The Flying Kayak

Hunting, Fishing, Rambling, and Complete Outdoor Hilarity

Category: bluegill (page 1 of 5)

Everglades Wilderness Waterway: Isn’t it Terrifying?


Day 3
 
For the first time in recent memory, I woke up calmly. I didn’t jerk awake from the sound of my alarm clock, nor did I dose about groggily for hours before rising. I simply opened my eyes and was wide awake. My tent faced east and from the vantage point of Darwin’s Place, I watched from inside my sleeping bag as the first tendrils of light illuminated the sky. 
It was going to be a good day. A day that promised to be full of fishing and exploring, and I couldn’t wait to get started. I sat up to unzip my sleeping bag…
…And immediately flopped back down in pain. If it was possible, my muscles were even sorer than they had been the day before. My whole body felt like it had been picked up and dropped. Repeatedly. Still secure in my sleeping bag, I inch-wormed my way to a dry bag, and produced more ibuprofen. 
It was going to be a good day. And a short one…Thank god. 
This day was to be my shortest of the entire trip. The distance between Darwin’s Place and my next campsite, Lostman’s Five, was a little over six miles. This meant two things: I’d have plenty of time to fish like I wanted and the short paddle would give my spent muscles a rest. 
Considering I hobbled around camp like a 90 year old man, I managed to get everything loaded up into the kayak fairly quickly. Even with sore muscles, it’s impressive how much motivation thirsty hordes of mosquitoes can give a person to break camp. 
Only a few minutes into my paddle, I spotted something swimming in the water. Upon closer inspection I noticed that it was an Alligator. Gators while out fishing, particularly in the Everglades, are something I rarely find to be noteworthy. But this one caught my attention. It happened to be the first one I’d seen all trip. Maybe it was the “chilly” weather, or maybe I just hadn’t been paying attention, but I found the fact that this was the first one of my trip to be slightly surprising. 
But the lack of gators my first two days were quickly made up for. Within the course of an hour I spotted out more than a comforting amount, and quit counting at 30. They were out in full force, and the reasoning behind it remains a mystery to me. 
Only a few miles from Darwin’s Place I encountered what I’d consider my first real creek of the trip. Appropriately named, Alligator Creek twists and turns to connect Tarpon Bay to Alligator Bay. It gets rather narrow in there and I even opted to lay my rods down on the deck rather than risk them getting pulled overboard by low hanging mangroves. The current was, of course, going against me in Alligator Creek. Though not particularly swift, it ensured that there would be no rest until I reached the other side. Had I stopped paddling for just a moment, I risked getting pushed up against fallen trees and essentially being stuck at the mercy of the current. It was a rather humbling feeling to realize that I absolutely –could not- stop paddling. 
About halfway through the creek I had, once again, an experience with a little too much nature. As I rounded a bend in the creek, I looked ahead to see a gator swimming. He wasn’t particularly big, maybe 8 ft long, and he was riding the current down stream. I was, of course, going the opposite direction and in the tight quarters of the mangrove creek, our paths were quickly coming to a crossing point. Every gator I’ve ever come across has always disappeared underwater when the kayak gets too close, so upon seeing this guy, I wasn’t particularly worried. That was, at least, until we started playing chicken. 
Still swimming on the surface, the gator was closing the distance between himself and my kayak. At 20 yards away he still hadn’t seemed to take notice of me. 15 yards and I’m starting to wonder just how close he’ll get before sounding. 10 yards and I decided maybe I should try steering around him just a –little-. 5 yards and the gator still hadn’t gone under. I could now see his entire body. His short legs remained tucked underneath his body as his long tail lazily steered him down the creek. And still he got closer. 
With the exception of holding captured gators, I’ve never come this close to one in my life. While I brandished my paddle like some long plastic polearm to protect myself, he quietly passed within two feet of my port side without ever sounding. Had I wanted to, I could have elbowed him in the face without having to move. Being so close, every feature of the animal was vividly clear. The specks on his snout, the carved features of his head, his amber eye looking right at me, and even the small bits of algae growing on his back were plainly visible as he passed my kayak without incident. I turned to watch him as he floated on, unfazed by our encounter, and disappeared around the corner of the tannin stained creek. 
