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!!
It’s barely 50 degrees—frigid for South Florida–as I load up my yak and push off at 8:00 a.m. for a day of snook fishing on the Faka Union River, one of my favorite Everglades upcountry waters.
Riding a falling tide, I glide through a tight mangrove tunnel for 30 minutes and finally emerge into the first shallow lake. Belying the weatherman’s prediction of calm winds, there’s a stiff breeze blowing out of the north, and my usual honey hole, where I caught a couple of dozen snook only a few weeks ago, fails to produce. I valiantly try to take a video, but almost get blown off the water. I pedal on dejectedly. I manage a few smaller snook in the next lake and connecting creek but it’s beginning to look like an ecotour rather than the epic fishing day I had hoped for.
Then I hit what I call snook flats, a nondescript stretch offshore of a mangrove-studded shoreline further downstream that produced a couple of 25” plus snook back in February. It may be my last hope. This trip the snook seemed to be ignoring my usual redoubtable white Gulp curlytail, so I switch to a gold DOA paddletail. The old veteran anglers down here swear gold is the ticket for big snook.
I pitch a long cast out in front of the kayak and start to crank it back. Something big swirls and my rod nearly jumps from my hands….a big snook erupts from the surface and a furious fight is on.
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!!
(Note: See my April 2018 article for an update on fishing the Faka Union River.)
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.
“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.