After months of drought, with nary a drop of rain in January in Everglades City and not much more in February and March, the forecast is for the rainy season to begin in earnest later this week–rain every day along with winds gusting to 25 mph. I figure I’d better get out soon before I hunker down, and tomorrow the rain is supposed to hold off till 5 p.m. I have my sights set on the Blackwater River in Collier-Seminole State Park outside Naples. I haven’t fished the river for almost three years, courtesy of Covid followed last fall by Hurrican Ian which blasted the park and shut it down till recently. My last trip the fish were cooperative, so it’s time for some serious ichthylogical investigation to see how the finned creatures have fared.
As a young farmboy in Kansas, I was raised on catching freshwater catfish in the Little Arkansas (ARE-Kansas) River near my hometown. It was easy. When the river was up, the catfish went on the feed and liked the live leapfrogs we suckered them with. But the more I chase snook, reds, and tarpon in saltwater (and just about anything that will bite), the more complicated angling seems to have become. Some days my head spins thinking about how the tides, salinity, wind, moon phase, depth, bait, currents, and time of day are going to affect my next outing fishing inshore and in the backcountry of the Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands near Everglades City. Periodic cold fronts that have blasted through the area this winter have made water temperature an even bigger factor, often trumping everything else.
In late December and then again in mid-January air temperatures fell precipitously from the 80s during the day into the low 40s for several nights in a row. That dropped water temperatures into the 50s. On one trip soon after the December cold snap, I saw literally thousands of Oscars and Mayan Cichlids killed on the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve’s East River. The piles of dead fish made for vulture heaven.
Fortunately, I saw only a couple of dead baby tarpon and no snook. However, other angling friends sadly reported seeing dead sportfish in the backcountry as well as manatee.
Mercifully for us snowbirds, a couple of weeks post-cold front, things started to recover. Inshore the fish had the luxury of retreating into deeper water of the Gulf during the frigid weather, and then the tides coming in from the nearby Gulf warmed things up quickly. But in the Everglades backcountry where I like to explore, the story was different. I was surprised to find that a temperature difference of five degrees between 60 and 65 or 65 and 70 in locations not far from one another made a big difference, making fishing a real challenge. The problem was that the temperatures at my launch in Chokoloskee were usually warmer than in the backcountry which made predicting where to go a crap shoot–or even whether I should venture out at all. Here is an example of the conundrum I was grappling with. In early January, my fishing buddy Steve Keeble, drove down from Georgia to thaw out and chase some snook. The water temperature in Chokoloskee Bay was pushing 70 degrees, so things looked good when we plotted our backcountry trip, within the comfort range for snook and redfish according to a handy-dandy temperature table I had cobbled together based on some on-line research.
PREFERRED WATER TEMPERATURE (IN DEGREES)
SPECKLED SEA TROUT
Avoids Temps Below 65
Avoids Temps Below 60
Seeks Deeper Water Below 40
But when we motored into the backcountry in my Gheenoe, we were skunked with nary a bite in one tidal creek where the water temperature was 65 degrees. I was ready to give up but decided to try another nearby creek, and there we found hungry fish, including a big mama snook that Mr. Keeble adroitly landed after some mangrove mayhem–despite the water temperature being just over 60.
After some head scratching, we concluded the difference apparently was depth. The first creek being only three feet deep and the second having narrower channels where the depth was four-to-five feet which gave the fish a sanctuary to retreat to during the earlier cold snap, warmer than the surface temperature. Now the puzzle was how to predict water temperatures in the backcountry more accurately before I headed out.
A few weeks later Mr. Keeble, back north freezing his derrière off, sent me an email that clued me in on a valuable tool that has helped me gain some insights into the water temperature conundrum—an obscure website with the bureaucratically inspired name of National Data Buoy Center (NDBC). A part of NOAA (the federal National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration), the center bills itself as “the premier source of meteorological and oceanographic measurements for the marine environment”—and it is! The NDBC maintains hundreds of buoys around the United States.
Fortunately, the NDBC maintains four information gathering sites near Everglades City within Everglades National Park. They are: 1) CNBFI-Cannon Bay, (2) LMRFI—Lostmans, (3)WLFI—Watson’s Place, and (4) WIWFI—Willy Willy. The Willy Willy site is particularly relevant for my backcountry peregrinations because it is farther away from the waters of the Gulf than the other three and located in a tidal creek rather than a wide tidal river or big bay—not a foolproof indicator by any means, but certainly better than flying blind.