Able to breathe again, I quit wielding my paddle like a weapon, and continued on down the creek. Only a few minutes later I ran into the first people I’d seen paddling since I left Chockoloskee. Two men in touring kayaks were heading the opposite way as me and, thanks to the current, I had only a moment to chat with them before being force to paddle on. Much like the lack of gators my first two days, I was shocked at how few people I’d run into who were paddling. From the way the park ranger had described it when I purchased my camping permit, the park was riddled with paddlers who were out camping. And yet my first two nights had been spent completely alone. 
Once I made it through Alligator Creek, I began my paddle across Alligator Bay. The wind, just like the current, was directly in my face. But luckily the water wasn’t too rough and I was actually able to find a small point that was out of the wind to take a rest. There in the shallows, I noticed something unique about this area; the water was clear. Clear is of course a relative term when talking about the water in the Everglades. But this tannin stained water was clear compared to everywhere else I’d been. I could actually see sandy bottom about 4 feet deep in some places and I spent a few minutes fishing this area in hopes that I could sight cast to something. 
After Alligator Bay came Dad’s Bay and I made sure to take a picture of it. 
Going fishing in the Everglades has been a tradition with my dad and I for years. He’s the one responsible for getting me hooked on fishing and hunting in the first place and the Glades are a place we try to make it to every year. Unfortunately this year he was unable to make the trip with me, but I knew had he been able to, he’d be having a great time too (minus being horribly sore). 
Plate creek was the next creek to navigate. By this time of the day, the tide was slack and the paddle through was perfectly calm. I took advantage of the nice conditions and slowly fished my way through the whole thing, catching some specks along the way. 
When I emerged into Plate Creek Bay, I got my bearings and began paddling across it. Only a few hundred yards in, however, I encountered a slight problem: Mud. 
Anyone who’s ever read some of my older articles has seen some of the unfortunate days I’ve had involved with mud. The kayak skittered up onto a grass covered mud flat and became stuck. Hopelessly stuck, in fact. My rudder had managed to bury itself into the weeds and muck, and no matter how hard I pushed with the paddle, it merely sank into the smelly depths of hell that the mud covered up. Poling out was now no longer an option and attempting to paddled accomplished nothing more than slinging black mud all over my kayak. 
I didn’t dare step out of the kayak either. I’m pretty sure similar circumstances lead to prehistoric saber tooth cats and mammoths being preserved in tar pits. Instead, I stood up in the kayak (which is quite a feat in the Tarpon 160i), and spread my weight out. I then rocked it back in forth while simultaneously pushing at an angle with my paddle. The result was about 3 inches of movement.
I kept this up for about 20 minutes before I finally reached open water and floated the kayak to safety. I’m still not sure whether I actually pushed myself anywhere, or if the tide came in and lifted me, but the point is that I escaped. 
Just around the corner I encountered my first chickee of the trip: Plate creek chickee. The white roof of the porta-jon stuck out like a beacon across the bay and I paddled up to take a closer look at it. 
It was getting to be about lunch time and considering my map told me I was just about a mile from Lostman’s Five, I decided to paddle there for lunch. I figured I could set up camp while I was at it and then go fish for the rest of the day. It was just about that time that I heard a boat coming. I was slightly surprised considering I hadn’t seen or heard a boat for the entire day. It came around the corner and slowed as the driver saw me. The first thing I see painted on the side of it was “Park Service. Law Enforcement”
You can probably take the most law abiding citizen in the country, put them behind the wheel of a car, make a cop follow them, and they’ll still feel slightly paranoid even when they’ve done nothing wrong. This is about how I felt as I watched the boat slow and come to a stop next to me. 
“How’s it going?” I asked as he got close. The man piloting the boat looked to be about my age and he spoke up as the motor quieted. 
“Where are you camping tonight?” he asked. 
“Lostman’s Five” I’m good too. Thanks for asking…
“Have you got your permits handy? Or are they tucked away below deck?”
They were –definitely- tucked away below deck with my wallet. Safe and sound in a dry box with my satellite phone, VHF radio, flares, and car keys. Now, I know you’re supposed to have such documents easily accessible for such scenarios, but I wanted my stuff to be safe. Considering he’d even asked me if it was below deck, I thought he was going to take my word for it. I was, after all, three days paddle in. I wasn’t exactly performing an elaborate scheme to fish and camp illegally in the National Park with my bright yellow kayak. So I told him they were way below deck. 
