I’m currently typing on a keyboard in the AC on my comfortable couch while eating leftover Mongolian Beef and watching the ever so entertaining local news. Hard ground is below me and if I need to get anywhere I simply hop in my wheelchair and go. For now, this is the life I choose but earlier this week, none of these luxuries existed. I was in the heart of the Florida Everglades for 5 days with two good friends. As much as I enjoy this easy way of living, I continue to find myself wanted to be away from it all. The Native Americans have no idea how well they had it before we came along. Or did they?
Rob DeVore and Matt Giles met me in Flamingo around 2:00pm on Sunday, November 1st. From there we headed to the Ranger Station to plan out our next 4 nights in this hot, desolate, bug infested mangrove paradise. During the season you must check in with the Rangers in order to reserve your campsite in both Flamingo and the back country but this was the offseason and so were on our own. First come, first serve is how the Everglades work until December comes around. Fees don’t play a big role during this time or year because they feel if you come when the bugs are bad, you’re either going to pay enough as it is or end up leaving. Good planning will leave you with more money in your pocket and minimal bugs.
I had originally planned to go east towards the Bights. There was a lot I learned in 2014 coming here with buddy John Kumiski and east was good. Unfortunately there were a few bugs in my ear that had me thinking against it. Previously read articles about the grass die offs in the Bights due to high sulfur and salinity counts had me wondering. Arriving a bit earlier than Rob and Matt, I had some time to explore and weigh out our options. I found two young scientist taking fish counts from anglers as they returned to the dock. If you ever need good fishing info, these scientist will be a great resource. Not only did they not have any great reports about the Bights, we were standing in piles of dead seagrass on the boat ramp. Insult to injury added winds during the days that would blow out the flats. So, heading west won. The float plan would be similar to last year with the addition of Lake Ingraham. We set up camp in Flamingo for an O’dark:30am start.
We launched out of Coot Bay Pond on time and passed though the chain-link of mangrove tunnels that connect Coot Bay, Mud Lake and Bear Lake. Winds were pretty nice to us and the Fish Gods gave us a few decent fish. If you don’t have a map in these areas you can pretty much consider yourself lost before you even get in the water. I like to print and laminate my own edited versions of Google Earth that include tides and mileage. Your GPS will work here but don’t use it as your weapon of choice. Maps and a compass will do the job and use a GPS as backup. These items helped us out after we penetrated the western end of Bear Lake. This is a tricky area and while I have passed through here before, we made a small mistake of zigging and not zagging. Being very in tune with my inner most feelings, my gut told me that we were lost. We wasted around 45 minutes trying to backtrack in order to return to the zig zag intersection. Not only does paddling in the heat wear you down but stress does as well and being lost is stressful. John taught me a while back to leave broken sticks behind to find your way back if need be and this helped.
Back on course, we started to head towards East Cape Sable Canal. This is accessible via Homestead Canal or a small creek. The entrance to this creek is where I had exceptional luck with snook last year. It had been a few hours since anyone caught a fish and we needed a spirit lifter so we took the creek option. A real recharge was in order but the snook were not home. Nobody was home at my once found honey hole. However, the 1.5 mile creek leading to East Cape Sable Canal looked like a small rapid, in our favor. The forceful water pulled us out and gave our arms a much needed break. I took this lazy time to compare last year to this year and what I may have been doing different in order for fishing to be different. The only difference was higher water and it was a month earlier.
Chasing the sun, we paddled to East Cape Sable to set up our campsite. The plan was only to stay here one night and then head to Middle Cape but some thinking had to be done first. Fishing was not great but we had encountered many tarpon along the way. Not only was I a bit bummed on fishing productivity, I could tell the next few days might get windy. Safety always comes first and after a group discussion, we decided to call East Cape our home for the next two nights. It made our life a tad bit easier.
Rob paddling into the sun.
Tuesdays first order of business? Sleep in. Sleeping on a shore is something I quickly got use to during my 170 mile adventure down the Indian River Lagoon. If you’ve never slept on a shore with waves, put it on your list. Typically most shores will give you the sound of small waves breaking on the sand and the majority of the noise comes from the water. In the Everglades, depending where you sleep, you can break that single sound into two separate and distinct ones. First is the water and the second is the shell. Sand is made up of shell and the larger the grain, the cooler the sound. One specific area was made up of millions of tiny shell not yet reduced to sand. The sound of the shell being moved by the water was almost as loud as the small waves that were breaking on top of it all. On most shores this sound is obstructed by other noises but not in the Everglades.
After a late start, we paddled inland to Lake Ingraham. I have read that a few flamingos have been spotted in the Everglades in recent history and some were in this very area. My flamingo-dar was set on extra sensitive and pink bird after pink bird ended up being roseate spoonbills. While I love seeing this bird, I have never seen a flamingo in the wild. I once thought I saw one in my hometown but I’m convinced it was a spoonbill. Anyway, we made it to the lake and it was just as I expected, HUGE. A few smaller American Crocodiles greeted us and one was feeling photogenic. There were plenty of tarpon and sharks and we even ran into some other anglers in a boat. It looked to be a guided trip and they were using live bait. They were catching, we still weren’t.
