Say you're a snook—a skinny, goofy-looking, hard-fighting fish with a forehead that slopes down to a squished snout, like a duck with an underbite. You are not attractive. But you do taste good, so, lucky you, every meat-hunting Florida fisherman from Cape Canaveral to Tampa Bay has forever bonked you on the head and brought you home in a bucket, pushing your entire species to the brink of extinction in the 1970s before fishing restrictions prevented your demise. You and yours live mostly in Florida and the Caribbean, and you must travel to the other side of the globe to find the only other members of your clan—Africa's Nile Perch and Australia's Barramundi.
You begin life as one of a million eggs your mother drops off near some Sunshine State spawning grounds like Jupiter or Hurricane or Clearwater, where you drift around, larvae-like, for a few weeks before seeking out the nether regions of an estuary, where you hang tight to the mangroves, feeding on shrimp and crabs and baitfish until you are 2 or 3 years old, at which point you might just decide to change from a boy snook to a girl snook, which you can do, being a hermaphrodite and all.
Your ability to switch sexes puts snook in good company in southern Florida, particularly Key West, where gender confusion is as common as the squishy yellow and red Croc shoes. Yet sex isn't the only thing you are baffled about. You spend the bulk of your lives on that brackish border in between salt and freshwater, where the mix of structure, shallow beaches and bars, and narrow, hard-to-reach creeks creates not only the perfect snook habitat, but also some of the world's best kayak-fishing water. Because you are fast, strong, and prone to eruption when hooked, you represent a particular challenge to anglers trying to keep their prey out of the mangroves after they're hooked—an even harder task for flyfishermen given the soft flex of a fly rod. You snook are ambushers; the anglers who would catch you must insert themselves into some tight, tropical corners—the perfect terrain for a kayak. And no place on earth exemplifies this environment better than the mangrove-filled estuaries of the Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge.
Drive south down Florida's I-75 at night, past the lights of Fort Meyers and Bonito Springs and Naples, until the last tollbooth is behind, and everything goes dark. The vast expanse of the Everglades unfolds beyond the car doors, where miles of cypress, sawgrass, and marshy, gator-filled wilderness form a maze where guns and drugs and bodies could be, and have been, buried for years. While the Everglades often feels like a single enormous swamp, it's actually more of a 50-mile-wide river, flowing slow and shallow from its source near Orlando, down through Lake Okeechobee, Big Cypress National Preserve, and east to Biscayne Bay. Along the way, it has been drained and diverted so many times that it is now a fraction of its former size. Still, more than enough remains for several lifetimes of paddling and fishing trips.
It is through this swampy landscape that the first road from Tampa to Miami was pushed in 1928. The project was funded largely by Manhattan advertising tycoon Barron Collier, who would go on to found the Trailways bus line and who, throughout the 1920s, bought over a million acres of what is now Collier County, Florida, including the entire community of Everglades City, a landscaped, palm tree-lined island oasis surrounded, moat-like, by the Barron River.
Collier's early promotion of tarpon fishing in Everglades City helped attract celebrities like the writer Zane Grey, poet Robert Frost, baseball legend Ted Williams, and presidents Nixon and Eisenhower. Tarpon are legendary as an acrobatic fish that can weigh more than 200 pounds, and though Keys communities like Islamorada, Marathon, and Key West now draw more tarpon fishermen than Everglades City, fishing easily remains the most popular activity in and around this northern gateway to the 1.4 million-acre Everglades National Park.
“This is true Old Florida,” says Everglades City fishing guide Tommy Newell.”No high-rises, just boats on cars and boats with grass growing up through them. This is how I remember it growing up.”
Nearly a century after Collier arrived, it was the prospect of endless shots at snook, tarpon, and redfish that also drew Captain Charles Wright, originally from Miami, to this tiny outpost at the northern edge of the Everglades. Though he first visited the area in 1972, it took 20 years for him to return for good, passing through Everglades City and Chokoloskee Island in 1992, on a drive from Miami to Naples with his wife.
“I was a fisherman,” Wright says.”So the curiosity eventually got to me. I stepped out to look around and when I got back to the car my wife said 'Don't even think about it.' But the decision had already been made.” Wright quit his job as an environmental consultant, divorced the wife, and began guiding full time in 1995.
