You first have to pick a crew. It may be small or large (preferably small) but either or, do not, and I repeat, do not journey into the Florida Everglades alone. The Everglades is home to some wild beasts, unpredictable weather and unforgiving circumstances. The crew should be friends, diversified with leaders and followers. Too many of one will leave you lost or in a fight. They must also like the outdoors because if they don’t, you may never hear from them again. This trip, my crew consisted of Jason Camusso, a somewhat new friend and two old skateboard buddies from many moons back, Chris Lehman and Matt Giles. Matt was with me in November when we paddled into the depths of the SW most area of the Everglades out of Flamingo on a 4-day trip. After that trip, I knew I wanted to squeeze in one more adventure before it got too warm again so I almost immediately planned this trip for February.
Unlike previous trips, navigating the areas out of Chokoloskee would be much easier. Our plastics boats would float us out to Pavilion Key for the first night, Mormon Key the following two nights followed by a night at both Sweetwater Bay and Sunday Bay Chickees. This was the float plan and your float plan is only tentative until you arrive at the visitor’s center of the Everglades. Upon meeting the Rangers, I was informed that the Sweetwater Bay Chickee was no longer there. It was removed and a newer one takes its place about a mile away. It’s the new Crooked Creek Chickee. Permits were acquired, float plan was left with the Rangers and we headed to Chokoloskee Island Park & Marina where we’d leave out first thing in the AM. The Park is great and the people are really nice but I found it difficult to communicate via phone with them.
It’s safe to say that the combined fly fishing experience between all four of us might be a few days over a year. This would make it all more interesting to place $5 in a hat, fish nothing but fly the entire first day and crown a big fish winner by days’ end. Matt took home the $15 with a few trout and a mixed bag of other fish. I caught a ladyfish and the other guys didn’t catch anything. My highlight came within an hour of getting in the water with a most excellent lead on a slot redfish only to have him bump my fly and swim away. When it was all over, I broke my rod down and safely stowed it in my kayak where it wouldn’t see light the rest of the trip. To my fly angling friends, I apologize.
Pavilion Key is a beach site and a 9-mile paddle from Chokoloskee. If you’re reading this to take notes, I don’t recommend paddling more than 8-10 miles per day. This applies to anglers only because if you do, you won’t have much time to fish. 5-7 miles per day is pretty nice but unfortunately you don’t possess the powers to move islands closer to you so you need to compromise in some situations. We were set-up on Pavilion Key before the sun started to fall but when it did, it put on a great show.
My shell art.
Monday morning, we woke up, packed up and headed to Mormon Key. This was just over a 4-mile paddle and we would stay there for two nights, fishing the surrounding areas the entire following day. Before I go on any trip, I study Google Earth very well and for two reasons. I’m looking for nice points and passes where fish like to hang as well as getting a layout of the land. Painting a virtual map in your brain before the trip will benefit you. There was a cove we would pass this day and I had a very good hunch that it would hold fish. It had been a few hours into incoming tide so the flats had a decent amount of water, just what I wanted. From a couple hundred yards out, I could see some dolphin tearing up the shoreline. This is a good sign and to add, there was a shark in the area. Upon further inspection, the water was very murky and this is a sign of active fish feeding on crustaceans and such that live in the sand or mud. Lurking in the turned up water I saw the back of a nice redfish. A swift cast of my Vudu shrimp, one twitch and suddenly my line was tight. My crew was nowhere in sight and I was right in the middle of an over-slot school of hungry reds. This red could have been my only fish to catch the entire trip and I would have been content simply paddling and taking photos the rest of the time. It is times like this when I hook into a nice fish after working hard for it that I am grateful for. A safe voyage and one memorable fish, that’s all I need.
Winds cranked up a bit this day and so did the waves. While paddling across one of the larger coves, Chris mentioned his kayak was not performing right. I turned around to see waves breaking over the stern. This was not good, he had definitely taken on water, was continuing to do so and we had ¼ of a mile before dry land. We gunned it for shore but the shore could not come quick enough and the boat dumped. I got to the boat as soon as possible and sandwiched it between Matt and I. Making sure Chris was safe, we flipped the boat right-side up and balanced it out. Luckily Jason was in a pedal boat so I got some paracord out from my hatch, hooked the boats up and we headed towards shore. The worse part about this was the fact that the boat was very unstable so I had Chris hold on to the stern and act as a rudder while Jason pulled him. To add insult to injury, these waters aren’t exactly the place you want to be drug like live bait. The braveness award of the trip truly goes to Chris. The remainder of the trip would be spent looking for the leak, patching cracks, bailing the kayak and making sure the cork of the whisky bottle did not come out of the hole that the plug went missing from. Yes, luck would have it that the fellas brought a bit of whisky and the cork of it fit perfectly into the plug hole.
Eyes in the sky.
