The Everglades, Part 3: Win some, lose some.

The first time I fished the Everglades with Mark I was green. This is a specialized type of fly fishing, and by the time I felt like I was getting the hang of it, the day was over. What’s more, it was one of those days where the shots at fish weren’t plentiful. I’d gone down with the intention of catching snook and tarpon, but we had no opportunities at the latter and only a couple with the former.

So you can imagine that on this trip, I was raring to go. But, there’s always something conspiring against you, isn’t there? Wind, rain, cold fronts, pandemics…the list of potential villains is endless. Add to that that I have an uncanny talent for picking lousy fishing days months in advance. And so it was that Mark informed me that the Everglades bite had been slow. Very, very slow. But you go and you fish and you do your best, and that’s all any of us can ask.

A few hours in I’d landed ladyfish and sea trout and jacks, but no precious snook, let alone even a sighting of tarpon. Mark, being the guide extraordinaire that he is, thought we might have better luck in some of the more intimate creeks and ponds. Getting to some of these spots is an experience. You use the electric motor or the Evinrude on its lowest setting, and start down these labyrinthine waterways, some of which are not much wider than the boat. Mangrove branches and leaves try to smack you in face, and they’ll swat away anything on deck that isn’t lashed down.

Once inside the pond or cove, you assume a ready position on the bow. There’s no chatter, only hushed tones that are essentially a loud whisper. If we don’t see any cruisers, we systematically attack the mangrove-choked shoreline. In particular, you look for structure, like downed trees and especially little notches in the shoreline or micro-creek mouths. It’s a precision cast — the closer to the mangrove roots the better, and watch out for those overhanging branches that want to eat your fly — then short, fast strips the moment the fly touches water. I didn’t know it yet, but if there are snook or tarpon lying in wait, they will race to the fly with breathtaking speed.

I was working one of those little notches in a shaded corner when it happened. The water bulged, I felt a bump, and I saw a large shadow turn and melt away into the tobacco-stained water.

Snook. A good one.

There was no hook set, no point-finding-purchase, no sense that the fish was spooked. So I made the same cast.

The bulge re-appeared, moving at attack speed, and the snook slammed into the fly. I’ve screwed up plenty of hook sets in my life, but not this one. Rod tip down and dirty, hard strip back and to the right, and the Everglades exploded.

Right from the start, I felt like I had this fish. (A strong set and 20-pound test is good for confidence.) Still, when you’ve never caught a species before, you don’t know how it’s going to behave. This fish did everything in its power to screw me up, like repeatedly trying to find refuge in the submerged roots and sounding under the boat. I never put it on the reel; it was all hand stripping. “Don’t let him breathe!” was constantly running through my head, and Mark did a great job of kibitzing during the battle. Then, the inevitable. Snook landed.

Time for a victory cigar. My first striper on the fly went 30″. My first snook was in the same ballpark. What a magnificent beast! Snook will color to match their surroundings, and this one is perfectly camouflaged for the dark bottom of its home. Taken on Mark’s Blue Claw streamer. Photo by Mark Giacobba.

Most of the rest of the day was anti-climatic. We found another stretch of shoreline, this time in the sun, that was infested with smaller snook, 12″-16″. It was a great opportunity to observe how snook ambush feed. The speed with which they move to their target is impressive. We didn’t count, but it had to be at least a dozen more snook to hand.

While fun, these smaller fish can lull you into a false sense that you are infallible. I remember losing a pig of a striper on the Cape a few years ago. Dink after dink after dink — then when a really good bass hit, I was unprepared and dropped the fish. You can see where this is going. All of a sudden, I rolled a tarpon. I was so surprised that I was late on the set. I still thought I had him, but after a moment of wild spray and boiling water, it was gone. I stood alone on the front deck, the heat of regret and embarrassment crawling up the back of my neck. You gotta set the hook, Steven. You gotta set the hook.

Still, it was hard to let that moment trump the victory of the morning. I had my snook, and then some. And I also had tomorrow.

The Everglades, Part 2: Float like a butterfly, sting like a…peacock?

I don’t mean to complain, but whenever a guide tells me, “Let’s meet at so-and-so place at 5:30am,” and it involves an hour drive to get there, and I gotta set the alarm for 4am (an hour I’m far more familiar with as a return time) I know two things for sure: I’m going to get a crappy night’s sleep, followed by a bleary start to the fishing. Call it the curse of the night owl. I’d been telling myself that this Florida trip would be a nice change from November steelheading, what with me actually being able to feel my toes and not be shivering (wrong about that, as I’ll soon explain). But the fact is, when it comes to depriving me of sleep, my Florida guide Mark is every bit as sadistic as my steelhead guide Jim.

Tarpon and snook in the Flamingo area of the Everglades was the original plan, but when you’ve got a guide as good as Mark, and he tells you he doesn’t like the conditions down south – and his backup plan is catching peacock bass, which you, Mr. Culton-Who-Loves-Smallmouth, he says, will totally dig – you go with it.

So that’s how I ended up shivering in a boat in a Florida canal at 5:45am.

I’d brought mostly warm weather fishing clothes, but I figured with enough layers I’d be OK. Zipping around canals before sunrise in a powerboat with added wind and a cold front changes the game a little. I had the solace of knowing that dawn would come soon, and perhaps Florida would live up to its nickname. Still, I tightened my arms in a bear hug around my jacket.

