I had just got finished paddling 170 miles, the entire Indian River Lagoon and all I could think about is what was next? Where can I paddle my boat again? I NEED MORE. During that trip, John Kumiski (fellow paddler) mentioned fishing the Florida Everglades and that seriously sparked my attention. My idea started out as a circumnavigation trip around Florida Bay but it quickly became a backwater adventure with John. I couldn’t find anyone to do the big Florida Bay trip with and I knew John was very knowledgeable on the Everglades so I decided to get my feet wet with him and start slow. Besides, I know I have plenty of time at 37 years old because of the inspiration I found in Nick Colantonio, another fellow 170 mile paddler at the young age of 73.
So the trip made its way into our calendar for the first week in December, 2014. Our float plan wasn’t 100% nailed down but that only makes it more of an adventure. We arrived in Flamingo around noon on Sunday, November 30th
. After checking in with the Ranger Station, we quickly found out just how much of an adventure we’d have. We would split the seven day adventure into two different trips. The first leg we would head west and the second, east. It was the west leg that the Ranger could not inform us if it was passable or not. Her words were, “Why would you want to go back there? There are a lot of crocodiles back there”. John and I simply grinned, got our permits and told them we would be back in a few days to inform them if it was passable or not.
No turning back.
After getting a good nights rest at the Flamingo campground, we set out of Coot Bay Pond first thing Monday morning. Our destination??? Somewhere around Gator Lake. We didn’t really know, but we had ideas. After passing Coot Bay the mangrove tunnel took us to Mud Lake and then to Bear Lake, where we had to make our first big decision. We knew at the end of the three mile stretch of Bear Lake was where the possible impassable area awaited us. It was about noon and our options were camp at the only dry land in Bear Lake where we were and get a fresh start in the morning, or push to see if we could make it to Gator Lake to camp for the night. My gut said push on and so we did. The deeper into the Everglades you go, the more isolated you get. At the western most point of Bear Lake is where we found the wall of mangroves. John had paddled this area in the 80’s but 35 years of mangrove growth can change the way things look. I knew less than one hundred yards of mangrove separated us from the next body of water, but how would we get through? If you are unaware, your phone does not use a cell signal for the GPS. This is something I knew before we started so I found the thinnest passage via Google Earth and it was there that we found a very skinny pass. We made it to the other side but it was now a race against daylight. Our first optional camp site was nowhere to be found because there was no dry land where John once camped. My phone gave us a Plan B and we set out to make a passage out of a small canal that flowed out into Florida Bay. Before reaching that canal I had the pleasure of running my kayak right up on top of a very unhappy 12’ sleeping crocodile. The paddling speed increased only to find we had to portage over a large log in the canal and then find we had hit a dead end. With the luck of the Irish on our side, there was dry land. It couldn’t have come at a better time because now the sun was down. We slept to the buzzing sound of a thousand mini street bikes circling our tent all night. There was no shortage of mosquitoes in this deep dark corner of the Glades. The long day of fishing and paddling included an upper 20” snook for John and three aired out tarpon for me, getting one to the boat. 13+ miles was now in the books.
Portage over large logs with an additional 150lbs is always fun.
The first catch of the trip was this shrimp that jumped in Johns boat. He ate it.
Day three was upon us and we were quick to get out of the still-water dead end we called home. Another portage and a hundred yard paddle would get us into the open air and free from the bugs. We had a quick breakfast and set out for the Homestead Canal. Homestead Canal would eventually turn into the East Cape Canal which would take us out to Florida Bay where we planned to camp on East Cape Sable. The canal is very long, straight and narrow. Without being able to see the end, the mangrove shoreline visually becomes a funnel for you to paddle down. Fishing along the way truly became a hard task for us considering we didn’t see many fish with the exception of a lone tailing red drum. It was a quiet and relaxing paddle with the slightest tailwind. We both took it all in until we were greeted by group of close to 20 American Crocodiles on a mudslide. They were quick to slide into the water as we paddled close but after they figured out we were no threat, they all came back out of the water. The power of feeling very much alive at that point was uncontrollable. There were crocs to the left, to the right, at our bow, at our stern and right underneath us. We had gone on such a mission to make it to this point that I had a good feeling they don’t see very many people. It’s said that 20 years ago there were nothing but alligators in these backwaters but they have all been driven north by the endangered crocs. Wikipedia states: “The current US population, estimated at 2,000, is a significant comeback from the few hundred in the 1970s”. We took some photos, left them alone and carried on. It was a privilege to paddle among this large group of protected predators.
