After a couple of days last week navigating and casting in the tight, sometimes maddening, quarters of backcountry mangrove tunnels, I’m ready for an easy day of fishing in my kayak. One of my favorite close-in trips starts at the historic Smallwood Store, just a long stone’s throw from my winter abode on Chokoloskee Island, Florida. The route wends its way past some productive oyster beds then snakes up channels to cross Rabbit Key Pass before circling back to the Lopez River and back home. It’s a trip that always produces a grab bag of fish with a good chance at a slam—a redfish, speckled sea trout, and snook, with feisty jack crevalles and high-stepping ladyfish to keep you busy throughout the day. Let’s go!!
This is a perfect outing for novice kayakers and families with kids. It’s my go-to spot when friends with teenagers come to visit me at my winter retreat. The trip to the islands at the mouth of the Turner River just off Chokoloskee Island is just a short one-half mile paddle, and you’ll be surrounded by hundreds of years of fascinating history, have a chance to see lots of birds and maybe a manatee or gator, and catch a bunch of sea trout, ladyfish, and jacks to boot with shots at some good-sized snook. What’s not to like??
Most Everglades kayakers float the upper Turner River by launching some eight miles upstream at a popular put-in on the Tamiami Trail highway. It’s a scenic route through a variety of fascinating ecosystems, ranging from freshwater cypress forests to sawgrass prairies to saltwater mangrove tunnels. It’s one of the most popular kayak trips in the Everglades—but the fishing is spotty at best till you get to the mouth and you will share the river with flotillas of fellow kayakers, often in large commercial ecotour groups. In contrast, if you put in at the mouth of the Turner, you’ll likely have the place to yourself, you won’t be paddling all day, and the fishing can be epic with non-stop action even for beginners.
The lower river is steeped in history. The Calusa Indians, who were the dominant tribe in Southwest Florida for thousands of years into the 16th and 17th centuries, built a village about one-half mile up the river from the mouth. It covered 30 acres and had at least 30 closely spaced, elevated shell mounds that kept it above storm levels (hmmm, could we learn something from that??). The Calusa developed a complex culture with hereditary kings that was based on estuarine fisheries rather than agriculture like many other eastern tribes. Historians speculate that by the 1600’s they numbered 10,000 and possibly many more across Southwest Florida. The Everglades were the southern reaches of their territory.
With the arrival of the Spaniards, the Calusa’s hegemony in the region was challenged. They fought many battles against the invaders, mortally wounding Ponce De Leon in one. The tribe, with its fierce warriors, held its own into the 1700s and struck an uneasy peace with the Spaniards. But then a combination of the English (who were at war with the Spanish) supplying firearms to the enemies of the Calusas, the Creek and Yemasee tribes, coupled with infectious diseases introduced by the Europeans finally sealed the Calusa’s fate. In 1711 the Spanish helped evacuate several hundred Calusa to Cuba where most soon died. Seventeen hundred were left behind and when Spain ceded Florida to the British in 1763, surviving remnants were evacuated to Cuba or may have been absorbed into the Seminole tribe.
The next wave of invaders was U.S. soldiers during the Third Seminole war in 1857. An army contingent of about 100 troops commanded by Captain Richard Turner led a party up the river off Chokoloskee Island where they were camped. They were ambushed and driven off. After the Seminole were subdued, Turner returned in 1874 and settled near the mouth of the river, giving it his name. He farmed, raising vegetables that were shipped to Key West.
The combination of this history, an easy paddle, and some good fishing make the Lower Turner River a great half-day outing.
The put-in for this trip is a break in the mangroves on the east side of the causeway between Everglades City and Chokoloskee Island. It’s only about a quarter mile before you get to the welcome sign to Chokoloskee and its marina with a paved boat ramp. The informal launch area has a nice beach that makes things easy and provides a sandy play area for the kiddies. You can park along the causeway to unload your gear and leave your vehicle near the put-in. Just make sure not to block the paved pathway.
The excursion to the cluster of mangrove-covered oyster bar islands at the mouth of the Turner is only about a half mile paddle. It’s best to plan your trip on a high tide just beginning to fall. The crossing is very shallow at low tide.
There is no official tide reading for the lower Turner, but I find tides there usually lag behind those for Chokoloskee by about 1 ½ hours. Of equal importance, I find the angling best on a high falling tide as the fish line up to feed in the holes between and below islands as the current serves up goodies. As you explore among the islands, be aware of the sharp, plastic-eating oyster beds that line each one as well as the channels between the islands.
An interesting side trip for the more adventurous is to paddle one-half mile upstream to view the Calusa Indian shell mounds that have been listed in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. The Calusa occupied this area between 200 BC and 900 AD, elevating their villages above the water on small oyster shells placed on submerged mud flats (Hmmm, wonder if we could learn from that??) The shell mounds are overgrown, making for some challenging but fun exploration. Remember to look but not disturb.
One final note of caution. The mouth of the Turner along the islands is a designated slow-motor area to protect the endangered manatees that feed here. However, some fishing guides and anglers in motorboats ignore the prominent signage and blast through the area at high speeds on their way to the Everglades backcountry with little regard to manatees or kayakers that may be present. The peak of this renegade activity is usually early in the morning and late afternoon.
