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The Escapist

Exploring the Vast Wilderness of Everglades National Park

Capt. Matt Arnholt February 27, 2019

Among the many marvels of nature within the Sunshine State and its surrounding waters, none are more iconic than the Florida Everglades. Spanning roughly 1.5 million acres, Everglades National Park is Florida at its finest, where cell phones are rendered useless and extraordinary wetlands feature spectacular beauty, fascinating history and a tremendously diverse collection of wildlife. While Flamingo’s famed flats attract sight fishermen from far and wide, there’s a lot more to Everglades National Park than the typical scene of clear water and lush seagrass. Those willing to search out uncharted waters are in for an adventure of a lifetime, with fish that have seen few anglers and coastlines as rugged and undeveloped as they come.

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Photography: Robert Johnson

Famously deemed the River of Grass by legendary author and conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas, this massive ecosystem offers many adventurous activities. The fishing opportunities alone consist of a variety of accessible freshwater venues, as well as one of the most prolific saltwater pursuits in Florida. At the southern end of the state, the swampy wetlands common to much of the Everglades seamlessly give way to saltier environs where trophy game fish capture the attention and focus of serious sportsmen.

Access to the various fisheries within the remote reaches of Everglades National Park is relatively straightforward. Three of the most common methods for reaching these waters involve anglers trailering their platforms to Flamingo from Homestead, launching at the ramp in Everglades City, or departing from the Florida Keys and crossing Florida Bay. Regardless of where you’re coming from, the ever-changing habitat can be extremely challenging to navigate. Even after fishing here for years you will never fully learn the ‘glades and you’ll always dream about what lies around the next corner. A game plan starts with detailed nautical charts, but there’s no comparison to experience, effort and time spent on the water. Even if you are the determined do-it-yourself type, it’s wise to bring along someone with prior experience. A hired guide is far more affordable than irreversible damage to the fragile ecosystem, or ripping off a lower unit and ending up stranded in the middle of the backcountry.

Redfish, snook and tarpon are the mainstays of Everglades National Park, with black drum, sheepshead and seatrout popular targets during the cooler months of the year. Whether fishing the area’s fertile flats, creeks or shorelines, visiting anglers are always in awe over the natural beauty and lush surroundings of this world-class destination. In the backcountry or searching expansive Florida Bay, the amount of wildlife you will see is incredible. Rare and exotic wading birds seeking shelter from the cold, porpoises, sharks, alligators and crocodiles, manatees, sea turtles, stingrays and sawfish are only some of the marine species you can expect to encounter. You’ll also come across shoals of mullet leaping to evade predatorial pursuits. You might even stumble upon schools of tailing redfish as they dig their noses in the grass to root out shrimp and crabs.

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From shallow water grouper to tannin-tinted snook, winter in the backcountry affords many excellent opportunities.
Photography: Pat Ford

When it comes to shallow water game fish, Florida Bay has a lot to offer. As a subtropical marine lagoon that encompasses both Everglades National Park and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, this vital ecosystem harbors a treasure trove of ecological diversity. While there are numerous ways to get connected, sight fishing is my absolute favorite approach and there are a few things you can do to increase your odds when dealing with such a broad expanse where nearly every stretch of water looks promising. In the selection of a target destination you must consider the prevailing tides and velocity, in addition to the wind speed and direction. When you first approach a flat, baitfish dimpling on the surface is a good sign, and one that’s easy to distinguish. Wading birds are also good indicators. The birds are looking for small finfish, crabs and shrimp, which is a dead giveaway there’s food for predator fish to feed on.

While wakes and tailing fish are what sight fishing dreams are made of, anglers must also look for more subtle cues including changes in bottom color, shadows and flashes. Reading the water is key to successful sight fishing and quality polarized sunglasses are essential. Sharks, rays, mullet and even wind can stir up the shallows, effectively kicking up all kinds of shrimp, crabs and nutrients. Although you may not see individual fish to cast at due to the murky state, put in the time fan casting the area without neglecting to work the edges of a mud.

Fishing the backcountry is yet another viable option and one that’s much different than fishing out front. From the ramp at Flamingo, adventurous anglers idle through Buttonwood Creek to Coot Bay before opening it up through expansive Whitewater Bay. Following the National Park Service’s designated Wilderness Waterway Trail, anglers soon reach Oyster Bay. While fishing the northwest section of Whitewater Bay is generally very productive, Everglades National Park is collectively a somewhat unpredictable fishery. One day the fish might be concentrated within Whitewater Bay, while the very next day Oyster Bay could provide the most consistent action. Tarpon are popular targets in many areas of the park, but Oyster Bay is known as a particularly productive locale where silver kings congregate. More specifically, at the northern tip of Oyster Bay is the mouth of the Shark River, where the trail continues. With the Gulf naturally flowing in and out of the Shark River, tarpon stage at the narrow pass. Here, stealth and presentation are crucial considerations. However, these powerful predators are generally receptive to a variety of artificial offerings and flies, including twitchbaits and clousers. For those who prefer fishing with live bait, soaking a pinfish on a circle-hook a few feet under a float is a great way to get connected.

