I’ve been hard at it the past two days writing a fishing article for Florida Sportsman and decided to come up for some fresh air. It’s sunny outside so looks like a good day for a little hike in the Everglades near Everglades City. I’ve had my eye on nearby Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, the largest in Florida and one that protects thousands of acres of uplands that are prime habitat for the endangered Florida panther. But who hikes in the Everglades??
When I first moved to the Glades about seven years ago, I had no idea you could hike anywhere around here–just too darn wet I thought. In the summer torrential rains cover the Everglades with several feet of water. But I have since learned that during the winter and spring months, the Glades get very little rain. That’s when the marshes dry up, and saltwater from the Gulf pushes far inland via tidal creeks. When I first hiked a trail in the Fakahatchee Strand several years ago, I was struck how similar the landscape was to the prairies of Kansas where I grew up–wildflowers among the tall grass, grasshoppers everywhere, birds hiding in the cover, and hawks soaring overhead. So off I go!!
I arrive at the unmarked trailhead around 9 a.m. as the sun starts to heat things up. High 80s is the forecast. I don my kayak water boots knowing that it’s likely I will encounter pools of water and spongy ground here and there. Then it’s into the wilds. I have the whole place to myself!
The terrain is dry, spongy and a little wet in places, but eminently navigable.
I don’t have to walk far before a giant grasshopper takes flight a few feet in front of me. I scurry after the big guy and using my patented grasshopper hunting technique (one hand in front of the hopper to distract him, then snatch him from behind with my other hand) am soon admiring his outrageously beautiful, distinctive colors. He’s over two inches long, an Eastern Lubber Grasshopper.
As I look him over more closely, the hopper starts to foam. I’ll later read that this dark-colored secretion, resembling tobacco juice, is noxious to birds, not to mention odious to humans. Such is the life of a big-game hunter!
A bit later another grasshoppers whirs away from me, but with my quick and nimble septuagenarian moves, I corner him. Turns out it’s a juvenile Easter Lubber Grasshopper who is sporting different, but equally impressive colors.
I also start to notice the petite wildflowers hiding among the tall grass and reeds. I admire the delicate pink Rose of Plymouth, a salt-tolerant marsh flower that is threatened or endangered in some parts of the U.S.
Then there is the aptly named Sweetscent–an herb with small flowers and a pleasant camphor-like aroma. It’s another wetland flower, one that is often used in dried flower arrangements.
A few minutes later a giant Marsh Marigold catches my eye, another salt-water tolerant perennial plant that sports its big flowers on six-foot vines.
The dry, spongy ground suddenly dips into a little creek that appears to be flowing somewhere, so I follow it. I crash through a tangle of brush, reeds, and tall grass and what to my wondering eyes should appear but a hidden crystal-clear lake that just happens to have some fish finning in the shallows. An angler’s dream.
Another oddity of the lower Everglades just north of Everglades City where saltwater normally rules, is the existence of a number of freshwater lakes like this one. The crust below the marsh in many areas is limestone, and in some places freshwater springs have created these lakes that harbor freshwater fish like Largemouth Bass, Long-nose Gar, and Bluegill. In others, the lakes are the result of mining limestone gravel for highways in the area like the Tamiami Trail and Alligator Alley (Interstate 75).
I wade into the clear, cool water and immediately spook a big largemouth bass then a school of smaller fish–maybe bluegill or Mayan Cichlids, a freshwater invader from South America.
Suddenly something erupts in the cove, a big gar performing some acrobatics while chasing prey. I start to see gar spawning on the edge of the limestone shelf along the shoreline.
It’s almost noon now, and the sun is beating down hard. After ogling the fish and scenery between bites on an apple, I begin to saunter back to my SUV. On the way, I come across a stand of Bald Cypress.
