Grand plans; January 15
Preparations for a canoe trip deep into the backcountry takes a lot of research and planning. We have done this a hundred times, in many different places, so what to bring for clothes, camping gear, and food is easy. The lists are a click away. It’s the fish that cause the sleepless nights. The Everglades National Park canoe trail stretches 100 miles from Chokoloskee to Flamingo. There are 1.5 million acres involved with countless bays the size of lakes throughout. Like water everywhere 90% of the fish will be in 10% of that water. Introduce daily tides and being in the right place at the right time becomes a major consideration and key component to success.
There is a marked main trail the entire way that will be quite easy to find and follow. Leave the main route and you are on your own. We sport around in a 20’ Old Town Tripper XL canoe with a 2.5 h.p. kicker so wind direction and velocity is always an issue on open bays. We know we will likely have to spend a lot of time off the main trail so a chart in your lap, a compass, and a GPS become your close friends. You can get good and lost if you go off course and loose your way.
We had all our plans laid to put in at the southern end of the park in Flamingo. We launched there last year and planned to go much further back this time around. Hell’s Bay would be our first campsite then we would venture deeper into the backcountry in search of the prize fish, snook. Their winter habitat is about as far back as you can get. They have become my favorite Florida fish because they are very wary, finicky about when and what they will eat, and these days very hard to find. Oh, they get very big, jump eye high, and tear up tackle. Everything you want in a fish. There should be lots of spotted sea trout, jacks, mangrove snapper, and ladyfish that are usually easy to find and catch. Snook are just the opposite and currently have a strict catch and release policy in place. Their hiding spots are guarded secrets for very good reasons.
As a last thought I called the ranger station in Flamingo hoping for a fishing report from the Hell’s Bay region. I was put in touch with the biologist currently interviewing fishermen at the launch in Flamingo. There were no encouraging words regarding snook catches from Hell’s Bay. He suggested we concentrate in the Lostmans River region, 40 miles in. The reports from the guides indicated snook were being found in that particular neighborhood. The best way into Lostmans is from Chokoloskee at the northern access to the park. New charts were purchased and our plan was finally in place. We now have it narrowed down to 10,000 acres of backcountry. We’ve got 5 days and enough dry goods for 7, just in case.
We start our day in line at Everglades Headquarters in Chokoloskee. Campsites in the park cannot be reserved until 24 hours before your actual trip and it needs to be done in person. As suggested in their planning guide we show-up with a plan A and a plan B. We are third in line and we have been told which sites have already been spoken for and when. Things begin looking good for our plans with only one change. We’ll spend two nights on two different chickee platforms and be on a ground site for two nights at Lostmans Five. Before we go on our way the ranger gives all in attendance the basic do’s and don’ts then goes over their check list. “Remember you need one gallon of water per person per day.” He informs us, “ You are on our own and you need to file a float plan with next of kin just in case. Here’s the number they will call if we need to send out the hounds.” His last words were for those camping at ground sites. “Don’t feed the alligators and the raccoons will go to great lengths to get into your fresh water supply. There are no fresh water faucets for refills. Have a great time.”
We had already loaded the canoe in our driveway just to be sure everything had a home and that the center of gravity was where it belonged .So our launch was calculated and went extremely smooth. This was especially apparent as we watched other parties who hadn’t done much Proper Prior Planning having issues with where all their gear was all going to go. I throttled our magnum 2.5 h.p. Suzuki and we were on our way. We do have to put 30-40 miles of backcountry behind us before we pitch the tent at our first campsite, Lostmans Five, our only ground site.
Our travels would take us to the east and to the south into a predicted easterly wind of 10 to 15 mph, gusting to 20. We know we’ll have to avoid crossing the many 1-3 mile wide bays and find our way alone the lean and away from the nicely marked trail. A two man crew makes travel quite simple. Steve is navigator and I’m responsible for keeping as much sea out of the canoe as possible. It was a long days travel with little fishing time but it only took a sponge now and then to keep things dry. It was a beautiful journey but I kept thinking it’s like going from Greenville to the Golden road in a canoe. “ Hey Steve we must be at least half way by now, right?”
We passed a number of paddle power parties. I detected motor envy in a few eyes and here comes another combustible in others. Then just before we arrive at Lostmans Five a powerboat roared up along side. “Where you headed” were their first words. After we stated our destination their reply was “ Sorry to have to barge in but we fried our prop trying to get to our designated site. We’re running on the spare and had to switch to Lostmans. Just shove our shit out of the way. We’ll be back before dark.” Then their 90 hp roared them away.
Our first impression was not what you might call …….. At that particular point in time we had no idea how lucky we would become as a result of their misfortune.
We hit land in short order, preformed a hasty campsite detail, threw our tackle in the canoe and went looking for dinner. A bit of positive thinking had put fish on all but one night’s menu. It didn’t take long before just enough spotted sea trout were flopping in the bottom of the boat and we were heading in to dine on very fresh fish.