“Okay”, he replied rather curtly. “Well you can paddle to Lostman’s right now and I’ll check. I’ll meet you there”. With that he cranked his motor, and sped off in the direction of my camp, leaving me rocking in his wake. 
I never did figure out what species of animal had crawled up this man’s butt, but I found him to be exceptionally grumpy. I did, however, make sure that I took my sweet and precious time paddling to Lostman’s. He was (obviously) waiting for me when I arrived and once there, I took about an eon to pull my paperwork from the bowels of my kayak. Normally I wouldn’t have been such a pain in the ass, but every friendly attempt at conversation was shot down with one to two word short answers. I got the feeling this guy was –really- looking to write me a ticket, and since he was being such a jerk, I decided to blue-ball him and say things like:
“I know I put it in here somewhere”, and “Oh man, I really hope my fishing license is up to date” (I’d renewed it the week before). 
I eventually produced the papers and after studying them quite thoroughly, he handed them back to me. 
“You’re good”
He hopped back on his boat, cranked the motor, and said “Oh, and you’ll have company tonight. They should be here soon. I checked them earlier”
And with that, he sped off around the corner, and the sound of his boat motor was swallowed up by the mangroves. 
Not even five minutes later, my company showed up. A canoe and two kayaks rounded the corner. It ended up being a group of college students from Indian and their guide. Four girls, and two guys. And almost before they could get their boats tied up, another canoe arrived with two men. Lostman’s Five had quickly become Lostman’s Nine. 
It seemed that it only took two days of paddling alone in the wilderness to forget all of my manners. I literally did not introduce myself to a single one of the eight people I’d be sharing a camp with that evening. I talked to some of the girls a little as I ate lunch, and learned from their guide about where they’d come from, where they were heading, etc. 
I soon finished eating, pitched my tent, and prepped the kayak to go fish for the evening. As much as I love chatting with attractive college girls, I really wanted to get some fishing in. They would, after all, be there when I got back. It’s not like I was going to miss anything. 
I discovered the creek next to Lostman’s Five was loaded with fish and I practically wore my arm out catching them that afternoon. Black Snapper, Jacks, Ladyfish, Snook, and even Largemouth Bass called the creek home. The Everglades is pretty unique in that freshwater fish and predominately saltwater fish inhabit the same areas. I even had a bluegill strike at my fly moments after I landed my first Snook of the trip. 
The creek emptied out into a narrow bay. I glanced down at my map to see that the map actually ended –right- in the center of the bay. What laid beyond it was anyone’s guess. I paddled as far into the bay as I felt comfortable with, and snapped a picture. 
I couldn’t help but get the “edge of the world” feeling as I looked out across the bay. It was the end of the road for my map, and though my GPS could have probably gotten me a little ways in, I wasn’t willing to risk getting lost just before dark. So I turned around and paddled back just as the sun was beginning to dip low on the horizon.
I was already getting hungry again and actually needed to use the porta-jon quite badly when I made it back to camp. Everyone else was beginning to cook dinner and I rushed down the dock to grab toilet paper from my tent. Back at the end of the dock, I passed one of the two men from the canoe as he left the bathroom before me. 
“How gross is it in there?” I asked in passing. He merely chuckled and said
“Welcome to Egypt…Land of the pyramids.”
I didn’t quite understand until I looked down into a porta-jon that had zero blue water in it, and probably needed to be emptied about 4 months prior. It was by far the grossest moment of my entire trip. 
After I left the bathroom, I passed by the other man who’d shown up in the canoe. He was busy smoking a cigar and taking notes in a journal. He asked me if I’d caught anything and after telling him all about it, he proceeded to tell me what they’d been doing all afternoon. 
“You missed out man. Everyone got in their swimsuits and went swimming off the dock for a while. It was great”. 
It was then that looked over to notice that all the girls had their hair up to dry. Apparently I had, in fact, missed out. But it was something I didn’t care too much about. I live right next to The University of Florida which is might as well be “Hot College Girl Capital of the World”. So missing out on swimming with a few attractive girls in the Everglades wasn’t –that big of a deal. 
But still…
 
