Top Ten Kayak Fishing And Gear Tips For The Everglades And Ten Thousand Island

March 2022

Recently, several friends and readers who are planning to travel to the Everglades City area to fish out of their kayaks have asked me for advice on fishing techniques and gear. Based on my experience, there is no doubt that kayak fishing in the Everglades and adjacent Ten Thousand Islands area of Florida can be challenging. Conditions here differ markedly from kayak fishing in the rest of the country and even from those encountered in most of the Sunshine State. From overgrown mangrove tunnels to tidal creeks with heavy flows to a confusing waterscape dotted with thousands of islands and a maze of waterways, the going ain’t easy for sure. Did I mention alligators, crocodiles, and now pythons?!?

Into The Everglades Wilds: Be Ready!!

So I figured with gale force winds blowing today, making kayak fishing dicey at best, I would share my top ten tips for kayak fishing techniques and gear in the East Coast’s biggest watery wilderness area, most gleaned from the school of hard knocks over the past decade.  I’d welcome any additions readers might have.  Here we go….

#1:  First and foremost, print your own maps—I learned early on that most commercially available maps for the Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands are often inaccurate and don’t contain enough topographic detail.  The same is certainly true of maps on GPS systems.  Using them is a recipe for getting lost and missing the best fishing spots. 

Every year I run across kayakers or canoeists that are lost in the maze. The one that sticks in my mind is an older couple who haled me down as I headed back to home on Chokoloskee Island as the sunset at the end of a long day fishing the Ten Thousand Islands. The were headed the opposite direction out Chokoloskee Pass to the west and open sea. As I approached, they asked me which way to Everglades City where they had hotel reservations. My eyes must have bulged, because the elderly gent asked if something was the matter. I gently told them they were headed in the opposite direction and could follow me in. The wife looked at her husband with daggers in her eyes, shook her head, and said, “I told you we should have taken a map.”

Here’s how to make your own. First, download a good map program like Google Earth. Identify the area that you are going to paddle and print out the screen in color at a full 8 1/2 x 11 size. Then use a self-sealing laminating pouch made by Scotch or something similar.

If you don’t laminate, you can rest assured your will get wet in this waterworld and become impossible to read.  Laminating also allows you to mark the map with notes in red permanent ink about fishing spots and other invaluable information for future trips. Folders in my desk full of all my maps are highly coveted by my fishing buddies who ask that I remember them in my will.

#2.  Don’t leave home without an emergency satellite phone or similar device.  This is true whether you are kayaking in the Ten Thousand Islands or the Everglades backcountry.  Even close in, the cell phone coverage is spotty at best and non-existent as you paddle down tidal creeks like the Faka Union River or deep into the Everglades Wilderness Waterway.  If you get injured or lost it could be days before anyone finds you in the maze.  I use a small Garmin InReach satellite phone that allows me to text messages to my family and also send an SOS alert to Garmin at the touch of a button. 

Garmin InReach Emergency Phone–Don’t Leave Home Without It!

Garmin then gets in contact with the local emergency service. At the time of this writing, they go for about $450 plus a monthly connection fee of about $12—not cheap but far less expensive than satellite phones with the capability to call and talk or a funeral. I finally bit the bullet after one trip down a remote tidal creek. I had beached the kayak and was wade fishing when I caught a gaff-topsail catfish. As I tried to remove the hook from the gyrating fish, he drove his nasty dorsal fin spike deep into the palm of my hand. After giving him a piece of my mind, I pulled out my pliers and yanked out the hook. After that ordeal, not to mention having to remove all the gelatinous snot the cattie left on my line, I decided to take a snack break and found a shady spot under a tree. In a few minutes, my head begin to spin, and I couldn’t walk. I had forgot to tell my son where I was fishing and started wondering if the alligators I’d seen sunning themselves along the creek would find me during the night. Fortunately, the dizziness subsided after half hour or so. I later learned that this saltwater cat has a nasty toxin in its spike that you don’t want to mess with. I had my new Garmin phone purchased before my next trip.

