The Flying Kayak

Hunting, Fishing, Rambling, and Complete Outdoor Hilarity

Category: Everglades (page 1 of 8)

Poodles in Hell

“Oh….Oh God. Oh LORD! THEY’VE FOUND US! Let’s go! Grab the dog! Forget the tent, let’s just GO!”

It was far too early in the morning for this, but there was no escaping it. I ran back and forth across the chickee, flailing like a madman and screaming obscenities in a futile effort to rid myself from the undying horde of mosquitoes that had found us. At daybreak, the black cloud of bloodsucking demons left the safety of the mangroves and ventured out to our chickee. A faint roar could be heard coming from the swarm during the brief pauses while we caught our breath between screams.

Seriously…They were bad.

“Going!”, shouted my friend Johnny as he hopped aboard the gheenoe, swatting wildly with one hand while his other cradled a poodle. I leaped aboard a moment later just as he cranked the engine, and we sped off in an attempt to escape the bloodthirsty horde.

Welcome to fishing the Everglades in May.

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I’d gotten the bright idea to go on this adventure a few days beforehand. I’d been wanting to make a trip down to Flamingo for some time now, and I figured since it’s about a 2 hour drive for me to get there from where I live, that camping would be the best bet. The idea at least, was to be out on the water late, and also super early. A task that would be simpler if I was already out there. So my plan was to sleep on a chickee and fish for a couple of days. I ran the idea past my buddy Johnny, and he seemed game to come along under just one condition; He had to bring his dog.

Sadly, no one would be around to take care of poor Otis while Johnny and I fished, so there was really no other choice. I wasn’t exactly sure how it was going to work with two full grown men, camping gear, fishing gear, and a dog all packed into a 16ft Gheenoe, but I honestly didn’t care. I just wanted to fish.

So after loading up, we made our way down to Flamingo. Upon arrival, I had to go fill out a camping form. I realized once we pulled up that I hadn’t actually been to Flamingo in over a year. The last time I was there was when I’d finished the Everglades Wilderness  Waterway. So I went upstairs into the visitor center to fill out a camping form and pay. As it turns out, there are only a few of us insane enough to camp in the Everglades during summer, so camping was free. In addition to that, it’s all self registration. No rangers are involved. Which is quite a bit different than when I camped in January and had to reserve campsites and adjust my trip because there were so many people. I turned to exit the visitor center and stumbled across this helpful sign. Had I known it’s inaccuracy, I may have just gone back home.

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So we took off into the backcountry. We launched around 4, so we still had plenty of daylight to get a little fishing done before dark. Upon entering Whitewater Bay, however, we realized just how hard the wind was blowing. It was an absolute gale from the east, and that happened be the direction we were going. But it was anything but a dry ride. It’s called Whitewater Bay for a reason and the crashing whitecaps periodically made their way over the bow, soaking both us, and poor Otis. We finally pulled off into a spot out of the wind and got ready to fish. We dropped the trolling motor and…

Nothing. No power. We fiddled with it, and messed with it, and did everything we could do. But nothing. The trolling motor was dead. To make matters worse, as we were packing to leave, the subject of a push pole was brought up. “Do you think we ought to bring this?”.

“Nah. It’ll be alright. We’ve got the trolling motor after all”.

I dropped anchor while Johnny proceeded to mess with the trolling motor, and I took advantage of this pause to try and fish. I took a cast along the mangroves and before I could even twitch the jerk shad at the end of my line, a fish inhaled it. First cast, and it was a good fish too. It immediately took off, sending the drag into a screaming fit. I fought it for several minutes without every laying eyes on it when suddenly “pop”. And just like that, it was gone.

I generally never beat myself up over lost fish, but this one was a good one, and it hurt. I imagine the way it was fighting and generally steering clear of the mangroves that it was a nice Red. But sadly there’s no telling.

Almost as soon as I’d lost the fish, however, I heard “Aha!” along with the beeping of the trolling motor. Johnny somehow managed to get it working, and we were back in business. We fished for probably another hour, and I proceeded to hook and lose two more fish. It was odd because my line was getting cut clean like some toothy critter was on the other end. But soon, the dying light was a telltale sign that it was time to go. We needed to set up camp before it got too dark to see. But more importantly: before the mosquitoes showed up.

I’m not an idiot. I know there are mosquitoes in the Everglades. Particularly during the warm months. Hell, even during my paddle in mid-January, I was almost carried away on several occasions. So we’d come prepared. 3 thermacells and several cans of Off. Hopefully we could eat and be in the tent by dark.

