By Mike Coneen
–Read Everglades Tour, Part I here
Friday morning, we headed out of West Lake and made our way to the Shark Point Chickee, a 12-plus-mile trek. Paddling would be a bit easier, as we scaled back our load of gear. We planned to stay out for just two days on this trip. West Lake would take us to Long Lake, then to The Lungs and eventually dump us out into Garfield Bight, part of Florida Bay. Again we didn't find many fish in the backwaters except for a juvenile tarpon I was able to air out.
I was very much preoccupied by the wildlife during this paddle. Wild orchids clung to the large driftwood mangrove stumps. Stalking birds waded in the water as well as in the trees above. What sounded like a waterfall was a raft of thousands of coots taking off as I paddled into them. John was first to clear all the spider webs in each of the mangrove tunnels except the last. He fell back a bit and asked if I wanted to go first this time. This would be the last tunnel we would face before we entered Garfield Bight. This would also be the tunnel with countless mudslides and extra large crocodiles. Most of which knew we were there long before we knew they were, except one. My adrenaline maxed out as an extremely large lizard ran full speed in my direction. The tunnel is not ten feet wide or four feet high but I knew it was deep and knew that was where he was heading. Like a freight train entering the water he disappeared under my boat, leaving me with a whole lot of wake. John had officially cleared all the spiders out of seven tunnels and I cleared the crocs out of one. I staked out in Garfield Bight to wait for John and while trying to relax, I heard water movement behind me. No need for alarm on this one, it was only an 8-foot shark stalking the flats.
A 2.5-mile paddle now separated us from the Shark Point Chickee, but John and I had some serious fishing to make up for. We paralleled the shore with John on the inside and I covered 20 yards out. Quickly John found himself standing in his Ocean Kayak Drifter, lined up with a red drum. I watched as his presentation of the fly was spot on and a red drum raised the water on the attempt to connect only to bail out at the last second. The water was not as clear as we wanted, so I blind-cast a Slayer soft-plastic in root beer/chartreuse and the snook loved it. The farther into the bay we paddled, the clearer the water got, giving me a nice shot at sightcasting a snook. I got a great hookset in that fish and three more tried to take the bait from it. These fish were aggressive and could have cared less if I was there. Opposed to the common snook I was able to catch on the inside, these snook were much darker and possessed more weight. A juvenile bald eagle observed me from a just 20 feet until an osprey chased it off. It was a great end to the day, but before I hit our chickee I was greeted by a 100-pound tarpon cutting the knee high water with its dorsal fin. Sometimes simply observing these great fish can leave a lasting memory far beyond what any hero picture ever will. It was a hard day for me to pick a highlight.
Shark Point Chickee was our home for the last night of our adventure. The Everglades has a lot of chickees but this may be the coolest, by far. "Chickee" is the word used by the Seminoles for a post-supported shelter with open sides. Raised above the seafloor 10 feet, this chickee is equipped with a port-o-potty, a loading deck and two sleeping decks. You can watch the sun come up and you can watch it go down. There is no pillow fluffing here but you sure can't beat the view. Our neighbors were a couple of former local boys that knew the area well but had moved north later in life. It was the first time in six days that we engaged in an actual conversation with someone other than each other. I would have been just as happy being there alone. One of the main reasons we took the route we took was for the solitude.
Day 7, where did it all go? We pushed back to the shoreline we fished on the way out. This would take us back into Garfield Bight and then Snake Bight before hitting Flamingo, totaling just over nine miles. Garfield Bight produced the same conditions we had the day before but when we got to Snake Bight, the world changed. A small breeze started to push us toward Flamingo along with an outgoing tide, but the water sat like a sheet of glass. It made paddling effortless and John used a cut gallon jug as a drift sock to slow him down. I used my feet. The only ripples created on the water were caused by fish. Finally, Mother Nature gave us a break on our final day. The gin clear water was loaded with life, including redfish, snook, sea trout and sharks. Sight fishing became the name of the game. Multiple attempts were made at tailing reds with no luck. These fish had their head buried so far into the tall grass that they had no clue we were there. That changed when the water got low enough for them to move out and find food on the go. I finally got them to eat when I switched to my go-to rootbeer/chartreuse Slayer. Out of the 5-plus tails I stalked and three fish I hooked, one made it back to the boat. It was far from a walk in the park, but the red drum I pulled off was very rewarding. We coasted the rest of the way to Flamingo barely making it out of the bight before low tide left us high and dry.
That was it. We weren't out of the water before we started talking about coming back. How could we do it better? When can we come back? This would be my first fishing adventure in the Florida Everglades and an adventure it was. Everything that we encountered made it more of an adventure and brought me closer to nature more than I already was. If you intend to take a trip like this I suggest you know what you're doing. Have a great boat to begin with. I used an Ocean Kayak Big Game 2 and John paddled an Ocean Kayak Drifter. Safety always comes first, so make a checklist of emergency and survival equipment along with food/water and backup supplies, should something break. Make sure someone has your float plan with departure/arrival dates and alternate contacts. Be 100 percent confident in your gear, plan for the worst and hope for the best. Safety, safety, safety. If you have a good grip on these things, go out and make a memory you will never forget and always keep in mind that we don't run things in these areas, the wildlife does. Respect our environment so future generations can enjoy it as much as we do.
Editor's note: The author doesn't bother to mention that he enjoys little use of his legs following a car accident a decade ago. Mike obviously hasn't let it slow him down a bit, as he's active in organizing programs that benefit conservation, veterans and kids.