Being follicly-challenged, I have a special affinity for this odd tree. It is what the botanists call a “deciduous conifer.” It’s unique–the only conifer to shed its lacy needles every fall, becoming “bald” for the winter, then regrowing them in the spring. Oh that I be so lucky! Bald Cypress flourish in marshy areas, its wood highly valued for water resistance.
I next stumble across the only sign someone has been here before me–a small flip-flop sandal. I wonder what the story is behind that? Who left it? Why only one?
In my head, I also start to hatch my fishing trip for tomorrow. I’ll be back early in my kayak to see if I can score a rare Everglades fishing freshwater slam–catch a bass, gar, and bluegill in a single day.
Then it hits me. Maybe I can start a new fishing fad and organization–call it BassGar! Could be a huge dollar deal!! I start dreaming about big fishing tournaments where the kayaks are plastered with sponsors’ ads and the contestants are wearing jumpsuits dressed up with emblems of their wealthy corporate patrons and backers. Just like Nascar! I can almost hear the boys in the yaks yelling “booyah” when they hook a big one.
But just then I catch sight of my favorite Everglades bird, the graceful swallow-tail kite. He soars overhead surveying the scene.
As I admire his elegance, my nutty BassGar scheme quickly fades away. Who could possibly want to disturb this remarkable country, this solitude? We need to protect more, not fewer, of these special places! A walk in the wilds for everyone would do this country a world of good right now.
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!
With the torrential rains, wind blowing like a banshee, Covid-19, and the occassional hurricane, don’t give up on fishing in the northern Everglades. There is some great bass angling in freshwater lakes scattered throughout the Big Cypress Preserve and Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park accessible from the US 41 (the Tamiami Trail) and FL Highway 29 near Everglades City. All it takes is a little sleuthing on Google Maps to find these gems! And don’t be surprised if you catch a wayward snook or tarpon in the bargain. Here’s my latest article from Florida Sportsman to help you get started:
I have a special affinity for the underdog, the persecuted, and the little guy versus the big boys. In the angling world, this has led me to take up the cudgel for outcasts like the Gafftopsail Catfish. It’s the Rodney Dangerfield of saltwater fish, oft-maligned and ridiculed by my accomplished Florida fishing buddies. Last year I made a strong case to elevate its stature—it’s a fish that readily takes lures, it’s a great fighter akin to Redfish, and it’s excellent table fare (besting delicious speckled sea trout in a recent informal taste by yours truly and assorted angling bon vivants). We won’t dwell on the gooey, gelatinous snot it coats ones line with in the process of landing. No one or no fish is perfect. See my article from June 2018 for details: “This Cat Gets No Respect: Saltwater Angling For Gafftopsail Catfish.”
Recently I have been hearing the same libelous trash-talking about another fish—the antediluvian Long-Nose Gar. It’s a freshwater fixture throughout the State of Florida and much of the South, and is also comfortable in brackish water here in the Everglades.
I had a chance meeting with a passel of the critters recently in a freshwater lake not too far from my place near Everglades City. Contrary tides and banshee winds had driven me from my usual saltwater pursuit of Snook, Tarpon, and Redfish to hunt for Largemouth Bass in more pleasant conditions. I was on the water early in my kayak casting for bass with mixed results. I rounded a point in the small lake I was exploring for the first time, and spied fish feeding in a small cove.
Big bass I thought. I pedaled my kayak quietly into position and threw a surface lure into the frenzy. No sooner did the plug land than something exploded on it, something strong. I was congratulating myself for my angling perspicacity when the fish skyrocketed into the air a few feet from my boat. My smile turned sour when I saw it was a long, slender fish with a big snout—definitely not the trophy bass I was already bragging about in my mind. I knew it was a Long-Nose Gar. Fortunately on the second jump the lure came flying back at me, a timely long-distance release!
Despite all the commotion the fight caused, the bedlam in the cove continued unabated. I pedaled closer and could see literally hundreds of Gar cruising just below the surface.
I cast again and immediately a three-foot Gar slashed over and nailed it….and again after a brief tussle he slipped off. After another half-dozen similar repeat performances, I pedaled away in defeat, muttering about those damn Gar.