These guys knew what they were doing.
Limping along our way to Mormon Key, we passed a few very fishy spots. One of which was a very tight area on a point and as we paddled into it, a nice red swam right under us. I don’t typically do this but for whatever reason, I was feeling greedy and tossed my Vudu shrimp into this tight area. Encompassed by barnacle covered mangroves and layered in sharp oysters, a large snook takes my shrimp and right away I knew it was not good. Gently pulling the big girl towards me, I was ever so carefully navigating the winds, waves, mangroves and oysters. That was until she saw me and as soon as she did, it was over. An artificial bait and a foot of fluorocarbon leader I left in that fish, all because I did not respect her. Had I positioned myself outside of this obstacle course and casted into it, it would have gone smoothly.
Hidden treats from the wife.
I’m not a big clothing snob but this Harry Goode’s SIMMS performance shirt is the most comfy thing ever.
Day 3 was here and so was the rain. We woke to an incoming tide and each of us went in different directions. This would be the day to paddle around and explore the area because we didn’t have an agenda to follow. Matt hooked up a nice slot red in the morning on his lucky topwater lure but fortunately, for the red, it was early and we were not going to hang on to it until dinner. Another catch that would escape the dreaded fork and knife.
Landscapes never get old…
and neither do full moons.
In that float plan, if you play your cards right, you can take advantage of the tide. This is exactly what I had planned for Wednesday. Incoming tide started around 10:30am so that gave us some lazy time to pack up and fish the area a little longer before the 7 mile trek into the backwaters. The incoming tide got us moving quite fast and the 15mph tailwinds kicked the boats into hyper speed. There’s a possibility we broke plastic boat speed records, but maybe not. Along this fast-forward trip, we caught snapper, jacks, ladyfish, reds, lizardfish and trout. The destination was Sweetwater Bay Chickee but we stopped at Watson’s Place for lunch. This is a campable ground site but holds some pretty cool, yet creepy history. It’s named after Edger Watson, a farmer who moved to the area in the 1880’s. A true outlaw with multiple accused murders, he was gunned down in Chokoloskee one night by a crowd. It’s said that Watson’s Place is haunted so that is an area that I’ll keep on the “daytime lunch” stops ONLY. A large cauldron and cistern still sit there on the property amongst other items.
Chris and I enjoying the fire. Photo by Jason.
Jason and his rainy trout selfie.
When I mention sleeping on a “chickee” in the Everglades, people usually look at me funny. If you have any child in you at all, they are pretty much one of the coolest places to camp. “Chickee” is spoken by the Seminoles and is a shelter supported by posts with a raised floor. Some of the ones in the Everglades have recently been rebuilt and the decking is made from recycled plastics. After setting up on these nice new floors, I noticed Matt paddled away. He had been gone for a while and that typically meant two things, A) He found a fishy spot, or B) He’s fallen victim to a very large predator. As luck would have it, he paddled back to the chickee and informed us that he found a snook hole. This is an area that has flowing water and loaded with snook, not to be confused with the bottom side of a fish. There was a storm brewing but it was the kind without electricity. It was now day 5 that fresh water had not hit my body so I took my shirt off and got in my boat to check out this glory hole. Matt took his shirt off and we decided to have a game of shirts vs. skins. Chris tossed a bait back into the cut and hooked up right away. I went next and did the same. Skins won this game and I believe the score was something along the lines of 6-1. The freshwater shower was a bonus.
Sweetwater Bay Chickee. Photo by Jason.
I caught the coolest gold jack crevalle but…
We left Sweetwater Bay early Thursday morning towards Crooked Creek for a 12-mile day. This was not in the original plan because we were supposed to stay at Sunday Bay Chickee but it’s gone. Bad thing, we had to paddle an extra few miles. Good thing, our last day would be that much shorter. On the way out, we noticed a fella in a pedaling kayak with sail. I thought, “The sun is just coming up, where did this dude come from?” I asked him if he’d been paddling all night and he said, “No, I couldn’t find the chickee so I had to hunker down close to the mangroves during the storm and I slept there in my boat.” This is EXACTLY why you should not be out here by yourself. It’s not wise, it’s not smart and it’s just not safe. Bad choice on his part but it worked out because the chickee would have been cramped with 5 on it.
Lost in translation.
This was a long day and we fished as much as we could but had some miles to cover. The backwaters are where we started to see alligators but no crocodiles. It is to my knowledge and experience that the crocs live in the Flamingo area and the gators live N, NW. They don’t have any mutual understandings and don’t get along. The waters were quiet and there weren’t many signs of fish. Before one of the large cuts we had to navigate, there were some very large dead trees. Matt says, “I’m going to go over here and see if this Giving Tree has anything to give”. As sure as Babe Ruth was calling his homerun, Matt called a great snook. The moment was classic and it will stay with me anytime I fish a large treeline.