It's late February, and I'm on an hour-long boat ride south of Everglades City in the park with Captain Wright and four clients. Our vessel is a 27-foot Carolina Skiff that serves as the Chokoloskee Charters' mothership for kayak trips into the backcountry. Six Heritage Redfish sit-on-tops are packed into the bow as we blast past endless mangrove islands—those tangled patches of brown roots and green leaves that surround so much of the earth's prime saltwater—to a flat we're told is filled with redfish and snook.
My first fish is a little one but it still shatters the surface like it's possessed. I saw the flash underwater when it darted out for my fly, so I have no excuse for not being ready.
Captain Wright steers us into an open area and kills the motor. The tide is low, with the sharp, salt-and-pepper exterior of exposed oyster bars all around us and creeks and channels weaving through the mangroves toward the Gulf of Mexico less than a mile away. There are no other anglers in sight, save a few feeding egrets, so we all climb onto our sit-on-tops and paddle away in different directions. This is the sort of”guided trip” that Captain Wright enjoys most—competent anglers and paddlers heading out on their own.
“I've found that, on average, kayak fishermen come with more advanced skills than other fishermen,” says Wright, who also guides non-kayaking fishermen.”Partly because they have to. They have to handle their own fish, they have to read water, and they have to deal with themselves and all their gear without my help.”
A kayak fisherman's gear collection is part garage sale, part Popular Mechanics, with techie toys like navigational systems and fish finders sharing deck space with such low-brow items as plastic milk crates. We each grab our rods (at least two each, maybe three), reels, tackle bag with lure selection, PFD, seat-cushion, wading boots, lunch, and landing net.
Snook are not subtle when they decide to eat—another characteristic they share with bass—so I never wasted more than one or two casts in any given spot. But sometimes a particular hole in the mangroves just looks SO fishy, that you can't believe there isn't one in there lurking, waiting for his chance. And it was in one of these holes, on a third cast, that a fast flash of yellow darted up and out to engulf my little white fly. He jumped, of course, before turning and racing back to his hiding spot, powering deep enough into the mangroves to send me home with one less little white fly. My first impulse was to cast into the same spot again, as snook often school up. But then I took one look around me and laughed: I had a million more acres to explore
My four fellow anglers are all members of a fishing and paddling club in Houston called P.A.C.K. (Paddling Anglers in Canoes and Kayaks), and they typify that particular breed of fisherman that has helped make kayak fishing one of the fastest-growing outdoor activities in the country—middle-income, educated, innovative, resourceful, friendly, fishy. They meet monthly at the REI in Houston, where they talk about fishing and make plans for outings such as this one. On the ride out, the tall one named Craig tells me,”My kayak is the best pair of wading boots I ever bought.” He means that the kayak allows him to reach places too shallow for motorboats, yet too far or inaccessible to wade to.
As the tide starts coming in, the fish follow it—sea trout, redfish, even an occasional tarpon. I paddle behind Captain Wright to a short section of shoreline where redfish are nosing their way along the flat, seeking crabs and shrimp and whatever else they can root from the mud. He pulls a nice-sized red up to his cockpit and motions for me to paddle over to him.
“This is what I love about kayak fishing,” he says.”I guided for years out of a 20-foot center console, and then out of a flats boat so I could get into the skinnier water. But I wouldn't have a prayer of reaching these fish out of either of those boats. I could never get in this shallow with the oyster beds. Not a chance.”
He tells me he's recently seen tarpon and snook feeding in the little channel about 100 yards from us, so I paddle past him to investigate. I locate a likely looking cove where I can nudge my bow into a 50-foot gap in the mangroves and enjoy 360-degrees of casting options. I slowly stand up, cast my fly into a mess of underwater mangrove roots, let it sink for about a second-and-a-half, start stripping it back, and bam—I'm hooked into my first Florida snook.
Part of what makes snook fishing so popular—aside from the way they taste—is their tendency to take flight after being hooked. Redfish and sea trout don't jump during battle, moving them down the ladder of desirables for sport fishermen. Tarpon, which grow much bigger and stronger than snook, are perhaps the ultimate kayak-fishing target, but the snook's feeding habits and love of structure mean the methods used to catch them are remarkably similar to that most popular of North American gamefish, the largemouth bass. That makes even a first-time pursuit of snook feel familiar to tens of thousands of anglers.
