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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Recently, several friends and readers who are planning to travel to the Everglades City area to fish out of their kayaks have asked me for advice on fishing techniques and gear. Based on my experience, there is no doubt that kayak fishing in the Everglades and adjacent Ten Thousand Islands area of Florida can be challenging. Conditions here differ markedly from kayak fishing in the rest of the country and even from those encountered in most of the Sunshine State. From overgrown mangrove tunnels to tidal creeks with heavy flows to a confusing waterscape dotted with thousands of islands and a maze of waterways, the going ain’t easy for sure. Did I mention alligators, crocodiles, and now pythons?!?
So I figured with gale force winds blowing today, making kayak fishing dicey at best, I would share my top ten tips for kayak fishing techniques and gear in the East Coast’s biggest watery wilderness area, most gleaned from the school of hard knocks over the past decade. I’d welcome any additions readers might have. Here we go….
#1: First and foremost, print your own maps—I learned early on that most commercially available maps for the Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands are often inaccurate and don’t contain enough topographic detail. The same is certainly true of maps on GPS systems. Using them is a recipe for getting lost and missing the best fishing spots.
Every year I run across kayakers or canoeists that are lost in the maze. The one that sticks in my mind is an older couple who haled me down as I headed back to home on Chokoloskee Island as the sunset at the end of a long day fishing the Ten Thousand Islands. The were headed the opposite direction out Chokoloskee Pass to the west and open sea. As I approached, they asked me which way to Everglades City where they had hotel reservations. My eyes must have bulged, because the elderly gent asked if something was the matter. I gently told them they were headed in the opposite direction and could follow me in. The wife looked at her husband with daggers in her eyes, shook her head, and said, “I told you we should have taken a map.”
Here’s how to make your own. First, download a good map program like Google Earth. Identify the area that you are going to paddle and print out the screen in color at a full 8 1/2 x 11 size. Then use a self-sealing laminating pouch made by Scotch or something similar.
If you don’t laminate, you can rest assured your will get wet in this waterworld and become impossible to read. Laminating also allows you to mark the map with notes in red permanent ink about fishing spots and other invaluable information for future trips. Folders in my desk full of all my maps are highly coveted by my fishing buddies who ask that I remember them in my will.
#2. Don’t leave home without an emergency satellite phone or similar device. This is true whether you are kayaking in the Ten Thousand Islands or the Everglades backcountry. Even close in, the cell phone coverage is spotty at best and non-existent as you paddle down tidal creeks like the Faka Union River or deep into the Everglades Wilderness Waterway. If you get injured or lost it could be days before anyone finds you in the maze. I use a small Garmin InReach satellite phone that allows me to text messages to my family and also send an SOS alert to Garmin at the touch of a button.
Garmin then gets in contact with the local emergency service. At the time of this writing, they go for about $450 plus a monthly connection fee of about $12—not cheap but far less expensive than satellite phones with the capability to call and talk or a funeral. I finally bit the bullet after one trip down a remote tidal creek. I had beached the kayak and was wade fishing when I caught a gaff-topsail catfish. As I tried to remove the hook from the gyrating fish, he drove his nasty dorsal fin spike deep into the palm of my hand. After giving him a piece of my mind, I pulled out my pliers and yanked out the hook. After that ordeal, not to mention having to remove all the gelatinous snot the cattie left on my line, I decided to take a snack break and found a shady spot under a tree. In a few minutes, my head begin to spin, and I couldn’t walk. I had forgot to tell my son where I was fishing and started wondering if the alligators I’d seen sunning themselves along the creek would find me during the night. Fortunately, the dizziness subsided after half hour or so. I later learned that this saltwater cat has a nasty toxin in its spike that you don’t want to mess with. I had my new Garmin phone purchased before my next trip.
#3. Use a mushroom instead of a fluke anchor. First, make sure you take some sort of anchor. Between the surging tidal flows in creeks and around islands and often present winds, it can be challenging to stay on a fishing spot. When I first started out fishing in the Everglades, I took a handy fluke anchor with me that had worked well in the Indian River near Cocoa Beach to the north. I soon found out that the flukes get hung up easily in downed snags or mangrove roots to the extent I had to cut my anchor line during an early trip in the area. I persisted in using a fluke anchor because they are convenient and fold up so nicely, until I got hung up again in a backcountry creek with a surging tidal flow. As I tried to work the stubborn anchor loose my yak spun around broadside into the current, and I came perilously close to flipping! I again had to cut the anchor line, but this time made a beeline to the local fishing shop the next day and got a mushroom anchor, which while weighing more rarely gets hung up.
