The Devil’s Den

Exploring The Extreme Reaches Of Everglades National Park

Capt. Steve Dougherty September 27, 2013

I’ve had the good fortune of exploring some of the most pristine tropical playgrounds the world has to offer, yet every time I visit Everglades National Park I’m reminded of the incredible natural beauty and vast wilderness in my own backyard. Protecting the Everglades and its diverse inhabitants, the nearly 1.5 million acre park established in 1934 serves as a sanctuary for a host of unique and endangered species.

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Photo: doughertyphotos.com

One of three destinations on the globe declared an International Biosphere Reserve, World Heritage Site and Wetland of International Importance, Everglades National Park is one of the world’s most significant and pristine natural environments. However, as human interaction increases, park officials are working to close off many sections of ENP to protect the fragile ecosystem. One visit to the backcountry and it’s clear that much of the area does a sufficient job of protecting itself. The harsh terrain of the shallow backwaters thwarts many boaters. If you’ve ever ventured deep into Hell’s Bay then you know exactly what I’m talking about.

For most, getting back to the ramp at Flamingo before sunset after a day in the extreme reaches of the backcountry is a success whether fish were encountered or not.

Traveling through the windy creeks and expansive bays to reach Hell’s Bay and the distant backwaters of ENP reminds me that nature corrects itself given time, and sometimes it’s best to let nature run its course. Around the state we are dredging beaches, building breakwaters, and making efforts to stop natural processes with comprehensive restoration projects, but Mother Nature is too powerful and there’s no way to override her plan. The only thing we can do is go with the flow and along the River of Grass there’s no better option.

Every time my phone comes to life with a call from Captain Steven Tejera I think about the natural beauty of Florida’s most unique wetlands. Knowing there could only be one thing he wanted to talk about—fishing in the Everglades—I was excited to hear his plan of attack.

“Hey Steve, my new Professional is running great and I want to get you out for a photoshoot. What do you think about fishing Hell’s Bay in a brand new Hell’s Bay?” And just like that we were set up for what was going to be a day to remember and a check off my bucket list with one of South Florida’s youngest, most respectable, knowledgeable and personable inshore guides.

Because of my busy schedule it wasn’t an option to fish during the week, but Steven reassured me that fishing on the weekend wouldn’t make a difference. “We won’t see another boat the entire day. Hardly anyone ventures where we’re about to go.”

It was a typical Sunday morning in Florida City, with the local gas station swarming with shallow water anglers pumping fuel and dreaming of tailing redfish and snook. After making the 38-mile drive from the Park’s entrance, we arrived at the ramp in Flamingo and a rapidly filling parking lot of anglers heading off into Florida Bay.

Not counting the turkey vultures, the adjacent boat ramp to Buttonwood Canal was desolate. As we launched Steven’s new Professional into the tea-tinted water and began working through Buttonwood Canal, Steven mentioned how the water was really fresh from all of the recent rain and the water levels were also up.

“Fishing Hell’s Bay can be hit or miss, but it looks like today will be good. The action is best in the fall and winter because the water temperatures over the dark bottom are more comfortable for snook. However, you really have to pay your dues here,” commented Tejera.

As we made our way through Coot Bay and Tarpon Creek we reached the open expanse of Whitewater Bay. Getting to Hell’s Bay requires an arduous trek through narrow creeks and a maze of mangrove canals. With hairpin curves and 90 degree blind turns, navigating the creeks and rivers leading into Hell’s Bay is not recommended for those without experience. It’s incredibly easy to get lost out here in the maze of mangroves rising from the stained brackish water. This vast area is like nowhere else in Florida and the root beer colored shallows are treacherous. The narrow channels and creeks are so close that they will fool the best GPS and the limited number of guides who really know these waters learned the way by taking mental note of natural landmarks. It’s engrained in their mind, but that’s not to say they don’t learn and observe every time they are on the water.

Whether it’s an osprey nest, cluster of plants or downed trees, try to remember distinct facets and features of every shoreline. It’s certainly not easy and something that won’t happen anytime soon, but if you slowly explore the backcountry you’ll soon learn the lay of the land. And while you can’t forget you’re on a fishing adventure, it’s easy to get lost in the natural surroundings and forget about the goal on hand. For most, getting back to the ramp at Flamingo before sunset after a day in the extreme reaches of the backcountry is a success whether fish were encountered or not.

Once you reach Hell’s Bay you will be overwhelmed. “Nearly every shoreline looks promising, and it could be on any given day, but there are certain spots where I’ve caught fish before and know they are holding,” remarked Steven.

Because the salinity levels can be low this far back it’s no surprise brackish-tolerant snook are encountered with greater consistency than redfish. As water flows from the Everglades, glass minnows, grass shrimp, freshwater cichlids and more are flushed out, with snook ready to ambush along points, pockets and downed trees.

When fishing these legendary mangrove shorelines it’s important to note that the closer you can put your lure to the edge, or within a break in the mangroves, the better chance you have of initiating a strike. This is close quarters fishing and when casting tight to the aggressive shorelines it’s not uncommon to get hung. If you’re not getting lures snagged in the trees you’re not trying hard enough to get your lures where they need to be. Daring casts are necessary if you want to conquer Hell’s Bay.

After barely skimming the surface of possible snook holding spots, we continued on and pushed even deeper through the mangroves into the backcountry to Pearl Bay. This is one of the most secluded regions of ENP and when you venture this far into the unknown you can pretty much guarantee you’ll have it all to yourself.

While some choose not to venture to Hell’s Bay and Pearl Bay because of the treacherous shallows and prop fouling freshwater grass, others avoid the backcountry because of the swarming insects. Horseflies, mosquitoes and no-see-ums will eat you alive as your flats skiff serves as an aircraft carrier for their aerial assaults.

As we worked our way back to the ramp I was reassured that this area will test your navigation skills like no other shallow water habitat in the state. We had a great time exploring Hell’s Bay and I was sunburnt to a crisp, but Steven hadn’t had enough. “Let’s throw the skiff on the trailer and hit it out front for a little, there are lots of nice snook are reds 10 minutes from the marina.”

We shuffled the skiff to the now nearly empty marina leading to Florida Bay. Sure enough, after only an hour out front we had lost count of snook and redfish releases. That’s the beauty of Everglades National Park—there’s so many fish in a variety of venues that there’s always something to catch somewhere.

If you’ve never experienced the backcountry of ENP and want to enjoy the experience rather than worry about getting lost—because you will—it’s best to hire a knowledgeable guide and few are better than Captain Steven Tejera (knottightcharters.com).

It’s simply impossible to have a bad day in the Everglades…that is unless you get lost in the deepest reaches of Hell’s Bay where no one will hear your cries for help. Good luck, stay safe and be sure to leave no trail.

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