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.
I’m an old coot who has been through my share of crises, national and otherwise, over my 70-plus years. During my college days there were the marches and raucous demonstrations over the Vietnam War culminating in the horrific Kent State shootings that sent the nation reeling.
They were followed by the race riots where Chicago and other big cities burned. I remember well sitting in long lines for gas during the 70’s Arab oil embargo with fights breaking out when guys tried to cut in line, then a few years later nervously watching news of the Iran hostage crisis.
I kept right on fishing through it all, including fly fishing through my mid-life crisis in the 90s (tipping my hat to Howell Raines who chronicled this time for all of us angling boomers). Then there was 9-11 when I got stuck on the runway at O’Hare Airport in Chicago for three hours only upon disembarking to watch incredulously on a TV in the terminal the terrorist-piloted jet crash into the second Twin Tower in New York City. I was thoroughly shaken and stranded in Chicago for three days, but back on the water a week later. Fast forward to the Great Recession. That crisis too would pass.
But none of those crises compares in my mind with the Coronavirus calamity sweeping the nation and world. It’s an existential threat when despite all the years under your belt, you have no established frame of reference for anything like it. The only thing remotely comparable in my life is the first time when I was in California and a big earthquake hit. It’s almost impossible to regain your equilibrium when the basic rock-solid reference point of your being shifts ominously beneath your feet. It generates a sense of dread that is hard to shake.
I had that moment in March as the Coronavirus infections began to spread like wildfire in Washington and New York then mushrooming in Florida where I spend the winter. Being among the so-called “at risk” population, I hid away early in my little abode near Everglades City. But after a few days of reading and watching Chicago P.D. reruns, I was going more than a little stir crazy. I figured a fishing trip into the wilds of the Everglades out of my home base on Chokoloskee Island might be the answer, the mental salve that I needed. I have found time and again solitude and fighting fish are the antidote for many ailments. Fortunately I could get away in my kayak to close-by spots without having to fill-up with gas or cross paths with other anglers at boat ramps. But the weather and tides were conspiring against me. The wind was blowing like a banshee, and the tides were super low during the prime fishing times. That meant I couldn’t risk getting out on Chokoloskee Bay or probably wouldn’t have enough water to get into some of my favorite backcountry creeks. And of course the authorities were issuing dire warnings as they belatedly closed beaches and restaurants in Florida. What’s an angler to do??
As I plotted my next move, I also knew I had to respect the admonitions about social distancing and staying sheltered away from the madding crowds to protect others and myself. To make things even more challenging, several of my favorite routes weren’t options as nearby state parks and many public boat ramps had wisely closed. I needed a paradigm shift.
Then if by magic, a friend who lives just outside Everglades City called and asked if I’d like to try fishing on a sheltered freshwater lake that his home borders on, one with public access. Not an angler himself, he mentioned that he’d seen some big fish swimming and rising along the shoreline during one of his walks. Probably bass, I thought. He added he’d never seen a boat out on the lake. No wind, no tides, big fish, and no people—sounded like the perfect Corona escape! And it was!!
I rerigged my snook rod/reel outfits with lighter leaders and dug out my old bass fishing lures that I hadn’t used for years. I tied on an old reliable baby bass-colored fluke on a 1/8 oz. jig head. Bass are cannibals so it seemed like a good bet. No one was on the lake when I shoved off in the early morning in my kayak. Ten minutes later I had managed nary a strike when I hooked the bottom off a stand of sawgrass….or at least that’s what I thought until it moved. Five minutes of chaos later, I landed one of my biggest bass ever—pushing seven pounds.
The bonus was the wildlife that I crossed paths with as I paddled the beautiful clear spring-fed lake.
That outing started me on a quixotic quest to find more hidden freshwater bass lakes in my immediate neighborhood overlooked and ignored by saltwater anglers like myself pursuing snook and tarpon–ones I could get to and fish from my kayak without endangering anyone. It didn’t take long with a little sleuthing to find a hidden series of lakes just down the road from me. This one produced some exotics from South America–a beautiful big Peacock Bass and a colorful Mayan Cichlid, AKA Atomic Sunfish.
And the bonus in one was a surprise snook, a saltwater fish that can survive in freshwater, that went almost 30-inches. The mystery is how she got there miles from saltwater. But then whose to argue??
I have even started chasing toothy gar in the canals along the Tamiami Trail a few minutes from my home. Fortunately I have been able to enlist the help of a human pack mule to haul my kayak into more remote spots. He works for good red wine.
More about those bass, gar, and hidden lakes in the future…and believe me they are mental antidotes for the pandemic.
The whole experience reminded me that life goes on, offering new patterns and adventures along the way, often in your backyard. Mind you, I am not advocating straying miles from home like the knuckleheads from the Miami area who are evading the state and local stay-at-home orders and closed boat ramps there to descend on Everglades City and Chokoloskee Island with its populace overwhelmingly made up of vulnerable senior citizens. The nearest hospital is over an hour away. Stay close to home so you aren’t putting yourself and other people at risk. There’s so much about this virus that doctors and scientists are just discovering—like some people who are infected never exhibit any symptoms.
If you live in Florida, and especially in the Miami or another urban area, take another look at those nearby canals. Monster Peacock Bass and big Mayan Cichlids are probably lurking and hungry. Take the cue from anglers in Denver who are restricted from going out to the mountains to fish so they are catching carp AND big trout in the South Platte that runs through the heart of the city. And whatever you do, just be careful out there.
As the temperatures start to dip into the 30s and below here in the Colorado high country, my thoughts are starting to turn from trout to chasing snook, tarpon, and redfish in my winter home in Florida’s Everglades. I live on a little island in the Glades called Chokoloskee surrounded by miles and miles of beautiful saltwater teeming with big fish. Here’s a sampling of my favorite places that can be reached easily by kayak or small skiff from my latest article from Florida Sportsman with the inside skinny on lures and technique as well. Come on down when you want to thaw out and catch some fish this winter!
Click on the link below to view a copy of the article “Chokoloskee Up Close.”
Like many anglers, I cut my teeth chasing bluegills and sunfish in farm ponds, first with worms under a pencil bobber, then graduating to cork popping bugs trailing behind a spinning bubble, and eventually to a fly rod. It’s fun to revisit those carefree kid fishing days when I caught fish-after-fish in the warm Kansas summer sun courtesy of a newcomer to Florida that’s a bit of a bluegill look-alike—the Mayan Cichlid (p. sicklid), also called Atomic Sunfish because of their explosive colors. When the snook are snoozing, the redfish retiring, and tarpon torpid, these hard-fighting invaders from south of the border provide endless entertainment.
Indeed, my fishing buddy Bob Wayne and I are so enamored with them that we call them Mayan Chicklettes, which sounds ever so much more inviting and appropriate than the unappealing name some scientist visited upon them.
What’s not to like about these invaders? They may not be all that big, rarely growing larger than nine or ten inches, but in addition to their flamboyant colors, they are eager to eat anything that moves and feisty with pulsating runs courtesy of a big fantail caudal fin.
It’s so nice to have an immigrant from Central America that even Trump could love…if he fished. Chicklettes are indeed invasive, found throughout the Everglades in fresh and brackish water. They were first discovered in the area in 1983, probably released from home aquariums by owners when they got too big or perhaps escaped from aquaculture impoundments. Now they are everywhere in canals lining highways throughout the region like the Tamiami Trail (US 41) and in backcountry brackish water lakes and ponds and waterways like Halfway Creek and the Turner River. The real treat and test is in the backwater lakes where sight fishing for Chicklettes along shorelines in shallow water is a real possibility.
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!!