I typically attach my anchor to a cleat with a 15-foot length of lightweight cord. I install the cleat inside the boat a few feet in front of my seat so that it is easily reached and deployed.
#4. Grab a collapsible, single-bladed paddle. Whether you own a pedal or paddle kayak, a single-blade collapsible paddle is de rigueur for the Everglades.
If you have ever tried navigating in a narrow tidal creek or an overgrown mangrove tunnel with the traditional double-bladed paddle, you know what I mean. Even if you are a pedal kayak aficionado like me, there are many instances where the shorter paddle can assist in turns or other tight maneuvers. If you are going to be covering a lot of distance in a day, a double-bladed paddle may be your choice, but I carry both.
#5. Three rods/reels are the charm. With hundreds of different types of rods and reels on the market along with literally thousands of different lures, it’s easy to get lathered up and overload your brain and kayak with tackle. My advice: KEEP IT SIMPLE.
Rods are a good example. Two six and one-half or seven-foot light/medium spinning rods will handle 75% of all conditions the Everglades paddling angler needs to be ready for. I add a third, a shorter six-foot rod designed for use in narrow mangrove tunnels and narrow tidal creeks with nice holes, where snook, tarpon, and redfish like to hang out—a common condition in the backcountry creeks like the Faka Union River, Halfway Creek, and the East River. Every inch of rod length counts when angling in the tight quarters featuring overhanging branches and air roots that make casting an adventure—shorter is definitely better. The shorter stick is ever so much easier to handle and to make accurate casts with, particularly the backhand cast that is essential to use in the tunnels. I’ve discovered the shorter rod is also better at handling big fish in constricted spaces.
And they don’t have to be expensive rods or reels costing hundreds of dollars. Indeed, given the distinct possibility of breaking a rod when a big fish dives under your kayak or a pernicious branch snaps off a rod tip in a tight mangrove tunnel, I think it is foolhardy to risk a prized rod in the Everglades. My favorite rods, from the Berkely Shock and Shimano Scimitar series, are well-made and perfectly serviceable at a cost of less than $75. You won’t feel like screaming or slitting a wrist if you break one.
The same is true of reels. My experience is that in saltwater, no matter how well you clean and maintain them, you will be fortunate to get a couple of years of hard fishing out of one before something gives out or seizes up. I used to spend $200-$300 plus for my reels, but now find that Series 2500 and 3000 reels made by Pflueger and Okuma are excellent performers for less than $100.
In addition to my standard three rods described above, I find there are two what I call specialty situations that warrant additional outfits. The first special situation is when there is the possibility of catching a toothy shark in places like the Faka Union River and in the Gulf or an outsize tarpon. Then I carry a medium/heavy seven and one-half foot rod with a 4000 series reel. I ramp up the leader size as discussed below.
The other condition is when you find clear shallow water conducive to sight fishing—then a fly rod can be the ticket. There are good opportunities for sight fishing on several of the Gulf trips as well as the Barron and Faka Union Rivers in the upcountry. A caveat is in order here. While fly casting in a trout stream in the Rocky Mountains during the summer is close to nirvana, using a fly rod while sitting in a kayak is not everyone’s idea of a good time—especially given the size needed to subdue fish in the Everglades. A fairly heavy seven- or eight-weight rod is mandatory versus the three-to-five weight wands I prefer for freshwater trout. Furthermore, standing in a kayak to spot the fish can be a risky business without a special vertical grab bars to help you balance. Unfortunately, these bars are branch magnets when navigating mangrove tunnels in the upcountry. My advice in the upcountry is to keep the fly rod broken down until you get to the lake where sight fishing is the goal. A long fly rod hanging off the back of your boat is a recipe for disaster. Having said that, there are certain instances, especially in the very shallow water of backcountry lakes, where a fly rod with its ability to lay a fly delicately in front of a nice tarpon, snook, or redfish without spooking them will give you a distinct advantage over a spinning rod and weighted lure. Fly rodding for Mayan Cichlids (AKA Atomic Sunfish) is also a blast.
