Tips for Fishing the Inshore Waters of Everglades National Park

It’s 4 A.M. and I can’t sleep any longer. Today will be my second visit to the remote Flamingo region of Everglades National Park; the first time was so unreal that this second trip has literally kept me awake, which is surprising because one of the most incredible aspects of this very special place is the solitude you can find there.

I pick up Ralph and we get on the road. There is nowhere to get breakfast at 5 a.m. on the road to Everglades National Park, especially once you pass the entrance. From the gate, it’s an additional 38 miles to the boat ramp and that stretch is nothing but wetlands. 

We arrive an hour early, it’s still dark but there’s already a few people milling about. They probably had insomnia just like I did. No surprise, if fishing is part of your world. This is the kind of place that brings it all home. A big crocodile hovers silently by the foot ramp; it looks fake. But as I approach, it stirs slightly. Definitely not fake.

Flamingo is one of the only places around where you can see saltwater crocodiles mingling with freshwater alligators. This croc is resident at the boat launch and is adept at fooling people into believing he’s not real.

For this adventure, we have teamed up with one of the true legends of the Everglades. Jason Sullivan has been exploring this vast maze of mangrove channels for 25 years. But, when you talk to him you wouldn’t guess it at first — he’s causal, unassuming, young in appearance. But this guy knows fishing, and he knows this area as well or better than just about anyone.

We load the boat and get moving. Jason’s whip is a 17’8” Hells Bay professional with a Yamaha 70. It quickly becomes apparent that this boat was designed for this kind of place — ultra-shallow draft, turns on a dime and power where you need it. In the hands of this guide, its precision fit to the conditions is unequivocal.

Moving through the main canal into the lake system, the aroma of sulphur comes in waves, a byproduct of the never-ending decomp and renewal cycle that has been unfolding here for eons. This scent adds to the wild feel of this place, reminding us, as we make our way deeper into the swamp, that things here have changed little since the time of the dinosaurs. 

Jason’s specialty is fly fishing and, in the Everglades, there is no shortage of species that will enthusiastically take a fly or any well-designed lure. In fact, one of the first things you pick up on when fishing out here is that these fish are not shy. Sure, like anywhere, there is some finesse involved, but it’s not this “maybe they’re biting, maybe they’re not” kind of thing you might see in other places. Calling these fish fickle is downright inaccurate, and the fact that Jason doesn’t even have a livewell on his boat really says it all. Present a lure correctly out here and you are going to get slammed, plain and simple.

snook fishing Everglades National Park
Capt. Carlos releases another bar of gold that took a little swim bait deep in the bushes.

In the two days we spent exploring this place, it was obvious that we barely scratched the surface of what was possible. While we targeted primarily tarpon and snook, there are plenty of other objectives for those wanting to explore other options. For us, however, we kept it simple and were rewarded with the kind of fishing that can turn a weekend warrior into a lifelong obsessed angler.

Like most places in Florida, tides do play a role in what’s biting out here. As water moves in and out of the wetlands and various river systems, there is a complex interchange between salt and freshwater that unfolds. The fish here have developed adaptations to this cycle. If you want to succeed in these waters, the first step is figuring out the role that tides play in the feeding process for the many species that call this wild place home.

arpon fishing Everglades National Park
A big main river tarpon sends a message that the hook in his mouth is not something he will stand for.

Take the tarpon, for example. In the short time we spent here, we experienced two distinct populations living and feeding independently of each other. The first group were the juveniles, averaging 2-20 lbs. They like to hang around the edges of the mangroves and can often be heard slurping their meals far back in the flooded reaches. These fish are as aggressive as they are beautiful in color, often showing with a deep black on their back and bright silver on their sides. Once committed to a target, they attack at full speed.

Like all tarpon, though, the touch of a hook sends them into an acrobatic fit that is unmatched in the animal kingdom. It’s as if they’re angry they were fooled into biting this ridiculous offering and want to make sure we understand that a hook in the mouth is not something they will tolerate — under ANY circumstances. Few are landed and the ones that are come well-earned.

shing Flamingo Everglades National Park
The waters here run shallow, as such a boat with a small draft is critical to accessing the most remote and least-fished areas.

Move away from the mangrove edges into the main river artery and you find a completely different kind of beast waiting to throw down. It’s here that the big tarpon can be found moving in and out with the tide, rolling in unison while feeding on small bait fish. It isn’t uncommon to see groups of 5-10 large fish moving together in what could be mistaken from afar for a pod of dolphins, if you didn’t know better.

