Post-Irma Chickee Hopping in the Everglades

Mid-December 2017

Hurricane Irma roared through Florida in September packing winds in excess of 110 mph. It engulfed the entire state of Florida then headed up the entire east coast all the way to New England. On dry ground countless homes and businesses were lost, the power grid was destroyed and trees were ripped out of the ground then tossed about. It’s been three months since widespread catastrophic destruction and restoration work is still underway.

Caused by Irma, a huge storm surge found its way onshore and into the backcountry estuaries and bays. In particular the Everglades National Park infrastructure was demolished. All the chickee platforms in the backcountry lost their roofs to the wind and attached porta potties were destroyed and swept away. Ground sites were beneath six feet of seawater. Nothing was spared; visitor centers on both end of the park were trashed. Power, sewer, and water ceased to exist throughout coastal communities. A foot of mud brought in by the storm surge was left behind in buildings and on the grounds. An immediate “Alert” was posted on the parks website, “The entire (two million acres) park is now closed until further notice.”

A few weeks later water access into the park reopened for boat traffic. The park web site post was updated, “USE EXTREME CAUTION!! Many navigational aids are now missing and unaccounted for. Debris is everywhere. Enter at your own risk.” A map was also posted regarding backcountry camping. Every backcountry site was closed until further notice. Day use was the only option.

Then in mid-December the web site was again updated, “Backcountry campsite work has been completed in the southern (Flamingo) end of the park and now reopened for backcountry camping. The marina store and organized campground in Flamingo remains closed until further notice.” which translates into no fuel, no food, no ice and no camping. The campsites in the backcountry of the northern end of the park still remain closed until further notice.

Steve and I were waiting to hear some backcountry campsites had reopened. We had been planning a six-day camping trip to the park for some time. In mid-December I finally got through to a ranger at the Flamingo Visitors center, who filled me in regarding what chickees were now available. The rule is you can only occupy a chickee for one night at a time so we laid plans to chickee hop around Whitewater Bay, check in on some favorite spots and investigate a bunch of new fishy looking backcountry. When we arrived at HQ in Flamingo on December 18th we signed up for 5 nights of camping on newly refurbished chickees.

Our first couple days were spent fishing familiar spots around Hell’s Bay, where we found snook right where we left them during previous trips. Because Hell’s Bay is so far inland from the sea the storm surge must not have been as bad as along the immediate coast. One thing was very obvious. Mangroves had been striped of the majority of their leaves.

As we hopped from chickee to chickee we were in wonder of all the birds still around. Ospreys were rebuilding nests that were eliminated by the storm and there were shore birds everywhere. One speck of an island in Oyster Bay was obviously a rousting site and as the sun set flocks of brown pelicans, royal terns and frigate birds returned to roust on every available limb.

Whenever we were moving from one place to another bottle nosed dolphin we came across roared over to our boats to play in the bow wake. Some traveled with us for miles.

Another morning at the mouth of the Little Shark River there were schools of bonito, big jacks, ladyfish, blue fish, and big tarpon accompanied by hundreds of birds feasting on a zillion small baitfish drifting from the river back to the sea. Our two hand tied flies may have looked like finger mullet but they couldn’t compete among acres of bait so we became wide-eyed observers watching the spectacle in awe of it all.

It was a wonderful week spent on a wilderness waterway. Every star is the sky twinkled all night, every night. Every sunrise was every bit as beautiful as every sunset.

And we were grateful the park was again open to us humans to enjoy but best of all the critters that inhabit this untamed wilderness waterway were going about their business like nothing ever happened.

What to see the photos.


