish (aka Mayan Cichlids) and just being goofy. We capped the trip at a Red Sox spring training game featuring $10 beer!! Morris hasn’t changed much over the years–he’s remains a fun-loving, amiable guy with a twinkle in his eye and still is handsome….just ask him! In one short week we proved conclusively we’ve grown old, but not up. Here’s a tribute to my old friend and all the good times we had together over the years.

A Father-Son Fishing Adventure In The Everglades Backcountry (near Everglades City, FL)

March 2022

What a treat this past week to be able to celebrate my son Matthew’s 33rd birthday with a fishing trip into the Everglades backcountry! He was in from Denver for a few days of R&R. Early one morning we pushed off from Chokoloskee in my Gheenoe and were met with eerie fog-enshrouded water that conjured up visions of ghosts who had called this land home hundreds of years before our presence. The fog slipped away quietly, stealthily as the sun rose up, giving way to a beautiful sunny day. We probed deep into the wilds, and the fish cooperated on que. My young lad exhibited some excellent casting skills and caught a smorgasbord of fish including a poor man’s slam–snook, sea trout, jack, and ladyfish. Even Pops fooled a few. Did I mention the sail cats?!? What fun! Nothing like a father-son fishing trip to boost the spirits of an old codger! And to top it off my little sweetheart granddaughter Aly washed off the boat for us!

Chasing The Beasts Of The East River (near Everglades City, FL)

Note:  There is a new reservation system in place to paddle and fish the East River.  For more information call 239-695-4593. See also the discussion in this article.  For a recount of one of my earlier outings on the East River, see: https://hooknfly.com/2017/01/23/go-east-young-man-the-east-river-near-everglades-city-fl/

The early months of 2022 have been a bit of a conundrum from a saltwater fishing perspective in the Everglades around Everglades City, Florida. Guides and experienced local anglers say it has been some of the most challenging in the last 20 years. Snook have been few and far between in the backcountry, especially the big mamas, and reds and juvenile tarpon seem to be AWOL. What’s behind this odd state of affairs? Theories vary: Too much fishing pressure, too much freshwater coming down from Lake Okeechobee and unexpected winter rains, die off from the series of bouts of red tide experienced on the west coast of Florida this past year, or a January cold spell that dropped water temperatures into the low 60s?? Take your pick.

My personal experience has been a mixed bag so far this year. I have been having decent days interspersed with mediocre, have yet to land a redfish, and recently was the recipient of a dreaded skunk on the North Fork of the Barron River, my first one in decades. It’s been hit and miss with regards to location, one day I’ll be catching a bunch of smaller snook, ladyfish, and trout, the next having to pound the water for a half dozen fish. So I put my thinking cap on and tried figure out where the big snook and baby tarpon are hiding. After having been skunked on the upper reaches of the Barron River where the water was very fresh and seeing almost 100 boats lined up at the local marina ramp a few weekends ago, most from out of the area, I figured the honey hole had to be a place where I could taste some saltwater that was also away from the invading forces of angler from the coasts. Then it hit me after a couple of glasses of the magical mystery elixir, also known as Yuengling Amber Beer—the East River in nearby Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve was a prime candidate. The good water on the East is inaccessible by motorboats and requires a 45-minute paddle through winding mangrove tunnels as well as a permit under a newly instituted reservation system. I know from experience that it also has strong tidal flows from Fakahatchee Bay and plenty of saltwater as a result.

In the past, fishing the East River, accessed just off the Tamiami Trail about 11 miles east of Everglades City, has been a challenge because of the hordes of eco tour-led kayakers that would descend every day.  This would require the serious angler to be on the water at the unholy hour of six a.m. to reach the best water before being overrun by the flotillas of brightly colored yaks. 

But things have changed.  A new reservation system has been installed by the state preserve to reduce the crowds and protect the important rookery just a stone’s throw from the launch from intrusions that were disturbing the egrets, herons, and pelicans when nesting.  Only a maximum of twenty people is allowed each day.  To my delight I would soon find that the effect has been to cut down dramatically on the number of paddlers, making solitude a distinct possibility on weekdays—meaning less fishing pressure as well protecting the birds.  Bingo!!

I immediately called the reservation number at the state preserve for a weekday the following week.  I chose a Thursday and learned no one else had made a reservation for that date so far.  I received the gate lock code as well as instructions regarding payment of the two-dollar fee and parking.  All systems were go!

