Note: There is a new reservation system in place to paddle and fish the East River. For more information call 239-695-4593. See also the discussion in this article. For a recount of one of my earlier outings on the East River, see: https://hooknfly.com/2017/01/23/go-east-young-man-the-east-river-near-everglades-city-fl/
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!