"Let me get my map, I think we may have made a wrong turn"
"Hey John, take a photo of me with all these crocs"
Due to a large damn in the East Cape Canal, we took a detour around it and that is when we started to find some tidal influence and current. Typically where you find a tide pushing into or pulling from a bay or estuary, you will find fish. And that we did. It was while we were eating that I heard the ever so patented slurp of a snook. One cast is all it took and I pulled up a nice silver and yellow common snook. I managed to catch over ten of these fellas between the lengths of 16”-28” all using a spinning rod with a D.O.A. Tiny TerrorEyz. John was using his fly rod and managed a nice jack crevalle. The afternoon was short lived because our check-in time at East Cape Sable was preferably before dark. We let the outgoing tide take some weight off our paddle while it sucked us right out into Florida Bay. Once we hit the Bay we paddled west and setup camp at East Cape Sable. This is where we would spend two nights on the white sandy beach.
Caught well over 30 snook on this trip.
Lowtide on East Cape Sable.
Without seeing a whole lot of activity the last few days, we decided to head right back to where we had found the fish the day before. After setting a hook in another large amount of snook, I decided to take out my fly rod. Prior to the trip, Rodney Smith had lent me a fly rod and I played around with it a few times with no success. I needed my own setup so I picked up a Redington reel from Harry Goode’s Outdoors Shop and John gave me an older Redington fly rod from his collection. If there was ever a good or easy time for me to catch a fish on a fly, now would be the time. The presentation of a small green minnow under the mangrove was just what I needed to hook that first fish. Unfortunately I was not prepared so I fumbled it and lost the fish. The second hookset was not the case and I pulled in a nice snook. I quickly stopped while I was ahead because it was windy and I hooked the back of my hat. John managed a few snook as well as a red drum. It ended up being a fun afternoon and we made our way back to our beachfront condo.
Jack & John.
1st ever fish on a fly.
Sunset on East Cape Sable.
Our next day paddle would be from East Cape Sable to Flamingo, consisting of 11 miles and the winds were going to be against us. John suggested we paddle very early to beat the afternoon winds so an alarm was set for 3:00am. Little did we know, Mother Nature had another plan for us. After smashing rotted wood for the fire, I must have managed to carry a critter back into my tent with me. I was awakened at midnight by something crawling on my back. Obviously it didn’t like the way I tried to brush it off because immediately I was stung on my back. Pushing the sleeping bag down to the foot of my tent caused me to get stung again on my hand. My first and second ever scorpion sting found me not wanting to spend another second in my tent until daylight so I packed it up and waited for John’s alarm to go off. That wouldn’t happen because I was too loud while packing up and woke him. We were on the water paddling to Flamingo before 12:30am. If you have never paddled in the middle of nowhere under an almost full moon with very calm conditions, I suggest you do. The moon set beyond the horizon around 4:00am and that left us in total darkness for the next 1.5 hours. The sky turned into a backlit piece of black paper with a thousand tiny pinholes in it. Jellyfish flashed a bright glow when we paddled over them and I was able to count nine falling stars with John pointing out one passing satellite. There was a moment when I hiked my Extrasport PFD up high on my neck in order to rest my head back to stare straight up. With motionless paddles on our lap we became hypnotized by the sky and let the water carry us where it wanted. We spent a half hour suspended in time, nothing else in the world existed.
Small critter, BIG sting.
Nights destination? The tiny red dot.
Hard to take an open shutter shot while on the water
If first light was controllable, we may have stalled it for a while. However, I was sidetracked by the large smacks echoing on the water. We had made it to the western most point of Flamingo and there was a large number of mullet in the area that the jacks did not have a problem taking advantage of. A bone colored #11 Rapala Skitter Walk with two single 2/0 inline VMC hooks showed no mercy on these fish. That was until a quick five second fight with one was ended by way of an extra large shark. Skitter Walk and fish, GONE. Good thing I’ve found over 100 lures this year to make up for that lost one. We moved on towards the marina and were accompanied by a few glistening sunrise tarpon. Too bad they don’t take as easy as jacks do. We landed at the marina, packed our gear up, bought some ice cream, reported to the Ranger and relaxed for the rest of the day at the Flamingo campground. This would be a day to take a hot shower and plan our second leg of our adventure.
Friday morning we headed out of West Lake and made our way to the Shark Point Chickee, 12+ mile trek in total. Paddling would be a bit easier because our load would be less. We only planned to stay out for two days on this trip. West Lake would take us to Long Lake then to The Lungs and eventually dump us out into Garfield Bight, part of Florida Bay. Again we didn’t find many fish in the backwaters except for a juvenile tarpon I was able to air out. I was very much preoccupied by the wildlife during this paddle. Wild orchids clung on to the large driftwood mangrove stumps. Stalking birds waded in the water as well as in the trees above. What sounded like a waterfall was a raft of thousands of coots taking off as I paddled into them. John was first to clear all the spider webs in each of the mangrove tunnels except the last. He fell back a bit and asked if I wanted to go first this time. This would be the last tunnel we would face before we entered Garfield Bight. This would also be the tunnel with countless mudslides and extra large crocodiles. Most of which knew we were there long before we knew they were, except one. My adrenaline maxed out as an extremely large lizard ran full speed in my direction. The tunnel is not ten feet wide or four feet high but I knew it was deep and knew that was where he was heading. Like a freight train entering the water he disappeared under my boat leaving me with a whole lot of wake. John had officially cleared all the spiders out of seven tunnels and I cleared the crocs out of one. I staked out in Garfield Bight to wait for John and while trying to relax, I heard water movement behind me. No need for alarm on this one, it was only an eight foot shark stalking the flats.