Route Overview

This trip snakes through three mangrove tunnels of increasing length and width that connect a series of four lakes, the two lower southerly ones of which are the angler’s destinations.  The launch in Lake #1 is a good hard-bottomed sandy/gravel spot on the shoreline in the state preserve. 

Good Gravel Put-In

The first waypoint from Lake #1 to Lake #2 is a narrow, almost hidden mangrove tunnel at the southeast corner of Lake #1.   There are two other false tunnels to the west of the correct one.  Except for this first tunnel, all those that follow are well-marked at the entrance with tall white plastic pipes sporting orange tape at the top.  For this first one, you’ll know you are on the right track when inside the tunnel you come to a big mangrove tree draped with Spanish moss. 

Spanish Moss Marks The Correct Tunnel

On the way you will pass by the rookery island marked by signs to keep your distance.  Please obey them! 

Protect Those Birds!! Obey The Signs.

The first short mangrove tunnel leads into Lake #2, a long skinny, shallow body of water that in about one-half mile empties into another mangrove tunnel at its south end. 

The Launch On Lake #1 and Long Lake #2

Halfway down to Lake #3, this tunnel widens into a small mangrove-fringed pond that has two exit points into mangrove tunnels.  The one the angler wants is the first one at the southeast corner of the pond and is marked by a tall white post.  If you continue to the southwest, that tunnel loops back to the north into a large, shallow lake frequented mainly by long-nosed gar and Mayan Cichlids, with only occasional snook. The southeast tunnel leads to Lake #3 in about ½ mile and 20 minutes of paddling. 

Long Lake #2 At Top With Lake #3 (Kidney Lake) And Lake #4 Below To South

Be sure to keep to the left and follow the current where the tunnel forks.  Lake #3 is known as 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 a half hour to reach to Lake #4.  The route continues to a fifth lake, but the river has been blocked since Hurricane Irma blew through.  (For more on Lake #5, see my earlier East River article noted above.)

Tackle/Gear

I take my usual arsenal of three rods on this trip—two 6 ½ foot medium/light spinning rods with 2500 series reels and one six-foot wand for casting in the tight quarters of the mangrove tunnels.  With the size of the snook and tarpon, I strongly recommend #30 test line and fluorocarbon leaders. 

My favorite quartet of lures on the East includes the redoubtable white or gold curlytail plastic mounted on a one-eighth red jig head, a gold paddletail, and white Yozuri floating/diving 3D crystal minnow, and a gold or baby bass colored fluke mounted weedless for casting under the mangroves.

The Fab Four

The Trip (February 2022)

The locked gate at the entrance to the preserve can be opened at 6 a.m. according to preserve staff that I called to make a reservation, while the official time the park opens is 8 a.m.  To hedge my bets, I arrive at the gate at 7 a.m. which I figure will give me plenty of time to get my kayak in the water and loaded up.  I have followed the instructions on the gate sign and have written the instructions down.

Ready To Rumble At Sunrise

  I have a confirmation code to enter on the payment envelope I will find at the kiosk near the launch.  I have my two-dollar entry fee in my pocket.  I confidently punch in the daily code on the gate lock and ……nothing happens except a red light flashes on the lock.  I try it several more times with the same results.  Maybe I wrote it down wrong so try several variations on the number I wrote down.  Nothing!  Now panic starts to set in.  The preserve office doesn’t open till 8 a.m.!  I try again, get another red light, and proceed to yank on the lock while issuing a series of foul expletives.  That doesn’t work, so resign myself to calling the office and leaving a message asking for assistance.  By now it’s 7:15, and the mosquitos apparently realize already they have a juicy target at least for 45 minutes.

I decide to walk into the park and scope things out.  I find the launch hasn’t changed much since my last trip other than a little more gravel on the ramp.  There’s the fee box and also a porta-potty.  All the comforts of home.  The parking for boat trailers is as tight as ever, with signs seemingly prohibiting it just about everywhere except right inside the gate. 

Fee Station Next To Launch And PortaPotty

Fifteen minutes later I stroll back to the gate and to my great surprise at 7:30 my phone rings.  It’ a park staff returning my call.  She walks me through the steps to enter the gate code expressing some doubt I have done it correctly.  After several failed attempts she concludes the code is bad and gives me a secret master code that does the trick.  She assures me the original code will work when I return later in the day.  I thank her profusely for getting to work so early and saving the day. 

In a jiffy my Hobie pedal kayak is in the water and loaded for the trip, the two-dollar fee deposited in the fee box, and my trailer parked.  I hustle back to the yak just in time to see a two-gator escort squad swimming in my direction.  How thoughtful of the preserve to arrange this. 