Dammit
I cooked myself dinner and chatted with everyone at the camp. I learned that the man smoking the cigar was named Johnny Molloy, author of A Paddler’s Guide to Everglades National Park. He was apparently there working on his third installment. I, admittedly, have not read any of his books, but he was still fun to talk to and I wish I’d had more time after dinner to pick his brain. While talking with one of the girls and telling her about paddling this trip alone, she asked me “Isn’t it terrifying?”
Until that moment I hadn’t really thought about paddling solo as being frightening. Worrisome for my friends and family, maybe. But there was nothing at the time I could think of that was scary about the trip. I was confident in my paddling and navigational abilities, and I had the right gear should an emergency arise. So I answered honestly. 
“No, not really. As long as you’re careful, there’s nothing to really worry about while paddling alone”. 
I didn’t know it at the time, but had she asked me that question after the trip, my answer would have been slightly different. 
We all watched the sun set, had a group photo (somewhere is cyberspace is a picture of me with 8 strangers at the end of a dock in the middle of nowhere), and talked amongst ourselves before being chased into the tents by the swarming flocks of mosquitoes. 
Just before bed, Johnny turned on his weather radio and let us listen to the forecast for the next couple of days. 
“Winds 17-20 knots. Offshore seas 12-14 feet”. Those were really the only things that stuck with me from that little computerized voice on the weather radio. I knew the weather was going to suck. But winds that strong could put a serious damper on my plans. As I laid down to go to sleep, I couldn’t really help but fret about the coming days. Was I going to make it to my next stop, Rodger’s River? Or what about the day after at Highland Beach, when the weather was REALLY supposed to get bad? I tried not to think too much about it as I stared at the ceiling of my tent. The full moon above was casting shadows of the mangroves down on my tent, and the constant buzz of the mosquito horde outside forced me to check the inside of the tent several times. 
When I finally closed my eyes, I did at least notice one bit of good fortune: I was done being sore. Maybe with any luck, the 13 mile paddle to Rodger’s River wouldn’t be too bad.  

