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

April 2022

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

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

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

Everglades Prairie

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

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

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

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

Juvenile Eastern Lubber Grasshopper

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

Rose of Plymouth Wildflower

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

Sweetscent Herb And Flower

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

Marsh Marigold

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

Hidden Lake

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

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

Angler’s Dream

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

Feeding Gar
Spawning Long-Nose Gar

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

Bald Cypress Sporting New Needles

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

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

The Flip-Flop Mystery

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

Deep In Thought

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

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

The Graceful Swallow-Tail Kite

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

Going Against The Grain: Freshwater Bass Fishing In The Everglades Near Everglades City

November 2020

With the torrential rains, wind blowing like a banshee, Covid-19, and the occassional hurricane, don’t give up on fishing in the northern Everglades. There is some great bass angling in freshwater lakes scattered throughout the Big Cypress Preserve and Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park accessible from the US 41 (the Tamiami Trail) and FL Highway 29 near Everglades City. All it takes is a little sleuthing on Google Maps to find these gems! And don’t be surprised if you catch a wayward snook or tarpon in the bargain. Here’s my latest article from Florida Sportsman to help you get started:

BELOW: SCENES FROM GLADES FRESHWATER LAKES

Fishing Through The Corona Crisis

March 2020

I’m an old coot who has been through my share of crises, national and otherwise, over my 70-plus years.  During my college days there were the marches and raucous demonstrations over the Vietnam War culminating in the horrific Kent State shootings that sent the nation reeling. 

Flower Power Ends Vietnam War

They were followed by the race riots where Chicago and other big cities burned.  I remember well sitting in long lines for gas during the 70’s Arab oil embargo with fights breaking out when guys tried to cut in line, then a few years later nervously watching news of the Iran hostage crisis. 

Arab Oil Embargo Gas Crisis

I kept right on fishing through it all, including fly fishing through my mid-life crisis in the 90s (tipping my hat to Howell Raines who chronicled this time for all of us angling boomers).  Then there was 9-11 when I got stuck on the runway at O’Hare Airport in Chicago for three hours only upon disembarking to watch incredulously on a TV in the terminal the terrorist-piloted jet crash into the second Twin Tower in New York City.  I was thoroughly shaken and stranded in Chicago for three days, but back on the water a week later.  Fast forward to the Great Recession.  That crisis too would pass.

But none of those crises compares in my mind with the Coronavirus calamity sweeping the nation and world.   It’s an existential threat when despite all the years under your belt, you have no established frame of reference for anything like it. The only thing remotely comparable in my life is the first time when I was in California and a big earthquake hit.  It’s almost impossible to regain your equilibrium when the basic rock-solid reference point of your being shifts ominously beneath your feet.  It generates a sense of dread that is hard to shake.

I had that moment in March as the Coronavirus infections began to spread like wildfire in Washington and New York then mushrooming in Florida where I spend the winter.  Being among the so-called “at risk” population, I hid away early in my little abode near Everglades City.  But after a few days of reading and watching Chicago P.D. reruns, I was going more than a little stir crazy.   I figured a fishing trip into the wilds of the Everglades out of my home base on Chokoloskee Island might be the answer, the mental salve that I needed.  I have found time and again solitude and fighting fish are the antidote for many ailments.  Fortunately I could get away in my kayak to close-by spots without having to fill-up with gas or cross paths with other anglers at boat ramps. But the weather and tides were conspiring against me.  The wind was blowing like a banshee, and the tides were super low during the prime fishing times.  That meant I couldn’t risk getting out on Chokoloskee Bay or probably wouldn’t have enough water to get into some of my favorite backcountry creeks.  And of course the authorities were issuing dire warnings as they belatedly closed beaches and restaurants in Florida.  What’s an angler to do??

As I plotted my next move, I also knew I had to respect the admonitions about social distancing and staying sheltered away from the madding crowds to protect others and myself.  To make things even more challenging, several of my favorite routes weren’t options as nearby state parks and many public boat ramps had wisely closed.   I needed a paradigm shift. 

Then if by magic, a friend who lives just outside Everglades City called and asked if I’d like to try fishing on a sheltered freshwater lake that his home borders on, one with public access.  Not an angler himself, he mentioned that he’d seen some big fish swimming and rising along the shoreline during one of his walks.  Probably bass, I thought.  He added he’d never seen a boat out on the lake.  No wind, no tides, big fish, and no people—sounded like the perfect Corona escape!  And it was!! 

Big Bass Hiding In Plain Sight

I rerigged my snook rod/reel outfits with lighter leaders and dug out my old bass fishing lures that I hadn’t used for years.  I tied on an old reliable baby bass-colored fluke on a 1/8 oz. jig head.  Bass are cannibals so it seemed like a good bet.  No one was on the lake when I shoved off in the early morning in my kayak.  Ten minutes later I had managed nary a strike when I hooked the bottom off a stand of sawgrass….or at least that’s what I thought until it moved.  Five minutes of chaos later, I landed one of my biggest bass ever—pushing seven pounds.

Lunker Largemouth Bass

The bonus was the wildlife that I crossed paths with as I paddled the beautiful clear spring-fed lake.

Fellow Angler
Gator Time

That outing started me on a quixotic quest to find more hidden freshwater bass lakes in my immediate neighborhood overlooked and ignored by saltwater anglers like myself pursuing snook and tarpon–ones I could get to and fish from my kayak without endangering anyone. It didn’t take long with a little sleuthing to find a hidden series of lakes just down the road from me. This one produced some exotics from South America–a beautiful big Peacock Bass and a colorful Mayan Cichlid, AKA Atomic Sunfish.

An Exotic Invader–A Peacock Bass

Atomic Sunfish

And the bonus in one was a surprise snook, a saltwater fish that can survive in freshwater, that went almost 30-inches. The mystery is how she got there miles from saltwater. But then whose to argue??

Surprise Snook!

I have even started chasing toothy gar in the canals along the Tamiami Trail a few minutes from my home.  Fortunately I have been able to enlist the help of a human pack mule to haul my kayak into more remote spots. He works for good red wine.

More about those bass, gar, and hidden lakes in the future…and believe me they are mental antidotes for the pandemic.

The whole experience reminded me that life goes on, offering new patterns and adventures along the way, often in your backyard. Mind you, I am not advocating straying miles from home like the knuckleheads from the Miami area who are evading the state and local stay-at-home orders and closed boat ramps there to descend on Everglades City and Chokoloskee Island with its populace overwhelmingly made up of vulnerable senior citizens. The nearest hospital is over an hour away. Stay close to home so you aren’t putting yourself and other people at risk. There’s so much about this virus that doctors and scientists are just discovering—like some people who are infected never exhibit any symptoms.

If you live in Florida, and especially in the Miami or another urban area, take another look at those nearby canals.  Monster Peacock Bass and big Mayan Cichlids are probably lurking and hungry.  Take the cue from anglers in Denver who are restricted from going out to the mountains to fish so they are catching carp AND big trout in the South Platte that runs through the heart of the city.  And whatever you do, just be careful out there.