The lightning show over Alligator Alley was impressive as I headed west on I75 towards Everglades City for a quick couple day fishing trip with my good friend Steven and his dad Tom. The drive had very similar feeling to my last trip across the alley for a fishing trip with them (www.junobait.com/fishing-report/thats-what-living-is-to-me). I couldn’t contain my excitement at this point and just would occasionally let out a yell of excitement to no one in particular. I flipped on Spotify and stumbled across the “A1A” album from Jimmy Buffett; an album that would somehow continue to work it’s way back into the trip for the next few days. Recorded in 1974, it seemed to have some strange connection to an Everglades Fishing trip on Labor Day weekend in 2017!
Steve is a Florida native, transplanted and doing well in Texas. Still when the song “Dallas” came on and it made me laugh as I thought of Steve who had just pulled his boat for over almost twenty-four hours to get here.
“If you ever get the chance to go to Dallas
Take it from me, pass it by”
My two and a half hour drive was a breeze compared to Steve’s. After a dark ride down 29, without a panther sighting again, I rolled into Everglades City. I love the fact that Everglades City looks a lot like it did twenty-five years ago when I first came with my dad. A few new houses have popped up, and even a few cool little small condos as well. Turns out that Steve had booked a sweet little condo for us to stay; and that sure beat a tent in ninety degree heat!
As we quickly unloaded the big pile of junk out of my truck I got the fishing report. The fishing sounded like it could be very promising. Steven was still shaking like a little kid telling me about the solid snook he had let go a few hours ago. We all crashed easily, ready for the next day ahead.
The morning routine was easy. Fishing with someone for well over ten years makes doing things easy(even if you only see them a couple times a year), and in quick fashion we had the boat in the water. The song “Migration” off the A1A album popped into my head again as we idled past a long row of RV’s at Outdoor Resort and I laughed to myself.
It may have been two years since my last trip, but it felt like yesterday as Steven dropped the throttle on his Hewes. Steven and his dad Tom settled in the back seats for the wide open ride; while I sat in front of the console with camera in hand. A beautiful sunrise in the eastern sky made the trip even better than usual; the camera clicking away as I worked to try and capture a little piece of the morning beauty.
I have made the run solo into the backcountry a few times in years past (with no GPS and an old school paper chart); but nothing compares to riding with a truly knowledgable Glades expert like Steven or Tom. I always play a little game of “which way to go” in my head as we curve through different rivers, rip across open bays, navigate tight narrows with oyster beds all around, and slide through tight mangrove lined canals. After ten or twelve years of being privileged to ride along on these trips I guess correctly about fifty percent of the time.
Despite being Labor Day, boat traffic was pretty light as we roared farther back into Everglades National Park. I’m not sure if I asked where we were headed, or if I even really cared; but as the old familiar route unwound I knew Gopher Creek was our initial destination. My earliest glades memory involved a lot of time in Gopher and some of the narrow sections relatively close to it. In recent years it has grown in a little more and while trolling plugs through it and casting soft plastic jerk baits under the mangroves are still productive; the bays beyond have been of more interest in recent trips. The mangrove canopy is tightening in pretty good in Gopher.
“Place is starting to look more like it did before [Hurricane] Andrew” said Steve as we wound through a couple very tight spots. No doubt the thought of Hurricane Irma on our minds (but not a huge concern at that point) as we slid through what looked to be a nearly closed section of canal. I was certain the poling platform was going to take a few whacks; but we would slide through with only a few new branch scratches on the hull. Steve opened the throttle up as the creek opened, jumped a shallow bay, wound through a section known as “the ditch,” and in short order had us in the back of an unmarked bay on the chart.
A very playful dolphin greeted us towards the back of the bay as we set the boat down and began fishing. The dolphin (though a major deterrent to any serious fish catching) followed us around for our entire first stop. Undoubtedly he used the boat as a hunting advantage, scooping up a few fish spooked off by our presence. The backcountry of the Everglades is really something that any angler, and honestly anyone who enjoys the outdoors, should see at least once. The first spot was a perfect example. As the dolphin followed us along; we also crossed path with numerous large alligators. At one point our trailing dolphin friend passed right between two rather large gators, Steven (or maybe it was Tom) stuck a small snook, and an Osprey scooped down to grab an unsuspecting mullet as I tried to figure out how to capture it all on camera. A few small snook wanted to play, but overall our first stop was slow. The dolphin, though very entertaining, wouldn’t move on; so we did. I tried to snap a picture as he led us out of the bay, but couldn’t quite get him. A setting on the camera that I would find a few minutes later of course.