Cichlids…Aren’t those aquarium fish?


It had been well over a year since I’d last visited the South Florida canal systems. That particular trip took place in February of 2011 and was quite easily my worst trip to the Glades…well…ever. We somehow managed to time our trip perfectly with a cold front that turned the bite completely off for the whole weekend. 
That mistake wouldn’t happen again. No cold fronts would be wandering through South Florida in the first weeks of September. 
Rather, it was brutally hot. Oven-like, in fact. Hot enough that our chances of catching anything depended on how close we could land a fly to the Lilly pads. The fish might have had the luxury of shade, but we didn’t. Baking in the sun, we could look down the canal to a vanishing point without the first sign of above-water shade. 
It was going to be hot, and we were going to need to get used to it. Quickly. We were on the hunt for aquarium fish. 
To make a painfully long story short: Cichlids were introduced into the man-made canals of Southern Florida decades ago, many through the exotic pet trade. They became established and eventually thrived. The state introduced the Butterfly Peacock Bass (another cichlid) as a biological control for these invasive fish. Years down the road, we have cichlids, peacock bass, and every other exotic creature you can think of now running around in the Everglades. 
But the past few years, finding these fish has been an increasingly difficult task. During the 2009/2010 winter, South Florida experienced record cold temperatures that killed off -A LOT- of cichlids. But even after the winter kill, I managed to find and catch a boat load the following summer. That was 2 ½ years ago and South Florida has yet to see another freeze like that. I therefore assumed the cichlids would be on the rise and back in full force. 
But I’ve been wrong once or twice in my life. 
Our first stop was one of my “go-to” canals that had always produced fish. I’d brought the 3wt fly rod with me specifically for cichlids and I couldn’t wait to start catching them. However, once we launched into the canal, I noticed something was different. There were few fish to be seen. Normally one can just look into the water and see the cichlids circling roots, rocks, or Lilly pads. But this day was different. I couldn’t see –any- fish. The water was also much clearer than usual. At times, I could look down and see the bottom of the canal approximately 12 feet down. In this same canal, two years prior, I caught a total of 43 NATIVE largemouth bass in addition to a cooler full of cichlids. But this day, I never even saw a largemouth. Something changed and I don’t know what, but we knew it was time to look elsewhere. 
Our next stop was the canals off of the Tamiami. Even after the freeze, these canal systems held fish so I was once again hopeful. We launched, motored about a mile down the canal, and started fishing. Almost immediately both my dad and I had a double hook up. Whatever I’d hooked was actually fighting hard and I was praying I’d be pulling up a cichlid. I was relatively surprised when I looked down to see a nice Bluegill on my fly. 
My dad’s fish was even bigger. 
And it was like that almost every cast. The closer the fly landed to the Lilly pads (and the shade), the better. We could have easily had our limit within just a couple of hours, but I generally like to release natives when fishing in the Everglades. I figure they need all the help they can get while competing with the exotics. That, and I hate cleaning Bluegill. Everyone knows they reproduce once placed on ice and I didn’t feel like being behind a cutting board for hours. In previous years we’d almost caught no Bluegills in this particular canal and I took their presence as a sign that the cichlid numbers were low/non-existent. 
No cichlids off of the Tamiami, and we were now running low on ideas. Sure there are plenty of launches into other canals, but those are all located in the kicked-over anthill that is Ft. Lauderdale/Miami. The last thing either of us wanted to do was go fishing smack-dab in the middle of a booming metropolis. Instead we stuck to the saltwater fishing in the Everglades and pretty much crossed cichlids off the list. 
But I had an incessant need to land a cichlid on the 3wt. It practically haunted my dreams and I forced my dad to pull over and stop and literally every canal we drove over. And finally, on the second-to-last day of our trip, I stepped out of the truck to check on a roadside canal. I looked down in the water and had to do a double-take. There were cichlids! Lots of them. I scrambled back to the truck and quickly assembled my fly rod. 
Once back by the water’s edge, I spotted out 2 big Mayan Cichlids, and made a cast to them. My fly landed only inches from them both and I carefully twitched the fly to entice a bite…But nothing happened. 
Confused, I made another cast. This one landing just past them and I began working the fly right between the two fish. To my shock, they spooked. Both fish were terrified of my grasshopper fly.
I repeated this process a few dozen times before I switched flies. Figuring a bead-head nymph couldn’t –possibly- scare a fish away, I began casting it to the exotics below me. But once again, every time the fly came near, the fish spooked. I literally tried everything after that. Different flies, tippits, you name it. Nothing worked. 
There are only two things in nature that literally drive me insane: Whitetail deer, and seeing fish that I can’t catch. I was going to solve this “no catching” problem one way or another. 
Anyone who has regularly read this blog knows that I’m not a purist when it comes to hunting or fishing methods. I’ll just as soon blast a deer with my rifle as I will stick one with a bow. And I’ll just as soon use a rod and reel as I will hop in the water with a speargun. 
So it should be little surprise to anyone that the following morning I was back at the same canal, fresh out of Walmart, with a brand new cane pole and a can of worms. 
I walked to the edge of the canal, saw my prey, and could hardly contain myself for all the anticipation. I’d waited almost two years to catch these fish again…and it was about to happen. However, my visions of filling the cooler with cichlids were quickly snuffed. I placed a juicy, wiggling worm right on the nose of a cichlid, and watched as it turned away and swam off to deeper water. 
Every fisherman has had –that- moment…The moment when dynamite and hand grenades suddenly seems sporting. When, just once, you’d like to hang up that bow and take out a howitzer for those deer. Or just nail that fish sitting the shallows with a big ‘ol rock. 
This was one of those moments…
Completely and totally fed up, I sat down in the tall grass near the edge of the canal, and just watched the water despairingly. But after a few minutes, I noticed the fish were coming back. Right up into the shallows in fact. Slowly, I flipped a worm down to them and…boom. Cichlid. 
The curse was broken! And I’d figured out something important. If I stood up, and the fish could see me, there was no chance of hooking one. So I spent the rest of the morning creeping along the high grass like I was on some African safari hunt, and would flip a worm over the edge of the canal in random places. It worked surprisingly well and it wasn’t long before I was filling the cooler with cichlids. 
But something was still missing; I’d yet to land one on the fly. 
With my new found knowledge and restored confidence, I set about walking down to the water’s edge, crouching in the high grass, and casting parallel to the shoreline. My little fly landed in the mirror still water just a few inches from the shore. I peered through the grass at the ripples it made as it hit the water and I gave it one little “pop”. Immediately, a V-wake moved right for it and a big mayan inhaled the popper.
I did this for the remainder of the evening and caught both Mayans and Oscars on the fly. The fish were spread out quite a bit, so it took some walking in between bites. Unfortunately there were no boat ramps into this canal, which figures since we didn’t bring the kayaks this year. But even with as much work that was involved in just catching one of these fish, I had a blast. They fight exceptionally hard for their size and actually taste great. Hopefully in the coming years they won’t be such a nightmare to hook, but I know I can’t wait to chase them again.