#3. Use a mushroom instead of a fluke anchor. First, make sure you take some sort of anchor. Between the surging tidal flows in creeks and around islands and often present winds, it can be challenging to stay on a fishing spot. When I first started out fishing in the Everglades, I took a handy fluke anchor with me that had worked well in the Indian River near Cocoa Beach to the north. I soon found out that the flukes get hung up easily in downed snags or mangrove roots to the extent I had to cut my anchor line during an early trip in the area. I persisted in using a fluke anchor because they are convenient and fold up so nicely, until I got hung up again in a backcountry creek with a surging tidal flow. As I tried to work the stubborn anchor loose my yak spun around broadside into the current, and I came perilously close to flipping! I again had to cut the anchor line, but this time made a beeline to the local fishing shop the next day and got a mushroom anchor, which while weighing more rarely gets hung up.

Mushroom Anchor On The Right Is Definitely Preferred In The Everglades

I typically attach my anchor to a cleat with a 15-foot length of lightweight cord.  I install the cleat inside the boat a few feet in front of my seat so that it is easily reached and deployed. 

#4.  Grab a collapsible, single-bladed paddle.  Whether you own a pedal or paddle kayak, a single-blade collapsible paddle is de rigueur for the Everglades. 

If you have ever tried navigating in a narrow tidal creek or an overgrown mangrove tunnel with the traditional double-bladed paddle, you know what I mean. Even if you are a pedal kayak aficionado like me, there are many instances where the shorter paddle can assist in turns or other tight maneuvers. If you are going to be covering a lot of distance in a day, a double-bladed paddle may be your choice, but I carry both.

#5.  Three rods/reels are the charm.  With hundreds of different types of rods and reels on the market along with literally thousands of different lures, it’s easy to get lathered up and overload your brain and kayak with tackle.  My advice:  KEEP IT SIMPLE.

Rods are a good example. Two six and one-half or seven-foot light/medium spinning rods will handle 75% of all conditions the Everglades paddling angler needs to be ready for. I add a third, a shorter six-foot rod designed for use in narrow mangrove tunnels and narrow tidal creeks with nice holes, where snook, tarpon, and redfish like to hang out—a common condition in the backcountry creeks like the Faka Union River, Halfway Creek, and the East River. Every inch of rod length counts when angling in the tight quarters featuring overhanging branches and air roots that make casting an adventure—shorter is definitely better. The shorter stick is ever so much easier to handle and to make accurate casts with, particularly the backhand cast that is essential to use in the tunnels. I’ve discovered the shorter rod is also better at handling big fish in constricted spaces.

Two 6 1/-2 Foot And One 6-Foot Rod Will Do The Trick

And they don’t have to be expensive rods or reels costing hundreds of dollars. Indeed, given the distinct possibility of breaking a rod when a big fish dives under your kayak or a pernicious branch snaps off a rod tip in a tight mangrove tunnel, I think it is foolhardy to risk a prized rod in the Everglades. My favorite rods, from the Berkely Shock and Shimano Scimitar series, are well-made and perfectly serviceable at a cost of less than $75. You won’t feel like screaming or slitting a wrist if you break one.

The same is true of reels.  My experience is that in saltwater, no matter how well you clean and maintain them, you will be fortunate to get a couple of years of hard fishing out of one before something gives out or seizes up.  I used to spend $200-$300 plus for my reels, but now find that Series 2500 and 3000 reels made by Pflueger and Okuma are excellent performers for less than $100. 

In addition to my standard three rods described above, I find there are two what I call specialty situations that warrant additional outfits. The first special situation is when there is the possibility of catching a toothy shark in places like the Faka Union River and in the Gulf or an outsize tarpon. Then I carry a medium/heavy seven and one-half foot rod with a 4000 series reel. I ramp up the leader size as discussed below.

The other condition is when you find clear shallow water conducive to sight fishing—then a fly rod can be the ticket. There are good opportunities for sight fishing on several of the Gulf trips as well as the Barron and Faka Union Rivers in the upcountry. A caveat is in order here. While fly casting in a trout stream in the Rocky Mountains during the summer is close to nirvana, using a fly rod while sitting in a kayak is not everyone’s idea of a good time—especially given the size needed to subdue fish in the Everglades. A fairly heavy seven- or eight-weight rod is mandatory versus the three-to-five weight wands I prefer for freshwater trout. Furthermore, standing in a kayak to spot the fish can be a risky business without a special vertical grab bars to help you balance. Unfortunately, these bars are branch magnets when navigating mangrove tunnels in the upcountry. My advice in the upcountry is to keep the fly rod broken down until you get to the lake where sight fishing is the goal. A long fly rod hanging off the back of your boat is a recipe for disaster. Having said that, there are certain instances, especially in the very shallow water of backcountry lakes, where a fly rod with its ability to lay a fly delicately in front of a nice tarpon, snook, or redfish without spooking them will give you a distinct advantage over a spinning rod and weighted lure. Fly rodding for Mayan Cichlids (AKA Atomic Sunfish) is also a blast.