I drove us to our campsite at South Joe River Chickee and it was during this that I was overly thankful to have a motorboat. I couldn’t believe I’d once paddled this exact same leg before. It was 12 miles from South Joe to Flamingo and I was getting impatient in the -boat-. The thought of paddling it again was cringe worthy. After a bit of meandering around switchbacks through the mangroves, we came into the small bay where the chickee was. We docked up, unloaded our gear and the hound,  and I started walking around on the chickee. It was then that I discovered something I’d completely forgotten about; my initials.

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This chickee was my last stop on my paddle through the Everglades. Just before the helpful couple showed up and gave me a towel and socks, I hacked my initials into the wood to signal the end of my trip. I remember being almost overcome with a wave of emotions that evening as I watched the sunset. Thankful for the opportunity to do the trip. Proud of myself for even completing it. And most importantly, grateful to actually be alive. I was in rough shape to say the least.

So seeing this was quite the nostalgic trip. I couldn’t help but have a big stupid grin on my face.

Johnny, Otis, and I ate dinner a little bit later which consisted of Spam, macaroni and cheese, and kibble (in no particular order). The wind was still blowing quite strong, and before long we were sitting in the dark.

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But there was something happening that neither of us wanted to bring up; There were no mosquitoes. Rather than jinx ourselves, we just sat up BSing, and attempted to shark fish (which produced nothing but catfish). By about midnight we’d had enough and called it a night.

My alarm went off about 530. In the dark of the tent, I could just make out the shape of Johnny and Otis next to me. Out loud, Johnny said “They’re here…”

All creepiness aside, that’s not exactly what you want to wake up to. But before I could even ask “who”, I figured it out. The mosquitoes were out in full force. In fact, a quick glance out of the mesh window revealed that about 2000 of them had found there way to the down wind side of our tent. The roar from the swarm outside was almost deafening, and it set up a rather odd situation. Two full grown men and a poodle, having  mental pep-talks to themselves in the dim twilight of early dawn inside a tent. It’s one of those talks you have with yourself before doing something horrible like jumping into icy water, or going to the DMV. Finally, we couldn’t take it anymore. Otis most assuredly had to poop, and the hard deck of the chickee was breaking my back (we brought no sleeping pads). I unzipped the tent, and stepped out into the horde.

They really did get bad enough that we were forced to leave everything on the chickee and run away in the boat. We did a little exploring and found some cool waters that I’d like to go back and fish at a different time. It turns out that we timed our trip -perfectly with a neap tide, and got absolutely skunked the entire day. But I’ll remember to go back and fish some of the areas we visited.

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Later that day, we motored back into Hell’s Bay in search of the non-existent fish. It was actually getting hot enough (ironically) that Johnny kept having to splash Otis with water to keep him cool. Something that I’m sure he was unamused about considering he still hadn’t pooped. Hot, tired, sore, and about a gallon of blood low, we decided to call it and head back to Flamingo. I hopped behind the wheel, and turned the key.

Mrrrrrp. Mrrrrrp. Dead battery

I’d prepared for such nightmares, and actually brought a kayak paddle with us. I could only imagine how bizarre it would look to see two men and a poodle paddling a 16ft Gheenoe across Coot Bay on the way to Flamingo. But as luck would have it, the new Gheenoes come with a 25 horse that has a pull start. I haven’t been so thankful to hear a motor start in a -long- time.

I’d like to go back again soon. Maybe out front into Florida Bay instead of the backcountry. Next time I might just bring a bug net though.

And maybe leave the poodle at home. Till next time,

Fish on!

Invasive Conservation?

The tiny little grasshopper fly lands near the water’s edge ever so lightly, it’s impact barely sending ripples through the calm water. Slowly but surely, an aggressive predator closes the distance. It comes to the surface and *Slurp*… It inhales the fly, and the fight is on.

The 3wt fly rod is almost not enough to keep the fish out of the mangroves. But after a lengthy and thoroughly enjoyable fight (for a fish it’s size), the fish gives in and is landed. What type of fish, you may ask?

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The Mayan Cichlid…An exotic and invasive species.

These cichlids are loose throughout almost all of the canal systems in south Florida. A result of aquarium releases, these cichlids (along with MANY other species) have thrived and spread all over creation. In many instances, they out compete our native fish for resources, or even prey on these natives. But there’s another serious issue with them that I recently became aware of….

They’re a freakin’ hoot to catch. And I’m not the only one who thinks so.

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We as anglers, are always pushed to practice conservational techniques. You know, things like not keeping more fish than you need for eating, letting big spawners go, and practicing CPR (Catch, Photograph, Release). And many of us swear by these things. We love to fish, we want to continue being able to fish, and in order to do this we must be responsible with the fish populations. But this is where I’ve noticed a problem pop up recently. What about the exotics/invasives?

