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!
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!
What can you say about 2021? It certainly was another interesting and challenging year. Despite the vicissitudes and travails that all of us went through, it was rewarding overall with plenty of delights, fun times, and frisky fish. Here goes, taking a look back at the best and some busted times as well.
An unexpected and wonderful delight was the extra time I got to spend with my little sweetheart granddaughter Aly. Because of day-care problems associated with Covid, I drove to Denver every week for 8 months starting in October 2020 to take care of her for two days, just her and me, what she called “Grandpa days.” Boy did we have fun exploring creeks, catching crawdaddies, and fooling some fish in metro Denver lakes!
I was also happy to welcome an expanding group of readers from all over the USA and internationally. It’s been a treat getting to know several better, trading fish stories and becoming friends. Thanks to Jim, Bill, Jason, Ed, Jerry, Tim, Brian and the rest of the gang. Despite Covid which led me to remain in Colorado all of 2021 and only spending two weeks in Florida with only one new post, readership stayed steady at the high level established in 2020–over 86,000 views.
In a typical year, new Florida posts account for a quarter of all views. Now that I am back in Florida for the winter and spring, you can bet I will be getting out on the water and sharing new trips and tales.
Like most senior citizens, I can’t let the opportunity pass to gripe about various aches and pains. In October 2020 I came down with a severe case of sciatica due to a couple of ill-advised back-to-back hikes into rugged canyons in search of trout. It was so bad—had me hobbling with a cane–that I began contemplating a life without the hiking, kayaking, and fishing remote backcountry areas that I love. Fortunately, I was referred to a wonderful doctor of physical therapy who correctly assessed the problem in my aging back and put together an exercise routine that has me feeling better than ever and ready for more adventures exploring this beautiful Earth.
Most Popular Posts And Published Articles
By a wide margin, the most popular articles were a quartet about fishing for rare Rio Grande Cutthroat trout in southern Colorado. The series garnered over 5,300 views, including the single most-read article —exploring Medano Creek in the Great Sand Dunes National Preserve, with 2,700 views.
Perhaps the most rewarding response to any post was the continuing popularity of a five-part series I wrote in late 2020 entitled “The Best Fishing Books Of All Time.” It garnered over 1,600 views in 2021, and several times was featured in the daily Google News post as the leading article on the subject. It was particularly popular around Christmas time as people searched for gift ideas.
For saltwater angling, the article I wrote several years ago on fishing around Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys continues to lead the pack with almost 1,600 views. I am planning to get back down there in May for some additional piscatorial research and updating.
Covid has been particularly tough on national fishing publications. One of the first angling magazines I wrote for back in the 1990s, the venerable American Angler, folded in 2020, and in 2021 one of my favorites, Southwest Fly Fishing, was consolidated with five other similar magazines by the same publisher into just one called American Fly Fishing. The new one is excellent, but the competition to get something published is tougher.
Despite all of that, I was pleased to have two articles come out in 2021. The first, in Florida Sportsman, is a bit of an oddity for me–fishing for Peacock Bass in the freshwater canals of a big residential development near Naples, Florida. I’m mainly a saltwater, backcountry fishing devotee when I come to Florida, but had a good time learning new tricks while catching in a suburban setting these big, colorful exotic fish from South America.
The second article, which I am particularly proud of tackled the looming catastrophic impact of climate change on the insects trout subsist on and what can be done about it. Entitled “Insect Armageddon,” it appeared in the May 2021 issue of American Fly Fishing.
Another article I wrote for American Fly Fishing, “Mission Impossible?? Searching For Fish And Solitude In South Park, Colorado,” will be coming out in early 2022.
Perhaps the biggest bummer in the realm of publishing came with my Everglades kayak fishing guide that was to be published by Wild Adventures Press in Montana. I completed a draft of the guidebook and was well into the editing process when the company ran into staffing issues as well as production problems linked to its printer in South Korea. Because the press was unlikely to be able to publish the guidebook anytime soon, I parted company with it and am searching for a new more reliable publisher. Any thoughts?
One last note, I was honored to be asked by two fishing clubs, one in Florida and one in Colorado, to make Zoom presentations to their members. The one in Florida focused on kayak fishing in the Everglades and the Colorado meeting on beaver pond fishing savvy. Give me a buzz if you’d like me to make a presentation to your club. Always fun!
Most Rewarding Trips
An expedition to explore the remote Adams Fork of the Conejos River in southern Colorado turned out to be the most rewarding trip of the year for a couple of reasons. First, I was able to successfully test my recovery from the aforementioned bout with debilitating sciatica. I hiked in about three miles then down a steep slope into the canyon below and out again with no ill effects. Better yet, the beautiful, rare Rio Grande Cutthroats, the native trout that is making a comeback in southern Colorado, were very cooperative. What a day!!
Close behind was another hidden gem in the South Luis Valley of southern Colorado, La Garita Creek, that flows out of a gigantic volcano caldera. Accessed only by a rough 4-WD road, La Garita Creek is loaded with eager brown trout, but only if you can find an opening in the overgrown stream to make a decent cast. Can’t wait to return next summer.
