After months of drought, with nary a drop of rain in January in Everglades City and not much more in February and March, the forecast is for the rainy season to begin in earnest later this week–rain every day along with winds gusting to 25 mph. I figure I’d better get out soon before I hunker down, and tomorrow the rain is supposed to hold off till 5 p.m. I have my sights set on the Blackwater River in Collier-Seminole State Park outside Naples. I haven’t fished the river for almost three years, courtesy of Covid followed last fall by Hurrican Ian which blasted the park and shut it down till recently. My last trip the fish were cooperative, so it’s time for some serious ichthylogical investigation to see how the finned creatures have fared.
January 2022 dawned sunny and bright, with me salting margaritas down in the Everglades instead of sidewalks in Colorado and, better yet, wrestling snook instead of shoveling snow! Covid was finally in the rearview mirror for the most part and promises for a bountiful piscatorial year are looking good. So how did it turn out? Here’s a look back at the best of 2022 and some bungled episodes as well.
It’s hard to believe that I hadn’t fished in the Everglades–or anywhere in Florida for that matter like the Keys—in the winter for almost two years! Despite that hiatus and fewer articles about fishing in the Sunshine State being posted in 2022, I was grateful my readers stuck with me and that the number of visitors and views stayed steady at the peak levels established in 2020. Many thanks!
Fishing Buddies And Family
As I age (slowly and gracefully), the connections angling brings with fishing buddies and family become ever more important and treasured. I had some fun and productive outings in Florida with Jim Cannon (former owner of the renowned Blue Quill Anglers in Colorado), my Colorado neighbor Charlie Cain, Esq., Steve Keeble, Robert Wayne, Esq. (who lives in Naples, FL), and my old college roomie Morris Douglas Martin.
We had a lot of laughs together while we boated a lot of fish, and better yet, I learned some new tricks and tips from them. You ought to see Cannon and Keeble fly cast from a kayak—impressive! In Colorado during the summer the fish parade continued with good friends Bob Wayne and Steve Spanger as we chased trout in the Colorado wilds. I also enjoyed fishing with new friends Tom Palka, who writes the newsletter for our local Trout Unlimited Chapter, and Kim LeTourneau, an accomplished guide for my local fly shop Ark Anglers who also covers fishing for the Mountain Mail newspaper.
Whether in Florida or in the Rockies, they all had the chutzpah to outfish me!!
In March my son Matthew came down for a week to soak some rays and relax. The day we spent in the Everglades backcountry together warmed this father’s heart. It was a smorgasbord of feisty fish—snook, sea trout, ladies, jacks, and even a gafftopsail catfish that put up a great fight before sliming us when we wrestled with him to remove the hook. The video says it all.
This proud papa was thrilled when Florida Sportsman published a short article in the fall that I wrote about fishing the Tamiami Trail country around Everglades City. It featured a couple of great photos of Matthew and yours truly with some nice snook.
Come summer back in Colorado my little sweetheart granddaughter Aly showed off her casting skills while catching some nice rainbows in a high mountain lake along with her Daddy Matthew. The mile walk in and out to the lake was a great nature hike featuring beautiful wildflowers and a close encounter with a big buck mule deer.
Most Popular Posts And Published Articles
The continuing popularity of a series of five blog posts I penned in 2020 entitled “The Best Fishing Books Of All Time” is remarkable. It garnered over 3,000 views this year and on Google searches for ‘best fishing books’ has become the most popular link on that subject, even outpacing Amazon’s sponsored ads. Take that Zuckerberg!
The most read angling posts, with almost 4,000 views, were again a quartet about finding and fishing for rare Rio Grande Cutthroat trout in southern Colorado. For my latest foray on the fab forks of the Conejos with my photographer Jody Bol, see: https://hooknfly.com/2022/08/15/conejos-river-capers/
Now that I am back in Florida for the winter and spring, you can bet I will be getting out on the water and sharing new trips and tales. I have already made plans for a two-week fishing trip to the Florida Keys in late April.
When the weather was uncooperative or the winds howling, I hunkered down and continued to write articles for American Fly Fishing and Florida Sportsman. The article about fishing in South Park, Colorado, was titled “Mission Impossible: Searching For Fish And Solitude.”