Now before any trip into the Everglades backcountry, I open the NDBC web page, click on the four sites, and get the inside skinny on water temperatures and other data. Then when I get to the areas in my motorboat I have decided to explore, I check the water temperature and depth displays carefully on my Garmin Echomap to home in on the most likely spots.
If out in my Hobie Outback kayak, I go more rudimentary, dropping a water thermometer overboard (tied to my yak!) for a temperature reading and extend my collapsible paddle to full length to determine the depth. Temperature is also important in freshwater lakes in the Everglades for tracking down bass and cichlids.
I assiduously record this information in the journal I maintain for every fishing trip which allows me to feed it all into the giant mainframe computer I maintain at home that spits out exact spots to fish next time out with 100% reliability. I wish. But having this information does often provide a leg up and leads me into the likely areas without a lot of fruitless experimenting by hoping from place-to-place.
Things will be different during the summer around Everglades City when the shallow backcountry waters heat up rapidly, exceeding the upper comfort limits of many sportfish. Then the most likely fishing spots will be inshore among and just off the Ten Thousand Islands closer to the cooler waters of the Gulf, but the process of checking the NDBC site will be the same. Of course, all the other variables—tides, wind, currents, moon phase, etc.—have to be factored into the equation….but that’s what makes fishing, and hopefully catching, such fun and provides anglers with ample excuses to get out on the water and figure it all out.
January 2022 dawned sunny and bright, with me salting margaritas down in the Everglades instead of sidewalks in Colorado and, better yet, wrestling snook instead of shoveling snow! Covid was finally in the rearview mirror for the most part and promises for a bountiful piscatorial year are looking good. So how did it turn out? Here’s a look back at the best of 2022 and some bungled episodes as well.
It’s hard to believe that I hadn’t fished in the Everglades–or anywhere in Florida for that matter like the Keys—in the winter for almost two years! Despite that hiatus and fewer articles about fishing in the Sunshine State being posted in 2022, I was grateful my readers stuck with me and that the number of visitors and views stayed steady at the peak levels established in 2020. Many thanks!
Fishing Buddies And Family
As I age (slowly and gracefully), the connections angling brings with fishing buddies and family become ever more important and treasured. I had some fun and productive outings in Florida with Jim Cannon (former owner of the renowned Blue Quill Anglers in Colorado), my Colorado neighbor Charlie Cain, Esq., Steve Keeble, Robert Wayne, Esq. (who lives in Naples, FL), and my old college roomie Morris Douglas Martin.
We had a lot of laughs together while we boated a lot of fish, and better yet, I learned some new tricks and tips from them. You ought to see Cannon and Keeble fly cast from a kayak—impressive! In Colorado during the summer the fish parade continued with good friends Bob Wayne and Steve Spanger as we chased trout in the Colorado wilds. I also enjoyed fishing with new friends Tom Palka, who writes the newsletter for our local Trout Unlimited Chapter, and Kim LeTourneau, an accomplished guide for my local fly shop Ark Anglers who also covers fishing for the Mountain Mail newspaper.
Whether in Florida or in the Rockies, they all had the chutzpah to outfish me!!
In March my son Matthew came down for a week to soak some rays and relax. The day we spent in the Everglades backcountry together warmed this father’s heart. It was a smorgasbord of feisty fish—snook, sea trout, ladies, jacks, and even a gafftopsail catfish that put up a great fight before sliming us when we wrestled with him to remove the hook. The video says it all.
This proud papa was thrilled when Florida Sportsman published a short article in the fall that I wrote about fishing the Tamiami Trail country around Everglades City. It featured a couple of great photos of Matthew and yours truly with some nice snook.
Come summer back in Colorado my little sweetheart granddaughter Aly showed off her casting skills while catching some nice rainbows in a high mountain lake along with her Daddy Matthew. The mile walk in and out to the lake was a great nature hike featuring beautiful wildflowers and a close encounter with a big buck mule deer.
Most Popular Posts And Published Articles
The continuing popularity of a series of five blog posts I penned in 2020 entitled “The Best Fishing Books Of All Time” is remarkable. It garnered over 3,000 views this year and on Google searches for ‘best fishing books’ has become the most popular link on that subject, even outpacing Amazon’s sponsored ads. Take that Zuckerberg!
The most read angling posts, with almost 4,000 views, were again a quartet about finding and fishing for rare Rio Grande Cutthroat trout in southern Colorado. For my latest foray on the fab forks of the Conejos with my photographer Jody Bol, see: https://hooknfly.com/2022/08/15/conejos-river-capers/
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. I have already made plans for a two-week fishing trip to the Florida Keys in late April.
