Slowing to a crawl off the fast-paced Turnpike, traffic on US-1 halted before we entered the gates of Everglades National Park. Making the 40-mile drive through the deserted wilderness to the ramp at Flamingo, we said goodbye to civilization.
This is Florida at is finest, where cell phones are rendered useless and the beauty of the natural surroundings captures even the most jaded soul. While Flamingo’s famed flats adorned with healthy seagrass beds routinely attract precise sight casters, there’s a lot more to Everglades National Park than the typical scene of clear water and lush grass. 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. It is here in the vast backcountry where snook and redfish reign supreme.
The next few hours were the stuff backcountry dreams are made of, with non-stop action with snook, redfish, trout, sheepshead and black drum.
Fortunately for me, Captain Steven Tejera of Knot Tight Charters coordinated this exciting backcountry expedition. Having limited knowledge of the area’s extensive shallows, creeks, channels and spoil islands, it wouldn’t take long for me to get lost in the backcountry. Sure, GPS would keep me headed in the vicinity of the right direction, but Captain Steven Tejera doesn’t need one. Having spent most of his childhood exploring the backcountry in a trusty Jon boat, Tejera is one of the youngest and most well-rounded guides in the area.
It was early spring and recent reports had been outstanding. Inshore slams were daily occurrences and although Steven informed us of the hot bite right out front, he wanted to do something more exciting. Timing the early spring morning’s negative low tide, Steven was hoping to capitalize on the rarely visited shallows in the Gulf along the westernmost shores of Everglades National Park.
Minutes after launching his simple yet high-performance Dolphin 16 skiff, Steven hammered the throttle and we sped through Buttonwood Creek to Coot Bay and expansive Whitewater Bay. After about a dozen turns down twisty mangrove-lined creeks, he looked to me with a grin and asked me if I knew where I was going. I was completely lost but couldn’t be happier. After about an hour run covering over 20 miles deep into the backcountry, I looked at him with a straight face and asked him if he knew where he was going. I knew for certain the only thing that would get us home was Captain Steven’s extensive knowledge of the area’s vast habitat.
While the animal and bird life was incredible and we passed what seemed to be miles of promising haunts, we forged on deeper through the ‘Glades. While traversing the shallows, Captain Steven informed me that during the winter months all kinds of game fish gravitate to Whitewater Bay and other nearby bays to enjoy the warmer waters. During the spring season game fish begin venturing out of their winter hideouts and the sight fishing takes off. And although windy weather is often the norm in the spring, the numerous shorelines and spoil islands provide ample protection.
As we approached our destination we began investigating the numerous river mouths and passes that opened up into the expansive Gulf. While waiting for the ideal tide to sight fish the shallow shorelines, Captain Steven had another trick up his sleeve. Trolling a lipped plug along the treacherous shorelines, we hoped to encounter snook along points and eddies waiting to ambush unsuspecting prey. Although we snagged two plugs and culled through a couple of mangrove snapper and short gag grouper, we finally got the bite we were looking for. After a stressful and strenuous battle navigating the unforgiving shallows, Captain Steven lipped and hoisted the lunker linesider out of the water for a quick photo. With the mild winter we experienced it’s nice to see the snook population flourishing.
With the winds and tide working in our favor Steven said it was finally time to hit the shorelines, as the water was likely clear enough to start sight fishing. We worked our way north, casting soft plastic jerkbaits along points, oyster bars and submerged trees. Surrounded by thousands of small islands, it would literally take your entire life to fish each promising stretch. There’s no telling how many fish are in the area, but with hurricanes of years past dramatically changing the landscape, there’s no shortage of structure for fish to break off. In this area it takes finesse and expertise to beat determined predators. Fortunately, all of this unforgiving structure creates underwater points and eddies where the fish simply wait for food to be delivered.
Success in this endeavor is highly dependent on the conditions and it will take you years to get even the slightest grasp. Boat positioning, approach and casting accuracy are only a few of the factors that will play key roles in your overall success. You must also have a solid understanding of tidal movement and factors that might influence the timing and velocity of the tide. Because of the inherent structures and dangers associated with fishing and navigating such hazardous shallows, it makes sense to explore on lower tidal phases. In addition to being able to spot underwater bars and navigational hazards, the low water bunches up the fish and eliminates much of their territory and ability to wander.
Poling the outside barrier islands during the negative low tide, it was apparent that the fish were here and Steven’s hunch was spot on. “I haven’t been out here for over a year. I was kind of nervous there wouldn’t be any life,” he muttered. Before he could even climb up the poling platform we had already seen a handful of fish blow out in our peripheral. The next few hours were the stuff backcountry dreams are made of, with non-stop action with snook, redfish, trout, sheepshead and black drum.
Ideal opportunities exist on both sides of the tide, although Captain Steven tells us that his favorite time to hunt the shallows is during the last two hours of the outgoing. While taking all of the aforementioned aspects into consideration, you can’t lose sight of the fact that you must also have decent lighting conditions to spot fish in the shallows. With one of my most memorable days in the Everglades in the bag, the tide switched and the waters along the shorelines became milky and unfishable. With the afternoon coming to a close and the sunset rapidly approaching it was time to start our long run back to Flamingo. With such seclusion it takes an immense amount of planning to fish these areas safely and effectively. You never want to run in the dark so always be sure to leave plenty of time to get back in the daylight.
If you’ve never had the opportunity to explore the extreme reaches of Everglades National Park you owe it to yourself to experience all Florida has to offer. It’s important to note that even after fishing here for years you will never fully learn the ‘Glades and you’ll always dream about what lies beyond the next point. Detailed nautical charts will point you in the right direction, but there’s no comparison to experience, effort and time spent on the water.
Everglades National Park is one of the world’s most complex ecosystems. As a result, it is incredibly fragile and it is important you learn the area well, handle the fish with care, and protect the unique ecosystem that we call paradise. If you are new to the area it is highly recommended you spend a few outings with a professional guide that can show you the ropes. You won’t be disappointed with Captain Steven Tejera (knottightcharters.com).