On The Water….With Gator Escort Ready

I push off, skirting the signs around the rookery.  I see a few egrets that have been dawdling—most of the birds flew off at sunrise—and they gawk at me as if they haven’t seen many visitors.  It’s going to be a beautiful day with temperatures rising from 70 now to 82 by mid-afternoon.  I drop my little water thermometer overboard, and it comes back up reading a near-perfect 70 degrees, just what the snook and tarpon prefer.  The wind is already kicking up from the southeast but shouldn’t be a major issue given the small size of the lakes I will be probing. 

I quickly ditch the two escort gators, only to be met by a couple of more stationed near the tunnel to the second lake.  They disappear as I get close, and I slide into the tunnel. 

It’s a short distance to Lake #2, but I proceed gingerly in my pedal kayak. This tunnel and the ones to come are all littered with submerged snags–logs, branches, and roots that have damaged my fins in the past as I pedaled down the river too quickly. Now I push the pedals on my Hobie apart which lifts the fins below up against the hull and out of harm’s way. I then proceed using my telescoping single-bladed paddle. Only when I get into the open water of the lakes will I put the fins down and use the pedals.

Soon I glide into Lake #2, passing the white pole marker.  The lake is long and skinny, fringed with mangroves.  One guidebook claims it was once an old canal. 

Lake #2: Long, Skinny, And Shallow

The lake is shallow and home to plenty of gar and mullet.  Indeed, as I throw a cast ahead of the kayak, a gar grabs it, tussles with me for a second, then comes off.  I have only caught a few small snook here on previous trips, and as it gets more pressure being close to the launch, I don’t tarry long but head for the next mangrove tunnel to the south.  But I make a mental note to bring along one of my custom-make gar lures to have a little fun next time (For my adventures with this antediluvian fish, see my article: https://hooknfly.com/2020/04/15/in-defense-of-the-antediluvian-gar/.)

I navigate into the next mangrove tunnel that soon widens into a small pond.  Before I slid into the pond, I pitch a few casts with a gold curlytail at the entrance.  I’ve caught snook here before that ambush bait fish being pushed out by the falling tide, but today nothing is interested.  Same story for the pond itself where I hooked and lost a big snook on a previous trip under some overhanging mangrove branches.  Things have changed since my last trip a couple of years ago, the mangroves taking over the north shoreline from the sawgrass, another sign of rising sea/saltwater levels I am seeing everywhere in the Everglades. 

I lift the fins into the up position again as I glide past the white pole marking the entrance into the mangrove tunnel that links to Lake #3, Kidney Lake. 

Stay Left And Follow The Pole Marker To Kidney Lake

Almost immediately quiet descends, and I feel I am in the wilderness. I will see more wading birds in the tunnels today than ever before, perhaps a testimony to the limits on the number of human visitors. There are plenty of good-looking stretches that shout fish. I hold out as long as humanly possible, but when I come to a widening in the tunnel just above a narrow neck where the tide is pushing in, I can’t resist. I throw a back-hand cast into the neck and let the lure sink for a new second before I retrieve. I crank the reel handle once and BAM, something smashes the curlytail. The fish jets downstream, but I manage to turn him and finally bring the little scrapper to the boat. It’s a 15-inch snook, the smallest I will catch today.

15-Inch Snooklet Gets Things Going

  I release the fish and throw another cast downstream.  As the lure flutters down into the little pond with its tail wiggling, another snook hits but I miss it.  Several more casts and a few more nips, but I come up empty.  Anyway, it’s a promising sign that the snook are here, and I have already banished the skunk, so I continue on down to Lake #3, admiring the scenery, the dappled light in the tunnel, and the graceful wading birds.  I startle snook here and there on the way down but resist the urge to cast—it would be easy to spend the whole day just fishing the tunnels!  I finally see some bright light ahead as I get closer to the entrance to Kidney Lake.  I know from past experience to slow down and carefully fish the last hundred yards or so in the tunnel before I hit the lake.  But as I grab my rod, my yak continues to glide forward right over a big snook that promptly jets downstream leaving a big wake behind her.  Grrr!  Mental note:  Make the approach stealthier and start casting sooner next trip.