It was the lead featured piece in the July issue of American Fly Fishing and focused on finding hidden and remote creeks in the famous valley near Denver, home of the South Platte River, Dream Stream, and other popular waters and lakes that sometimes feature combat fishing. https://hooknfly.com/2022/07/21/south-park-under-the-radar/
Florida Sportsman ran two of my articles in 2022. The first was a fun one in which I discussed the very controversial gar conversion therapy. Under the heading “In Defense Of The Antediluvian Gar,” I stood up for this hard-fighting, oft-underestimated fish while documenting the successful conversion of a tarpon aficionado to gar fishing in the Everglades. https://hooknfly.com/2022/11/19/gar-conversion-therapy/
The second piece, noted above, recounted the variety of angling opportunities along the Tamiami Trail between Naples and Miami.
Most Rewarding Trips
One of my favorite streams close to home is a remote twenty mile stretch of Grape Creek between Westcliffe and Canon City, Colorado. Over the past decade I have had many memorable trips into the canyon where the creek runs, chasing plentiful and hungry browns and rainbows. But disaster struck a couple of years ago when two giant flash floods only a few weeks apart scoured the canyon and practically wiped out all insect life in the upper reaches. Without food, the fish abandoned the stretches I frequented. After a couple of fruitless trips, I decided to wait a couple of years to see if Grape Creek would recover. Thankfully, it did, and I was rewarded with my biggest trout of the year—a 19-inch brown—during a July trip.
Another trip up the headwaters of the Conejos River high in the mountains of southern Colorado provided some unexpected and mostly pleasant surprises. Exploring the five forks of the Conejos River is on my bucket list. I have had terrific days on the Lake and Adams Fork chasing beautiful, rare Rio Grande Cutthroats. This year I had my eye on fishing the Middle and North Forks, both of which can be reached as they branch off the Upper Conejos River about two miles above Platoro Reservoir. Being remote streams, I expected a plethora of feisty fish including cutthroats that I had found on the nearby Adams Fork. But after pounding the lower reaches of each for an hour, I was beginning to have my doubts. I decided to try one last pool on the Middle Fork that looked particularly inviting and struck a bonanza. On my first cast I watched transfixed as a huge brown trout rose slowly from the depths and inhaled my fly. Then it was off to the races, trying to run down the rascal who had managed to fly by me and head downstream into a brush pile. Somehow I managed to extricate that big brownie and followed that miracle by catching his large mate on the very next cast.
Given that result, I decided I’d better retrace my steps and go up higher on the North Fork. However, I only managed a few small browns on that stretch before it disappeared into a ravine above the valley. Needless to say, I was perplexed. Why so few fish on the Middle and North Forks, albeit big ones on the Middle Fork? The revelation would come as I fished back down on the Upper Conejos below the fork to the trailhead where my SUV was parked. Here on a mile stretch I caught a passel of brown trout, most over 15-inches. The answer?? As confirmed by a local angler at the general store in Platoro, the big fish migrate out of Platoro Reservoir into the Upper Conejos and grow fat and sassy eating all the little guys. Of course, now I must return in 2023 to confirm this theory!
In 2022 I thankfully avoided any scary incidents with moose, mountain lions, sharks and the like that I have had in the past. But the year’s most blood-curdling incident was self-inflicted, with an alligator playing the villain. Normally the many gators I encounter during my trips into the Everglades backcountry bolt at the first sign of my kayak or Gheenoe. Once in a great while a young gator will venture too close when I am catching lots of fish, attracted out of curiosity to all the jumping and splashing. Usually smacking a paddle on the water sends him scurrying for cover. Alligators that are aggressive down here tend to be ones fed by humans, mainly tourists.
My most memorable gator encounter for 2022 took place on a sunny day in March when I took my college buddy Morris on a trip along the historic Loop Road near Everglades City. I figured we would take a break from the serious day-long fishing trips into the backcountry and find some easier targets in the bass and cichlids in the canal along the gravel road as it winds its way through the swamp. The alligators were everywhere. Being teenage boys at heart, we couldn’t resist tossing one of the small fish we caught to a big gator lounging in the slough near a big culvert.
