Three of us had drifted together in our kayaks near a mangrove point, when a noisy splash arose in the tree roots. The possibility that we’d alarmed an alligator gave me a split-second adrenaline rush, but a small wake swiftly bulged the muddy water as a redfish streaked toward me and then turned and thumped into my wife’s kayak, making her shout in surprise. The impact, which was so violent I thought we might be having redfish for dinner, caused an eruption of wakes as other skittish reds bolted through the 6-inch-deep water in every direction.
Slipping in on top of fish holding in the shallows turned out to be a common occurrence as we paddled deep into the no-motor zone of Florida’s Everglades National Park. We were camped on a deserted, shell-strewn, 5-mile stretch of Cape Sable beach–almost as far south as you can get on the mainland of the eastern United States. The best fishing wasn’t in the shallows, however, but in the deeper pockets, sloughs, and channels where snook, redfish, black drum, baby tarpon, goliath grouper, and the occasional seatrout succumbed to the irresistible lure of soft-bodied jigs.
The Everglades is the largest subtropical wilderness in the country, and it’s a marvelous place for a do-it-yourself fishing adventure. This kind of trip is a particularly low-budget undertaking if you have your own kayaks, canoes, and camping gear, but it’s affordable even if you have to rent them ($40-$50 per day). While day-fishing trips from the main entry points (especially Flamingo, Everglades City, and Chokoloskee) are feasible, the real action–great fishing, wilderness exploration, and camping amidst a huge variety of wild creatures–starts when you venture deeper into the park and stay a while.
To say that you can fish here for years and still not cover much territory is an understatement: The Everglades park covers more than 1.5 million acres, and the Wilderness Waterway stretches for 99 miles from Everglades City to the Flamingo Visitor Center. The southern Everglades wilderness from Shark River on the Gulf coast through the immense Whitewater Bay and down to the southern tip of Cape Sable–the region we explored on a four-day trip last December–is an extremely shallow network of saltwater marshes and mangrove islands replete with a range of saltwater gamefish. Just north of there, in the freshwater confines of the Harney River area, it’s also possible to catch largemouth bass as well as snook or tarpon on back-to-back casts.
A paddle into these swamps is always charged with adventure by the presence of large, man-eating reptiles, but don’t let that deter you. We saw plenty of alligators and a couple of crocodiles–this is the only place in the world where the two coexist–but we gave them a wide berth, and not once did they pose a problem. Of course, we didn’t go swimming, either.
With the hurricane season officially ending in November, and mosquitoes more bearable from December through March, the major challenges for an extended wilderness expedition are carrying enough fresh water and coping with omnipresent and maddening no-see-ums (which sometimes warrant a fully enclosed head net or bug suit). As for food, beyond what you pack in, you should have no trouble catching something delicious to eat (although the park service has issued mercury advisories for bass). The redfish are particularly well suited to the campfire skillet. You can catch these with the usual tackle, or just sneak up on them like my wife did and bang them on the head with your kayak. Works every time.****
Backcountry campsites are primitive and include chickees (raised platforms in the water), ground sites, and beach sites. We stayed at a beach site, where you are allowed to build a fire, but where you can be exposed to the wind. We made the trip with friends who had been to the Everglades backcountry before and who had the necessary camping and boating gear–and experience navigating the park’s many channels. We took skiffs to Middle Cape Sable and used them to tote our kayaks to the edge of the no-motor zone, and then we paddled. Near the end of the trip we fished for tarpon out of the skiffs at the edge of Florida Bay. You can also plan a completely non-motorized multiday canoe or kayaking trip from the Flamingo Visitor Center via the well-marked Wilderness Waterway.
THE EASY WAY
A more comfortable plan is to rent a houseboat for a week, which you can take from Flamingo to the northwestern portion of Whitewater Bay, towing or packing canoes and kayaks with you. Sure, it’s not as adventurous as paddling in, but bringing a floating house for your base eliminates campsite chores (allowing more time to fish), provides a haven from the bugs, and offers amenities like showers and air-conditioning.
For more information about planning an expendition into Everglades National Park, call park headquarters at 305-242-7700; www.nps.gov/ever. Flamingo Lodge (800-600-3813; www. flamingolodge.com) is the only motel in the park, and it’s open year-round. The marina there has gas, bait, and assorted supplies, plus boat, canoe, kayak, and houseboat rentals.
FISHING THE EVERGLADES
One-third of Everglades National Park is covered by a combination of fresh-and saltwater terrain, and separate Florida licenses are required for each kind of fishing. A light spinning or casting outfit should serve well as an all-around rig for both fresh-and saltwater species (except tarpon), and a variety of soft-bodied jigs and soft-plastic jerkbaits will be effective in many situations–especially for the snook and redfish that haunt the grassy flats, mangrove shallows, and channels. Flyfishermen should pack 8-or 9-weight saltwater rods and a mix of Clousers, Deceivers, and crustacean patterns. For guided kayaking trips, contact Chokoloskee Charters, 239-695-9107; www.chokoloskeecharters.com.