Day 1 – Everglades National Park Winter Camping trip

You’ll learn a lot along the way when you begin taking unguided trips into the backcountry. We began our winter Everglades National Park camping trips with my 20′ Old Town canoe outfitted with retractable outriggers, powered by the paddle and a 2½ hp. outboard. It is extremely stable, safe and carries all the gear needed for a week of camping. We knew we’d be able to find our way around easily enough using a NOAA chart and compass (with a gps back-up) and not get into much trouble. Tides hide dangers below so our thoughts were “If we’re not going very fast shallow water, sand and oyster bar encounters won’t be very serious.” We had no one to show us the way so the canoe seemed like the logical choice to safely find our way about. Our plan was to go 25 miles in. The learning curve taught us many things. The first being our big canoe served us well but it had its limitations. It was slow traveling at a maximum speed of 6-8 mph so it took all day to get where we wanted to be. When fully loaded it only handled a foot of sea chop before taking spray over the side. Many bays we had to cross were much bigger in real time than they appear on the chart sitting in our lap so we constantly needed to leave the main trail for a lea shore to avoid choppy water, adding to our travel distance between destinations. We hadn’t bitten off more than we could chew. The issue became, travel time seriously cut into our productive fishing time.
On our return from last winter’s canoe trip one thing became very obvious. Our flats boats would eliminate these obstacles. We would be able to remain on the marked trail staying in deeper water allowing us to run at 25 mph, carry more gear, and have two boats just in case. Once there we could cover greater distances and explore a lot more country. It proved to be a very wise decision.

Day 1
On Monday of the third week in January we launched out of Chokoloskee at the north end of the park then headed 25 miles south towards Lostman’s River. Our plans were to camp on the same spot as last winter and explore as much water as time would allow within a ten mile radius of our campsite.
The learning curve began at the launch. In our haste to squeeze every bit of daylight into our trip we began our journey in a bay all but void of water, low tide. We know the channel but even it was too shallow and narrow so our 25 mph plans would have to wait until we hit the trail markers and deeper water 3 miles away. So with motors on tilt we idled our way along.
With only a couple of minor course corrections the journey in was easy and we were campsite tight in a little over 3 hours. Our only fishing plans on this day were to find familiar water that produced fish last winter. The spotted sea trout were still in the places we left them last time plus a couple of small snook were right where the text book said they should be, a very good sign. Last year we found very few snook in an entire week of fishing.
Mission accomplished we return to base to find another fisherman camped along side us. Randy was also in for the week, alone, very friendly and a fisherman’s bond began that proved to be invaluable.