The fish bounced a few feet down the slope but didn’t make it to the water. All of a sudden, the docile reptile came rocketing out of the water at warp speed to gobble down the fish. His momentum carried him up the incline almost onto the road. It must have been comical to watch two old coots scrambling back towards their SUV in utter terror, but thankfully no one was there to record the incident. Lesson relearned: DO NOT FEED THE GATORS!!
The biggest bummer of the year followed in the wake of Hurricane Ian that struck southwest Florida in late September. I had dutifully rigged my Gheenoe, a motorized canoe, under my house on Chokoloskee Island near Everglades City as advised by old salts down here. Following that advice, my boat had survived in good condition a five-foot flood tide that swept over Chokoloskee during Hurricane Irma in 2017. Unfortunately, either because I didn’t insert the bilge plug or the ropes anchoring the boat and trailer to the building pillars were too tight to allow them to float, saltwater surged a couple of feet deep into the boat and destroyed the electrical system.
When I returned to Florida in early November, I took the boat to my local marina in Naples and got the bad news. A month and $5,000 later everything was put back in order, and fortunately the damage was mostly covered by my boat insurance. The big relief was that the motor was undamaged. Whew!
In the category of confusing was an exploratory trip to find brook trout and maybe some cutthroats reputedly swimming in a remote creek in the Colorado high country south of Del Norte. One of the best angling guidebooks for exploring secluded waters around my neck of the woods in Colorado is 49 Trout Streams of Southern Colorado by Williams and McPhail. They sang the praises of Torsido Creek, a tributary of La Jara Creek south of Del Norte, Colorado. I had fished La Jara Creek below La Jara Reservoir a number of times with great success, so was anxious to explore the upper La Jara and Torsido Creek. After a long and bone-jarring ride over a narrow, bumpy gravel road that hadn’t seen a grader for some time, I made it to the lake and drove to its upper reaches where La Jara Creek flows in. Trouble was, the creek was next to invisible in the expansive meadow above the reservoir, and it wasn’t clear where it was joined by Torsido Creek. To exacerbate matters, I had run off and left my detailed maps of the area in my travel trailer back in Del Norte and the GPS on my cell phone wasn’t working. No worries I thought. Torsido had to be out there somewhere. But after wandering about for almost two hours, marching through muck, dodging a big bull, and clambering over a couple of barbwire fences in my waders, I flew the white flag and turned tail back to my SUV. Fortunately, on the way back I had to cross upper La Jara Creek, and serendipitously where I did some trout were rising. That was the start of an epic afternoon of catching not only some fat, beautiful brook trout, but also some muscular, truculent tiger trout that apparently are stocked in the reservoir and run up the creek to eat. https://hooknfly.com/2022/10/24/taming-the-tigers-of-torsido-and-upper-la-jara-creek-near-del-norte-co/
Not until I got back to camp did I discover the confluence with Torsido Creek is hidden in the gap in a ridge about a quarter mile from where I stopped fishing that day. Darn, guess I will have to schedule a return engagement in 2023!
Persistence Pays Off
Like many things in life, persistence pays off in angling. Two years ago I experienced a particularly humbling experience at the hands of brook trout on the upper reaches of the Huerfano (Wear-fano) River in the wilds of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of southern Colorado. Fishing in one of the most scenic valleys I’ve ever set foot in, I was sure this was going to be a banner day when in the first pool I came to I spied nice brook trout finning in the depths. However, three hours and 20 expletives later, I flew the white flag. I had scored nary a bite the whole time as the spawning brookies made clear amore was more important than eating. With the air redolent of skunk, I slunk back to my SUV. Now fast forward to the summer of 2022. I decided to return to the scene of the skunking for a measure of revenge. But this time things looked even worse when I hit the water after navigating the rough road to the Lily Lake trailhead. It was mid-summer, and the brook trout weren’t spawning. Indeed, none of the alluring pools seemed to hold any fish. So after two hours of flailing the water, I started back to the SUV, tail between my legs. Luckily, I had to cross a very narrow, but fast-flowing tributary of the Huerfano in the meadow to the west of the river. As I did, I happened to see what appeared to be a rise at a bend below me in the creek. What the heck, I thought, and threw my fly downstream. It floated a few feet, then was sucked in by what turned out to be a chunky brook trout. So that’s where the little devils were hiding. That was the first of more than a dozen nice brookies from what I have dubbed the West Fork of the Huerfano. You won’t see it named on a map, but believe me, it and the fish are there. Indeed, persistence pays off.