My first fish is a little one but it still shatters the surface like it's possessed. I saw the flash underwater when it darted out for my fly, so I have no excuse for not being ready. Yet snook turn so quickly and so forcefully that I was caught scrambling to keep my line clear. And just when I thought it was burrowing down deep toward the mangrove root system, it exploded out of the water to my right with that particular gill-rattling shake only snook and tarpon can deliver. It's often hard enough to balance while standing up on your kayak casting a fly rod in moving current. Add a pissed-off saltwater fish at the end of your line, and you better be careful you don't end up in the water.
I decide to kneel down, which helps me bring the fish to hand. But because I'd like a photo, I set the snook down on one of my storage hatches, and stand back up to take a shot. While doing so, my kayak drifts along in the current until I bump up against some nearby mangroves. When I look up from my camera, my first thought is how odd it is that someone would discard an old tire out here in the pristine waters of the Everglades. It takes me a second to realize that the”tire” is actually the back of an 8-foot gator; sitting partially submerged not five feet away. With a live fish on my bow.
The gator never moved, but it was still a reminder that it's wise to pay attention to your surroundings in a place like this—nearly 2,400 square miles of wilderness, second only to Yellowstone among the national parks in the Lower 48. Most fishing guides will say, 'Oh they won't bother you' when asked about Florida's gators and crocs. (The Everglades is the only place on earth where gators and crocs co-exist.) But I used to say the same thing about bears as a river guide in Wyoming, knowing full and well that it wasn't always true.
Truth be told, fishing from the front of a flats boat almost always beats fishing from a kayak. But flats boats also cost 40 grand, and that's before you gas it, trailer it, store it, insure it, and launch it—if you can find a ramp at all. Besides, if you use modern sit-on-tops in many parts of the Everglades, almost all of the benefits of fishing out of a flats boat can be obtained. I took out a newer, wider, tunnel-hull boat one night along the Barron River, which surrounds Everglades City. The current was moving fast yet I was able to comfortably stand for a couple hours of heavy—if fruitless—casting, using one end of a kayak blade to move me along like a Venetian gondolier. And recent two-person models now allow the guide (or buddy, or girlfriend) to sit in back and keep you constantly in position to cast up front—which is huge, as anyone who's ever tried to simultaneously wrestle paddle, paddle cord, anchor rope, fly rod, and fly line will tell you.
So I took my time on the return paddle to Everglades City, often drifting away from the group in order to throw flies at likely looking snook hangouts. There was barely any breeze, so it was easy to paddle within casting distance, where I'd stand and float slowly along with the current, tossing cast after cast beneath the overhanging branches.
read more about Captain Wright – www.chokoloskeecharters.com
“I don't know why it took me so long to start offering kayak fishing trips,” Wright says, who began guiding out of them only four years ago.”Because kayak fishing is definitely the future down here.” He and I are floating along with the tide now, making our way back to the mothership for our return to Everglades City. And Wright is telling me about his customers.
“You get three kinds of kayakers here,” he says.”First are the beginners, who might be good fishermen but just can't afford a flats boat.” Second is the”been there, done that” guy. He's got plenty of money and has fished a lot from a flats boat, maybe even owned one. But he's just looking for a different experience, another way to fish. And third is the crossover paddler, which we're seeing more and more of down here. This is the person who has always paddled a sea kayak and takes one down here for a seven-day trip from Everglades City to Flamingo. He gets into camp his first night, sets up his tent or whatever, and then just sits there watching a guy in his sit-on-top go out and fish for a few hours, and he's thinking 'why aren't I doing that?'”
A couple days after the mothership trip with the Texans, Wright and his wife hosted their third annual”Paddle-in,” where dozens of kayakers launch from Everglades National Park HQ and paddle a few miles out to Sand Island for an afternoon of barbecue sandwiches, fishing, and camaraderie among kayak fishermen. The event is scheduled to coincide with good paddling, not good fishing, and our angling results on the island reflected that. But one of the beauties of kayak fishing is how easy is to fish on your own regardless of how many others are in the group, especially in a place like the Everglades, where solitude is only a few paddle strokes away up the nearest opening in the mangroves.