Day 2 – Exploring new ground

Our plans were to explore some new water that fellow campers of last season had pointed out on the chart then revisit an out of the way bay where we had found a good number of redfish last year.
We love to catch anything the sea has to offer but snook hunting is high on this year’s agenda. We’ll fly fish whenever we can but the spin rods are officially unlocked and in new waters become great tools for finding and catching fish. Fish holding in shallow water are desperately spooky so the swing of the fly rod spooks, the tiny shadow of the fly line spooks and when water visibility is at a minimum the fly becomes extremely hard for a fish to spot. Remember this country connects to the open sea where everyone is lower on the totem pool than something bigger. It’s the food chain and the thought of being on the menu has everything very edgy. Spook a fish and it roars off for deeper water taking his biddies with him.
Spin gear on the other hand allows the fishermen a cast of much greater distance with a fine diameter line that has no shadow and can be operated effectively in tight spaces where there is little room to manage a fly line overhead. The fly is replaced with a lure that wiggles like a fish, has rattles producing subtle sounds fish detect, and when made from some new, high-tech form of rubber possess a smell that can be absolutely irresistible to most fish.
Just like the fly, a spin fisherman has to be extremely accurate plus know exactly how to twitch that lure so it appears real enough to fool a fish into believing it needs to eat it. It’s not rocket science but skill level is equally as important when using any form of artificial bait. During the steep portion of the learning curve it’s wise not to leave any stones unturned when you’re trying to locate fish in a new area you have never fishing before.
We started finding a snook here and there always right where the textbook told them they’re supposed to be. It could be at the downstream edge of an eddy line, on a point of land, or along the deep edge of a creek the tide follows on its way in and out. If we weren’t catching’em they were leaving big mushrooms of mud as they spooked from their ambush zones. We began feeling good with our snook game even though we hadn’t come face to face with any real life bruisers.
We eventually found our way back to the out of the way bay at the perfect time during the low tide. We did spot a few very spooky redfish but only had a couple good sight casting opportunities. No one was eating. Sometimes they don’t. A unexpected surprise we did stumble onto were sawfish, a prehistoric beast of a fish sporting a saw blade snout one third the length of the fish ringed with sharp teeth that give this fish it’s name. They were neither shy nor spooky, swimming about in less than 2 feet of water. The odd creatures were up to 5’ in length, maybe longer. It was a chance encounter, few people experience. They were at one time hunted to near extinction and now extremely endangered so any sightings need to be reported to the Sawfish Commission. I’d make that call when I get back. What a treat.
Before the day was done we returned to what are now becoming reliable spots, iced a couple spotted sea trout for our night meal then landed a boatload of jacks, ladyfish, and mangrove snapper reassuring ourselves we can still find all the fish species of the Everglades. We’ll refocus our effects back to snook come morning.
To us campsite life has become equally as important as a good days fishing. We now have two powerboats so why not bring the kitchen sink. Steve and I have never been accused of traveling light.
Our neighbor Randy on the other hand also began his Everglades camping career in a motorized canoe where space is at a premium. He took the minimalist approach, with a one man pack tent, power bars, self heating evening meals and a couple good books. It’s a good approach, leaving his boat uncluttered. He could now fish his way in and out eliminating unnecessary gear occupying space more efficiently used for essential snook tackle. Randy is strictly a spin/bait casting, very focused snook fishermen and the son of a now retired profession bass angler. Needless to say Randy operates at a different level than most and his enthusiasm and willingness to share his knowledge of the artificial lure world has taken my snook game to an entirely new level.
I don’t believe Randy ever imagined camping alongside two guys with a “Lets bring ALL the comforts of home” approach. When he finished his long day of snook hunting he returned to camp finding us enjoying a very happy hour with our 13’x13′ tent equipped with full kitchen/dining room and separate bedroom complete with cots made up with fitted sheets finished with full size pillows. He took photos to show his wife and friends.
Our new found friendship began to grow as we got further aquainted. Randy was sporting a, new to him, Maverick flats boat. He had done substantial custom work on it and invited us for the grand tour. Remember this is the son of a professional bass angler. He was taught by the best and a lot of thought went into transforming an already fabulous flats boat, the envy of every flats guide, into a customized fishing machine. The list of updates started with custom rod racks to a deluxe charging system for the 24 volt trolling motor power pack, and on and on, finishing the tour as our daylight faded by hitting a switch igniting under gunnel and compartment LED lighting. His lengthy overhaul was complete. This was his new boats first trip into the Everglades and Randy was obvious a very proud parent of a real life Dream Machine. I’ve only been around one other artificial lure fishermen that operated at this level and Eric out fished my fly rod every single day of our seven day trip into remote Canada. Needless to say I’m paying close attention to every little piece of advice Randy is willing to offer up. It again proved invaluable.