But when I got home and was cleaning up and stowing my gear, I started thinking maybe I should learn more about this odd-duck of a fish and even figure out how to catch them. After all, they seemed to be plentiful and eager to cooperate.
My research revealed an incredibly interesting creature, one that has been around for 100 million years, coexisting with and ultimately surviving the dinosaurs. The average Long-Nose Gar is two-three feet long and very muscular as I would soon find out when trying to handle the first one I brought to the boat. With a long snout, hundreds of razor sharp teeth, and bony armor-like scales, it’s hard to mistake. It’s all packaged in a quite handsome brownish-bronze color with marbled fins.
Gar prefer shallow lakes, backwaters, and canals without much current. Because of their narrow mouths that don’t open very wide, their favorite food is small fish that they usually pursue on the surface and in shallow water. Female Gar are bigger than the boys, and man can they reproduce—over 30,000 eggs at a laying that are protected from marauding animals and other predators by a toxic coating. They have swim bladders that allow they to breathe air directly as well as through their gills, have big scales armored with a tough mineralized coating, and live 17-20 years. No wonder they have survived for millions of years. There only real enemy in Florida is supposedly alligators.
So why does practically every angler diss Gar?? I think the Number One explanation is quite simple—they are very easy to hook, but nearly impossible to catch. Fisherman just can’t take that! Their bony, narrow mouths filled with rows of small needle-like teeth make it extraordinarily difficult to sink a hook into. Add this to the fact that if you do get them to the net you must remove the hook from those nasty teeth of a certified truculent finny creature that will definitely try to bite you.
Indeed even trying to subdue a Gar so you can begin to remove the hook is an Olympic wrestling match in and of itself with their muscular, bony-plated body writhing to escape. To make matters worse, even though reputed to be respectable dinner fare, cleaning Gar is an odious exercise that begins with having to cut off that shielding tough armor even before you can get down to the challenging task of filleting the meat from their bony body. (There are some good tutorials online for rookie Gar filleters.) Thus it comes as no real surprise that few anglers in Florida will admit to targeting Gar and have zilch knowledge about how to catch them despite their reputation as eager biters and admirable fighters once on the hook.
This left me no choice but to do some on-line research to learn the tricks of successful Gar fishing. I discovered the Gar aficionados and intelligentsia are mainly good-ole boys from Texas where they fish for giant Alligator Gar that grow up to seven-feet long! They almost uniformly recommend an unusual artificial bait called a “rope lure” that is made by unbraiding a four-to-six inch length of 3/8” nylon rope, adding a little weight for casting, and using it without a hook. The idea is that the Gar’s teeth will become entangled in the nylon fibers, allowing the angler to haul it in. The nearly unanimous color-of-choice is white.
The experts also offer some tips on presentation and fishing technique. Gar feed mainly close to the surface so there is rarely any need to fish deep holes. Indeed, their surface predilection means sight fishing is an exciting possibility. They furthermore suggest casting behind Gar and bringing the lure up slowly to their sides, letting it rest, then twitching it slightly to trigger a strike. According to the pros, once you get a Gar to bite, you should not jerk hard as you would normally to set the hook, but rather put light pressure on the fish and let her tug and pull and writhe to further become entangled in the rope strands.
Putting The Advice To Work On The Water
I spent an afternoon last week driving up and down the Tamiami Trail between Everglades City and Naples, jumping out at bridges to scope out the Gar potential in the canal that parallels the road. I discovered a couple of spots where I could see Gar swimming insouciantly about, then struck gold at a bridge near the East River Park and close-by picnic area, about five miles from the Tamiami Trail/Highway 29 intersection at Carnestown near Everglades City.
There I could see literally hundreds of Gar porpoising as they chased bait in the water. That night I tied up some fresh new rope lures imitating the ones I had seen online and then set my the alarm clock with antediluvian Long-Nose Gar tail-walking through my somewhat addled brain.