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Photography: Sean Murphy

Whitewater Bay is aptly named because of the slop that can develop across the expansive shallows, though reaching Hell’s Bay and the nearby chickees requires traversing a series of extremely narrow waterways. This is one of the many areas within Everglades National Park where proficient boat handling, keen awareness and reliable GPS units facilitate safe travels. Once anglers reach Hell’s Bay, they’ll be positioned ideally among forage-rich brackish water and surrounded by abundant mangrove shorelines. Here, snook use their tolerance for brackish water to their advantage, staging along the many ambush points in the area to devour various prey flushed out by the flow of the draining watershed.

While the most successful anglers in these pursuits have streamlined their routes and routines to maximize fishing time, the need to travel to and from distant reaches in the same day is certainly a limiting factor. Fuel consumption in a skiff must be priority number one, as you’ll be covering many miles on a day trip across the park. Shark River is about 20 miles each way from the ramp at Flamingo and a complete loop running the outside around Shark River, then coming home through Whitewater Bay is more than 50 miles, and that is without fishing. Adventurous skiffers who explore Everglades National Park’s farthest reaches routinely put 60 to 70 miles under their skiffs in a day trip. As a baseline, a Hell’s Bay Professional has a 22-gallon fuel tank, so it’s wise to abide by the rule of thirds partitioning your petroleum. One third to reach your destination, another to get home and the last third as a reserve. Successful day trips are certainly attainable, though they are tiring. Even with early starts, anglers generally miss out on the prime game fish feeding hours common to dawn and dusk, as they don’t typically reach the backcountry until after the sun has risen and must depart for the ramp with ample time to spare before sundown. For most visitors to ENP, getting back to their truck at the boat ramp well before sunset is enough to signify a successful day.

...traveling south will lead anglers to various campsites that provide easy access to more secluded waters.

However, the coming months yield cooler weather and more pleasurable conditions in the park with camping an enjoyable pastime. During most of the spring, summer and fall months, the Everglades is alive with bugs and camping would be unbearable as the presence of mosquitoes, horse flies, no-see-ums and other insects can lead to truly miserable experiences. For some, launching the skiff at Flamingo is enough of a turn off to never return again. Yet, during the wintertime, anglers are presented with not only pleasant temperatures and fewer biting insects, but they also experience excellent fishing, with many popular targets such as redfish, snook and tarpon retreating to the dark and warm backwaters of the most remote stretches of the park.

Camping is the cure for time constraints and an excellent way to experience all the park has to offer. However, when overnighting in the ‘glades, diligent planning and preparation are perhaps the most vital keys to achieving safe and enjoyable excursions. When the sun sets it quickly becomes apparent how far you are from civilization. With almost zero light pollution, the sky goes black and the moon and stars light up without competition.

Before setting out on an extended trip, anglers should understand the differences in campsites available in order to form a detailed plan. With approximately four dozen beach sites, ground sites and chickees available, there’s a multitude of options. No matter where you choose to stay, a backcountry permit is required for all wilderness campsites and regardless of how well you’ve planned in advance, reservations cannot be made for backcountry sites. Furthermore, backcountry permits are not available until 24 hours before a trip, so it’s important to remain flexible when planning in order to overcome potential snags if certain sites are occupied. Permits are issued at both the Flamingo and Gulf Coast visitor centers in Homestead and Everglades  City and cost $15, with an additional $2 per person, per night fee. Fortunately, the park rangers are very educated on the terrain and will guide you to the best according routes if you must make a last minute change in desired site location.

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Many spoil islands exist within Florida Bay, but most are off limits to landing. Camping is only allowed at specific sites.
Photography: Robert Johnson

For anglers launching from Everglades City, access to well-known waters like Whitewater Bay and Ponce de Leon Bay requires a massive undertaking due to the long distance between these areas and the ramp at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center. However, there are many campsites closer to this launch point and anglers can certainly encounter excellent fishing nearby. While the Ten Thousand Islands and Chokoloskee are known areas that are commonly associated with excellent shallow water fisheries, traveling south will lead anglers to various campsites that provide easy access to more secluded waters. In this area, Watson Place and the Lopez River campsite are popular spots to spend nights in the ‘glades, while the Sweetwater Bay chickee across the Wilderness Waterway Trail is yet another nearby option.

Regardless if it is a strike mission deep into the backcountry or you choose to take your time with an overnight adventure, it’s vital that protecting the surrounding environment remains a priority. Tragically, this delicate ecosystem already suffers from a variety of toxic environmental issues, so it’s important that as recreational outdoor enthusiasts enjoying this beautiful wilderness we do our best to safeguard it. As development in the Sunshine State shows no end in sight, the number of people on the water will continue to grow and without the proper conservation efforts the future of Florida’s most important watershed remains uncertain. 

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