Day 3 – Finding 10-90 water

We had in mind to fish the mouth of Lostman’s River, one of three major tidal rivers that feed seawater and fish to the Everglades backcountry. This is why we brought the flats boats. We could comfortably make the run to the outside and back in a timely fashion. The map would easily get us there then we’ll just have to figure things out. Along the way we spotted a blitz of fish on the surface. A quick you-turn put us up current of the pod. With poppers at the end of the fly lines it only took a couple of casts and a pop of the fly to entice a strike. Who knows how many jacks we could have caught. It was a sure thing when you cast the fly into the blitz. We had our fun then moved on. We had a different fish on the brain and the mouth of the river was in sight with low tide and sight casting conditions coming on fast.
You never know if you are actually going to find fish prowling a flat in a foot of water. You always keep in mind that 90 percent of the fish are in 10 percent of the water. This needs repeating. 10 percent of the water holds 90 percent of the fish. The feeding jacks we just left were contained in a very small pod in a very big ocean. There is a lot of empty water out there and you have to be mindful of that when you’re exploring new ground. Find one and you’ll likely find more. I say it out loud every time I find myself in the 10 percent zone. When the conveyer belt of food funnels bait along the right edge or down the right rip line predators line up for the all you can eat special.
So we roamed about fishing different edges with current, along oyster bars that fell off into deeper water, and poled the flats searching for something big with a taste for crab on it’s brain. We did find the occasional, out of range redfish roaming the shallows and sea trout holed up during the low tide. You don’t get your hopes too high when you’re on foreign ground. A fish here and there tells you you’re at least in the neighborhood. Then out of nowhere a major explosion from something big after something small appeared on a point way across the river. We know we need to get there. A cast or two has to be planted on that precise spot but there is a lot of productive looking water along the way. So we probed along casting stink bait in the form of Berkley GULP at every textbook pocket of water on our way across.
The initial strike from a big fish wants to tear the rod from your hand. The drag is cranked down so a hook can be set into a boney jaw followed by an attempt to somehow contain the fish and stop it from wrapping you up in the tangle of debris that is everywhere. Before it’s over a major fish is on every side of the boat. You may even suspect your reel’s spool isn’t holding quite enough line for the task. When a big fish comes there can be a helpless feeling if you’re sporting too light of tackle. You can only hope you just might win the battle and get your catch to the boat for a closer inspection.
You win some and you loose some. I remember the first big tarpon I hooked and had on long enough to do battle with. My guide, Thomas, eventually stopped chasing the beast, staked the boat then sat down and made this comment “Now lets see who wins, good luck.” That one ended with a snap shot as did this. We finally boated a very big female snook. She was a 33”, full figured gal I’m guessing weighed 15-18 pounds. When I turned her loose I finally exhaled. This was my biggest to date. It wasn’t fly caught but what a trill and a half.
Now that we believed we knew exactly where every other big fish in the sea was holding we cast GULP shrimp till the stink wore off then started finding our way home. The map showed a narrow side channel leading to a small bay with an exit at the other end that kept us going in the right direction. Surely there would be tidal current inviting fish into the opening and the bay beyond. We found about every fish the seas offers there. I even saw a tarpon roll along a deep mangrove edge. All the stars had lined up and we found ourselves on another nice piece of that 10 percent water. We had to make tracks for camp before nightfall but we both promised we would be back the next day. The place stunk of fish and we needed to unlock its secrets.
Tomorrow would be moving day. You are only allowed a 3 night stay on any ground site so we’ll need to pack all our stuff and move to a chickee stand for a one night stay then back to Lostman’s Five ground site to finish the trip out.