I float quietly into the lake and over the shallow sand flat at the mouth of the tunnel.  I make casts along the shorelines to the left and right where I have scored in the past, but nothing doing today so decide to take a snack break and recharge my mojo.  It’s about 10:30 when I continue my quest for the beasts of the East.  I slowly and cautiously probe the nooks and crannies along the mangrove-studded north shoreline that has produced snook up to 28 inches, but nary a strike today.  Are the snook AWOL here as well as in the backcountry south of Everglades City? 

The answer is a resounding NO as a big mama snook (all big snook are females) inhales the gold curlytail as soon it lands in a little opening in the mangroves and blasts off in a beautiful arcing jump out into open water.  She’s at least 30 inches, with the sunlight glinting off her long and graceful, yellow-tinged body.  She porpoises again then dives.  My rod bends perilously as she peels line from my screaming reel.  I scramble to shift my pedals into forward to chase her and in that instant the line goes limp.  She’s shaken off leaving me shaking, the biggest snook I’ve had on in a few years.  

When my nerves calm down, I check my hook to make sure it’s sharp and my line not frayed from her sharp gill covers.  All looks fine so I resume casting, and a few minutes later something slams my lure.  A two-foot snook erupts from the water, tail walks, and promptly throws the hook. 

Undaunted, I continue casting and the third fish proves to be the charm.  I pitch the curlytail far back into a little feeder creek that is choked with downed branches and somehow manage to avoid getting snag.  I immediately start retrieving, not letting the lure sink into the thicket.  But I get snagged anyway, or so it seems until a big snook thrashes to the surface.  I slam my pedals into reverse and horse the big girl away from trouble.  I turn her and she zoom out into open water past the kayak, spinning me around like a top.  She puts up a terrific fight, but finally I coax her near the kayak.  Then just as I figure she’s whipped the saucy dives behind me under the kayak.  This calls for a graceful if frantic pirouette on my part with my rod held high over my head behind me so as not to tangle in the two rods standing in their holders in the back of the yak.  Somehow I avoid calamity and soon she’s close to the boat for pin-up shot and quick release, a gorgeous two-footer.  That’s more like it.

Nice Two-Foot Mama Snook

For the next half hour, I have non-stop action against the west shoreline.  The brisk wind from the southeast makes maneuvering a challenge, but I land a couple more two-footers, while executing a half dozen long-distance releases.  I manage to hook a 30-inch baby tarpon, the only one I will see on this trip, but he wins his freedom with an acrobatic pinwheeling aerial flip that even the Russian judges would have had to award a 10. 

By now I have covered most of the west shoreline and am getting close to the tunnel leading to Lake #4.  I come to another alluring looking slot in the mangroves and manage to land my lure between two dangling mangrove air roots.  As it slowly sinks something smashes it.  I throw my pedals in reverse to horse the fish out of the tangle.  I succeed at first, but the critter has other ideas and almost jolts the rod out of my hand when it turns tail and heads back into the mangroves.  I try to put the brakes on, but to no avail.  Within seconds my line is tangled up completely below the surface in the roots.  I contemplate breaking it off but want to see exactly what this feisty critter is.  Probably a nice red as it just went deep and didn’t jump.  So I fearlessly crash the kayak into the mangroves, lean over the side of the boat, and start unwinding the mess.  I’m surprised to feel that the fish is still on, tugging and lunging down deep.  Miraculously, I managed to untangle the line and triumphantly winch the fish to the surface, a beautiful….Mayan Cichlid, aka Atomic Sunfish, a freshwater invader from South America. 

Atomic Sunfish Adds To The Fun

The laugh is on me!  It’s a big one, over a foot long, but not the lunker redfish I expected.  Oh well, must be time for a snack.  I pedal into a shady spot—it’s warm today, pushing into the 80s—and break out my granola bar and beef jerky.

After the break I creep along the south shoreline that usually produces a few snook, but not today.  I am also surprised that at the mouth of the south tunnel, a reliable spot, I come up empty.  Then it’s off to Lake #4, a good 25-30 minute paddle depending on how much fishing I do on the way.  I pull out my pedals completely and stow them, knowing that even when locked in the up position the fins will likely get damaged by the gnarly snags that inhabit this tunnel. 

I soon find myself enjoying the scenic paddle.  Again I see more birds, and they also seem to be less skittish.  And the waterscape is lush, dappled with an ethereal light. 

With these pleasant distractions, I resist the urge to fish several good-looking stretches even though I have spooked a couple of big fish on the way down.  About 10 minutes into the tunnel, I come to a fork in the creek.  Last time I turned right down the wider fork and wasted an hour before realizing I went the wrong way.  Be sure to turn left and follow the current.  Someone has marked the fork with a yellow tape, but it may not be there very long so again, turn left and follow the current.