Look like flamingos from far but far from flamingos.
After some fishstration, that’s fishing frustration, we moved back out into the East Cape Canal. The creek we exited yesterday was still going out but twice as fast and there were active fish. I knew because of my last trip that bringing one heavier rod with me might be a good idea. Dry storage on the Big Game II is one of the biggest perks of this kayak. After getting the heavier rod out and rigging it up with a Live Target pinfish, I worked the turbulent water. Giant unexpected explosions next to your kayak while fishing are something most kayak anglers will never get used to. Being in the backyard of crocodile country adds to that sketch factor. With that being said, an 80lb tarpon comes flying out of the water as I’m pulling the lure from the water all of 15” from my boat. Instant reaction that lasted .75 seconds, “HOLY CRAP IS THAT A CROC?” Second reaction lasting from .75 seconds to 4 seconds, “IS IT HOOKED? IS IT HOOKED? IS IT HOOKED?” 5 seconds and it was all over. The large beast hit once, hit twice and was gone. I was left fishless with shaky hands. Good news? I had an artificial that they found interesting. We hung around the area and hit one other spot on the way back to camp. The tantalizing pinfish worked its magic on the second spot but unfortunately the hook-set was fumbled. A few most casts with my jelly like arms were made before I lost the magical pinfish after a bail mishap. It shot like a rocket after breaking at the leader connection. Bloop bloop bloop, it sunk to the bottom with the current. Leaving lures in the environment is not something that doesn’t sit well with me but I ended up finding 6 during the trip so I feel the trade isn’t too bad. But my golden ticket was gone.
Matt’s campsite tarpon.
The third and last full day on the water was upon us. We decided to take a route similar to the one the day before. This time I suggested going back to the area I had done so well with snook the previous year. We knew the water was still flowing out of the creek we had to paddle against it at a steady rate. There was not going to be an easy way to get there but Matt had the idea of portaging over the dam and taking a back country path to it. It worked great but we still found some heavy winds we had to face. Finally back to the snook spot but, well, no snook. We were officially out of options. I thought long and hard and as childish as it sounds, Matt and I had dried bananas that we both dumped out. It was a shot in the dark but we didn’t have much to lose except a small snack. 15 minutes later and Matt had a nice sized snook on the fly and around the corner I was hooked up, too. As the air filled with hope, it was quickly lost along with both of our fish. It was time to call it a day and head back to camp and prepare to embark first this in the morning.
Camp on East Cape.
The winds did nothing but pick up all throughout the day and into the night. I knew our best option to get back to Flamingo the next day was to paddle at night while the winds were less brutal. This is what John and I had done on the last trip and it paid off. With the alarm set for midnight, we got some rest. Resting was pretty difficult for me because I had a bad feeling it was going to blow all night. The alarm went off at midnight and I reset it for 1am. It went off at 1am and I reset it to 2am. It went off at 2am and I felt it had let up the slightest bit. “Fellas, let’s ride out”. It was a tough call to make but my gut informed me we were good to go. The kayaks were pulled across the long and dry ocean floor that was exposed by low tide and we were off. With a slight breeze and mild chop, we paddle a mile by mile to accomplish the 10 mile journey. This is part of the trip I was actually looking forward to because of the show the sky would perform for us. Matt had spotted what would be the brightest satellite I had ever seen the night prior and we already had some cool shooting star sightings but what we didn’t know is that the Leonid meteor shower occurs in November. It was not the peak of the shower but it had definitely started. One of the falling stars left the sky lit up so bright that I thought it was lightning. It left us with a quick fading white streak. Words just can’t describe the coolness of a clear sky at night. It reminds me of a large black piece of paper that is backlit with hundreds of tiny pinholes.
The paddle itself wasn’t an easy one but we later learned that is was by far the best available choice we could have taken. By the time the sun came up, we were in the vicinity of Flamingo. I couldn’t help but notice we were also in the vicinity of hungry fish. Working a paddle tail along the mangrove edge was too good for an innocent redfish to let swim by. It was a stout little fella with no red color at all, a real silverfish instead of redfish. After releasing it I noticed something flopping around under my legs. The red had a hitchhiker and I caught a twofer.
The trip was over. We were spent and hungry for some real food. The Everglades has many of adventurous options to choose from and our little 5 day trip was only one. If you choose to do a trip like this I must suggest a few things. Go with a buddy or two. The back country is very easy to get lost in and lost the very last place you want to be when the sun goes down. Bring healthy provisions and make sure people know where you’re going and when you’ll be back. Be healthy and ready to possibly have your butt kicked in some situations. The environment is very unpredictable and has the ability to show no mercy on you. Prepare for the worse and hope for the best. Take lots of photos and leave nothing but footprints. If you plan well and appreciate what the outdoors have to offer, you will have a trip of a lifetime, every single time.