Day 4 – Never feel defeated

Yesterday Randy had begun to zero in on the snook and was happy to report a spot we had pointed out to him ended up being his most productive, holding the biggest fish of the day. He returned the favor with a couple tricks he had up his sleeve and talk of tomorrows fishing was front and center. A partnership of trust had formed. It would be early to bed and early to rise. We only have three more days and we have to move before heading back to the coast.
The move went smooth then it was a straight run to the sea. We now know the way so it was only a fifteen minute nonstop commute. We’ll fish a different area at the mouth on the outgoing end of the tide giving us a good stretch of potential sight fishing. The weather radio predicted a light wind for the morning with a cold front and north wind showing up in late afternoon.
Steve immediately caught a nice redfish right where it belonged then only a few casts later hooked into the biggest spotted sea trout of the trip. I’m not sure just exactly how big a sea trout has to be before it is considered a gator trout but this had to be one. It covered 23 inches of the scale and probably weighed in at 4-5 pounds. Our day had already been made and it was only 15 minutes old.
We managed to find a good deal of unproductive, fishless water but we weren’t going to give up till the incoming tide took the visibility away. We took turns poling and poked into every nook and cranny. If you look long enough and hard enough sooner or later a 10 percent piece of water may show up and there they are, two redfish in less than a foot of water poking along the edge of the mangroves. Then a major snook blows out from under a shady overhang twenty feet to the left of the boat. You put the breaks on and regroup for a super stealth approach knowing what may lie ahead. They can’t know you’re there. If a snook or redfish is aware of your presents they zip their lips. It’s a fact. And you can’t be certain they are even in an eating mood. Small fish are like kids, they are always hungry and constantly in the fridge looking for something to stuff in their mouths. Big adult fish are like us. We wait for the buffet table to be fully stocked before we line up. After we feast we turn our heads to any offer of another bite. Fish are no different. Add the element of concealment to the equation and the odds are stacked against you. So you put your best game on and proceed. Pull it off and you’re the hero, blow it and you feel like a failure and nothin’ your fishing buddy says to encourage the situation is goin’ to help. And don’t try wining because pity is in short supply. After all he did put you on the fish.
During this encounter everyone had no interest in eating. One refusal and you change whatever is on the end of the line. And when that gets refused you change again. At times it does matter what you try. The other day I found a lone, very big red patrolling the back corner of a bay. I believe he had no idea I was even around. I showed that fish three different things that always work or I should say almost always work that were simply ignored. The fish appeared like he was looking for something to eat but it became obvious he was just walking off the effects of the all you can eat lunch special. Who knows, I though he was as good as in the net.
But then something changes. Often it’s the noticeable shift of the tide. It’s like fishing the hatch when a flip of the switch has everyone on the take. In the same bay ten minutes later fish were inhaling the same thing others refused minutes earlier.
Back to Lostman’s, around another bend and a nicely placed cast goes under an overhang followed instantly by an explosion of water that jumps you straight in the air. The breast may have missed it but still wants it and made another violent blast before heading a hundred miles an hour for deeper water leaving a limb line and a very rapid heartbeat behind. You reel up, breathe into a paper bag for a few minutes then carry on. That moment in time remains in your memory for the remainder of your life.
We left time in the day to give that little back bay a better once over. I did see a tarpon roll there the day before. That alone is enough for additional probing. As we began to enter the narrow opening I mentioned to Steve “If I was a big snook there is the spot I would call home.” We fished it until we were convinced no one was home or not willing to play. Fifty yards further another carbon copy spot appeared. It got the same treatment only someone was home and pounded Steve’s stink bait. When the big snook surfaced for a jump we knew just what he had. Then the hook fell out and it began just another sad story. I know Steve will see that fish in his sleep for quite some time.
It was another great evening. We dined on leftover ceviche and fresh redfish at the chickee platform campsite while we relived the day. Before we ended the day I believe the final comment about the big one that got away was “ His mouth was big enough to swallow a watermelon.” Just right.

Day 5 – Exploring more ground

Moving day again. Only one night’s stay is allowed at any chickee. There are a number of through canoe and kayak travelers who all need a new campsite every night. The chickee platforms serve the purpose well. We were back at on the original campsite in no time and ready for the day. Our last full day would be spent closer to the campsite checking out likely looking snook ground. The encounters we had been experiencing so far had us singing Randy’s favorite tune, It’s Nothin’ but snook for me. We were thirsty for more and we actually had a game going that seems to be working.
So we studied the chart and began poking into likely looking haunts. We found our share of unproductive water but still managed to pull a rabbit out of the hat every now and then. Just enough, leading us to believe we’re on the right track but maybe at the wrong station.
It could not have been a more beautiful day, just like the others, with no other anglers to compete with. As a matter of fact the only other boats we saw actually fishing were guides with customers looking to fish were we already were. That made us feel like we were sniffing around in good water.
At one point around mid-day we heard an odd sound that kept getting louder. It turned out to be a mega flock of swallows that covered the sky as far as you could see. Many flew in a choreographed swallow dance you might see on a nature show. You just stop everything with your mouth flopped open in awe. Very cool stuff if I must say.
So we pressed on knowing at the end of this track is a station where we saw a very big redfish the other day laid-up on the edge of a channel at low tide and it wasn’t alone. The kind of fish you hope you might bump into again. The stars were lining back up for another go at that very area now not far from where we were.
Before that could happen we still had a bit of good water to try while the tide was still moving. There were the usual participates, ladyfish, jacks, and snapper. Then a couple of 4 foot sharks showed up to join in on the bounty and things got interesting real fast ending when Steve’s lure showing up with just the head of a ladyfish left. Like I said “Everyone is a bit lower on the totem pole than someone else.” You begin to understand why everyone is a little jumpy.
We eventually rounded the corner were we would conduct our last hunt of the day. Everything was perfect when I made a cast along an edge out ahead of the boat. Steve’s comment was “ There she is beside that branch, she just moved out.” Before the out was finished she exploded on my jerk bait right at the rod tip and missed. I now knew big snook often immediately return to their original point of ambush. Randy’s tip # 10. I’d been listening. A flick of the rod tip and the jerk bait landed back by the branch. The blow-up was bigger than before and this time the deal was sealed. Before I knew it she was jumping on one side of the boat while I was on the other. I don’t mean to let the cat out of the bag but chaos almost always enters into the equation when big aggressive fish show up. You can’t react fast enough. You only hope it goes well as you attempt to manage the situation the best way you know how. Things eventually went my way and a grip and grin moment ended my day. I turned her loose, gabbed the little brown bag to bring me back around then gladly offered Steve the bow.
It goes without saying how things went around the campsite on our final night. We weren’t the only one with fresh fish stories. Randy had zeroed in on a snook banquet. I’ll only say he’s been playing this game for some time and it had gone very well. You end up waking in the middle of the night with a big smile plastered across your face. You know it would be nice to get more sleep but you can’t stop thinking about what might be in store tomorrow.