 I continue a leisurely paddle for another five minutes or so, but when I reach a wide spot in the creek with a good flow coming in from a narrow stretch below, I can’t resist a cast.  Looks like big-snook territory.  I break out my short six-foot rod for casting in this tight spot and flip the curlytail down into the pool below.  I let it sink then retrieve slowly into the neck.  Suddenly my rod dips, and a big snook explodes out of the water when I set the hook.  Then it’s off to the races.  The big girl heads downstream towards a menacing jumble of mangrove roots and downed branches, towing the kayak behind her.  Frantically I reach down to throw my pedals into reverse and stop her run…only to realize there are no pedals since I pulled them at the tunnel entrance.  YIKES!  By this time the kayak is being dragged right into the mess.  I paddle furiously to the rear, but to no avail.  I crash into the overhanging mangrove branches, issuing choice expletives along the way.  I reach over the side of the yak and grab the line.  She’s still on.  I unwrap the line from a couple of oyster-encrusted mangrove root and start to pull her in.  She yields grudgingly, but when big lady spies me she lunges and snaps my line.  A 30-incher for sure.  I’m left with a case of the shakes.

 When my nerves settle down I continue on to Lake #4.  But as I near the lake, I hit a log and branch jam that is completely blocking my way. I can’t get around or over it but will not be deterred with big snook only a few minutes away.  I hop out of my yak up to my naval in creek water.  Fortunately, the bottom is sandy and firm.  I work at the jam for 15 minutes, enjoying the cool water, and finally succeed in opening a narrow path through.  Now to get back in my yak from this deep water, which is not on the list of approved activities for an AARP member.  I gingerly ease the yak halfway down the chute, clamber up on the jam, and slide over into the yak.  Not bad for a septuagenarian!

Then it’s onto Lake #4 which has produced some nice juvenile tarpon and sizeable snook in the past.  On the way out of the tunnel I spook a big fish as I did in the tunnel above Kidney Lake.  Snook?  Gar?  Should have done some exploratory casting. 

With all the excitement, I decide to anchor on the big sandbar at the mouth and recharge with another of my magic elixirs, an RC Cola, supplemented with plenty of victuals.

Magic Elixir

When I done refueling, I decide to pedal to the south shoreline because the wind has kicked up making it challenging to pitch casts into its teeth.  When I get down that way, I see a big 10-foot gator has staked claim to this area, but he graciously and insouciantly swims off to the north shoreline.  Whew! 

Lake #4 Boss

Unfortunately, the action is slow under the bright midday sun.  Finally, about halfway down the west shoreline I pick up another snook pushing two feet and then hook but lose another high-jumping thirty-inch baby tarpon.  I manage one last decent snook casting into some downed branches in a feeder creek, but that’s it.  No big girls in Lake #4 today. 

Lake #4 Snook

It’s 2:30 now, and time to head back.  I want to be at the launch and locked gate by 4:30 just in case I have to call the park staff again if the combination hasn’t been reset and doesn’t work again.  Their office closes at 5:00.  Also by now the tide has turned again and is flowing out, so I’ll be pedaling against the flow.

I head to the tunnel to Kidney Lake, and the big gator that had sauntered down there now is very accommodating and slowly swims back to his former position on the south end.  I paddle into the tunnel and promptly spook another good fish.  I manage a couple of more respectable 22-inch snook on the west shoreline of Kidney Lake then am shocked when on the north shoreline, out of nowhere, a big, beautiful two-foot long-nosed gar snatches the curlytail and rockets through the air, his bronze scales flashing in the sun.  Because of their long bony snout filled with small teeth, long-nosed gar are exceedingly difficult to hook with normal sized hooks, so I am not surprised he manages to escape.  Next time I’ll bring along some specially designed gar lures I have tied up with very small treble hooks that can do the job.  Gar are great fighters and fun to catch. (See my article on this antediluvian fish: https://hooknfly.com/2020/04/15/in-defense-of-the-antediluvian-gar/ )  There are plenty of them in the East River!

Gar Are A Blast To Catch

I make it back to the launch right at 4:30 and hustle over to test the combination lock.  I breathe a sigh of relief when it clicks green and opens.  It’s been a fun day chasing the beasts of the East.  I’ve caught a half dozen sizable specimens around two-feet and had my shots at several much larger ladies and some high-jumping tarpon that spurned my advances.  So maybe I’ll call it a draw—a good excuse to try again soon!