Both light/medium spin gear and fly-fishing tackle work well on the Turner. I typically bring three 6 1/2 or 7-foot spin rods and 2500 series spin reels loaded with 30# test line and 30# flourocarbon leaders. My go-to lures include white ¼ ounce floater/diver minnow plugs (Rapala or Yozuri 3D Crystal Minnows), white curlytail grubs on a 1/8 ounce red jig head, and gold spoons. When the water is on the turbid side from a southwest wind, a new penny stickbait on a yellow jig head will fool the snook, and if black drum are cruising the shallows live crab or shrimp can be the ticket.
When the current is blasting out between the islands, a small mushroom anchor is a big help to keep your boat in position to cast to the deeper, productive holes. The shorelines around the islands are wadeable, but make sure you have some good hard-soled wading shoes, because sharp oyster shells abound.
Trip Notes (Spring)
I am up with my young fishing buddy at the crack of dawn and putting in as the sun rises. It’s late spring, and we want to get an early start to catch the high tide and beat the heat. I generally find that the fishing is best early, but the Turner will produce later in the day as well if you can’t get the kids out of bed.
We have plenty of water as we angle across the bay to the mouth of the river. The tide is just beginning to fall, so we anchor up just outside the first set of islands guarding the mouth just inside the tall, prominent slow-motor sign. We are casting white curlytails, and it doesn’t take long before we’re both into some nice trout and high-stepping ladyfish. It’s not unusual to catch some 16” plus trout here. The ticket is usually to cast into the current and let the lure sink back into the deep hole then make a slow, jigging retrieve. Don’t be surprised if you also hook a jack or gaff topsail catfish, which are plenty of fun to catch.
When the fishing slows, we start to work the shorelines, casting small white floater/diver minnows into the shallows. We’re rewarded with a some jolting strikes by a couple of decent 20” snook, that put on a good show before coming in for a quick release. Earlier in the spring, big black drum cruise the shallows around all the islands, but can be finicky. I have never been able to coax one to hit an artificial lure, even when a lay a perfect cast right in front of their noses. I’ve had them literally swim right under my yak in three feet of water with nary a glance. If you’re serious about catching one of the big boys, think live crabs. You are also likely to see some big gentle manatee feeding in the deeper water during the winter.
Then it’s off into the interior as the scofflaw motor boats start to blast through, studiously ignoring the slow-motor sign. The key is to look for deeper holes among the islands where trout like to hang out and also focus on spots just below riffles between the islands where the current has gouged out some depth. Jacks and ladyfish often abound there.
Keep your eyes peeled for one of my favorite Island Girls as you paddle around. She’s a feisty raccoon that plies the islands with her little ones teaching them how to crack open oyster shells for a tasty treat. She’ll show them how, then insist they do it themselves even as they screech for momma to come back and do it for them!
Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the good-sized gator that likes to sun himself in the winter on the mud flats to the north. That north shoreline is also one of the best stretches to cast for reds at the mouth. Look for dropoffs from the bank.
After getting our fair share of jacks and ladyfish on spoons and the curlytail, my young companion and I decide to work the interior shorelines for snook. Old Linesides likes to lay just a few feet offshore of the oyster beds, picking off unwary baitfish. A good strategy is to work up a shoreline, casting a floater/diver minnow ahead 5-10 feet from the shoreline. Sinking lures don’t work as well as they tend to snag on the oysters. It doesn’t take long before my young charge lets out a whoop. He’s onto a big snook that thrashes the surface then takes off for freedom. But my buddy is no novice and shows off his fishing skills, playing the fish perfectly. He displays his prize with a confident grin.
By now the sun is getting high and hot, so we head back to the beach and lunch. As we wade ashore, we notice hundreds of little crabs scurrying about, so decide it’s time for a roundup. It’s a riot chasing the little devils who prove too quick for us. It’s another reason the Turner River is one of my favorite spots!
Caution: Hurrican Irma has changed the landscape of the East River, dramatically in places. The Fakahatchee State Park has done a good job of clearing many of the downed mangrove trees in the river stretches connecting Lakes #3, 4, and 5, but the going is tougher than ever with more brush and snags in the water. If you have a pedal kayak, I advise against using the pedals in the river sections to avoid hanging up on the snags with possible damage to the fins. More importantly, as of April 2018, the river linking Lake #4 and #5 (Crab Pot Lake) is completely blocked by a couple of downed trees about half way between the two lakes. Hopefully it will be cleared soon, but until then the trip ends at Lake #4. See the photos below. The good news is that the fishing is still worth the trip for snook, baby tarpon, and the abundant cichlids:
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 long-nose gar, 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 life of man is of no greater importance to the universe than an oyster.” –David Hume
I’m always looking for a new kayak fishing day trip that doesn’t require a Herculean paddling effort, one that I can feature in the Everglades kayak fishing guide I’m working on. So sitting comfortably on the lounge chair on my sun deck on late afternoon, margarita in hand, I conducted a virtual tour on my cell phone GPS app and spotted an intriguing area I had never explored. Just northwest of the national park headquarters in Everglades City lies a broken jumble of mangrove islands and oyster beds in Chokoloskee Bay that looked promising and whetted my appetite.