#6. With line and leader, go heavy. When I moved to the Everglades from the Indian River area on Florida’s east coast, I routinely used 15-pound test line and leader. I could get away with something that light because the water there is fairly open water to play a fish in with few snags. Not so the Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands. Mangrove branches and roots, sharp oyster bars, downed trees and limbs….the list goes on. Fortunately, I rarely find the fish to be leader shy. I currently use 30-pound test line and fluorocarbon leader and am almost ready to switch to 40-pound on advice of local guides who know what it takes to handle that 40-inch snook or high-flying tarpon you are likely to tangle with.
#7. Everglades fishing fab four lures. Every angler has his or her own go-to lures. Here are mine based on a decade of experience and advice from locals and guides.
At the head of the list is a white or gold curlytail or paddle tail plastic mounted on a 1/8 ounce red jig head. Mr Wiffel and DOA Lures are my two favorite brands, with a nod to Mr. Wiffel because they are made locally. Curlytails seem to imitate a wide variety of baitfish from glass minnows to bigger fare, they are effective in a wide variety of situations from deep holes to skipping under mangrove branches, and are tough and inexpensive to boot. What’s not to like. The will even fool very selective blue crabs!
Close behind are floater/diver lipped stickbaits that mimic finned baits. Rapala and Yozuri make a variety of sizes and colors. I like the white Rapala and Yozuri 3d Crystal. For skipping a lube way back under overhanging mangrove branches and roots where snook, tarpon, and many other fish like to hideout, a fluke mounted on a weedless, weighted hook is tough to beat. A reliable color is, oddly enough, a green/white baby bass. Finally, if you want some real fun, be sure to take along a loud surface plug like the Heddon Spook. Walk that baby like a dog across the top of the water and get ready for an explosion. Of course, there are a variety of other lures that round out the well-tempered Everglades tackle box. A good plastic crab imitation such as those made by RageTail can be deadly when redfish and snook are prowling the oyster beds. If you are a fly angler, a white/green Clouser or an orange lightbulb are hard to beat.
#8. Practice those specialty casts. If you are going to fish the numerous tidal and backcountry creeks and mangrove tunnels in the Everglades, it’s well-worth the time and effort to learn three what I call specialty casts—backhand, pendulum, and skip casts. They all have a place. The backhand cast comes in handy in tight mangrove tunnels where there is no room overhead or to one side of you to cast normally. I push to the right side of the tunnel or narrow creek, then reach across my body using a short rod to flip the lure backhand at my target area. Reaching across the body gives you those several extra feet of space that make casting even possible in many situations. Because many anglers fear to cast in these difficult conditions, the fish see fewer lures, and I find them particularly aggressive. The pendulum cast is another approach that is valuable in tight spots in tunnels and creeks to thread a cast into a small space in brush or overhanging branches or roots. You start out by letting your lure hang 2-3 feet below your rod tip then start swinging it slowly like a pendulum, releasing it when there is sufficient momentum to reach that tiny spot you are targeting. Obviously, practice will make perfect with this unusual cast, but it is incredible how many snook I have seen caught in mangrove tunnels or in a small nook in a shoreline from only a few feet away with the pendulum cast. The skip cast is one more anglers will be familiar with, especially bass anglers who use it to skip surface baits into openings in lily pads. We use it in the Everglades and the Ten Thousand Islands when trying to reach snook or tarpon that are holed up or feeding way back up under overhanging branches or roots and an overhead or sidearm casts would end up snagged. The cast is started low, parallel to and almost touching the water, with the aim being for the lure to hit the water five feet or more in front of the mangroves then skip like a stone underneath the branches or roots. A good skinny, light-weight fluke bait as discussed above is a good candidate for skipping. Videos of the backhand and skip specialty casts can be found on-line. Practice makes perfect. With all the Olympic “sports” like curling, I am prepping for an appearance in 2026 when skip casting assumes its rightful place at the Games.
#9. Take some water shoes you can wade in. These days lots of attention is paid to what the well-appointed angler should wear. God forbid being caught by your buddies wearing a shirt or pants that aren’t at least 50 spf or fishing without hand coverings. Oddly, I don’t hear much talk about the best footwear for kayaking. I see lots of tennis shoes which are ok, but long ago I started wearing flats fishing boots with neoprene gaiters. Why? First, I like to wade. It’s a good way to stalk fish quietly, and I love the cooling, calming effect of being in the water. On a recent trip my decision to beach my kayak and stealthily approach a deep pool paid off with an immediate strike by a two-foot snook that put up a wild fight among the downed trees and branches.