And speaking of stick-to-it-of-ness, a case of avian persistence opened my eyes. I am a confirmed amateur birdwatcher, especially at my mountain cabin in Colorado where a steady cavalcade of western tanagers, evening grosbeaks, hummingbirds, and many others at my birdfeeders provides a steady stream of pleasure. But those bird feeders have also attracted pinon jays and Clark’s Nutcrackers, drawing me into a never-ending battle with these noisy, wily, and voracious, albeit handsome, birds. Imagine their fright when I come storming out on the front porch hurling expletives till the Colorado sky turns even bluer. I did some research on-line to see if there were any better strategies to deal with these smart, raucous marauders, and in the process learned that because of habitat loss, notably destruction of pinyon trees they rely on for food, and climate change, these iconic western birds are declining precipitously.
Indeed, one report estimated the pinyon jays have declined 85% of the past 50 years and that there are only 700,000 left worldwide (versus 8 billion humans)! All of this made me realize I need to focus closer to home on saving the world. That will mean nurturing the pinyon trees already growing on my land and planting new ones. It will also mean biting my tongue when the raiders come to my bird feeders and dutifully hanging another suet cake when they take their leave. My thanks to them for their persistence and opening my eyes.
On The Horizon: Looking Forward to 2023
So what’s on the agenda for 2022? First and foremost is to get back down to Florida to get my saltwater chops back. I arrived in Everglades City a couple of months ago, got the kayak and Gheenoe ready to go, and started executing that plan. A 24-inch snook on my first yak outing led the fish parade not to mention a 33-inch leviathan out in my Gheenoe with buddy Steve Keeble in the New Year!
More stories and tall tales to come from the Everglades backcountry! I also want to explore some of the remote brackish canals east of Naples, Florida, that are impossible to access except with a kayak. Big snook are rumored to hide out there along with the gators! Fishing some remote islands in the Florida Keys is also on the agenda.
On the writing front, my article on fishing the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park in the Everglades is scheduled for publication soon in an issue of Florida Sportsman to be followed by a piece on the top ten tackle, gear, and techniques tips for kayak anglers in the Everglades. On the trout side, American Fly Fishing will carry an article this spring about my adventures this past summer on La Garita and Carnero Ceeks, two remote high-country streams in Colorado, to be followed later in the year by shorter pieces on upper La Jara and Tarryall Creeks, also in Colorado.
In the keep it under your hat category, I am also in initial negotiations with Kevin Kostner for a new TV series now that it looks as if he’s dropping out of “Yellowstone.” It will tentatively be called “Tales of a Zombie Fisherman” and will be based on my 2022 shenanigants on Halloween night when I went trick-or-treating with my favorite little witch Aly. Stay tuned!!
Of course, I will chase some trout with my sweetheart Aly and find Torsido Creek at long last.
It’s my first fishing trip of the new year, and I am launching my kayak at the Barron River bridge on the edge of Everglades City.
The fishing has reportedly been spotty this past week due to a big cold front in late December that pushed temperatures down into the lower 40s, frigid for these parts. There have even been a few reports of fish kills here and there in the Everglades backcountry. The snook, my favorite saltwater fish and quarry for the day, can’t take much cold. Water in the 50s can be deadly to snook. But temperatures are warming and hope springs eternal.
The launch is tricky with a strong rising tidal flow pushing hard upstream under the bridge. I lug the yak to the narrow, rocky put-in spot and find I have to anchor the boat to the shoreline to keep it from being swept away while I load.
Before long I am pedaling up the Barron River, being pushed along by the current. Timing the tides is especially important on the Barron River so you can ride the rising tide out to the backcountry and the falling tide back in rather than fighting them both ways, an exhausting proposition. I have three rods at the ready, the one with the trusty DOA gold curlytail grub on an 1/8 ounce red jig head at the ready to cast. As I glide along, I drop my water thermometer overboard and am surprised to find it registers around 70 degrees—not optimal for snook and tarpon, but much better than last week.