A raft of Coots
Shark Point Chickee.
A 2.5 mile paddle now separated us from the Shark Point Chickee but John and I had some serious fishing to make up for. We paralleled the shore with John on the inside and I covered 20 yards out. Quickly John found himself standing in his Ocean Kayak Drifter, lined up with a red drum. I watched as his presentation of the fly was spot on and a red drum raised the water on the attempt to connect only to bail out at the last second. The water was not as clear as we wanted so I blind casted a Slayer Inc S.S.T. in root beer/chartreuse and the snook loved it. The further into Bay we paddle, the clearer the water got, giving me a nice shot at a sightcast on a snook. I got a great hookset in that fish and three more tried to take the bait from it. These fish were aggressive and could have cared less if I was there. Opposed to the common snook I was able to catch on the inside, these snook were much darker and possessed more weight. A juvenile bald eagle was observing me from a close 20’ until an osprey chased it off. It was a great end of the day but before I hit our chickee I was greeted by a 100lb tarpon cutting the knee high water with its dorsal fin. Sometimes simply observing these great fish can leave a lasting memory far beyond any hero picture ever will. It was a hard day for me to pick a highlight.
Osprey, one of the best anglers out there.
Shark Point Chickee was our home for the last night of our adventure. The Everglades has a lot of chickees but this may be the coolest, by far. “Chickee” is the word used by the Seminoles for a post supported shelter with open sides. Raised above the seafloor 10’, this chickee is equipped with a port-o-potty, a loading deck and two sleeping decks. You can watch the sun come up and you can watch it go down. There is no pillow fluffing here but you sure can’t beat the view. Our neighbors were a couple of former local boys that knew the area well but had moved north later in life. It was the first time in 6 days that we engaged in an actual conversation with someone other than each other. I would have been just as happy being there alone. One of the main reasons we took the rout we took was for the solitude.
Doing what it takes to keep the snook out of the mangroves.
See the difference in color of this snook and the one above.
Day 7, where did it all go? We pushed back to the shoreline we fished on the way out. This would take us back into Garfield Bight and then Snake Bight before hitting Flamingo, totaling just over 9 miles. Garfield Bight produced the same conditions we had the day before but when we got to Snake Bight, the world changed. A small breeze started to push us towards Flamingo along with an outgoing tide but the water sat like a sheet of glass. It made paddling effortless and John used a cut gallon jug as a drift sock to slow him down, I used my feet. The only ripples created on the water were caused by fish. Finally, Mother Nature gave us a break on our final day. The gin clear water was loaded with life including red drum, snook, sea trout and sharks. Sight fishing became the name of the game. Multiple attempts were made at tailing reds with no luck. These fish had their head buried so far into the tall grass that they had no clue we were there. That changed when the water got low enough for them to move out and find food on the go. My go-to color of the Slayer Inc S.S.T. was what it took. Out of the 5+ tails I stalked and three fish I hooked, one made it back to the boat. It was by far a walk in the park but the red drum I pulled off was very rewarding. We coasted the rest of the way to Flamingo barely making it out of the bight before low tide left us high and dry.
Tailing red drum.
One of the many sharks crusing the flats.
Where the water turns into the sky.
That was it. We weren’t out of the water before we started talking about coming back. How could we do it better? When can we come back? This would be my first fishing adventure in the Florida Everglades and an adventure it was. Everything that we encountered made it more of an adventure and brought me closer to nature more than I already was. If you intend to take a trip like this I suggest you know what you’re doing. Have a great boat to begin with. I used an Ocean Kayak Big Game 2 and John paddled an Ocean Kayak Drifter. Safety always comes first so make a checklist of emergency and survival equipment along with food/water and backup supplies, should something break. Make sure someone has your float plan with departure/arrival dates and alternate contacts. Be 100% confident in your gear, plan for the worst and hope for the best. Safety, safety, safety. If you have a good grip on these things, go out and make a memory you will never forget and always keep in mind that we don’t run things in these areas, the wildlife does. Respect our environment so future generations can enjoy it as much as we do.
Bald Eagle always has his eye on you.