Day 6

Randy is packed and ready for the trip out bright and early. He had family obligations that evening and an early departure would allow him enough time to check in on a couple old, super secret spots on the way out. One of course would be a spot where he had the biggest snook of his career almost in the boat. You don’t blow by a spot like that.
We on the other hand decided we had some time to spare so we’ll break camp then fish for a while before the twenty-five mile trip out. We visited some prime snook water but found none. The consolation prize was two nice redfish, which tend to hangout around snook water. Happy with the week we bailed before the tide fell below the no return point. The final chapter in this year’s learning curve was we almost beat the low tide in Chokoloskee Bay that met us upon our return. We only had to go at idle speed across shallow water for a mile instead of three.

We also put together a video of the trip. Click on the link below to have a look.

Everglades National Park Camping Trip – Day 1

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.

Day 1

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.

Day 2

We were introduced to our neighbors over happy hour last evening. They were the best of friends and have been camping and fishing in Everglades National Park for 35 years. They started camping in the Everglades long before it was ever considered as a park and when there were still cabins scattered around the backcountry. What a wealth of knowledge and the stories kept us entertained all evening. We were so fortunate to meet these guys, ages 71 & 73, who helped us tremendously. They were hardcore snook fishermen who had seen it all and their knowledge of the area was invaluable.
We planned our day with advice from our neighbors, packed a lunch and headed south along the trail. We had no problem finding fish anywhere we found current. It’s a simple equation. The tide comes in, then the tide goes out. Fish gather along eddy lines down current of any point and around thoroughfares between bays. Sink-tip lines and baitfish imitations swung crosscurrent found lots of feeding fish. We routinely caught sea trout up to 20”, jacks, ladyfish, and mangrove snapper.
One behavioral pattern that came to light in our travels regarded the alligators, and there were plenty who loved to sun themselves on shallow points of land facing the sun. Imagine traveling tight to the shoreline, rounding a bend, and seeing an explosion of water because you spooked a 10’, 400 lb gator. It makes your heart skip a bunch of beats. Backcountry gators are typically very shy, usually slipping into the water and disappear well before you get very close. When you accidently spook one and it blows out in shallow water you begin altering your flight path to give sunny points a nice wide birth so no one gets spooked especially us.
During the high sun of mid-day we found a quiet, out of the way bay with hardly a foot of water depth. It didn’t take long before we caught a small snook right where he was supposed to be and found redfish stocking the shoreline looking for a meal. We spooked a few at first, then slowed down our pace and had a number of shots at others. Sight fishing is a tough game with very spooky fish as the prize. If you make a perfect cast, two to three feet in front of a moving fish, they either spook or attack. We missed one by setting the hook too soon, hooked another and lost it, then hooked and landed a nice redfish. This stuff makes your day. The odds of pulling it off are stacked heavily against you. It boils down to good teamwork. Very rewarding.
We returned to our campsite after a great day in the Everglades with enough spotted sea trout for a fry and a double batch of ceviche to share with our neighbors. Bill and Joe, once again, kept us entertained with lots of Everglades tales. We asked them how come there were no raccoons? “We were warned by the park rangers they could be a real issue.” Their comment was “ We haven’t seen a rodent around here in 15 years. The BIG snakes ate them all. There used to be lots of mice and hogs too.”
“What about the BIG snakes?”
“It’s winter, you never see snakes during the winter it’s too cold. We don’t come here in the heat of summer when they are out and about. The bugs then are way worse than any big snake.”
We made sure our tent zipper was buttoned very tight when we called it a day.