I also had what I call ten fin-filled, fun days in late summer on two separate trips with old fishing buddies, Bob Wayne and Steve Spanger. We fished seven different rivers and streams in those ten days ranging from the South Arkansas to the Chama River including waters like Saguache Creek and the Adams Fork and the Gunnison River in between. Fortunately, the fish were sympathetic to us old geezers, and we had a blast.
Most Humbling Trip, Burst Bubbles, And The Blood-Curdling
Without a doubt, the most humbling angling experience of the year was fishing the beaver ponds of Trout Creek near Buena Vista, Colorado. I fancy myself a beaver pond maven, but in May almost lost all my mojo to the lock-jawed brownies of Trout Creek. I flailed the water for an entire day, spooking many fish and landing only three despite heroic efforts that included sloshing through beaver pond marshes in knee-deep muck, fighting willows for my flies, and scaling steep slopes to get to hidden ponds. Nothing worked!
Fortunately, I got a measure of revenge and partially rejuvenated my mojo with trips several weeks later to tackle the beaver ponds of Pass Creek not far from my cabin near Salida, Colorado. I managed to catch dozens of nice browns and brookies including a 14-inch beautiful brownie.
With my mojo partially patched up, I am planning a return encounter this summer with the baffling Trout Creek denizens!
Another particularly humbling experience came in the fall at the hands of brook trout on the upper reaches of the Huerfano (Wear-fano) River in the wilds of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of southern Colorado. Fishing in one of the most scenic valleys I’ve ever set foot in, I was sure this was going to be a banner day when in the first pool I came to I spied nice brook trout finning in the depths. However, three hours and many epithets lates, I flew the white flag. I had scored nary a bite the whole time as the spawning brookies made clear amore was more important than eating. With the air redolent of skunk, I slunk back to my SUV and headed back downstream where I managed to salve my bruised ego and rid the myself of the scent of skunk with a dozen or so nice brown trout. Sometimes persistence pays off!
On the blood-curdling front, in the past close encounters with alligators and moose have topped the list. This time it was a close-encounter of the cougar kind. Picture bushwhacking through heavy, tall brush along a creek to fish a beaver pond, stepping out on a sand bar, and seeing the fresh tracks of a mountain lion! That’s what happened to me on Pass Creek last summer.
Needless to say the last few hairs on my follicle-challenged head stood straight up! I hadn’t seen or heard a thing, but had no doubt the cat was watching me. Fortunately he must have thought my skinny, old body wouldn’t be much of a snack. I made plenty of noise the rest of the day, and had my knife close at hand just in case. A 14-inch brown trout made the fright worthwhile!
For every Huerfano River or Trout Creek debacle, there always seems to be one or two pleasant surprises each year where I discover a new, unexpectedly good water to fish. Upper Tarryall Creek in South Park, Colorado, wins the award for 2021. I stumbled onto the creek in June when I stopped with my sweetheart granddaughter Aly to have lunch and explore a “haunted house” at the Cline Ranch State Wildlife Area on the way from Denver to my cabin outside Salida, Colorado.
When I pulled into the parking area, I noticed that the four spaces were all prominently numbered. On a nearby sign I read that each parking space was assigned an exclusive “beat” on nearby Upper Tarryall Creek, a beautiful small stream. It reminded me of the beat system the English use on their rivers where waters are divided into beats or stretches and the number of anglers allowed on each limited to help spread out the fishing pressure. I made a mental note to return, which I did several weeks later. After parking in one of the designated spots, I walked north to the corresponding upper beat and had a fabulous day fishing for nice browns in the creek and several big beaver ponds. All of this not much more than a stone’s throw from traffic whizzing by US 285. And I had the water to myself all day in South Park that is sometimes overrun with anglers from Denver and Colorado Springs. What a smart idea!
On The Horizon: Looking Forward to 2022
So what’s on the agenda for 2022? First and foremost is to get back down to Florida to get my saltwater chops back. I arrived in Everglades City a couple of weeks ago, got the kayak and Gheenoe ready to go, and started executing that plan. A 24-inch snook on my first yak outing led the fish parade. More stories and tall tales to come from the Everglades backcountry!
I also want to explore some of the remote brackish canals east of Naples, Florida, that are impossible to access except with a kayak. Big snook are rumored to hide out there along with the gators!
While in Florida, I hope to get the Everglades Kayak Fishing Guide back on track and will be sending out the manuscript to several publishing houses.
I’ll be hauling one of my pedal kayaks with me on the way back to Colorado in May so I can stop at Port O’Connor, Texas, and fish that wonderful inshore water inside the barrier island for redfish and sea trout in my kayak. The yak will also come in handy as I try to explore some high-mountain lakes in Colorado that are accessible with my 4-WD SUV.
Also high on my list when I return to Colorado for the summer will be to fish another remote tributary of the Conejos River, the Middle Fork up in the high country not too far from the Adams Fork. I also want to explore the upper, wild reaches of the Rio Chama near the New Mexico border.
Of course, I will chase some trout with my sweetheart Aly!!
Finally after almost two years!! Instead of salting sidewalks in Colorado, I’m salting margaritas on my sun deck, fishing my fanny off in my yak instead of freezing my derrière, wrestling snook instead of shoveling snow!! And the fish are very cooperative. Life’s good! More details and new fishing trips to come soon.