“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,