I obviously won’t say “who” is doing this, but I’m beginning to see more and more examples of people practicing catch and release with our INVASIVE species. Photo’s of people holding Bullseye Snakehead and explaining how it’s “misunderstood” and hashtagging #CatchAndRelease on social media are springing up all over the place. And sadly, I get it. These fish are fun to catch. They’re an absolute blast. And anglers want to continue to have fun so they practice these responsible fishing techniques on fish that…well…don’t need it.

I know of a couple different guides who lead people for exotic/invasive fish (things like Oscars, mayan cichlids, jaguar guapotes, etc). This means they’re getting paid to take people to chase them. This also means something else; They’re now a stakeholder for the species preservation. They would literally be shooting themselves in the foot if they didn’t practice catch and release. As far as the wallet goes, they -want- the invasives there.

So this raises a question. How do you go about explaining to someone who loves something and (in some instances) makes money off that thing, to not practice responsible population management? They love the species. Why would they want to eradicate them?

The state of Florida takes the invasive issue very seriously. It’s actually unlawful to release an exotic/invasive if you were to catch one. You’re required by law to properly dispose of it. And in addition to that, there’s no size or bag limit on them. The state wants them gone. But how do you enforce that? There’s literally nothing stopping someone from tossing that grasshopper fly, fighting the Mayan, enjoying every second of it, then letting it go so they can do it again one day.

It’s a complicated issue, and one that I don’t see going away any time soon. As more and more people discover fishing for these things, and understand proper conservation techniques, this problem is going to continue on. All of these individuals’ hearts are in the right place. They’re looking after a species and themselves. But their view is a little skewed.

If you haven’t guessed by this point, I’m all for killing off the exotics. I take the “salt the earth” view when it comes to exotics/invasives. In fact, when I see invasives, this is essentially how I go about treating them…

Even though I absolutely love catching them, the conservationist in me likes the idea of them being eradicated. But I also know that it’s probably never going to happen. Even if anglers kept every one they caught, it would never eradicate them. But we’ve got to at least -control- the populations. If everyone is out there releasing each one they catch, I’d hate to imagine the consequences to some of our native fish species.

These issues obviously aren’t just restricted to Florida. Imagine (and I’m not sure if this has happened yet or not) if someone began finding a good way to catch species like the Flying Asian Carp on the rod and reel. I can only imagine they’d be a hoot to have on the end of your line. Well, after they land it, they let it go so they can do it again.

It’s a touchy subject. Especially when you’re literally trying to convince someone not to do something they absolutely love for no better reason than proper conservation. What are your thoughts? Concerns?

Everglades Wilderness Waterway: A Journey’s End

Day: 8

Trying to sleep was a chore. The wooden planks of the chickee felt like concrete underneath my tent and I was constantly reminded of my lost sleeping pad every time my bony frame rolled over. Despite it being several degrees warmer than the previous night, I was actually colder and more uncomfortable on the chickee than I had been on the oyster beach. Open to the wind, the cold night air was able to blow between the water and the bottom of the chickee. So every ounce of heat that I clutched to underneath the towel and emergency blanket was quickly lost through the bottom of the tent.

But through the shivers I was able to drift to sleep. Morning couldn’t come soon enough. It had been one hell of a trip, but I was ready to get to civilization. My shredded feet were a constant worry to me as I had no first aid kit, and I wasn’t fond of the open wounds being caked full of low tide mud and God know’s what else. I’d just found a comfortable spot where it only felt like someone was stabbing my shoulder with a dull knife and had closed my eyes when I heard it.

A loud exhalation and immediate deep breath pierced the thin walls of my tent. Startled, and being half asleep, I shot up like a rocket, ripping my emergency blanket in two. The breath came from underneath me and it took me a moment to calm down and realize what it was. Though I never actually laid eyes on it, I’m 99% sure that a manatee was cruising around underneath my chickee that night. I heard him breathe a few more times some distance away before I curled back up underneath my torn blanket and fell back asleep.

I should note something important about emergency blankets: They’re for one time use ONLY. Through my tossing and turning over the course of two nights, I had absolutely shredded the thin blanket. Foot holes, knee holes, elbow holes, you name it and it ripped the blanket. So as if I needed any other gaps to let the cold air in, I was now hiding under two halves of a hole-ridden emergency blanket.

Life was grand.

I got up well before light. I simply couldn’t handle the cold any longer. Wearing every piece of clothing I had with me, I walked painfully back and forth across the chickee in the pale moonlight. My eyes fixed on the eastern horizon, I practically willed the sun to rise. I wanted off the chickee and to warm myself in the sun. And the moment I caught even the slightest hint of dawn, I broke camp and started paddling. This would be the earliest I ever left camp, and I paddled south out of South Joe River chickee so early that I still needed my headlamp to see.