My first peacock bass was very respectable. The first light bite was slow; we started with a Gurgler-type fly, but the cold morning had the fish in a mood to stay deep. Absent current, we switched to an intermediate line (yes, you heard correctly) and a pattern of Mark’s, the Blue Claw, which fish that live in the Everglades adore. Fish on, hook set, and we were off to the races. I couldn’t possibly tell you how many peacocks we landed. If you’re puzzling about the title of this post, peacock bass are an introduced species in Florida. The state stocked butterfly and speckled peacock bass. The speckled have not done well; the butterly, pictured here, have flourished. Oh, and they’re not bass. They’re a chichlid. Photo by Mark Giacobba.
The comparison to largemouth or smallmouth bass is not inappropriate. Like smallmouth, peacocks don’t like being hooked, and you can expect them to sound and bulldog as well as cartwheel and tail dance. They’re ambush predators, and I spent a lot of time giggling and cackling at the micro-tsunamis of water that would follow and close on my fly as I stripped it. Photo by Mark Giacobba.
This first day was menagerie day. In addition to peacock bass, I caught a bluegill, an Oscar, several gar (very needlefish-like, but they fight twice as hard) and to my delight, three largemouth bass (above). I love any kind of bass on the fly. At one point, I decided I wanted to make one come up to eat, so I tied on the Gurgler and had at it. It took some time, but it wasn’t long before I was rewarded. Photo by Mark Giacobba.
One more for the road. Crushing hits, highly aggressive – what’s not to like? The ride out was significantly warmer than the trip in. Turns out, I was getting warmed up in more ways than one. Photo by Mark Giacobba.

The Everglades, Part 1: Nature on steroids

The Everglades is big and wild and intimidating. It’s also intimate and beautiful and serene. I know, this sounds like the beginning of a middle schooler’s essay. But it’s truly a challenge to describe the place. One thing’s for sure: we don’t have anything like it at home.

In case you’ve never been, the Everglades is an enormous subtropical wetlands that ranges from Lake Okeechobee to the southernmost Florida mainland. You see things like palm trees and sawgrass and mangroves, and it’s evident that you’re in a warm, wet climate. But when you’re out in a boat in the middle of one of the expansive watery areas, a glance at the distant verdant shores could make you believe you’re on a lake in Minnesota. The only clue that you’re not is that there are no houses dotting the landscape. The lack of ego in the form of architecture definitely adds an allure of mystery. 

But you’ll see birds and fish and reptiles…and mosquitos. Fortunately, my experience this time was mosquito light. (Not so four years ago in May, when those bloodsucking flesh drillers were so aggressive and relentless that I literally had to sprint from my car to the visitor center in Everglades National Park to find sanctuary.) 

Parts of the Everglades have an extensive canal system, and on the first day we fished one of them for peacock bass. I managed to hook ten different species over the course of three days. Some of them were old friends from Connecticut like largemouth bass and bluegill. Others were recent acquaintances from a few years ago, namely jack and ladyfish. But six of them were brand new to me: gar, oscar, peacock bass, speckled trout, snook, and tarpon. 
To get to the Flamingo boat launch in the southern end of the Everglades, you need to travel a two-lane road that cuts a straight edge for most of its 50 miles. Once you launch, you head along a canal much like the one in the first picture, then out into what I call “the lake.” There are all manner of rivers and creeks and islands and coves to explore off the lake, and this is where the massive Everglades can reach that wonderful state of intimacy. Here’s a still from a video I shot. We’re water bushwhacking — those are mangrove trees — though a creek that’s not much wider than the boat. You had to parry the branches away from your head and body. It leads, as many of them do, to a small cove that resembles a New England salt pond flat. You go into stealth mode — whispering and hand signals only — and you look for cruising fish or travel lanes or little pockets against the mangroves to cast into. We blanked in most of these, but a few of them produced, and in a week where the bite was considered to be slow, you take those moments and don’t ask questions.
Air plants are epiphytes, meaning they grow on other plants, in this case a mangrove. These look like the dried tops of pineapples. They draw their water from the humid air and from rainfall. One of the best parts of fishing in the Everglades is that you get to see and hear and sometimes even touch plants and animals that aren’t ever found where you’re from. Speaking of humidity, it wasn’t very warm or humid the first two days on the boat, but by the third the layers were getting peeled off as sunrise transitioned to mid-late-morning.
Bon appetit! Monday’s quarry was peacock bass. This gator beat me to this particular fish, but I’ll tell you all about my first experience with peacocks next. Spoiler alert: there were lots of them, they provide great sport, and I want to catch more. Photo by Mark Giacobba.

And we’re back!

Whew. It’s been a hectic — albeit very pleasurable — couple of weeks. (Spending a chunk of time in Florida in November will always introduce an element of pleasure. Not to mention, skin that isn’t horrifically New-England-in-late-fall dry. And, with my eldest son now married, we can all shout out a hearty woo-hoo!) So, time to get back to one of the things I enjoy the most: providing original, meaningful content on currentseams. It will come as no surprise to you that I arranged to spend several days fishing. I managed to hook ten different species, including my first snook and peacock bass, and my first tussles with tarpon. I think the best way to tell you about it all is to divvy it up by days. So tomorrow I’ll be writing about day one. Stay tuned…

My guide, Capt. Mark Giacobba, and me burrowing our way through a mangrove-choked creek deep within the Everglades. Mark is an exceptional guide, and I’ll be writing more about him in detail. If it looks like we’re dressed for steelhead, not quite — but we did have chilly starts to our days.