They don’t care you’re there.
There wasn’t a lot of line tossing for me on this day. Just a lot of casual paddling and soaking up my surroundings and thinking about loved ones. These trips are much more than just fishing. They help me understand how valuable life and our environment is. I’m confident that bottling what I get from these trips is enough to cure all of the worlds issues. But maybe what I get out of these trips isn’t the same as what the next person gets. I finally snapped out of my hippiness when we got close to the chickee because I had to pay attention to the maps.
Crooked Creek Chickee is located in a mosquito vortex, literally. After getting all setup before dark (that’s when the vampires come out) and taking advantage of both decks, a couple in a canoe paddled up and we all had to readjust. It was fine because we shouldn’t have been on both decks to begin with. A chickee has two sides and each side hold four people but if you don’t have company, you can make yourself at home. After a formal neighborly introduction, we couldn’t help but notice that they were good people. Anne and Fred from Vermont. It was Anne’s first time in the Everglades and Fred’s second. They flew in the previous week and were on a similar float plan as ours. All their gear was rented except for the tent and miscellaneous items. The idea of people exploring this area from all over the country and world is cool.
Sunset in my tent.
Everyone packed into their tents before the sun vanished and the blood donations began. If you have the proper gear, sleeping in this mangrove jungle can be an experience full of sights, sounds and smells. The ever so notorious pop from snook plucking fish from the upper water columns is one of my favorite things to hear. Sure, we could have tossed lures at them all night and caught multiple but listening to them was much more exciting. I probably don’t speak for most people but I’m comfortable saying that.
Friday, 6 days later and I’m left thinking, again, that was fast. What part of the Everglades will I do next? There are many options but for now, I wanted to get home to my awesome cat and lovely wife. It just so happened that Anne and Fred were at the ramp when we got back. Our trucks were an additional 4 miles away because there’s not much parking on Chokoloskee Island. Not only was it 4 miles away, it wasn’t our start point, the tide was against us and there was a 10/15mph headwind. With ice cold drinks in our hands, I kindly asked Anne if they’d give one of us a ride off the island so we could all get our trucks and she kindly said yes. Chris bought Anne and Fred (below in photo with Matt) a beer, we gathered all the trucks, made one last stop for burgers, gator bites, fried mushrooms, calamari and smitchers of iced tea then got on the road and headed home. A safe and eventful trip was in the books…for some.
About 50 miles out of Everglades City, my Nissan started acting up. The truck started to lose juice mile after mile. I was eventually driving 5mph on the shoulder of the road. The drive from Melbourne to Chokoloskee and back is beautiful and I enjoyed every bit of it until my truck broke down in the middle of sugarcane land. It was 4pm and when the tow truck finally got there, it was pitch black and after 8pm. Deja vu all over again because on my way home from the Everglades three months prior, I blew a tire on the Turnpike. That was an easy fix, though. The nice tow truck driver helped me as best as possible without getting in trouble before he finally dropped me off at the Holiday Inn Express in Clewiston. A hot shower and a nice nights sleep before I was recharged and ready to take on this challenge again. After Neil, my super awesome new tow truck driver tried multiple service centers, we finally found one who could fix my dead alternator on a Saturday afternoon. 3:30pm and Jaime (pronounced Himie) handed me the keys and I was back on the road exactly 24 hours from when I got off the road. From mechanics to tow truck drivers to hotel desk clerks, everyone was unbelievably helpful and nice and it made my 24-hour learning experience much more tolerable.
Very boring out here.
Neil said I was his hero and I told him he was mine.
As I look back on the entire trip, I’m reminded again and again of why I push my limits in our environment. Taking advantage of what we have and seizing every possible moment is what I live for. It is with sorrow to add that another reasons I do these trips is the fact that we are killing everything around us and I’m trying to enjoy it before it’s gone. You would think that a place set off to the side and in the middle of a wilderness would not be impacted by humans. You would think that the trees grow as green as possible and the wildlife flourishes. You would think places like the Everglades will be protected forever and there is no need to worry about these beautiful gems. You would think, but you would be horribly mistaken. This trip just so happened to have gone down during a red tide which killed thousands of fish. Acres of seagrasses are dying off because of the freshwater restrictions and high salinity levels. The list could go on. I grew up with such an incredible gift of enjoying clean water and a healthy environment. As I watch it slowly slip away, I know the only thing I can do is my own part and spread awareness. If everyone did exactly the same, Mother Nature would bounce back and truly show us how powerful she is.
Until next time. Photo by Jason.
Mike, this is fantastic! Really nice account & photos; I remember now why I’ve been so keen on doing the same thing. Thanks so much for sharing.
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Mike I enjoyed your blog’s images and words. However, while paddling alone may not be a wise choice; getting lost is the first step in finding yourself.