Pelican Bay would be our next stop. The canal leading into Pelican produced a number of small snook for us; including my first on a hand poured soft plastic I had made the night before. The back of Pelican Bay is a very interesting place; shallow and littered with old dead trees. The old stumps are a magnet for fish and also for the trolling motor; a point driven home often as it crunches and bounces off of one in permanently stained dirty water. Steven stuck a redfish on one of my hand poured plastics and it looked like maybe we were on the fish. Turned out to be more of a slow pick at em, and we would eventually move on to look for something else.
After a scenic, but uneventful, ride out of Gopher we headed south toward Alligator Creek. The first snook I ever caught in the Everglades came out of Alligator Creek: Steve and I talked about that one as we trolled through the beautiful canal; perpetually filled with dark tannic stained brackish water. A mangrove snapper came out to inspect the new Yo-Zuri 3D minnow were ere dragging along; and was quickly released after a little hook removal surgery. The backside of Alligator Creek houses a couple of snook nurseries; and I had brought along just the ticket for them. A light rod with three pound power pro and a white crappie jig was an awesome setup to have some fun with the juvenile snookies. After catching a dozen or so little guys we headed further south in search of something a little bigger.
Lostmans River was next on the list as we continued to rack up the miles for the day. After a quick look at some productive banks, a ride through Plate Creek, and a ride out Lostmans River we found ourselves looking at the Gulf of Mexico. The middle of the day heat was building, and the fish proved to be a little tough. We fished on through the heat picking away at fish here and their; but not stumbling on to what we were looking for. The spots were ideal: mangrove banks, oyster bars, and canal mouths; but the fish did not want to play.
The tide began to fall, and we collectively hoped it would help pull some fish out of their mangrove covered hiding spots. An occasional snook, a spooked redfish or two, and lots of schools of finger mullet and glass minnows had things looking good. While a massive building storm all around us had other things looking bad. We did begin to catch a few small redfish, including one that came up and plucked a 14MR MirroLure off the surface…suspended perfectly a few inches below the surface after I flipped it over a tree branch. That redfish wasn’t massive, but Steve and I agreed its was one of the best eats we had seen in a while.
After nearly pushing the falling tide a little too long in a spot Steve and Tom had been left high and dry in before (something I witnessed…but that is a whole other story in itself); we managed to idle out to a little deeper water. The building storm chased us out of the gulf and back into the backcountry. It looked like maybe we would make it in, but a quick buildup over Chokoloskee had us making alternative plans. The Crooked Creek chickee (an elevated camping platform provided by ENP) was a perfect stopping spot to take a late afternoon break and watch the lightning show going on over Chokoloskee and Everglades City. With some fairly nifty camera work I even managed to catch some of the show. The lightning eventually subsided enough to let us slide out, and we headed towards home.
The draw of one more spot was too much, and we stopped in Turner River to try and end the day with a big snook like Steve had caught the night before. We found the ladyfish stacked up at a creek mouth and had a lot of fun catching them on light tackle. It was very entertaining to watch the ladyfish attack the lure a few feet from the boat. While it seems like they are fast careless striking fish; watching them in clear tannic stained water showed they could be slow striking calculated strikers. Steve put one of the ladyfish out for bait, and soon had a bite that promptly broke off. We were scratching our head at what would have eaten a twelve inch ladyfish in that fashion. Only way to find out was to put another one on and find out.
The second ladyfish was only out for a few minutes before we got another strange slow bite. Steve waited a minute and drove the hook home into a mystery fish. Our questions were answered when a tarpon broke the surface for the first of numerous jumps. After a spirited battle Steve worked the tarpon to the boat for a quick picture and clean release. We decided the tarpon was a pretty good way to end the day; and headed to the dock to find our trailer the last one in the parking lot…big surprise.
After a quick clean up, we hung out in our condo telling stories and eating some venison that Steve had brought from Texas. With over 50 plus years of combined Everglades trip between the three of us we have some pretty good stories. The stories are great; and seem to get better with age. Some of them seem almost to crazy to be real…maybe one day we’ll get some of them down on paper! The “A1A” album came back to my mind as I thought of the song “Stories we could tell”.
“All the stories we could tell
If it all blows up and goes to hell
I wish that we could sit upon the bed in some hotel
And listen to the stories we could tell”
After a long hard day of fishing, a few adult beverages, and some good laughs it didn’t take anybody too long to find their beds. The morning alarm clock would be buzzing soon enough.
The morning came quick. Somehow my air mattress seemed to be perfectly timed in with the alarm clock. It would lose just enough air to wake me up right about time the alarm would ring! Tom decided to take a lay day and check out some different things around town. Steve and I were a little surprised by his decision, but couldn’t argue when Tom said, “I think I’ll go and check out the Smallwood store today, I’ve only wanted to do that for about thirty years now.”
