It’s the fourth day of my annual Florida Keys fishing expedition, and I am itching to go further afield from my fish camp on Big Pine Key. Years ago I fished down near Key West with guide Luke Kelly where we connected with some tarpon in an area called the Shark Channel. I’m hoping for a repeat as I plot my route and hit the hay early so I can be on the water at first light.
Next morning I’m trundling down the Overseas Highway before sunrise, joining the morning rush into Key West. I am keeping sharp eye out for the put-in for this trip, the Shark Key boat ramp at Mile Marker 11, about 30 minutes south of Big Pine Key. Distracted by the sight of several boats out on the water, I naturally whiz by the ramp that is on the other side of the highway. The signage for this ramp is minimal, so take slow. I execute a u-turn and pull into the long narrow drive that leads to the ramp, load up the yak, and park my SUV on the other side of the road, heeding the no parking signs around the ramp.
I scope out the tarpon boats and don’t see any action, so I head east and sidle up towards the bridge as the tide starts falling…and fast. I cast a big tarpon plug behind the bridge pilings, hoping some bruisers are skulking in the depths, but after 15 minutes, come up empty. So I buck the swift current and head towards the east side of O’Hara Key, which looks extremely fishy. But looks prove to be deceiving–I only pick up a couple of baby barracuda.
I spot a cluster of islets further east and turn the kayak that way, again pedaling against the swift current. There’s a nice gutter around the first islet, so I fish it carefully with a tarpon plug, then the old reliable Mirrolure Heavydine 18 with its shiny sides that flash in the water. I’m grateful for the pedal kayak, which allows me to hold myself in position to cast by pedaling slowly into the current. I pitch a good cast up against the islet in the deeper water and something explodes on the plug. A long torpedo shape blasts off, peeling line off my reel and dragging the kayak behind!
After a couple of days of non-stop action and a severe case of ‘Cuda elbow, I took a day off to lollygag around camp, do a little reading and writing, and swill some margaritas on the sun deck at the Big Pine Key Lodge where I am staying in my mobile fish camp. Today I decide to go out, but stick closer to home. There are three keys within a stone’s throw of camp—Big Mangrove, Little Don Quixote, and No Name. All three have different personalities and offer great opportunities for a variety of fish, some big. No Name is frequented by tarpon, snook, and (of course) lots of barracuda. Big Mangrove is the haunt of snappers, cudas, and some hefty sharks. Don Quixote and the flats just to its north are favorites of permit, sharks, and occasionally some tarpon. This is a particularly good trip when the wind is blowing from the northeast after a front blasts through.
I am up early, timing my day to hit the flats between Don Quixote and No Name on an incoming tide. I could paddle out north from the ramp at the lodge, under the Overseas Highway Bridge, and directly to Big Mangrove Key, but my preferred route starts at the venerable Old Wooden Bridge Cottages towards the north end of No Name Key, about a 20-minute drive up the east side of Big Pine Key. I slip my $10 ramp fee under the office door and launch into the Bogie Channel, hankering for a shot at the sizeable snook that hide under the bridge that connects Big Pine to No Name Key. I pitch a white Gulp swimming mullet on a 1/8 oz jig head up against one of the bridge pilings, let it sink, and then….
Here’s a scenic trip that will give you multiple shots at good-sized snook and high-flying baby tarpon…but only if you’re willing to be on the water before the crack of dawn and then navigate a couple of long, mesmerizing, but snag-filled mangrove tunnels that elicit epithets more freely than they yield fish. As a bonus, you will see huge flocks of birds, flotillas of alligator gars, and plenty of gators.
The put-in is a small, heavily used public park about five miles east of the intersection of the Tamiami Trail and Route 29 in Carnestown near Everglades City. A word to the wise: It is mandatory to be on the water very early to beat the kayak ecotours that descend practically every day on this popular route—and more so on weekends. If you sleep late and tarry, you may not find a parking spot and on the water will have to dodge colorful, careening kayaks often piloted by novices.
January is a good time of year to make this trip, especially if the weather has been dry in November and December or several good cold fronts have blown through. Reduced freshwater flows will mean more saltwater that will lure bait and gamefish up into the lakes, and cooler weather attracts snook and tarpon to the shallower, warmer inland waters. Also, the East River has a strong tidal flow so depth is not usually a problem. Let’s go!!
One of the least-visited, but most productive kayak fishing routes in the region is just a stone’s throw from Port of the Island and the Tamiami Trail–but deep in the heart of the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge. I’ve never encountered another angler on this trip, even though I rate it as having the best potential for a big snook or red of any I have sampled hereabouts. It begins inauspiciously in a little road-side lagoon off the Tamiami Trail on what’s marked as Canoe Route #4 by the Ten Thousand Island National Wildlife Refuge folk, then follows a narrow, shallow little creek snaking its way south through a tight corridor of sawgrass into a pristine, hidden wilderness.
In stark contrast to the Port of the Islands and its sister Golden Gates Estates developments to the east, poster children for environmentally rapacious Florida-style real estate projects of the 1970s, this route wanders through a beautiful untouched haven for egrets, spoonbills, ducks, and my favorite Florida bird, the graceful swallow-tailed kite. The channels it follows and shallow ponds it flows through are loaded with mullet and other bait fish, attracting snook and reds that grow fat on the bounty. Tarpon, bass, cichlids, jacks, and snapper also are on the menu for anglers who probe the water carefully.
The Faka Union River, known as the Fiki Uni to some long-time locals, is an important fixture of one of the largest pristine areas in Florida—the Fakahatchee Strand. It is the retreat of flocks of wading birds, deer, black bears, and the endangered Florida Panther. You may even see, as I did, an endangered American crocodile in this wilderness that has
been designated by Florida as an Area of Critical State Concern. And the chances for a coveted angler’s slam–snook, redfish, and tarpon–are as good here as anywhere in the country. I’ve scored several over the past few years. You may even hook a hungry bull or black tip shark to boot.
Although not apparent on the surface, the environment here has been severely altered by get-rich-quick development and drainage schemes over the past 50 years. Only in the past decade have serious remedial efforts been undertaken. The Port of the Islands development, the aborted Southern Golden Gates Estate project, and Faka Union Canal just up the road barely a mile from the put-in are poster children for the carnage.