While timing and planning is always an important consideration, it often weighs too heavily on the mind and soul. Places and activities we have set apart for enjoyment are often overshadowed by possibility and “what-ifs”. Being positive helps dilute the reality, however it can be dangerous. You’ll eventually have to accept what you’re capable of and the limitations of your knowledge and craftiness. Too many times I’ve sat and thought about the physical aspects of events and trips leading to these moments I enjoy and never the mental calamities that follow.
The cool air welcomed us to the road on the morning of February 25.The checklist looked like a drawing from my three-year-old daughter. Red pen here, blue pen there.. I felt like Santa checking his list twice, three times and eventually just saying ‘hell with it’. We were a friend down and one skiff less come game day, due to a passing last minute stomach bug. The lone ranger was due to arrive a day later and meet at the Flamingo campgrounds early afternoon the next day. I had awoken that morning with the sounds of birds and a cool calming wind. Walking towards the east I realized everyone and their companion had found their way to the edge of the park awaiting the spectacular sunrise. With James by my side and our other companion fast asleep we ventured on foot through the park grounds admiring our surroundings.
The nicker-nut were a nice surprise. Here in North East Florida I have never seen the likes of this plant, (Mostly due to their reliance on tropical climates). The White Ibis and Cormorants littered the beaches in search of food and welcomed its old friend to a new day. The Skimmers and Seagulls were awaiting an easy meal from the photographers, as it seemed to have become some kind of tradition.
Around 1:30 pm Nate had arrived and met us over at the ramp. With the Cuban sandwich from the park store slowly being digested, we launched the skiffs and began our route into the backcountry. With the higher winds we knew this would be our best opportunity at being able to fish, let alone finding fish in this place. With the extra weight in my Gheenoe I knew it was going to be a tough task for my small 15hp to overcome. Sure enough before we even made it to Coot Bay we had decided to swap some gear amongst the skiffs to make the trip more obtainable and less stressful on the tiny outboard that pushes my skiff.
Opening our views to Joe River and Whitewater seemed immense, this place grew to a monstrous size compared to the mapping software I’d been looking at for the past 6 months trying to develop a plan to this trip. At this point my friend Craig’s voice was running through my head with the advice he had given me several weeks prior, “Just don’t over think it man, this place can be dangerous. Be careful”. We were chasing the currents and the winds were at our faces, this caused some extreme chop in several areas that honestly put me into a fight or flight state of mind at one point later in the trip. With my mind running full speed and maintaining my calm I couldn’t help but accept that we were amongst a place that was far more beautiful than I could have imagined, a kind of beautiful where you knew this is where you were meant to be, but also knew it would kill you in an instant if it wanted to.
Arriving at our fist temporary home out in the backcountry I was scouting the conditions looking at the depth and admiring the layout. Hard limestone outcroppings covered with mangroves and deep channels surrounded us. While setting up camp James had decided to start casting a line from the dock and caught a mangrove snapper moments later. Nate and I explored a little once the skiff was unloaded, and checked out the area as the daylight was fading. We Found a couple of creeks that were running into larger deep ponds, but we continued on and later turned around and to head back before the sun was completely gone. That night we enjoyed some drinks and sat on the dock until we had fallen asleep. The mosquitoes were minimal with the higher winds and cooler temperatures in the mid 40’s and lower 50’s, and the sounds of fish feeding made me anxious for first light.
Around 4 am I had awoken to some weird sounds and exited the tent to see what the commotion was all about. I had found my boat had made its way underneath the chickee, and with the higher tide it had become trapped. After several minutes I moved the boat out and along the other side of the chickee and tied it off using the push-pole to keep it from banging against the dock as much as possible. James had awoken and noticed our friend’s skiff had done the same thing, and with both skiffs free and unharmed I made may way back into the tent as the sounds of feeding fish lulled me to sleep.
The morning was chilly and windy all the same. James and I had left camp in search of fish and I later hooked into a Lizardfish on the fly rod. At this point I was quite surprised and confused, as I had only ever caught them while bottom fishing offshore. We had checked on the others and were planning our route that morning for fishing, when two other boats had shown up. We had figured they were going to be staying on our chickee that night and quickly broke down camp and moved out to give them some room. Come to find out, once we passed them headed to Oyster bay, they had decided to pass us in one of the straights where the currents were rough and the winds were high. Needless to say, after Nathan and I received a good morning shower and nearly collected enough water to make a mobile swimming pool at our next chickee, we were at Oyster Bay. The chop out in the main bay was roughly 1.5’ – 2’ and capping. We relaxed and laughed about the ride as our other companion Tj laughed and felt the need to brag about how well his interest-bearing skiff handled the ride and left him and James without a morning shower.
Chitchat aside, three gentlemen arrived to their side of the Oyster Bay chickee and were about to break camp and head to our spot the evening before. We had learned that they were from just north of where I lived, in Jax. At this point I began to think about how small this industry, and our lives, really are as anglers and fly-fishing junkies. Essentially we’re just a bunch of kids that have never really grown up, while responsibilities change and friendships are often weakened or strengthened you learn that brotherhood is what keeps us young. We continually push ourselves and strive to be better and excel in our hobbies and passions.