#6. With line and leader, go heavy. When I moved to the Everglades from the Indian River area on Florida’s east coast, I routinely used 15-pound test line and leader. I could get away with something that light because the water there is fairly open water to play a fish in with few snags. Not so the Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands. Mangrove branches and roots, sharp oyster bars, downed trees and limbs….the list goes on. Fortunately, I rarely find the fish to be leader shy. I currently use 30-pound test line and fluorocarbon leader and am almost ready to switch to 40-pound on advice of local guides who know what it takes to handle that 40-inch snook or high-flying tarpon you are likely to tangle with.

#7.  Everglades fishing fab four lures.  Every angler has his or her own go-to lures.  Here are mine based on a decade of experience and advice from locals and guides. 

At the head of the list is a white or gold curlytail or paddle tail plastic mounted on a 1/8 ounce red jig head.  Mr Wiffel and DOA Lures are my two favorite brands, with a nod to Mr. Wiffel because they are made locally.  Curlytails seem to imitate a wide variety of baitfish from glass minnows to bigger fare, they are effective in a wide variety of situations from deep holes to skipping under mangrove branches, and are tough and inexpensive to boot.  What’s not to like.  The will even fool very selective blue crabs!

Even Persnickety Blue Crabs Can’t
Resist The Curlytail!

Close behind are floater/diver lipped stickbaits that mimic finned baits. Rapala and Yozuri make a variety of sizes and colors. I like the white Rapala and Yozuri 3d Crystal. For skipping a lube way back under overhanging mangrove branches and roots where snook, tarpon, and many other fish like to hideout, a fluke mounted on a weedless, weighted hook is tough to beat. A reliable color is, oddly enough, a green/white baby bass. Finally, if you want some real fun, be sure to take along a loud surface plug like the Heddon Spook. Walk that baby like a dog across the top of the water and get ready for an explosion. Of course, there are a variety of other lures that round out the well-tempered Everglades tackle box. A good plastic crab imitation such as those made by RageTail can be deadly when redfish and snook are prowling the oyster beds. If you are a fly angler, a white/green Clouser or an orange lightbulb are hard to beat.

The Lightbulb Fly Is A Local Favorite

#8. Practice those specialty casts. If you are going to fish the numerous tidal and backcountry creeks and mangrove tunnels in the Everglades, it’s well-worth the time and effort to learn three what I call specialty casts—backhand, pendulum, and skip casts. They all have a place. The backhand cast comes in handy in tight mangrove tunnels where there is no room overhead or to one side of you to cast normally. I push to the right side of the tunnel or narrow creek, then reach across my body using a short rod to flip the lure backhand at my target area. Reaching across the body gives you those several extra feet of space that make casting even possible in many situations. Because many anglers fear to cast in these difficult conditions, the fish see fewer lures, and I find them particularly aggressive. The pendulum cast is another approach that is valuable in tight spots in tunnels and creeks to thread a cast into a small space in brush or overhanging branches or roots. You start out by letting your lure hang 2-3 feet below your rod tip then start swinging it slowly like a pendulum, releasing it when there is sufficient momentum to reach that tiny spot you are targeting. Obviously, practice will make perfect with this unusual cast, but it is incredible how many snook I have seen caught in mangrove tunnels or in a small nook in a shoreline from only a few feet away with the pendulum cast. The skip cast is one more anglers will be familiar with, especially bass anglers who use it to skip surface baits into openings in lily pads. We use it in the Everglades and the Ten Thousand Islands when trying to reach snook or tarpon that are holed up or feeding way back up under overhanging branches or roots and an overhead or sidearm casts would end up snagged. The cast is started low, parallel to and almost touching the water, with the aim being for the lure to hit the water five feet or more in front of the mangroves then skip like a stone underneath the branches or roots. A good skinny, light-weight fluke bait as discussed above is a good candidate for skipping. Videos of the backhand and skip specialty casts can be found on-line. Practice makes perfect. With all the Olympic “sports” like curling, I am prepping for an appearance in 2026 when skip casting assumes its rightful place at the Games.