When the weather was uncooperative or the winds howling, I hunkered down and continued to write articles for American Fly Fishing and Florida Sportsman. The article about fishing in South Park, Colorado, was titled “Mission Impossible: Searching For Fish And Solitude.”
It was the lead featured piece in the July issue of American Fly Fishing and focused on finding hidden and remote creeks in the famous valley near Denver, home of the South Platte River, Dream Stream, and other popular waters and lakes that sometimes feature combat fishing. https://hooknfly.com/2022/07/21/south-park-under-the-radar/
Florida Sportsman ran two of my articles in 2022. The first was a fun one in which I discussed the very controversial gar conversion therapy. Under the heading “In Defense Of The Antediluvian Gar,” I stood up for this hard-fighting, oft-underestimated fish while documenting the successful conversion of a tarpon aficionado to gar fishing in the Everglades. https://hooknfly.com/2022/11/19/gar-conversion-therapy/
The second piece, noted above, recounted the variety of angling opportunities along the Tamiami Trail between Naples and Miami.
Most Rewarding Trips
One of my favorite streams close to home is a remote twenty mile stretch of Grape Creek between Westcliffe and Canon City, Colorado. Over the past decade I have had many memorable trips into the canyon where the creek runs, chasing plentiful and hungry browns and rainbows. But disaster struck a couple of years ago when two giant flash floods only a few weeks apart scoured the canyon and practically wiped out all insect life in the upper reaches. Without food, the fish abandoned the stretches I frequented. After a couple of fruitless trips, I decided to wait a couple of years to see if Grape Creek would recover. Thankfully, it did, and I was rewarded with my biggest trout of the year—a 19-inch brown—during a July trip.
Another trip up the headwaters of the Conejos River high in the mountains of southern Colorado provided some unexpected and mostly pleasant surprises. Exploring the five forks of the Conejos River is on my bucket list. I have had terrific days on the Lake and Adams Fork chasing beautiful, rare Rio Grande Cutthroats. This year I had my eye on fishing the Middle and North Forks, both of which can be reached as they branch off the Upper Conejos River about two miles above Platoro Reservoir. Being remote streams, I expected a plethora of feisty fish including cutthroats that I had found on the nearby Adams Fork. But after pounding the lower reaches of each for an hour, I was beginning to have my doubts. I decided to try one last pool on the Middle Fork that looked particularly inviting and struck a bonanza. On my first cast I watched transfixed as a huge brown trout rose slowly from the depths and inhaled my fly. Then it was off to the races, trying to run down the rascal who had managed to fly by me and head downstream into a brush pile. Somehow I managed to extricate that big brownie and followed that miracle by catching his large mate on the very next cast.
Given that result, I decided I’d better retrace my steps and go up higher on the North Fork. However, I only managed a few small browns on that stretch before it disappeared into a ravine above the valley. Needless to say, I was perplexed. Why so few fish on the Middle and North Forks, albeit big ones on the Middle Fork? The revelation would come as I fished back down on the Upper Conejos below the fork to the trailhead where my SUV was parked. Here on a mile stretch I caught a passel of brown trout, most over 15-inches. The answer?? As confirmed by a local angler at the general store in Platoro, the big fish migrate out of Platoro Reservoir into the Upper Conejos and grow fat and sassy eating all the little guys. Of course, now I must return in 2023 to confirm this theory!
In 2022 I thankfully avoided any scary incidents with moose, mountain lions, sharks and the like that I have had in the past. But the year’s most blood-curdling incident was self-inflicted, with an alligator playing the villain. Normally the many gators I encounter during my trips into the Everglades backcountry bolt at the first sign of my kayak or Gheenoe. Once in a great while a young gator will venture too close when I am catching lots of fish, attracted out of curiosity to all the jumping and splashing. Usually smacking a paddle on the water sends him scurrying for cover. Alligators that are aggressive down here tend to be ones fed by humans, mainly tourists.
My most memorable gator encounter for 2022 took place on a sunny day in March when I took my college buddy Morris on a trip along the historic Loop Road near Everglades City. I figured we would take a break from the serious day-long fishing trips into the backcountry and find some easier targets in the bass and cichlids in the canal along the gravel road as it winds its way through the swamp. The alligators were everywhere. Being teenage boys at heart, we couldn’t resist tossing one of the small fish we caught to a big gator lounging in the slough near a big culvert.
