I’m headed out early again way before first light, creeping slowly out of the RV park in the dark, lights dimmed. I hoping to avoid waking my sometime fishing and drinking buddies in their nearby trailers, an august assembly of accomplished tarpon and permit fishing mavens. I’d have to explain how I could eschew those iconic game fish, instead pursuing a holy quest for as many barracuda as I can catch (and release) in one day. They already turn their noses up and make sport of me as the Kayak Cuda Buddha for my unfailing devotion to these toothy torpedoes! My destination for this quest is the colorfully named Toptree Hammock Key. The launch point is at the end of Niles Road on Summerland Key.
I’m on the water at first light, but even though the tide has just peaked, I am having to paddle rather than pedal in the shallow water as I head north. I can hear the fins below the boat scraping on the hard corals that dot this hard-bottom flat. Which is a good sign usually because barracuda tend to prowl these areas. Finally I make it to the old bridge that links Summerland to a series of smaller keys. It was apparently blown out partially by the last big hurricane, so a span is missing, and the trail to it from the ramp is getting overgrown. I’m continually amazed at all of the abandoned and storm-wrecked structures that abound in the Keys, testimony to the hardy and fool-hardy souls who actually lived on them, farmed them, and raised families before being driven off by hurricanes, bugs, disease, or the heat. Most are overgrown and wild again, part of the Florida National Marine Sanctuary. Maybe a harbinger of things to come as sea levels continue to rise down here. But I’m not about to let dark thoughts of climate change deter me from my barracuda quest! Those thoughts are better contemplated over a margarita.
As I creep closer, I see the falling tide is flowing hard around the bridge abutments, so I figure there must be some barracuda hiding there, picking off forage fish washing by. My first cast with the trusty Mirrolure MR18 is greeted with a solid hit, and a nice 20″ barracuda comes to the boat after some strong runs. A good start. But the bubble is soon burst as my kayak runs aground on a grassy shoal near the bridge, and I discover the water is only a few inches deep under the span and far out into the Niles Channel to the east. My hopes of joining the Century Club–catching over 100 fish–are starting to fade! So somewhat dejectedly, I head further north towards Wahoo Key, where I find another expansive, beautiful hard-bottom flat. I bail out of the kayak and begin wading in the beautiful clear water as the sun starts to light things up so I can see anything that moves. I spot a couple of long darker forms near the shore that seem to be moving and loft a cast that way. One of the shadows darts towards the sinking lure and before I can even crank the reel once, KERBLAM!!
“The life of man is of no greater importance to the universe than an oyster.” –David Hume
I’m always looking for a new kayak fishing day trip that doesn’t require a Herculean paddling effort, one that I can feature in the Everglades kayak fishing guide I’m working on. So sitting comfortably on the lounge chair on my sun deck on late afternoon, margarita in hand, I conducted a virtual tour on my cell phone GPS app and spotted an intriguing area I had never explored. Just northwest of the national park headquarters in Everglades City lies a broken jumble of mangrove islands and oyster beds in Chokoloskee Bay that looked promising and whetted my appetite.
“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in.” –Thoreau
One of my New Year’s resolutions is to be on the water at dawn on New
Year’s Day to see the first sunrise of the year…and so I am. I peddle out from the launch point at 6:45 a.m. in my trusty Hobie Outback kayak and head towards the oyster beds just south of Chokoloskee Island, my new home. The oyster beds are happy feeding grounds for fish, birds, and other critters. I am not disappointed. What a peaceful and hopeful feeling I have as the sun peeks over the clouds and welcomes in 2016.
Two backcountry kayak fishing trips in December led me to settle on a New Year’s Resolution: I will seek a balance in all things between exploring the new and cherishing the old and familiar in my life.
There is little that excites me as much as exploring new waters, especially in remote pristine wild areas. What’s around that next bend in the lake or what is lurking in that alluring dark hole in the mangrove tunnel at the S-curve in the creek? The lightly traveled Fakahatchee River that springs from the Everglades near the Tamiami Trail then wends its way to the Gulf of Mexico is a perfect example. The put-in point is just across the road from a popular tourist site—a recreated Seminole Village with thatched roof huts. It is one of the few backcountry creeks I haven’t paddled. Indeed, I have never seen a vehicle or boats at the clearing in the mangroves where you can launch a kayak. Why? The answer seems to be captured in Jeff Ripple’s Kayaking Guide to the Everglades in which he warns this is the toughest, most challenging route in his excellent book.
“Most people cannot see beyond the Tamiami Trail to the heart of this vast region. Many look but few see. Few see the harmony of nature’s creation; few understand the relation of terrain to animals, of animals to plant life, of plant life to water, and of water’s importance to the survival of man, beast, and plants.”– From an historical study of the Big Cypress Swamp
One of the real joys of living in Everglades City is being able to explore hidden wild creeks that flow slowly out of the Everglades, under the Tamiami Trail, then through the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge or the Big Cypress Preserve into the Gulf. The Big Cypress Preserve covers almost 600,000 acres. It is still home to the Seminole Indians who sought refuge here and were the only tribe never to surrender or be subdued. One of my favorite haunts in the preserve is called Halfway Creek, a twisty turny creek deep in the preserve. It gets its name because its mouth is located halfway between Everglades City and Chokoloskee Island. Even on weekends it is rare to see anyone here although less than an hour from the teeming masses in Miami.