Early January 2023
For my earlier outings on the Barron River, see: https://hooknfly.com/2016/11/19/barron-river-kayak-fishing-trifecta/
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!