A quick look at the forecast track for Hurricane Irma had us all a little concerned, but the thought of a full day of backcountry fishing erased any worries as we loaded everything up. “She’s still a long ways away, no reason to stress too much about it I figured.” After around a hundred miles or so of running yesterday we headed off to the gas station for some fuel for the boat. I went ahead and filled the truck up as well, knowing I’d be headed back across the state later that night. Our friend Jimmy met us at the gas station with his boat, and soon we left Everglades City headed back down to Chokoloskee.
After ending the day with a tarpon in Turner River only a few miles from the boat ramp; Steven and I decided to start the day in the same spot. We left Chokoloskee headed just around the corner basically to start fishing. It is not uncommon to have over an hour boat ride to the first spot; so thinking about putting the lines out in only ten minutes sounded awesome.
Unfortunately, Jimmy had an oil light come on as we left the boat ramp and had to turn around. Whatever the problem; it proved beyond quick repair and he was forced to put it back on the trailer. Steve and I slid back into Turner River and began our hunt for some ladyfish. Finding the “girls” was pretty easy; getting them in the boat proved a little more difficult. I will say that catching ladyfish is one of the most enjoyable bait catching experiences. After a little work we had a few rounded up and set the drift up. It didn’t take long and I had a solid eighty plus pounder destroy my bait and go in the air. The hook didn’t stick though and all that came back was a bait that had a very rough morning.
The tarpon started to show all over the river and I tried like crazy to get some pictures of them rolling. Apparently taking pictures of lightning is easier than rolling tarpon! After getting a quick tarpon bite, Steve and I figured we were on it. As is often the case with tarpon they just laughed at us. The last bite we would get was from a solid ten pound sail catfish. That was pretty much the sign it was time to move on.
After poking around some new stuff with little luck, we headed back to give Gopher another try. We spent some time looking around in Boston and Rookery with little luck. The areas were absolutely beautiful. The little snook continued to bite along certain sections of mangroves and we spooked a few redfish out form under the branches. As I tried to snap a few pics of some new custom rods for there Juno Bait website a three pound mullet jumped into the boat and almost hit me…only in the glades! Somehow the sub par fishing didn’t really matter, as just being in the backcountry is a reward in and of itself.
Headed out of Rookery we spent some time fishing “the ditch”. The water looked good and we plugged along still looking for a solid bite. Having gotten a lot of attention on my “808” 14MR Mirrolure I kept it tied on. A quick flip landed it in next to a dead buttonwood lay down, three twitches later it disappeared into a large boil, and soon an acrobatic snook was putting on a show in the tight canal. The snook tried but couldn’t shake the hook. I slid her next to the boat and pulled her in, not realizing she was quite as big as she was…twenty-seven and a half inches on the board: A couple quick pictures and she was on her way.
The afternoon thunderstorms were building as we headed out of Gopher. Southwater was next on the list to check out. At this point we were determined to find a trout to complete our two day boat grand slam. Spot number one didn’t produce much and the storms were looking pretty bad; but striking fish all over spot two forced us to stop. After a mini “ladyfish” contest; Steve stuck one that he knew wasn’t a ladyfish, and soon a beautiful golden colored spotted sea trout was in the boat. With storms building even more we figured we had better get. The stinging rain got us a little bit, but we made it safely to the Sweetwater Chickee before any lightning had any of the fishing rods buzzing or our hair standing up. We kicked back and talked story for a half hour or so before the storm eased up.
With the day winding down we hightailed it back to Turner Creek in hopes of one more Tarpon bite. The “girls” were not in their spot; and no tarpon seemed to be interested in our perfect size ladyfish or free jumping mullet that had leapt in the boat earlier. The rain picked up a little as we drifted along the river.
I was surprised to hear Steven’s phone beep with a message. It’s not common to have any cell service, but we were just around the corner from Chokoloskee and our phones both had service. It was an eerie feeling as I pulled up the latest track for Irma. I knew I was headed home that night, but Steve still had a few days of fishing and then a trip back to Texas ahead of him. The 5PM update didn’t look good.
“This thing is gonna come right up where we’re sitting” I said to Steve. He looked a bit surprised, and then the semi-reality set in as he looked at the track. We figured we’d call it a day and head it back. The rain seemed to pick up a little bit, but wasn’t bad as we scooted across Chokoloskee back to the ramp. The sun was a lot higher in the sky than many of our return trips; but we were still the last trailer in the parking lot. This time it had a different feel. The town of Everglades City had an even quieter feel than usual as I packed up for the ride home.
Another successful Glades trip in the book I settled into my truck for the ride home. The reality of a category five hurricane bearing down on south Florida set in. I flipped back on the “A1A” album. It seemed fitting that “Trying to reason with Hurricane Season” came on as I headed north on 29…”Squalls out on the gulf stream, Big storms coming soon…”
Thanks For Reading,
Enjoy the Pics!