#9. Take some water shoes you can wade in. These days lots of attention is paid to what the well-appointed angler should wear. God forbid being caught by your buddies wearing a shirt or pants that aren’t at least 50 spf or fishing without hand coverings. Oddly, I don’t hear much talk about the best footwear for kayaking. I see lots of tennis shoes which are ok, but long ago I started wearing flats fishing boots with neoprene gaiters. Why? First, I like to wade. It’s a good way to stalk fish quietly, and I love the cooling, calming effect of being in the water. On a recent trip my decision to beach my kayak and stealthily approach a deep pool paid off with an immediate strike by a two-foot snook that put up a wild fight among the downed trees and branches.

Just as important is the fact that in the Everglades or out among those Ten Thousand Islands you will inevitably have to jump out of your yak to pull it over a sandbar, over or around a downed tree in a mangrove tunnel, or around the edge of an oyster bed bristling with sharp shells that has suddenly appeared and blocked your route. Then you want a boot that has a tough sole and something to keep the mud and other detritus out. My choice is Simms flats wading boots tied down tight at the top with neoprene gaiters like those used for fly fishing waders and boots.

These Wading Boots Won’t Win Any Fashion Shows But They Work!!

Bass Pro and NRS also make similar  footwear.  I may not win any fashion contests, but don’t hesitate when I have to hop out of my kayak to wade when the situation calls for it…unless I see a gator or gator skid nearby.

#10.  Don’t forget the essential little gear.  Like most kayakers, I keep a list of gear that I check through every time as I pack up my SUV for an outing.  Of course it includes major items like paddles, kayak seat, fishing rods, etc.  I’ve learned over time that there are some little items that are also important that I often overlooked in the past and now consider essential.  The first one is a hook hone

A Small Hook Hone Is One Of The Most Valuable Tools You Can Carry

I learned this trick years ago at a seminar put on by the famous Lefty Kreh, one of the first to write about saltwater fly fishing.  He guaranteed that checking that hook for sharpness several times a day was one of the most important things an angler could do.  He was right.  In the Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands there are oyster bars, barnacles, and other assorted snags that can dull a hook in no time, not to mention the tough mouths of snook, tarpon, snapper, and other assorted fish.  I check frequently during the day and after every fish.  You can test your took by running it against your thumbnail at a slight angle.  If it bites, the hook is ready to go.

Another important item is a short six-foot tow rope for your kayak. 

Kayak Tow Rope And Fish Lipper/Gripper Are Handy Items

I use mine on almost every trip for a variety of tasks such as tying off the front end of the boat to a mangrove tree for shade while anchoring for lunch thereby keeping it from drifting into the sun.  I also like to wade fish, especially in hard-bottomed creeks or along islands with sandy beaches, and the rope allows me to tow the kayak behind me keeping net and other gear nearby.  I attach brass snaps to each end for easy handling.

Another very useful small item is a fish lipper/gripper.  I like the plastic ones that clamp on the fish’s lower lip so I have better control of it while removing a hook or taking a photo.  The gripper also helps avoid having to handle the fish that can remove its important protective mucous covering and allows the fish to revive before release.

Because water temperature is a critical factor for fish such as snook and tarpon, having a water thermometer can help you decide if it’s worthwhile to go out or to pinpoint areas that might hold these favorite quarries.  I am continually surprised how temperatures can vary by 5-10 degrees in different areas of a lake or stretch of a creek.

A Water Thermometer Can Help You Find Those Hot Spots

Another essential item I learned to use through the school of hard knocks is tube rod holders that fit in the rod holders built into the hull of my kayak. These plastic tubes elevate the rods making them easier to reach behind me and hold them more securely than the shallower hull rod holders.

I learned the hard way when standing and paddling one day when I apparently accidentally caught the reel tucked in the shallow hull holder with my paddle and flipped it overboard. I soon realized what I had done but could not find the rod and reel anywhere despite searching for a half hour. I hustled down to the local fishing shop the next day and purchased a couple of rod holders and have never had a problem since. The only downside of the holders is that because they stick up a foot or so above the hull, they sometimes catch on branches when I am navigating a tight mangrove tunnel. Of course, I don’t leave my rods in the holders in those situations and sometimes remove the holders if the going is particularly tough. Another option used by some yak anglers is to affix a series of rod holders to the plastic gear box they carry in the storage area behind their seats.