The fish bounced a few feet down the slope but didn’t make it to the water. All of a sudden, the docile reptile came rocketing out of the water at warp speed to gobble down the fish. His momentum carried him up the incline almost onto the road. It must have been comical to watch two old coots scrambling back towards their SUV in utter terror, but thankfully no one was there to record the incident. Lesson relearned: DO NOT FEED THE GATORS!!
The biggest bummer of the year followed in the wake of Hurricane Ian that struck southwest Florida in late September. I had dutifully rigged my Gheenoe, a motorized canoe, under my house on Chokoloskee Island near Everglades City as advised by old salts down here. Following that advice, my boat had survived in good condition a five-foot flood tide that swept over Chokoloskee during Hurricane Irma in 2017. Unfortunately, either because I didn’t insert the bilge plug or the ropes anchoring the boat and trailer to the building pillars were too tight to allow them to float, saltwater surged a couple of feet deep into the boat and destroyed the electrical system.
When I returned to Florida in early November, I took the boat to my local marina in Naples and got the bad news. A month and $5,000 later everything was put back in order, and fortunately the damage was mostly covered by my boat insurance. The big relief was that the motor was undamaged. Whew!
In the category of confusing was an exploratory trip to find brook trout and maybe some cutthroats reputedly swimming in a remote creek in the Colorado high country south of Del Norte. One of the best angling guidebooks for exploring secluded waters around my neck of the woods in Colorado is 49 Trout Streams of Southern Colorado by Williams and McPhail. They sang the praises of Torsido Creek, a tributary of La Jara Creek south of Del Norte, Colorado. I had fished La Jara Creek below La Jara Reservoir a number of times with great success, so was anxious to explore the upper La Jara and Torsido Creek. After a long and bone-jarring ride over a narrow, bumpy gravel road that hadn’t seen a grader for some time, I made it to the lake and drove to its upper reaches where La Jara Creek flows in. Trouble was, the creek was next to invisible in the expansive meadow above the reservoir, and it wasn’t clear where it was joined by Torsido Creek. To exacerbate matters, I had run off and left my detailed maps of the area in my travel trailer back in Del Norte and the GPS on my cell phone wasn’t working. No worries I thought. Torsido had to be out there somewhere. But after wandering about for almost two hours, marching through muck, dodging a big bull, and clambering over a couple of barbwire fences in my waders, I flew the white flag and turned tail back to my SUV. Fortunately, on the way back I had to cross upper La Jara Creek, and serendipitously where I did some trout were rising. That was the start of an epic afternoon of catching not only some fat, beautiful brook trout, but also some muscular, truculent tiger trout that apparently are stocked in the reservoir and run up the creek to eat. https://hooknfly.com/2022/10/24/taming-the-tigers-of-torsido-and-upper-la-jara-creek-near-del-norte-co/
Not until I got back to camp did I discover the confluence with Torsido Creek is hidden in the gap in a ridge about a quarter mile from where I stopped fishing that day. Darn, guess I will have to schedule a return engagement in 2023!
Persistence Pays Off
Like many things in life, persistence pays off in angling. Two years ago I experienced a particularly humbling experience 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 20 expletives later, 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. Now fast forward to the summer of 2022. I decided to return to the scene of the skunking for a measure of revenge. But this time things looked even worse when I hit the water after navigating the rough road to the Lily Lake trailhead. It was mid-summer, and the brook trout weren’t spawning. Indeed, none of the alluring pools seemed to hold any fish. So after two hours of flailing the water, I started back to the SUV, tail between my legs. Luckily, I had to cross a very narrow, but fast-flowing tributary of the Huerfano in the meadow to the west of the river. As I did, I happened to see what appeared to be a rise at a bend below me in the creek. What the heck, I thought, and threw my fly downstream. It floated a few feet, then was sucked in by what turned out to be a chunky brook trout. So that’s where the little devils were hiding. That was the first of more than a dozen nice brookies from what I have dubbed the West Fork of the Huerfano. You won’t see it named on a map, but believe me, it and the fish are there. Indeed, persistence pays off.
And speaking of stick-to-it-of-ness, a case of avian persistence opened my eyes. I am a confirmed amateur birdwatcher, especially at my mountain cabin in Colorado where a steady cavalcade of western tanagers, evening grosbeaks, hummingbirds, and many others at my birdfeeders provides a steady stream of pleasure. But those bird feeders have also attracted pinon jays and Clark’s Nutcrackers, drawing me into a never-ending battle with these noisy, wily, and voracious, albeit handsome, birds. Imagine their fright when I come storming out on the front porch hurling expletives till the Colorado sky turns even bluer. I did some research on-line to see if there were any better strategies to deal with these smart, raucous marauders, and in the process learned that because of habitat loss, notably destruction of pinyon trees they rely on for food, and climate change, these iconic western birds are declining precipitously.
