It’s a lot like “Location X” except that there are several of them in Everglades National Park. It is here in this vast wilderness where snook and redfish rule the shallows and will readily strike any plug or fly they see. The reason these fish are so aggressive is because they thrive in No Motor Zones. Being restricted to enter these areas with a motor affixed to your skiff’s transom might not seem like too much of a problem, except for the fact that these special sanctuaries are often a dozen miles or more from Flamingo’s launch ramps – too long a distance to paddle.
Captain Rick Murphy (sportsmansadventures.com) introduced me to these virgin sanctuaries more than a decade ago. My last trip was only a few weeks back and the fishing was better than I had ever experienced. It’s hard to imagine an area in Florida where the fishing has improved over the years, but it’s true and the reason is simply due to the lack of fishing pressure. No Motor Zones are about as wild as any place on the planet. The only means of propulsion allowed are paddles, oars or a push pole. Even tilting up the motor on a flats skiff is illegal, so no one just happens to stumble upon one of these special spots. It takes quite a bit of planning and an enormous amount of experience to be able to fish these areas safely and effectively since most are immense and extremely secluded.
If you run aground it could take several mosquito infested tidal changes to get you out since stepping outside the boat to lighten the load could sink you to your waist in thick muck.
Possibly the most exciting No Motor Zones are east of Lake Ingraham and accessed by either the East Cape or Homestead Canals, which were dredged over 100-years ago to drain what was once a vast freshwater marsh. The canals are barely wide enough for a skiff to pass between the outreaching mangroves, and at the end of each there is a makeshift dam designed to prevent access by motorized vessels.
Captain Rick ferries a 16-foot canoe on his Maverick HPX, which is more difficult than it sounds. The canoe itself is almost as long as the skiff and must be strapped down securely enough for the trailer ride to Flamingo and then the run from Flamingo to Cape Sable and to the middle of Lake Ingraham. The saltwater basins of Everglades National Park are commonly referred to as lakes and are often surrounded by flats and spoil islands with access from nearby creeks and canals. The Lake Ingraham flats are treacherous to navigate because the water is muddy and often only inches deep. If you run aground it could take several mosquito infested tidal changes to get you out since stepping outside the boat to lighten the load could sink you to your waist in thick muck.
Last December Captain Rick and I were faced with a strong cold front that dropped temperatures into the low 50s. As we ran along the coastline from Flamingo, it was still pretty cold – way too chilly for any respectable snook or redfish to be roaming the flats. As the day warmed, we expected the shallows to become a bit more hospitable, but for the morning Captain Rick was confident that every snook and redfish inhabiting the No Motor Zone lakes and flats would be held up in the deepest portions of the canals and creeks.
Eventually we reached the dam, tied off the skiff and launched the canoe. Light spin or plug tackle is all you need along with a 9-weight fly rod. On this particular trip, the tide was coming in so the paddle up the canal wasn’t too strenuous. Whenever I’m in the Everglades I try to utilize a vessel that can move faster than a swarm of mosquitoes can fly, but in the winter pesky biting insects aren’t much of an issue.
We crept along for about a half-mile before the dense mangrove shoreline gave way to a series of huge shallow lakes. The tide was still low so most of the area was exposed and the water that covered the remainder was cold and lifeless. Captain Rick guided us up a bit farther until we reached a creek meandering between lakes. He hovered around its edge and instructed me to cast a jig/shrimp combination into the center of the creek. Captain Rick knew that fish would be in the deeper water and that they would likely be too cold to respond to anything other than live bait. I picked up a light spinner, impaled a shrimp on a bare jighead and let it rip. It took all of thirty seconds before I was hooked up to a nearly frozen, yet spunky redfish. For the next several hours we worked that one creek and caught redfish until our arms were sore.
By noon the sun was warming things up nicely so we decided it was time to venture back to the flats. We paddled through the creek that had been so productive until the water ran out, and then Captain Rick began poling. The setting was one of perfect solitude. Spoonbills, egrets, skimmers, herons and a cluster of tiny shore birds chirped, squawked, and shuttered along the shallow spots as we glided silently by. Captain Rick was standing in the stern while I was seated in the front searching for a tail, dorsal, wake or some other sign of life. As I looked around at the surroundings everything appeared the same to me but Captain Rick had certain “red zones” where he hoped the fish would be holding. The maze of islands was fascinating and a bit scary. It’s very humbling to realize that there was no way to reach civilization if something happened to the canoe or if the 15-foot crocodile that was basking on a nearby sandbar suddenly decided to eat my guide. We were experiencing The Everglades as they were a hundred years ago – untouched by mankind.
It soon became apparent that the water was still too cold for the fish to move onto the flats so we worked our way back to the canal that brought us into the area. I caught a dozen more redfish as we paddled back to the dam; thankfully the skiff was still there and before long we were on our way back to Flamingo.
Three weeks later I was scheduled to fish with Captain Rick again only this time the weather was completely different. It had been in the mid-80s for a few days and the winds had been relatively light. I was hoping we could find some winter tarpon but Rick was adamant that we go back to the No Motor Zones and work the flats. I’ve learned to trust his judgment over the years so I readily agreed. In addition his son, Ridge, had an excused absence so we decided to take him along. Rick explained that we were going to fish the same area we fished a few weeks earlier but today he was confident the shallow flats would be full of snook and redfish. This time we’d be fishing the same tackle as before but due to the extremely shallow depths, we’d rely on surface plugs and Gulp! shrimp rigged weedless. We entered the flats from the same creek we fished on the previous trip and it was immediately apparent things were different. We were working the shorelines and out in the center of the lake I could see the fins of several lemon sharks slicing through the water. The center of the lake was probably two-feet deep with the shallow shorelines probably only six-inches. The large lemon sharks couldn’t get that shallow and the snook and redfish knew it.
As Captain Rick poled us along, he’d spot fish and direct our casts. Most of the time we could see a wake or fin break the surface but at times there would be a school of snook off a point or a single fish sunning in only inches of water. Accurate casting was important but with so many shots, Captain Rick was more forgiving than usual when I hit a fish on the head or spooked a school of laid-up linesiders. A mullet pattern Rapala Skitter Walk was deadly effective and the 4” Gulp! Shrimp was easy to cast on a light spinner. The surface strikes from the snook were spectacular with fish ranging from 5 to 15-pounds.
Once again, I was overwhelmed at the beauty of our pristine surroundings. We never saw even a sign of another boat or human intrusion. And once again I was totally lost – each island looked like the one before and without a compass or GPS, the only thing that was going to get us home was Captain Rick’s local knowledge. I’ve been fishing Everglades National Park for some 30-years but I would never attempt to venture into this remote area alone. In some of the No Motor Zones like Seven Palm Lake, I could handle working one shoreline while always keeping an eye on the canal entrance, but that wouldn’t work in the vast area east of Lake Ingraham. The best time of year to venture into the No Motor Zones is November through March when winds and cool temperatures keep the bugs at bay.
At times you’ll find goliath grouper, jack crevalle, ladyfish, black drum, juvenile tarpon and seatrout that will jump on a properly presented fly or lure. Tides seem to have little effect on the fishing unless you’re on a dead low full moon tide that literally empties the flats. Combine those conditions with cool temperatures and the flats will be void of life but the channels, creeks and deep holes will be loaded. No matter what the conditions, the fish never seem to leave the safety of the No Motor Zones.