My destination for this trip is what I have dubbed Samurai Lake for its uncanny resemblance on Google Maps to an ancient Samurai warrior, top-knot and all.
I’ve had good luck there for snook, tarpon, and even redfish. Soon I round a point and hear a loud beating of wings ahead at the entrance to a small tidal feeder stream that I have coined Vulture Creek, being a favorite roosting area for big turkey and black-headed vultures.
True to its name, a half-dozen vultures crash through the surrounding mangrove forest to escape the intruder. There’s a nice current flowing into the creek as the tide rises, things looking good for my first fish of the year. But it’s not to be. After a couple of dozen casts as I coast upstream, resulting in one half-hearted strike, I finally throw in the towel and hustle back to the main river.
Continuing upstream for another 15 minutes, I throw casts around a couple of small mangrove islands and into some shoreline nooks and crannies where I have fooled snook and redfish on previous trips. But it’s no dice. Suddenly the smell of skunk is wafting in the wind that is starting to pick up. I keep my hopes up, knowing that one of my favorite hotspots is just ahead off the next point of a big island that splits the river. But before I know it, the strong tidal flow has me zipping past the point, right over the spot where the fish usually stack up to feed. Aarrgghh! I slam the pedals into reverse to slow my momentum, but the damage is already done, probably scaring any fish into the next county. With a stiff upper lip, I pedal forward and turn the kayak so I can work the channel that opens up into a lagoon in the island where I have scored before.
And no sooner does the curlytail hit the water than something smacks it hard. I see a flash of silver and think “SNOOK.” The fight is on, my rod bending double. The fish makes a hard run then erupts above the water in a spectacular jump. It’s not a snook, but a high-stepping ladyfish!! Now many of my angler friends would be bummed out by this turn of events, but not me. I am a confirmed lady’s man!!
What’s not to like about these sleek beauties? For starters, they are close cousins to one of the most revered gamefish, the much larger tarpon known as silver kings, that can grow to five feet in these waters.
They have big forked tails like the tarpon and with no nasty sharp teeth to bite you when you release them, unlike females of certain other species. Ladyfish are also feisty fighters like tarpon and incredible jumpers as well. I have had them vault clear over my kayak in an incredible aerial display on several occasions! To cap things off, they eagerly eat artificial lures. Just don’t hold them inside your boat when releasing your catch or they may relieve themselves in retribution. While they aren’t much as table fare, all-in-all, ladyfish are so much fun to catch they’ve become known as the poor man’s tarpon.
What about the secrets to catching these spirted, sleek-finned creatures?? Here’s the juicy, insider stuff. First and foremost, they almost always prefer a fast-moving lure zipping along a few feet below the surface. Flashy silver and gold artificials like a Yozuri 3-D Minnow, a gold curlytail mounted on a 1/8 ounce red jig head, or a simple silver spoon are three of my favorites.
They will also take flies like a Clouser Minnow or a Lightbulb stripped in at light speed. If you get a hit and miss, continue to fish the lure with a herkie jerky stop-and-go action as you can almost be assured that two or three other ravenous ladies have joined the chase. Live shrimp on a jig head or under a popping cork will also attract attention, but you better have lots of bait because that shrimp will inevitably be ejected from the hook when the lady takes to the air.
A prime location to find ladies is hanging out in three-to-four feet of water near drop-offs and anywhere from 10-15 feet from a shoreline with moving water. I only occasionally catch them in shallows against a shoreline or up under overhanging mangrove trees where snook like to hide. They also like to congregate in deeper waters off points or in channels between islands where a rising or falling tide will bring food to them.
Now having revealed these intimate secrets of a confirmed lady’s man, I hasten to add that like females of other species ladyfish can be unpredictable. Today I will find that to be true in spades. The first half dozen ladies to succumb to my alluring techniques are in the deeper channel leading into the aforementioned shallow lagoon. These hungry belles signaling there’s lots of food around, I turn my attention to the shoreline where I have netted snook in the past and have a hunch might be hiding nearby. I start to work the shoreline above the channel, and my lure is immediately blasted not by a snook but by a lady, then another, and another. After landing and releasing a dozen or so, I take a break and pitch my lure the other direction to the south away from the shoreline into a deeper channel. I start to reach for a drink when BAM, my rod is nearly jerked from my hands when a big lady slams the lure and proceeds to tow the kayak towards open water.