Finally, don’t forget to take along a gallon bottle of water for variety non-drinking purposes such as washing out a reel that gets an unwanted dunking in salt water (which just happened on my latest trip), pouring over a head gaiter to cool it and your noggin off on those sunny, hot days on the water, or washing out a wound.  Of course, it can also serve as an emergency drinking water supply if you get stranded or run out of other drinks which has also happened to me when I accidentally knocked by Hydroflask water bottle overboard and lost it. 

That’s my top ten. Hope they get you into more fish and keep you safe! Let me know if you have any additions.

Rabbit Key Pass/Lopez River Loop: A Piscatorial Smorgasbord

Late March 2019

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!!

 

 

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Thanks Readers And Friends!!

It’s been a rewarding year writing my blog, and as of September 1st the number of views and visitors just surpassed all of 2017! 50,000 views and 20,000 visitors are in sight for 2018. As well as providing an admitted excuse to go fishing and explore remote places, my main goal is to help reinforce and build the constituency to preserve and protect these wild and wonderful places. An added and very satisfying benefit has been connecting with people and making new friends around the USA and the world—readers from over 50 countries. One example—a fellow from Australia is planning to come over and kayak fish with me next year!! But I think most gratifying and unexpected have been the heartwarming stories from readers like the young college student who wrote to say she had been searching for the name and location of the lake where her grandfather, who had recently passed away, took her fishing as a young girl. She wanted to revisit that special place as a tribute to him. She couldn’t find it until she happened to read my article on Island Lake in Colorado, and when she saw my photos knew that was the place. Brought tears to my eyes as I thought of the fishing trips I’ve been taking with my little granddaughter Aly and her Daddy this summer. Other readers shared happy memories of having fished, in their younger days, the creeks and lakes featured in my blog. In doing so they have enriched my life and made me determined to share more stories of special places in the coming year, knees willing and the creeks don’t rise!

Let’s All Take Someone Fishing And Make Memories For Them And Us!

Furor On The Faka Union: Tales Of Big Snook, Irma, And Wildfires

It’s barely 50 degrees—frigid for South Florida–as I load up my yak and push off at 8:00 a.m. for a day of snook fishing on the Faka Union River, one of my favorite Everglades upcountry waters.

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Riding a falling tide, I glide through a tight mangrove tunnel for 30 minutes and finally emerge into the first shallow lake.  Belying the weatherman’s prediction of calm winds, there’s a stiff breeze blowing out of the north, and my usual honey hole, where I caught a couple of dozen snook only a few weeks ago, fails to produce.  I valiantly try to take a video, but almost get blown off the water.  I pedal on dejectedly.  I manage a few smaller snook in the next lake and connecting creek but it’s beginning to look like an ecotour rather than the epic fishing day I had hoped for.

Then I hit what I call snook flats, a nondescript stretch offshore of a mangrove-studded shoreline further downstream that produced a couple of 25” plus snook back in February.  It may be my last hope.  This trip the snook seemed to be ignoring my usual redoubtable white Gulp curlytail, so I switch to a gold DOA paddletail.  The old veteran anglers down here swear gold is the ticket for big snook.

img_4765
The Dynamic Duo–White Gulp Curlytail and Gold DOA Paddletail With 1/8th Oz Jig Head

I pitch a long cast out in front of the kayak and start to crank it back.  Something big swirls and my rod nearly jumps from my hands….a big snook erupts from the surface and a furious fight is on.

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Turned On By The Turner River (Florida)

Spring 2017

This is a perfect outing for novice kayakers and families with kids.  It’s my go-to spot when friends with teenagers come to visit me at my winter retreat.  The trip to the img_3378islands at the mouth of the Turner River just off Chokoloskee Island is just a short one-half mile paddle, and you’ll be surrounded by hundreds of years of fascinating history, have a chance to see lots of birds and maybe a manatee or gator, and catch a bunch of sea trout, ladyfish, and jacks to boot with shots at some good-sized snook.  What’s not to like??