Indeed, one report estimated the pinyon jays have declined 85% of the past 50 years and that there are only 700,000 left worldwide (versus 8 billion humans)! All of this made me realize I need to focus closer to home on saving the world. That will mean nurturing the pinyon trees already growing on my land and planting new ones. It will also mean biting my tongue when the raiders come to my bird feeders and dutifully hanging another suet cake when they take their leave. My thanks to them for their persistence and opening my eyes.
On The Horizon: Looking Forward to 2023
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 months 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 not to mention a 33-inch leviathan out in my Gheenoe with buddy Steve Keeble in the New Year!
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! Fishing some remote islands in the Florida Keys is also on the agenda.
On the writing front, my article on fishing the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park in the Everglades is scheduled for publication soon in an issue of Florida Sportsman to be followed by a piece on the top ten tackle, gear, and techniques tips for kayak anglers in the Everglades. On the trout side, American Fly Fishing will carry an article this spring about my adventures this past summer on La Garita and Carnero Ceeks, two remote high-country streams in Colorado, to be followed later in the year by shorter pieces on upper La Jara and Tarryall Creeks, also in Colorado.
In the keep it under your hat category, I am also in initial negotiations with Kevin Kostner for a new TV series now that it looks as if he’s dropping out of “Yellowstone.” It will tentatively be called “Tales of a Zombie Fisherman” and will be based on my 2022 shenanigants on Halloween night when I went trick-or-treating with my favorite little witch Aly. Stay tuned!!
Of course, I will chase some trout with my sweetheart Aly and find Torsido Creek at long last.
Welcome to trekking through what the Miami Herald newspaper has called Florida’s best kept outdoor secret. Located about halfway between Miami and Naples near Everglades City, even on holiday weekends the preserve is rarely crowded, especially its trails. From its rare orchids to its animals and unique landscape, the preserve is a special place.
This series describing hikes in the preserve covers four of the main trails—the West Main, East Main, East Prairie, and South Tram that can be seen on the park map in the Overview section below.
The Fakahatchee Strand is a gentle wilderness, but it must be explored with care and caution. It is a place for ambling and observing, not rock’n rolling, rushing to set speed records. Hidden treasures and beauty abound. I hope you’ll enjoy these hikes, taking care to leave nothing behind but memories. And please consider joining me as a member of the Friends of the Fakahatchee, a wonderful non-profit organization that plays an essential role in protecting and interpreting the preserve. (The organization’s website is https://orchidswamp.org).
East Main Trail Overview
Location: The parking area for the East Main trail is located about six miles northwest of the park entrance and headquarters on Janes Scenic Drive.
Difficulty/Length: The trail, which follows a well-maintained old two-track logging road, is probably the easiest hiking of the Fab Four trails. It is mostly flat with very little elevation gain from start to finish.
The East Main is approximately two miles long from the parking area/entry gate to the private cabin and small lake to the north. It takes about 2.5 hours to hike to the cabin and back, but can easily take longer for the observant hiker. For the ambitious trekker, the trail extends another 10 miles almost all the way to Interstate 75 and the Jones Grade Road and lakes to the north.
History/Highlights: This trail follows an old tram road that was cleared when the cypress in the area was logged in the 1940s-1960s. Lush marsh vegetation featuring giant sword ferns, royal palms, bald cypress, and beautiful wildflowers is one of the main attraction. The park is the only place in the world where the bald cypress trees and towering royal palms share the forest canopy, and the East Main Trail is a great place to admire them. You will almost certainly see alligators and possibly deer, bear, and numerous species of birds such as egrets and herons. Lucky hikers may see the endangered Everglades Mink and Florida Panther. Generally, the animals like the alligators are not aggressive, but should be respected and kept at a distance. This is a good trail for families with children and also one of the best in the park for bicyclists as it is wider than others and well-maintained.