Day 3

Moving day for us. We’re heading another 10 miles south to a chickee platform at Roger’s River Bay. Our plan is to fish our way well off the main trail through a maze of back tidal creeks. But first we have to pack. Bill and Joe decided it best to hang around for an extra cup of java. They really wanted to see how in hell we were going to get all our stuff into one canoe. When we finally got everything in place with plenty of freeboard remaining the boys took a couple pictures, we shook hands, and they bid ado with a few well chosen parting words “ We have been coming out here for a long time and we have never met another canoe party as well prepared or equipped as you boys.You do have it figured out. We usually have to give’em food to get’em by because they planned on eating lots of fish they don’t know how to catch.” I don’t know if I have ever been bestowed a nicer vote of confidence.
We spent our travel day snook hunting. The boys told us the snook were very hard to find these days. There had been a historic cold spell a few winters back that took it’s toll on many tropical species of fish, especially the snook. They knew a lot of good spots and were having a hard time of it themselves, or so they said.
We soon found their advice to be very true. We fished lots of prime snook holding water along the way and came up short.
We arrived at our chickee platform in plenty of time to get set-up and finish the day fishing a spot the boys had suggested. Some days you get’em and some days you don’t.
As we enjoyed the end of the day on our chickee we spotted something coming around the far point. It became obvious it was headed our way. It turned out to be the local gator just looking for a handout. Since people clean fish there all the time, this big guy must come by to clean things up. He was quite shy before dark then he moved in for a few close-ups. Did you know their eyes glow in the beam of a flashlight? Good thing his domain is four feet below our home on stilts.
Dinner tonight will be spaghetti during a spectacular sunset over Rodgers River Bay. We saw only two other boats all day. Just right.

Day 4

We’ll be heading north to the Sweetwater Bay chickee. We are over 40 miles in and need to cut the distance to Chokoloskee so we’ll have the entire last day to fish our way out. We planned our route over breakfast, deciding to again take the back, back way avoiding a predicted headwind and exploring the less traveled water. On our way in on day 1 we spotted a flats boat, sporting fly fishermen, working the back corner of an out of the way bay. We needed to have a closer look. It is on the way.
We had quite a distance to cover so we spent the better part of the day moving and only stopping to fish what we considered to be prime water. We were anchored in a small cut between bays catching a fish a cast. It was one of those ,put a BIG circle on the map, kind of spots. In the background we heard a powerboat for some time that kept getting closer, finally rounding the point towards us when it shut down. We heard “ SHIT someone’s there.” Then they spun around and roared away. Nice to know we are sniffing out the good spots. We are still in the middle of nowhere. The circle on our map got a big star beside it.
As we neared our destination at Sweetwater Bay, Steve spotted a small creek on the chart leading to a dead end bay. The water in the bay was gin clean with a mass of light green moss covering most of the surface, the likes of which we had not yet seen anywhere. It would suggest this was a spring water bay adding freshwater to the system. It was a magnificent little oasis in the middle of nowhere. Another circle on the chart now marks “More exploration needs to be done here.”
We arrived at our final night’s chickee platform tucked in the back corner of remote Sweetwater Bay. It’s a double site and we have a neighbor who is a lady on her own out here bird watching for a few days.
Set-up is easy and after a final sunset happy hour we dined on fresh mangrove snapper and stir fry veggies, very delicious.