Most Everglades kayakers float the upper Turner River by launching some eight miles upstream at a popular put-in on the Tamiami Trail highway.  It’s a scenic route through a variety of fascinating ecosystems, ranging from freshwater cypress forests to sawgrass prairies to saltwater mangrove tunnels.  It’s one of the most popular kayak trips in the Everglades—but the fishing is spotty at best till you get to the mouth and you will share the river with flotillas of fellow kayakers, often in large commercial ecotour groups.  In contrast, if you put in at the mouth of the Turner, you’ll likely have the place to yourself, you won’t be paddling all day, and the fishing can be epic with non-stop action even for beginners.

The lower river is steeped in history.  The Calusa Indians, who were the dominant tribe in Southwest Florida for thousands of years into the 16th and 17th centuries, built a village about one-half mile up the river from the mouth.  It covered 30 acres and had at least 30 closely spaced, elevated shell mounds that kept it above storm levels (hmmm, could we learn something from that??).  The Calusa developed a complex culture with hereditary kings that was based on estuarine fisheries rather than agriculture like many other eastern tribes.  Historians speculate that by the 1600’s they numbered 10,000 and possibly many more across Southwest Florida.  The Everglades were the southern reaches of their territory.

rivermounds
Calusa Indian Shell Mounds

With the arrival of the Spaniards, the Calusa’s hegemony in the region was challenged.  They fought many battles against the invaders, mortally wounding Ponce De Leon in one.  The tribe, with its fierce warriors, held its own into the 1700s and struck an uneasy peace with the Spaniards.  But then a combination of the English (who were at war with the Spanish) supplying firearms to the enemies of the Calusas, the Creek and Yemasee tribes, coupled with infectious diseases introduced by the Europeans finally sealed the Calusa’s fate.  In 1711 the Spanish helped evacuate several hundred Calusa to Cuba where most soon died.  Seventeen hundred were left behind and when Spain ceded Florida to the British in 1763, surviving remnants were evacuated to Cuba or may have been absorbed into the Seminole tribe.

The next wave of invaders was U.S. soldiers during the Third Seminole war in 1857.  An army contingent of about 100 troops commanded by Captain Richard Turner led a party up the river off Chokoloskee Island where they were camped.  They were ambushed and driven off.  After the Seminole were subdued, Turner returned in 1874 and settled near the mouth of the river, giving it his name.  He farmed, raising vegetables that were shipped to Key West.

The combination of this history, an easy paddle, and some good fishing make the Lower Turner River a great half-day outing.

Route Overview

The put-in for this trip is a break in the mangroves on the east side of the causeway between Everglades City and Chokoloskee Island.  It’s only about a quarter mile before you get to the welcome sign to Chokoloskee and its marina with a paved boat ramp.  The informal launch area has a nice  beach that makes things easy and provides a sandy play area for the kiddies.  You can park along the causeway to unload your gear and leave your vehicle near the put-in.  Just make sure not to block the paved pathway.

The excursion to the cluster of mangrove-covered oyster bar islands at the mouth of the Turner is only about a half mile paddle.  It’s best to plan your trip on a high tide just beginning to fall.  The crossing is very shallow at low tide.

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There is no official tide reading for the lower Turner, but I find tides there usually lag behind those for Chokoloskee by about 1 ½ hours.  Of equal importance, I find the angling best on a high falling tide as the fish line up to feed in the holes between and below islands as the current serves up goodies.  As you explore among the islands, be aware of the sharp, plastic-eating oyster beds that line each one as well as the channels between the islands.

An interesting side trip for the more adventurous is to paddle one-half mile upstream to view the Calusa Indian shell mounds that have been listed in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.  The Calusa occupied this area between 200 BC and 900 AD, elevating their villages above the water on small oyster shells placed on submerged mud flats (Hmmm, wonder if we could learn from that??)  The shell mounds are overgrown, making for some challenging but fun exploration.  Remember to look but not disturb.

calusa mound on Josslyn
Calusa Shell Mounds Hidden Upstream From Mouth In Jungle

One final note of caution.  The mouth of the Turner along the islands is a designated slow-motor area to protect the endangered manatees that feed here.  However, some fishing guides and anglers in motorboats ignore the prominent signage and blast through the area at high speeds on their way to the Everglades backcountry with little regard to manatees or kayakers that may be present.  The peak of this renegade activity is usually early in the morning and late afternoon.