Essential gear: Any time of year, but particularly from June through January, the trail can be muddy in spots and the vegetation covering the two-track trail damp to dripping wet. These conditions call for long pants and long-sleeved shirts made of a fabric like nylon that will dry quickly as well as waterproof hiking boots. I like my shirt or pants to have big pockets so I can grab my cell phone camera quickly. During the winter dry months shorts may be okay, but the vegetation on the trail north of the cabin can be higher as it sees few hikers and bikers. Don’t forget the bug repellant—the mosquitos and no-see-ums can be fierce, although less bothersome during the dry winter season, December through April. I always carry a hiking staff as well as plenty of water and wear a hat.
Tips: A good place to stop and soak in the scenery and environment is one of the culverts that allows the Strand’s water to flow under the trail and continue its way to the Ten Thousand Islands in the Gulf. Let your eyes adjust to the dappled lighting of the swamp. Slowly scan the forest and vegetation and you’ll be rewarded with views of flora and fauna you will miss if you hurry by.
The boardwalk to the small lake next to the private cabin offers great views of alligators and abundant bird life.
Some caveats. Before hitting the trail, make sure you tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back in cell range. Cell phone coverage in the park is spotty. I also carry a Garmin inReach emergency satellite phone as a backup. Keep an eye peeled for alligators that frequent the deeper water around the culverts and the small lake and don’t be tempted to go wading through the shallow swamp or sloughs that parallel and cross the trail without an experienced guide (Swamp tours are offered by Friends of the Fakahatchee). You may soon find yourself waist deep in water and muck or coming face-to-face with a big alligator! There is a good rest spot with a picnic table about into the hike at the private cabin about two miles into the hike. This is a good spot for a turnaround if you are with younger children. The rest of the trail to the north is less traveled more overgrown, and with weaker cell phone service in parts.
A Brief History And Overview Of The Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park
At over 70,000 acres, the park is the state’s largest although it hosts only about 100,000 visitors a year, far less than others like much smaller Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys which sees over 700,000 annually. It is 20 miles long north to south and about 10 miles at its widest east to west. However, the actual Fakahatchee Strand, the park’s namesake marshy central core where freshwater flows towards the Gulf of Mexico, is about 20 miles long by five miles wide.
The preserve’s relative obscurity is due in large part to the fact that the park does comparatively little outreach to attract visitors, its primary mission being to protect the rare environment and its fauna and flora. Nowhere will you find a visitors center even though this is the largest state park, although one is in the works The park is world famous for orchids and rare vegetation like bromeliads and tropical epiphytes—plants that grow on other plants for support, but are not parasitic, getting water and food from the air.
The park also is home to endangered species like the Florida Panther and Everglades Mink as well as a host of other critters ranging from scads of wading birds, ospreys, and hawks to diamondback terrapins, bobcats, river otter, bear, manatees, alligators, and crocodiles. A skeleton staff of five work hard to protect the park.
They are assisted by a remarkable group of volunteers called Friends of the Fakahatchee. The organization is currently collaborating with the park to fund and build an interpretive pavilion on the Tamiami Trail at the Big Cypress Bend and open a visitors center near the park headquarters. In addition to an interpretive display, the pavilion will feature a rain shelter, restrooms, and connections to a rebuilt boardwalk out into the preserve.
The history of the park is fascinating, both troubling and promising. It was one of the last pieces that was put together to protect the Everglades, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas’ River of Grass. Everglades National Park was created in 1947, but not until 1974 was land purchased for the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. The property was acquired in response to development pressures and sprawl in Collier County, which rarely turned down any project. Grandiose development plans associated with Golden Gate Estates in Naples and Port of the Islands envisioned residential projects that would house thousands of people with homes on canals carved into the west side of the Everglades. As the early phases of these developments proceeded, the devastating impacts on the Everglades became all too clear. The residential canals sucked water out of the Everglades into the Prairie and Faka Union Canals, lowering groundwater levels up to eight feet in some areas, stealing life-giving water from native plants. Looking at an aerial view of the area today on Google Maps, the leftover scars are plainly visible. The park purchase in 1974 help stem the assault on Everglades from the west, but much work remains to be done. Today the west end of the state park and those leftover scars are part of a multibillion-dollar, multi-agency effort with the U.S Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District to plug the Prairie Canal and restore natural water flows through the western Everglades to the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Area and Gulf.
Despite the importance of the park in protecting the Everglades, it existed in relative obscurity until a best-selling publication, The Orchid Thief, was published in 1998. The book has been called a tale of beauty and obsession, a true story of a fanatic orchid poacher in the preserve named Larouche and his Seminole assistants. The book was later turned into a highly rated popular movie, Adaptation, starring Nicholas Cage and Meryl Streep. It was the plethora of orchids, over 40 and many rare, and the amazing variety of bromeliads and air plants that led the Fakahatchee Stand to be dubbed the Amazon of North America. Even today the park staff must keep a sharp eye out for orchid poachers, assisted by remote video cameras hidden in key locations.