An Afternoon of Catching

“That’s why they call it fishing and not catching”

Boy. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that one, I’d be staring at an early retirement. Any chance to go out and fish is great…Don’t get me wrong…But sometimes I don’t want to go fishing. I want to go catching.

So I did just that.

On the plantations I work on, I’ve been given permission to fish under one constraint: I have to keep everything I catch. So when the urge to have a fish fry simply became too great, I drove down to one of the ponds and took advantage of the bedding bream.

Prior to this, I’d seen plently of bream beds scattered along the edges of lakes and ponds. But this was a first for me. The beds were practically stacked on top of one another and in them, were keeper Bluegill.

With the 3Wt and a bead head nymph in hand, I proceeded to go catching. Over the course of several minutes, I took approximately 40 casts and landed 20 keeper Bluegill.

The picture shows 19 fish, and that’s because I never keep the first Bluegill I catch. It’s simply bad luck to do so. But I won’t get into that with this post. That’s a whole ‘nother can of worms…Or bead head nymphs in this case.

For all 40 casts, I stood in one spot and never moved. Afterall, why change up spots when this one is working so well? At one point, I handed off the fly rod to a friend who prior to this outing, had never cast a fly rod before. He made five or six uneasy casts (after my God awful expert instructing), and proceeded to land his first three fish on the fly rod.

After the 20th fish was secure in the cooler, I took a step back and decided what to do. At this point, I was almost feeling bad about what I was doing. Fishing has never been this easy…much less fly fishing. But then again, I rememberd that hardly anyone ever fishes these ponds and those who do bass fish almost exclusively. It’s good for the pond to have a few big bream go missing. Had I wanted to, there’s no doubt in my mind that I could have sat there and reached my limit in under 2 hours.

But I’m -so- glad I quit when I did. When I made it back to the house, I was reminded why I practice catch and release so often. Cleaning fish is always my least favorite part of the fishing trip, and it doesn’t help that Bluegill have a nasty habit of reproducing once they’re thrown on ice. But the eternity taken to clean each fish is always worth it when it’s time for the fish fry.

I’ll certainly be going back to these ponds soon. The next time will probably be more of a fishing trip…But a catching trip was a nice change of pace.

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