There’s no resting now, as on practically every cast I get several hits. Things get so wild with fish jumping and thrashing about that a big pelican is attracted by the feeding frenzy. He lands on a shoreline mangrove, apparently mesmerized by my piscatorial acumen!
He finally decides to join the action, diving headlong into the honey hole. I laugh and take that as a sign to move on. After all, I’m pursuing snook!
As I pedal upriver toward Samurai Lake, I get sporadic action for 15-18” snook along the shoreline. In the wake of Hurricane Ian back in late September, there are numerous dead mangrove trees that have toppled into the water, providing excellent ambush spots for the snook, but also many snags to intercept my lure.
As I round the bend into the lake, I’m greeted by a Halfway Creek/Barron River Kayak Loop Marker #4, courtesy of the National Park Service. It’s after 1 p.m. now so I stop for a quick lunch, then after downing the last of my RC Cola elixir, I continue up the shoreline catching a small snook here and there.
At its southeast corner the lake narrows and the mangroves close in. Now I can see the current moving again. I slow and throw a cast under some overhanging mangrove roots at a bend of what is now a tidal creek and let the curlytail sink, then start to crank it back in in the clear water. Out of nowhere from the depths a 30” tarpon intercepts the lure. He turns sideways and starts to swim off nonchalantly as I sit transfixed by his beauty. Finally, I come to and set the hook, and the tarpon goes berserk. He makes a short run back towards the mangrove roots then erupts clear of the surface in a spectacular leap, followed by my curlytail zooming back at me, sans fish. A fairly standard result with tarpon. Most of us are lucky to net only one out of every four we hook.
When my nerves calm down, I slide the kayak slowly forward towards a bend in the creek and pitch the lure into a small nook in the overhanging mangroves up ahead. It’s immediately whacked by a nice snook, that performs her own aerial acrobatics before sliding into my net.
I continue on and in a few minutes come Loop Marker #3 at the entrance to a tight mangrove tunnel, a perfect spot for a big mama snook to lie in ambush, letting the current bring food to her in the narrows. I paddle carefully into casting position and throw a cast that lands a few feet outside the tunnel. Nothing doing.
I next skip a cast further back into the tunnel underneath the mangroves. Immediately a big girl inhales the lure, and the battle is on. She flees for the safety of underwater mangrove roots, but I manage to haul back and stop her run. Then she heads directly at the kayak and dives under the boat. I scramble to reach the rod around the front of the boat before it’s snapped in two. Luck is on my side, and I manage to avoid disaster, finally easing her close to the boat. The comely lass is definitely the prize of the day, pushing two feet long. She graciously poses for a couple of quick snapshots and soon is on her way back to the tunnel.
It’s almost 3 p.m. by now and with only a couple of hours remaining before I sunset, I need to start back to the bridge. I reverse course and pedal back to the lake, but succumb to the allure of the beautiful south shoreline that has produced in the past.
But this time I get but one hard strike plus a bunch of snags for my efforts.
Now as the sun begins to dip below the trees, I have to hustle home. Fortunately, both the tide and wind are with me and I go sailing down the river. Soon I’m back at the lady fish lunch counter where all the fun started earlier in the day and of course can’t resist making a few casts. And proving their unrequited love, three ladies take up avidly with the curlytail on three consecutive casts! What a way to end the day. These ladies know how to treat a devoted suitor!
I had a sweet last day on the water for 2022 before I headed into some subzero temperatures tomorrow at the North Pole (aka Denver). The weather was perfect–sunny and in the low 80s with a nice breeze. Lots of wildlife made for an interesting and relaxing ecotour, and the sometimes fickle angling gods smiled on me at this secret bass lake in the Everglades.
Pleased to see my article on Gar fishing highlighted in the October issue of Florida Sportsman! I’m on a mission to get more anglers fishin’ for this antediluvian finned creature. I think you’ll get a chuckle or two out of this piece. Click on the links below to download and read the full article.