Fortunately, the park has recovered nicely from being heavily logged from 1944 into the 1950s for pine and cypress. Cypress wood is highly water resistant and was in demand during World War II for making aircraft carrier decks and PT boats among other vessels. Today it is used for more peaceful products like decking and coffins. The tiny communities of Copeland and Jerome within the park are reminders of those days, having served as home to loggers in that era.
As the timber harvesting slowed in the 1950s, several freshwater lakes were created in the 1950s and 60s when limestone rocks and gravel were gouged out for Alligator Alley and other highways. The canals in the park to the south along the Tamiami Trail were carved out much earlier in the 1920s with big steam-powered dredges to provide fill upon which to build the highway linking the east and west coasts of Florida, a daunting task. Back then the highway was called the Eighth Wonder of the World. The fact that the Fakahatchee Strand recuperated into a reasonably functioning ecosystem after all this is poking and prodding is a testament to nature’s resilience. Now the question many ask is if the park can survive global warming and sea-level rise as well as the invasion of non-native plants and wildlife like Brazilian pepper and Burmese pythons.
I get a late start this morning, waiting for the sun to warm things up from the frigid temperatures in the 40s the last couple of nights. I deposit my entry fee at the park headquarters and am on Jane’s Scenic Drive headed to the East Main Trail by about 10:30 a.m. under a cloudless sky. As I drive the first couple of miles, what I call the prairie section, I’m surprised to see only a few egrets here and there, probably the result of the cold weather. My spirits sag a bit, and I hope this isn’t a harbinger of things to come for the hike.
Soon the road curves, and I pass the “mink crossing” sign that always makes me chuckle, but then for the second trip to the park in a row, one of the rare little critters goes scampering across the gravel in front of me.
I slam my brakes on and hop out of my SUV, camera at the ready. But he’s disappeared into the thick roadside vegetation. I wait quietly for a few minutes, but the mink is too tricky and refuses to reveal his whereabouts. What a great way to start the day, the chill already ebbing and spirits revived.
I drive slowly down the road, stopping at each culvert to see what I can see. There’s definitely less water flowing down the slough and under the road than a couple of months ago as the dry season commences, and I don’t see any fish in the pools.
Soon I pass by the turnout for the West Main Trail and continue north towards my destination. Suddenly another Everglades Mink scampers across the road in front of me and dives into the thicket. I bolt from my vehicle, but again can’t get a photo of the little rascal. I peer into the undergrowth but it’s no use.
I turn dejectedly, but then something catches my eye, a tiny white delicate flower only a few feet off the road. I get down on my knees and snap a photo, then run it through my plant ID app called PictureThis. To my surprise the little beauty is a Soldier’s Orchid, a native of Asia that has made its way to the park where it is thriving. My first orchid sighting of the year, and I’m thrilled!
A few minutes later around 11 a.m., I am at the parking area and gate for the East Main Trail. There are a couple of cars already there, certainly not very crowded for a federal holiday, MLK’s birthday. Before setting out, I take a look at the informational kiosk at the trailhead. I chuckle when I see the photo of the so-called Fakahatchee Hilton, the private cabin on a pond along the trail that is my destination today. I throw on my little day pack and am off.
Before long I come to a stand of majestic royal palms that tower over the landscape.
Next I catch sight of some unique air plants that the park is known for. They are epiphytes that anchor themselves to other plants or downed logs for support but absorb moisture and nutrients from the air through their leaves, not their roots. One of my favorites is the cardinal air plant that will sport a showy red and purple bloom soon.
As I trek on, I see some movement on the trail ahead and a lot of squawking by crows. Something is going on. As I get closer, I spy a brigade of vultures squabbling over something, no doubt a delectable lunch. Sure enough, as I get closer I see they are picking at what turns out to be an expired possum. When I return in a couple of hours, the poor creature’s bones will literally have been picked clean.
Now the buzzard brigade is circling overhead and several raptors—an osprey and maybe a red-shouldered hawk that I can hear but not see–are chastising me severely.