The next morning I’m up at 5 a.m. and on the water at sunrise. As I launch my kayak down the slope into the canal, I see Gar scattering every which way.
I pedal out in the canal and with great confidence cast my new creation to a rising fish. As soon as it hits the water a big Gar munches down on it…and just as quickly comes off. I make 10 more casts and had ten more hard hits—honest!
A few stay on for a couple of seconds, but that’s about it. Now my confidence is in tatters.
I decide to take a mental health break and switch to a small marabou jig to target some of the Mayan Cichlids (AKA Chicklettes) I see lurking along the shorelines. I quickly catch a couple, but soon my thoughts are back on Gar as I hear some feeding back up the canal. I turn around and pedal back to the bridge and the pool to the west that dead-ends at an overgrown mangrove tunnel. Gar are surfacing everywhere! I soon have one on the line and just as quick he is off, then again, and again. The last remaining locks on my follically challenged head threaten to fall out. Why aren’t these sure-fire lures working??
I decide to try the lake on the other side of the bridge that I can’t see, but Google Maps promises is there.
After sliding under the bridge, I have to navigate through a narrow channel in the sawgrass.
When I finally emerge, I coast by a big mangrove tree under the baleful eye of a turkey vulture then a black vulture.
I’m wondering if they know something about my future that I don’t! But I finally break into the lake and see Gar rising everywhere. Maybe my luck will change. But in the next hour as I cruise the shoreline and explore the upper reaches of the lake, I have at least 50 strikes. I get one close to the boat, but of course have forgotten my net and as I try to subdue the frisky fish he manages to extricate himself from the sure-fire rope lure and skedaddle.
That’s the crowning blow, and I decide to call it a day. It’s definitely back to the drawing boards with the rope lure.
Fast forward a week , and I’m back at the canal armed with several newly designed rope lures. My hunch is the standard version works well in Texas because the Alligator Gar have bigger mouths and teeth with which to more readily entangle in the nylon strands. I decide to experiment with several new designs. I noticed last week that the nylon rope version soaked up a lot of water, causing the strands to become matted together, not offering much surface area to snag the Gars’ teeth, so make up several using crinkly polypro fly tying material for the skirt that absorbs less water. On another I’ve added a couple of small barbless treble hooks to one of the normal designs, and on a third, tied on a trailing stinger treble hook. Stinger hooks sometimes work well for fish that are short-striking, so figured it might work with the Gar.
I push off from a new launch spot I discovered on the south side of the highway that avoids having to tote the yak across the road. I paddle back under the bridge to the canal on the north side of the highway and immediately notice a lack of any surface activity nor can I see any Gar cruising along just under the surface as on my earlier trip.
I decide to start out with a redesigned hookless rope lure sporting the polypro skirt and throw a long cast down the middle of the canal. Something immediately explodes on it and does an acrobatic leap. To my complete amazement, it’s a big snook! Of course since the lure has no hook, the fish is immediately off. Fortunately no one is here to hear the epithets reverberating down the canal. That will be it for the next half hour as I pedal east down the canal. I see nary a Gar, and even the hordes of Mayan Cichlids along the shoreline show only mild interest when I switch to the usually reliable small white marabou jig. I see the Chicklettes are spawning, and then it dawns on me why the Gar are AWOL, probably on their love nests somewhere else. Feeling a skunk creeping up on me, I turn back west and pedal close to the shoreline, pitching the lure in front of me to the suddenly finicky Chicklettes. Of course I immediately spook a giant Snook that was fraternizing with the little guys.