Tackle Notes 

Both light/medium spin gear and fly-fishing tackle work well on the Turner.  I typically bring three 6 1/2 or 7-foot spin rods and 2500 series spin reels loaded with 30# test line and 30# flourocarbon leaders.  My go-to lures include white ¼ ounce floater/diver minnow plugs (Rapala or Yozuri 3D Crystal Minnows), white curlytail grubs on a 1/8 ounce red jig head, and gold spoons.  When the water is on the turbid side from a southwest wind, a new penny stickbait on a yellow jig head will fool the snook, and if black drum are cruising the shallows live crab or shrimp can be the ticket.

When the current is blasting out between the islands, a small mushroom anchor is a big help to keep your boat in position to cast to the deeper, productive holes.  The shorelines around the islands are wadeable, but make sure you have some good hard-soled wading shoes, because sharp oyster shells abound.

Trip Notes (Spring)

I am up with my young fishing buddy at the crack of dawn and putting in as the sun rises.  It’s late spring, and we want to get an early start to catch the high tide and beat the heat.  I generally find that the fishing is best early, but the Turner will produce later in the day as well if you can’t get the kids out of bed.

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Young Angler Ready To Roll At Daybreak

We have plenty of water as we angle across the bay to the mouth of the river.  The tide is just beginning to fall, so we anchor up just outside the first set of islands guarding the mouth just inside the tall, prominent slow-motor sign.  We are casting white curlytails, and it doesn’t take long before we’re both into some nice trout and high-stepping ladyfish.  It’s not unusual to catch some 16” plus trout here.  The ticket is usually to cast into the current and let the lure sink back into the deep hole then make a slow, jigging retrieve.  Don’t be surprised if you also hook a jack or gaff topsail catfish, which are plenty of fun to catch.

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The Turner River Holds Some Hefty Sea Trout

When the fishing slows, we start to work the shorelines, casting small white floater/diver minnows into the shallows.  We’re rewarded with a some jolting strikes by a couple of decent 20” snook, that put on a good show before coming in for a quick release.  Earlier in the spring, big black drum cruise the shallows around all the islands, but can be finicky.  I have never been able to coax one to hit an artificial lure, even when a lay a perfect cast right in front of their noses. I’ve had them literally swim right under my yak in three feet of water with nary a glance.  If you’re serious about catching one of the big boys, think live crabs.  You are also likely to see some big gentle manatee feeding in the deeper water during the winter.

Then it’s off into the interior as the scofflaw motor boats start to blast through, studiously ignoring the slow-motor sign.  The key is to look for deeper holes among the islands where trout like to hang out and also focus on spots just below riffles between the islands where the current has gouged out some depth.  Jacks and ladyfish often abound there.

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Happy Lady Angler With Turner River Ladyfish

Keep your eyes peeled for one of my favorite Island Girls as you paddle around.  She’s a feisty raccoon that plies the islands with her little ones teaching them how to crack open oyster shells for a tasty treat.  She’ll show them how, then insist they do it themselves even as they screech for momma to come back and do it for them!

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Mama Racoon Teaches Fine Art Of Cracking Oysters

Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the good-sized gator that likes to sun himself in the winter on the mud flats to the north.  That north shoreline is also one of the best stretches to cast for reds at the mouth.  Look for dropoffs from the bank.

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Resident Turner River Gator

After getting our fair share of jacks and ladyfish on spoons and the curlytail, my young companion and I decide to work the interior shorelines for snook.  Old Linesides likes to lay just a few feet offshore of the oyster beds, picking off unwary baitfish.  A good strategy is to work up a shoreline, casting a floater/diver minnow ahead 5-10 feet from the shoreline.  Sinking lures don’t work as well as they tend to snag on the oysters.  It doesn’t take long before my young charge lets out a whoop.  He’s onto a big snook that thrashes the surface then takes off for freedom.  But my buddy is no novice and shows off his fishing skills, playing the fish perfectly.  He displays his prize with a confident grin.

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Young Upstart Outfishes The Guide!

By now the sun is getting high and hot, so we head back to the beach and lunch.  As we wade ashore, we notice hundreds of little crabs scurrying about, so decide it’s time for a roundup.  It’s a riot chasing the little devils who prove too quick for us.  It’s another reason the Turner River is one of my favorite spots!