This final morning of paddling would be for myself. In a strange way, I don’t particularly enjoy taking pictures. Every time I stop, take out the camera, turn it on, snap a picture, and put the camera away, I feel like I missing something. For me, I feel almost disconnected. The picture won’t do the experience justice to someone who isn’t there. The only real way to take it all in is to be there. Sure the pictures are nice to reflect on at a later time, but there is no substitute for witnessing things firsthand. The memory will always be much, much sweeter than any picture or story can describe. And I like to soak up every moment without worry of capturing it on film. So I shut the camera off and stowed it away below deck.

The sunrise that morning was spectacular. Whitewater Bay’s southernmost waters were a mirror image of the multicolored sky and scattered clouds shot the sun’s early morning rays in all directions. To the north, I could see in between mangrove islands to a vanishing point. The sky and water melted into one in several places where the far shoreline lay out of sight. For a while, I focused on the sounds around me. The rhythmic swishing of my paddle strokes in the water, the distant hum of a motorboat miles away, and the quiet ‘click’ of my paddle handle as it began to show wear from the arduous journey were all taken in. The paddling was easy going. There was no wind, no current, and no giant waves this morning. Merely flat water and several miles of gentle gliding lay ahead of me.

It was about this time that I really began to think about the entire adventure and of what I was about to accomplish. Why had I gone on this trip? What was I looking to do?

To this day, the answer remains a relative mystery. When asked why I went, I answer as honestly as I can: “Because I felt like going”. I left the shore of Everglades City with the intention of fishing and getting some paddling in. Of course I wanted to “get away from it all”, and I did just that. But the reasoning behind going was never any deeper. I wasn’t looking for anything, or trying to prove something to anyone.

But after thinking about it, I realized that I had, in fact, found something and simultaneously proved something. Over the course of the eight days and 100+ miles, I discovered something about myself that I never knew existed. I discovered a drive. A will, even, to complete a task regardless of the difficulties. Never before had I been as motivated to do something as I was every morning I paddled away from camp and shot a quick video. Each day had a goal: Get to my next campsite. And I never allowed myself to give up on that daily goal. Perhaps it was because giving up was never an option. I -had- to complete each paddle as my safety relied on it. I had several instances where I thought you got yourself into this mess…now get out. And with the exception of my one mishap, I did my best to complete each day as planned. I -wanted- to achieve each goal ahead of me. And that hunger was something I’d never experienced before.

I set out with no intention of proving anything to anyone, but I finished by proving something to myself. I’d honestly had my doubts upon leaving that I could complete the waterway solo. I half expected (in usual fashion) for something to go horribly wrong and force me to quit. Maybe I’d be forced to give up and paddle back to Everglades City to drive home in the Jeep defeated. I didn’t know. But the thought that I might -not- be able to finish was very real to me. And it wasn’t until I paddled through Tarpon Creek and into Coot Bay that realized I proved something to myself: I -could- do this. I DID do this. The journey was at an end, and I felt like (as cheesy as it sounds) I could accomplish anything if I really set my mind to it. It was my first time ever experiencing something so…profound. I once again, felt like I was standing on Highland Beach looking out across the gulf. I felt unstoppable, but it was a little different this time. My respect for Mother Nature had grown along with my confidence. I knew I’d gotten lucky at Shark Point, but with that healthy dose of respect for the elements came a strong sense of confidence. I’d set myself a task I wasn’t sure I could complete, and proved that I could do it, if to no one else but myself.

The roar I let out when I saw the channel marker to Buttonwood Canal was unrivaled in any memory I’ve had. Its sound raced across Coot Bay and was absorbed into the mangroves without echo, meeting only the ears of some slightly startled pelicans. I couldn’t believe it was over. The experience is still something that, to this day, I’m soaking in. I made it to the Flamingo docks at 11:15 am, January 18th, 2014: Eight full days after leaving Everglades City. A man launching his boat was nice enough to help me pull the yak up the ramp, and I limped over to the convenient store to buy a coke and some chips while waiting on my ride. I talked to several interesting people, most of whom wanted to only hear the story of my trip. I’m sure I must’ve looked happy about something to them as I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face.

I’ve got to give a huge thanks to my friends Brennan and Aimee, without whom, the trip never would have been possible. And a massive thanks to my family for being so supportive during something that I’m sure was a worrisome time for them. I’ll be back for sure, but never alone again. Next time I want to share the experience with friends. Solo paddling the Everglades Wilderness Waterway was an experience I’ll never forget, and I’ll be eternally thankful that I took advantage of the opportunity to go on such an awesome trip.

So until my next adventure,

Fish on, and just keep paddling.

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