These fish are of size and their coloration is also quite unique, showing several shades of purple on their backs and undersides that’s possibly a result of the red, iron-rich waters that pour out from the mangroves during the daily flood.

On our second morning out, we went straight for the main stretch of the Shark River. Stopping mid-stream, Jason killed the motor and we set up to drift. As the conversations faded, we were left with little more than profound silence. This would sometimes go on for 10-15 minutes before being broken by the distinct sound of several adults rolling on bait. You can tell what it is without looking and, if it’s close, it’s at this moment that you pinpoint your swim bait on their position.

snook fishing Everglades National Park
Ralph Falcon holds up a golden snook that took a swim bait deep in the mangrove labyrinth.

On this morning, we found ourselves, at times, surrounded by rolling monsters, some pushing 150 lbs. or more. Then, like it was all just a hallucination, silence again. But it was that space in between these tells that gave this experience its unique appeal. Standing on the bow, listening, hearing yourself breathe, waiting, wondering, where are they?

These main river feeding sessions usually don’t last longer than an hour or two, and, once the moment passes, there is another objective waiting. For us, next came the snook and, for targeting these fish, it was a complete 180 in tactics. Leaving the big river behind, it was this part of the day that brings even more fascination. As Jason weaved his way in and around the tight mangrove mazes of the Everglade’s backcountry, the first thought that comes to mind is how does he know the way?

One thing we quickly came to understand about Jason Sullivan is that he’s been doing this for a while, and he knows this area like it’s his own backyard. He doesn’t use a GPS or a fish finder; he just knows. As we moved through the channels and creeks, he would occasionally slow down to get us around a tight turn, which would end up looking just like the channel we just turned out of — but it wasn’t. Having never been here, the thought of getting lost back here seemed like a very real possibility were I to try and go it on my own. With no cell service and very few boats around, it left me feeling quite vulnerable and in awe of Jason’s sense for direction.

Fishing with Captain Jason Sullivan in Everglades National Park
Capt. Jason Sullivan releases a nice 60 lb. class main river tarpon caught on a mullet imitation swim bait.

But just as it seems we’re hopelessly lost, he would pull up on a small break in the mangroves, slow down and pull out his push pole. Within minutes, we were throwing swim baits at slot-size snook and the occasional juvenile tarpon. And these fish, once again, were voracious. Perhaps it’s the lack of pressure? Or maybe the murky water?

Whatever the case, every fish that spotted our lures came at it like it was their last meal. Some got hooked, some didn’t. But, regardless of the outcome, they would come at it over and over till they were either caught or escaped with a sore lip. The snook we did land were shining examples of this very special and highly adapted predator. Looking as if they were carved from a single bar of gold, they glistened in the sun when we pulled them out for a quick photo.

It’s in these moments, deep in the maze, as the sun shines and another golden gift grabs the lure and the hook is set, that you realize THIS is why we do it.

Tips for fishing the inshore waters of Everglades National Park
The big tarpon in the rivers have this beautiful purple color to them that can be seen from many yards away as they rise for bait or a breath during the daily flood.

Tips for fishing the inshore waters of Everglades National Park

Bait Selection:

  • Tarpon: swim baits and jigs.
  • Snook: twitch baits and jigs

Rod and Reel selection:

  • Tarpon: 5000 size reel with a 12-20 lb. rod
  • Snook: 3000-400 size reel with an 8-10 lb.

Line weight:

  • 20 lb. braid for Snook and juvenile tarpon
  • 60 lb. braid for the large main river tarpon

Leader selection:

  • Tarpon: 3 feet of 40 lb. connected to 18 inches of 60 lb.
  • Snook: 2 feet of 40 lb.

Best knots for braid > leader connections:

  • Double uni from braid to mono
  • Blood knot from mono to mono

Retrieve and technique using swimbaits:

  • Tarpon: steady slow retrieve
  • Snook: twitch-pause retrieve

Baitfish and forage imitations:

  • Mullet and small glass minnows

Water temperature considerations at Everglades National Park:

  • Tarpon: must be 72 water temp or higher; ideally, 75-80 degrees
  • Snook: mid-70s, but can definitely catch them in cooler water temps

If you would like to fish with Jason Sullivan, check him out at Learn more about him in this month’s Guide Spotlight.