I had chosen to ride around for a few minutes and explore our area, Finally! I began to find some water that was much more shallow, as most of my gear is built around this type of fishing. I raced back to the chickee and grabbed James and we set off after a quick lunch consisting of raviolis and crackers. We were fishing an entirely different location and were trying to grasp the fact that we were in the everglades now and tactics would be a little different from our regular fish. James jumped a decent size ladyfish that found itself going aerial over top of a 4’ shark at one point, and I was pleased. I watched the shark spook off from the ladyfish, momentarily returning to the water, only to become airborne again and throw the hook. Clean & easy release in my book.
Moments later we were on another Lizardfish, and at this point I suggested we move locations to look for some sight fishing. We searched and searched but couldn’t make anything out in the water with the high winds and choppy water, it was quite the interesting area. We nestled in behind some mangroves away from the wind and found some glassy water, and go figure, we couldn’t find any form of life swimming to play tug-o-war. After about 30 minutes we headed back to camp and found Tj and Nate had set up their camp and were just relaxing. Nate had picked up his fly rod and was casting amongst the dock for the time being. We later left camp, the three of us, while Tj sat on the chickee and relaxed. We found large bays, several porpoise, and good times. This place was way too amazing to just sit on a dock. Besides, we could do that at home if we wanted to. Regardless if the fish were willing to play or we just couldn’t find them, we enjoyed our time on the water. We rode around for about an hour and a half sometimes just killing the motors and drifting through areas listening to the sounds and embracing the moment.
I never wish to be so caught up with fishing that I can’t just relax and take in the sights of the location I’m in. I made this mistake last time I was here and it was a big lesson I learned. Regardless of the situation and the people I’m with I refuse to be held down by negative thoughts. How often can someone that lives so far away say that they have seen anything and experienced it first hand if they never try?
The night fell, and it was quick. I decided that a makeshift dock light would be an interesting attempt in attracting the fish to us. While I know this would seem like somewhat of a wasted idea, I did it anyways. I laid out my push-pole on the chickee, placed a heavy Tupperware on the other end, and tied one of our LED camp lanterns to the end over the water. After about an hour and a half I started casting along the dark shadows on the edge. Wham! I plucked a decent mangrove snapper out from the side of the dock. Everyone seemed to want to join in at this point, and I didn’t blame them one bit. Several moments later, bam! I pulled a healthy trout out from the abyss. I sat back and let the guys get their chances, giving up my spot, unfortunately not much else was had. With dinner digesting and a good little buzz going I started to work on some time-lapse photography. After about several hundred photos and some large amount of battery later I had about 4 seconds of footage haha. I realized this was a task much more suitable near home while in my learning stages.
The morning had welcomed the wind again, and some of the crew seemed a bit depressed so we decided to head back to flamingo. This ride back we decided to take the back route. I witnessed several porpoises feeding on one of the banks, and I wondered what they were chasing. Was it a snook? Or maybe some redfish? Without knowing, I kept on my way leading the pack. At this moment I decided to enjoy some music from my headphones and it made the ride back that much more enjoyable. With the wind on my face riding through the everglades I was at peace. I felt like I was alone and racing through the glades, as many of my unknowing mentors must have felt in their time. Once back at flamingo we decided to camp again on the campgrounds there at the front side and make the best of a memorable evening.
With Tj departing early because of the winds we set off to check out the front side of Florida Bay. We looked around for a little while and moved along the west side of the park. The tide was low, and this made the area almost impassable. We observed and you could tell the place was in desperate times. The sea grass kill has become worse and you could see the algae bloom starting to run its course on the estuary. If there was ever a time that we as fishermen and women need to stand up for our natural resources, It’s now. Get involved in any way you can. I know it can feel like a losing battle but nothing will happen overnight when everyone believes that someone else is fighting it. Voice your opinion to your local representative and let he/she know that you are interested in protecting our natural resources here in Florida. As a voter you have a voice and can make a difference not only in your area but others alike, stay proactive!
Our last night was one of the best. We ate like kings amongst the stars and satellites; fresh blackened fish, ritz crusted Caribbean Jerk pork chops, and spicy peanuts. Later, we were laying on the ground staring at the stars and discussing the events that had unfolded on the trip. In the morning we decided to load up early and scout around the park on foot. We walked several trails and stopped at several popular landmarks in the area, like any true tourist would do ahaha. Leaving the gate we had regained cellphone service and already wanted to step back about 40 miles and relive this adventure again. Some fast food later and we were in route back to reality.
Sometimes you find friends that become uncomfortable as time goes on, and sometimes you develop friendships even more to where you know you’ll always have these people in your life. I could live this trip a thousand times and be content every time as if it was the first, and yet sometimes the mental calamities we face afterwards just embrace the fact that we need these moments and events to truly be young and in touch with what makes us happy.
Until the next adventure,