By Mike Coneen
I had just finished paddling the entire 170-mile Indian River Lagoon, and all I could think about is what was next? I NEED MORE. During that trip, John Kumiski (fellow paddler) mentioned fishing the Florida Everglades. My idea started out as a circumnavigation trip around Florida Bay but it quickly became a backwater adventure with John. I knew John was very knowledgeable on the Everglades so I decided to get my feet wet with him.
We arrived in Flamingo around noon on Sunday, Nov. 30. After checking in with the Ranger Station, we quickly found out just how much of an adventure we'd have. We would split the 7-day adventure into two trips. The first leg would take us west, and the second, east. The Ranger could not verify that the west leg was passable. Her words were, "Why would you want to go back there? There are a lot of crocodiles back there." John and I simply grinned, got our permits and told them we would be back in a few days to inform them if it was passable or not.
After getting a good night's rest at the Flamingo campground, we set out of Coot Bay Pond first thing Monday morning. After passing Coot Bay, the mangrove tunnel took us to Mud Lake and then to Bear Lake, where we had to make our first big decision. We knew an impassable stretch might await us after the 3-mile paddle at Bear Lake. It was about noon and our options were to either camp at the only dry land in Bear Lake and get a fresh start in the morning, or push to see if we could make it to Gator Lake to camp for the night. My gut said push on and so we did. The deeper into the Everglades you go, the more isolated you get. At the westernmost point of Bear Lake, we found the wall of mangroves. John had paddled this area in the 80's but 35 years of mangrove growth can change the way things look. I knew less than 100 yards of mangrove separated us from the next body of water, but how would we get through?
Fortunately, cell phones do not need a cell signal for the GPS. This is something I knew before we started, so I found the thinnest passage via Google Earth and it was there that we found a very skinny pass. We made it to the other side but it was now a race against daylight. Our first optional campsite was nowhere to be found because there was no dry land where John once camped. My phone gave us a Plan B and we set out to make a passage out of a small canal that flowed into Florida Bay.
Before reaching that canal I had the pleasure of running my kayak right up on top of a very unhappy 12-foot sleeping crocodile. The paddling speed increased only to find we had to portage over a large log in the canal and then find we had hit a dead end. With the luck of the Irish on our side, there was dry land. It couldn't have come at a better time because now the sun was down. We slept to the buzzing sound of a thousand mini street bikes circling our tent all night. There was no shortage of mosquitoes in this deep dark corner of the Glades. The long day of fishing and paddling included an upper 20-inch snook for John and three aired-out tarpon for me, getting one to the boat. Thirteen-plus miles were now in the books.
Day three was upon us and we were quick to get out of the still-water dead end we called home. Another portage and a 100-yard paddle would get us into the open air and free from the bugs. We had a quick breakfast and set out for the Homestead Canal. Homestead Canal would eventually turn into the East Cape Canal which would take us out to Florida Bay where we planned to camp on East Cape Sable. The canal is very long, straight and narrow. Without being able to see the end, the mangrove shoreline visually becomes a funnel. Fishing along the way truly became a hard task for us considering we didn't see many fish with the exception of a lone tailing red drum. It was a quiet and relaxing paddle with the slightest tailwind. We both took it all in until we were greeted by group of close to 20 American Crocodiles on a mudslide. They were quick to slide into the water as we paddled close but after they figured out we were no threat, they all came back out of the water. The power of feeling very much alive at that point was uncontrollable. There were crocs to the left, to the right, at our bow, at our stern and right underneath us. We had gone on such a mission to make it to this point that I had a good feeling they don't see very many people. It's said that 20 years ago there were nothing but alligators in these backwaters but they have all been driven north by the endangered crocs. According to Wikipedia, the current U.S. population is estimated at 2,000, a significant comeback from a few hundred in the 1970s." We took some photos, left them alone and carried on. It was a privilege to paddle among this large group of protected predators.
We took a detour around a large dam in East Cape Canal, and that is when we started to find some tidal influence and current. Typically where you find a tide pushing into or pulling from a bay or estuary, you will find fish. And that we did. It was while we were eating that I heard the ever so patented slurp of a snook. One cast is all it took and I pulled up a nice silver and yellow common snook. I managed to catch over 10 of these fellas between 16 and 28 inches on a spinning rod. John stuck to his fly rod and managed a nice jack crevalle. The afternoon was short lived because our check-in time at East Cape Sable was preferably before dark. We let the outgoing tide take some weight off our paddles while it sucked us right out into Florida Bay. Once we hit the Bay we paddled west and set up camp at East Cape Sable. This is where we would spend two nights on the white sandy beach.
Without seeing a whole lot of activity the last few days, we decided to head right back to where we had found the fish the day before. After catching more snook on the spinning rod, I decided to take out my new fly rod. If there was ever a good or easy time for me to catch a fish on fly, this was it. The presentation of a small green minnow under the mangrove was just what I needed to hook that first fish. Unfortunately, I was not prepared so I fumbled and lost the fish. The second hookset was not the case and I pulled in a nice snook. I quickly stopped while I was ahead because it was windy and I hooked the back of my hat. John managed a few snook as well as a red drum before we made our way back to our beachfront condo.
Our next day paddle would be from East Cape Sable to Flamingo, consisting of 11 miles and the winds were going to be against us. John suggested we paddle very early to beat the afternoon winds so an alarm was set for 3:00am. Little did we know, Mother Nature had another plan for us. After smashing rotted wood for the fire, I must have managed to carry a critter back into my tent with me. I was awakened at midnight by something crawling on my back. Obviously it didn't like the way I tried to brush it off because immediately I was stung on my back. Pushing the sleeping bag down to the foot of my tent caused me to get stung again on my hand. My first and second ever scorpion sting found me not wanting to spend another second in my tent until daylight, so I packed up and waited for John's alarm to go off. That wouldn't happen because I was too loud while packing up and woke him. We were on the water paddling to Flamingo before 12:30 a.m. If you have never paddled in the middle of nowhere under an almost full moon with very calm conditions, I suggest you do. The moon set beyond the horizon around 4:00 a.m., and that left us in total darkness until dawn. The sky turned into a backlit piece of black paper with a thousand tiny pinholes in it. Jellyfish flashed a bright glow when we paddled over them and I was able to count nine falling stars with John pointing out one passing satellite. There was a moment when I hiked my Extrasport PFD up high on my neck in order to rest my head back to stare straight up. With motionless paddles on our lap we became hypnotized by the sky and let the water carry us where it wanted. We spent a half hour suspended in time. Nothing else in the world existed.
If first light was controllable, we may have stalled it for a while. However, I was sidetracked by the large smacks echoing on the water. We had made it to the westernmost point of Flamingo and there was a large number of mullet in the area that the jacks were taking advantage of. A bone colored Rapala Skitter Walk with two single 2/0 inline VMC hooks showed no mercy on these fish. That was until an extra-large shark terminated a quick 5-second fight. Skitter Walk and fish, gone.
We moved on toward the marina and were accompanied by a few glistening sunrise tarpon. Too bad they don't take as easily as jacks do. We landed at the marina, packed our gear up, bought some ice cream, reported to the Ranger and relaxed for the rest of the day at the Flamingo campground. This would be a day to take a hot shower and plan our second leg of our adventure.
–Stay tuned for Everglades Tour, Part II
–Check out more stories from our Adventure on the Water series.