Soon I’m back at the bridge, thinking maybe the Gar have migrated to spawn in the shallow lake to the south where they were frolicking a few days ago. But before making that short jaunt through the sawgrass, I decide to pedal a few hundred yards west to where the canal narrows to an overgrown mangrove tunnel that shouts Snook hideout. On the way, I throw my friend Mr. Wiffle curlytail under some overhanging shoreline branches and sure enough, a small Snook nails the lure. He’s frisky and manages to throw the hook, but at least I know I may be on the right track. Next I loft a long cast to the shady spot at the mouth of the mangrove tunnel and start to crank the line back in. Nothing doing…until I get the lure a few feet from the yak then a big Snook takes a swipe at it but misses. I immediately recast, hoping she didn’t see me, but come up empty. The air is redolent with the stench of a skunk. I’ve missed my chances with some good Snook, the Chicklettes are uncooperative, and the Gar missing in action. My last hope is finding the errant Long-Nose in the hidden lake.
I slide under the bridge, trying to avoid clipping my noggin on the mud dauber nests above. Then I plow through some dead reeds clogging the narrow channel before emerging into the lake. It’s blazing hot now, summer having descended early on the Glades. Out comes my face buff. I drench it from my water bottle then don it, now looking like an icthylogical terrorist.
On the way I have spooked several Gar, an excellent sign. And sure enough, as I round a bend in the channel see splashes all over the lake, Gar feeding freely.
Under some mangrove branches at the entrance to the lake something is busting bait. I have switched over to a rope lure with hooks in a last ditch attempt to salvage the day. And it works. A Gar immediately nails the lure. I apply steady but light pressure with my rod as he jets out into the lake, porpoising as he goes. So far, so good. Then he executes a jump that would make a Snook proud. Still on! Finally I bring the modest-sized bronze torpedo to the net which sets off wild jubilation.
I’m thinking I have the right formula now. I continue south, casting to my right to Gar hugging the shoreline and larger ones that are cruising in a three-foot deep channel that drops off a mud bar to my left. I get strike after strike, but can’t keep the fish on. This continues for another half hour until I reach the point where the lake starts to narrow into a feeder channel with a slow current that is too shallow to navigate. Gar are stacked up there and after more hits, I finally land another fish, this one going almost three-feet!
By now it’s time for a lunch break, and I paddle across to the east shoreline for a shady spot under a stand of mangroves. I have to use the paddle as the water is too shallow for the fins that extend a foot below the kayak when in use.
I’m enjoy the bucolic scene in front of me when I hear a tremendous splash a couple of hundred yards across the lake in back of me. I turn around to see a big osprey on the water, his huge wings spread out in an arc over the water looking every bit like Count Dracula’s cape when he accosts an unfortunate victim. The big bird stares directly at me, then lifts off the water with the powerful beat of his wings carrying a two-foot Gar in his talons! So much for alligators being Gars only enemy!! What a sight!!
After a leisurely lunch, I decide to pedal north back to the entrance to the lake where I can see lots of surface activity. As I approach quietly, I toss my rope’n’hook variant into the melee and am immediately rewarded. This one has hit much harder than the Gar did before lunch, and I can see the hook is imbedded in the corner of his mouth. After a worthy battle, Gar #3 slides to the boat.
He’s a belligerent fellow, and it takes some doing to extract the hook with my long-nose pliers. Be sure not to leave home without yours if you decide to pursue Gar. The Gar is so round and muscular that it is nearly impossible to hold him firmly while extracting the hook. When I try, he easily escapes my grasp and rockets back into the water. In the end, I have to elevate this one slightly out of the water holding the line, then work the hook out with the pliers. It’s a bit of a nerve-wracking affair. A long-neck hook remover used for shark and other toothy fish is another excellent option.
Whether it’s the fish being more aggressive or that I have finally mastered the fine art of playing a Gar, for the next half hour I circle around the feeding fish and rack up five or six more before the intense sun signals it’s time to head back to the SUV and celebrate with a cold non-alcoholic brew. As I pedal back down the channel, I resist the temptation to throw the lure at Gar I see cruising in front of me. And who knows, maybe that was a big snook that jetted away leaving a big wake. Good excuse to come back and pursue this antediluvian wonder.
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.