Just as important is the fact that in the Everglades or out among those Ten Thousand Islands you will inevitably have to jump out of your yak to pull it over a sandbar, over or around a downed tree in a mangrove tunnel, or around the edge of an oyster bed bristling with sharp shells that has suddenly appeared and blocked your route. Then you want a boot that has a tough sole and something to keep the mud and other detritus out. My choice is Simms flats wading boots tied down tight at the top with neoprene gaiters like those used for fly fishing waders and boots.
Bass Pro and NRS also make similar footwear. I may not win any fashion contests, but don’t hesitate when I have to hop out of my kayak to wade when the situation calls for it…unless I see a gator or gator skid nearby.
#10. Don’t forget the essential little gear. Like most kayakers, I keep a list of gear that I check through every time as I pack up my SUV for an outing. Of course it includes major items like paddles, kayak seat, fishing rods, etc. I’ve learned over time that there are some little items that are also important that I often overlooked in the past and now consider essential. The first one is a hook hone.
I learned this trick years ago at a seminar put on by the famous Lefty Kreh, one of the first to write about saltwater fly fishing. He guaranteed that checking that hook for sharpness several times a day was one of the most important things an angler could do. He was right. In the Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands there are oyster bars, barnacles, and other assorted snags that can dull a hook in no time, not to mention the tough mouths of snook, tarpon, snapper, and other assorted fish. I check frequently during the day and after every fish. You can test your took by running it against your thumbnail at a slight angle. If it bites, the hook is ready to go.
Another important item is a short six-foot tow rope for your kayak.
I use mine on almost every trip for a variety of tasks such as tying off the front end of the boat to a mangrove tree for shade while anchoring for lunch thereby keeping it from drifting into the sun. I also like to wade fish, especially in hard-bottomed creeks or along islands with sandy beaches, and the rope allows me to tow the kayak behind me keeping net and other gear nearby. I attach brass snaps to each end for easy handling.
Another very useful small item is a fish lipper/gripper. I like the plastic ones that clamp on the fish’s lower lip so I have better control of it while removing a hook or taking a photo. The gripper also helps avoid having to handle the fish that can remove its important protective mucous covering and allows the fish to revive before release.
Because water temperature is a critical factor for fish such as snook and tarpon, having a water thermometer can help you decide if it’s worthwhile to go out or to pinpoint areas that might hold these favorite quarries. I am continually surprised how temperatures can vary by 5-10 degrees in different areas of a lake or stretch of a creek.
Another essential item I learned to use through the school of hard knocks is tube rod holders that fit in the rod holders built into the hull of my kayak. These plastic tubes elevate the rods making them easier to reach behind me and hold them more securely than the shallower hull rod holders.
I learned the hard way when standing and paddling one day when I apparently accidentally caught the reel tucked in the shallow hull holder with my paddle and flipped it overboard. I soon realized what I had done but could not find the rod and reel anywhere despite searching for a half hour. I hustled down to the local fishing shop the next day and purchased a couple of rod holders and have never had a problem since. The only downside of the holders is that because they stick up a foot or so above the hull, they sometimes catch on branches when I am navigating a tight mangrove tunnel. Of course, I don’t leave my rods in the holders in those situations and sometimes remove the holders if the going is particularly tough. Another option used by some yak anglers is to affix a series of rod holders to the plastic gear box they carry in the storage area behind their seats.
Finally, don’t forget to take along a gallon bottle of water for variety non-drinking purposes such as washing out a reel that gets an unwanted dunking in salt water (which just happened on my latest trip), pouring over a head gaiter to cool it and your noggin off on those sunny, hot days on the water, or washing out a wound. Of course, it can also serve as an emergency drinking water supply if you get stranded or run out of other drinks which has also happened to me when I accidentally knocked by Hydroflask water bottle overboard and lost it.
That’s my top ten. Hope they get you into more fish and keep you safe! Let me know if you have any additions.
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!
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.
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.
On the way you will pass by the rookery island marked by signs to keep your distance. Please obey them!
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.
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.
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.)
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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!