I keep my eye peeled for other birds that I can see slipping away into the woods—herons, egrets, and small songbirds and warblers. Usually they flee at the first glimpse of humans or sound of hiking boots, but if I’m patient they may reveal themselves hiding in the thicket or even come back in closer. That’s what a shy white Ibis does, playing hide and seek with me as he wades through the shallows feeding close to the trail. These wading birds, also known as Chokoloskee chickens, were a mainstay in the diet of early settlers in the Glades. Then I see movement among some dead branches. A small bird poses for me as I shoot photos wildly. A few even turn out so I can identify him—a lovely little Yellow-Rumped Warbler.
The aerial show continues a short way up the trail as several butterflies flit around my head, just daring me to catch them. I resist the urge, but follow them, hoping to get a photo of these elusive beauties. They flit back and forth, teasing me, and then one finally relents and lands on a nearby flower. I creep up cautiously and snap away wildly with my phone camera, managing to get a couple of decent shots before she slips away into the woods. It’s a zebra butterfly that protects itself using the pollen it feasts on to produce chemicals that poison predators.
Needless to say I’m happy I didn’t succumb to the temptation to catch one! Sadly, the zebras have reportedly been decimated in much of its range by mosquito spray.
There aren’t many flowers blooming this time of year. The pretty white one the zebra butterfly was feeding on is a hairy beggartick, so named after its penchant of attaching its seeds to animal and people who brush by. It’s also called devils needles! But there are plenty of interesting plants to examine like the stands of giant sword ferns that line the trail and Bird’s Nest Ferns that are an unusual fern in that they are epiphytes, anchoring themselves to downed trees and other plants but getting their nourishment and moisture from the air instead of their roots.
I saunter up the trail further, stepping aside to let several friendly bikers pedal by, then see two ladies on the trail ahead who seem to be frozen in place, looking at something. As I get closer, they warn me off. They point to a gray lump in the middle of the path, a sunbathing gator who isn’t about to move.
They ladies look and sound forlorn, telling me they’ve been stuck there for 10 minutes and don’t know what to do. Being a chivalrous gentleman, I spring into action. I find a long, dead palm frond next to the trail, then creep close enough to the cheeky reptile to launch the branch through the air which lands near its tail. The gator swirls around, hissing, but scurries for cover in the nearby slough as I run in the opposite direction. He gives me the evil eye I as he slides down the shallow slough water past me.
The ladies clap their applause while I execute a deep bow. We chat for a bit, they telling me they thought they might be stuck there for hours. Fortunately, in all my time hiking and kayaking in the Everglades, I rarely find that the alligators are aggressive unless they are used to being fed by humans. Most will run for cover when prodded or disturbed as this one did.
Having done my good turn for the day, now I’m getting close to the Fakahatchee Hilton, and I am not disappointed. What a picturesque setting!
The owners of the weathered old hunting cabin allow visitors to rest on their front porch and walk out to the lake on their boardwalk. Please respect their property so their hospitality continues.
Before taking a break, I decide to go out on the dock to see what’s happening. The first view is a showstopper.
A half dozen gators are lounging around the pond, with more seeming to emerge from the surrounding swamp every minute. And several are VERY big, at least 10 feet. Needless to say it would be folly to get off the dock and walk the shoreline!!
After the requisite photos, I retreat to the cabin porch where I have a snack and drink, shooting the bull with a couple of other septuagenarian hikers from the nearby big city of Naples who just got off the trail. Like everyone I meet today, they are affable and cordial. We trade lies, er stories, about our fishing exploits and experiences on the park’s trails.
We decide to continue on the trail past to cabin where fewer people seem to venture. One of my new friends mentions that there should be some orchids blooming just off the trail ahead along a boardwalk that skirts the pond and swamp. But when we head that way, we are met by a platoon of gators who are firmly ensconced and don’t show the slightest inclination to move. Seeing that a couple are around 10-feet long, we demure and scamper back to the trail.
North of the cabin the East Main Trail extends another 10 miles or so. We make it a half mile further. The path is narrower and clearly less traveled, but well-maintained. However, when the sun breaks through the canopy it melts our resolve. It’s hot, the temperature pushing 80 degrees. We take that as a sign to head back.
On the way we walk casually at a slow pace, exploring this and that, and taking photos. We pause to admire one of the region’s signature trees, the gumbo-limbo, with it trademark showy red bark. The red bark peels–reminiscent of sunburned skin—which gives it the nickname of “tourist tree.” Its berries are popular with wildlife in the summer.
The Geezer Brigade is back at the parking area in an hour. We exchange phone numbers and promises to chase some snook together. It’s been another interesting hike in the Fakahatchee Strand, full of surprises as usual. Can’t wait to get back during the dry season to hit those prairie trails.
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!