A guide to angling America's largest -- and fishiest -- wetland
- By: Steve Kantner
The Florida Everglades is America's largest wetland ecosystem. Over one million acres of monotonously flat, sunken grasslands spread across the southern tip of Florida from Lake Okeechobee to the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Literally, the Everglades is a river of grass. Like any river there are fish, but few river systems offer the variety of fish species that the Everglades contains: Largemouth bass, panfish and exotics like peacock bass are spread throughout the Everglades, and in the estuaries, anglers find saltwater species such as tarpon and snook.The defining characteristic of the Everglades is its flatness-imagine Kansas with several feet of water on top of it. Geographically speaking, the Everglades extend all the way from the sod farms bordering western Broward and Palm Beach counties to the shores of Florida Bay. Two highways, the Tamiami Trail (US 41) and the Alligator Alley section of Interstate 75, along with a short section of US Highway 27, offer the only on-road vehicle access to the area. Sawgrass and marsh extend in every direction with only the occasional tree hammock or man-made canal interrupting the green monotony of the Glades the way a well-placed birthmark sets off a supermodel. And it is in the canals that you find what is quite possibly the best fly-fishing for largemouth bass in the world. Try envisioning a million acres of prime bass habitat with minimal fishing pressure and limited access. It's an angler's dream come true, and with the marsh abutting South Florida's coastal development, good fishing lies less than an hour's drive from the suburbs. The Glades actually gets closer to civilization the farther south you go, a fact that's more a matter of geometry than design. Head just a few miles west of downtown Miami on S.W. Eighth Street (Calle Ocho en espaanol), and you're there. The journey is one of culture, as well as environment. Look for domino-playing Cubanos to be replaced by slot-machine junkies at an Indian gaming casino and eventually, by actual Indians. Most of the latter are Miccosukees or Seminoles, a group initially comprised of Cherokees, Creeks from the Carolinas and runaway slaves. Then, somewhere beyond the paella, the vodka martinis and the airboats, traffic subsides and plotted subdivisions give way to the dikes and spillways of the South Florida Water Management District. These structures were designed to handle excess rainfall in the event of water emergencies. The first ones were built in the wake of a 1926 killer hurricane that literally blew the lid off Lake Okeechobee and drowned more than 1,000 field workers. Since then, the state has attempted to avoid similar tragedies by maintaining an elaborate flood control network that diverts runoff to the sea. The locks are part of it. While controlling millions of gallons of water, they catalyze fishing the way a mere dash of water ignites the flavor of single malt whisky. H2O is the swamp's lifeblood. Not enough of it and fish leave the marshes and head for the canals. Too much, and they retreat into the grass. As you continue west, you're surrounded by wetlands that stretch practically to the horizon. The swamp eventually yields to terra firma interspersed with groves of cypress and pine, and finally to cattails again, but that's not for another 60 miles. In the meantime, you'll briefly enter Everglades National Park and later, the Big Cypress Preserve, where the federal government is busily protecting cypress trees. Both the Park and the Preserve offer prime freshwater fishing habitat. You'll find free launch facilities (if you don't mind roughing it), most of which are suitable for skiffs and airboats (the latter are the workhorses of the swamp), plus an occasional picnic table. Other than that, look for miles of fishable canals and plenty of bankside access. This entire area is a largemouth refuge. However, bass are far from the only game in town. Although bluegills and shellcrackers lead the list of local "bream" species, there's also the inimitable black crappie, the tiny warmouth (a rock bass relative), the wily stumpknocker (no kidding; so named because of their alleged habit of knocking insects off stumps prior to eating them), and several pan-size exotics. Of primary interest among the latter are the oscars and Mayan cichlids which, like most panfish, bang surface lures during spring and summer. If you're looking for the fabled butterfly peacock, try closer to Miami or Ft. Lauderdale. (As of this writing, peacock fishing in the Glades remains marginal.) As far as the largemouths are concerned, south Florida has two distinct seasons. Forget about summer and winter. With wintertime temperatures seldom dipping below 40 degrees and summertime highs cooling off after dark, bass are more concerned with water levels than whether or not you're comfortable on your patio. Water levels correlate directly with rainfall amounts, which average nearly 60 inches per year. Forty of these inches fall between the third week in May and mid-October. Sometime between Halloween and Thanksgiving, the downpours abate and the swamps begin to drain. The cycle begins anew in May, but before that happens levels in the Glades drop sufficiently to force bass out of the marshes and into the canals. This exodus typically begins in late February or March and continues for several months. When bass are concentrated in the canals, they become easy targets-and that's when all hell breaks loose. Since the Everglades constantly flows to the south, the marsh's northern limits are the first to drain. These include such romantically named locations as the Holey Land and Johnnie's Bass Hole. For better than half a century, Jack Allen has been one of the world's foremost experts at casting poppers for the largemouth bass that are native to this gigantic wetland. Jack and I are sitting in a clearing beside his house which, judging from the size of the trees, predates the City Charter. Whatever its botanical significance, the glen provides an oasis of civility where Jack preaches to the faithful. Today's sermon begins with a description of a bass striking a popper: "It's the best hit imaginable. I've been guiding for 30 years and a one-pound bass still scares me. (A.J.) McLane wrote a story about it titled 'It Pays to be Bug-Minded.' I think that says it all." Jack's fly box has no room for Woolly Buggers or eelworm streamers. In fact, whenever anyone mentions a new fly or lure, he's prompted to ask the inevitable: "But does it pop?" Jack thinks of popping as a religion, an observation validated by the relics he shows me: several bugs tied by no less of an authority than deerhair artist Dave Whitlock. Surprisingly, each was crafted from a styrofoam fishing float. Styrofoam is Jack's preferred tying material, and the bugs he fashions from it are simplicity incarnate. But that's another part of Jack's religion. Like he says: "You don't have to be Mandrake to do it." Jack also believes in over-lining rods with weight-forward tapers that may be two or even three line sizes heavier than the manufacturer recommends. Everglades fishing is typically short-range, so in the words of Jack: "With these lines, the rod practically casts itself." But how do Jack's tactics and techniques work in the Everglades? Well, one of his followers once landed 44 bass over four pounds in a single afternoon. As for size, while local bug-caught bass average between three-quarters of a pound and a pound-and-a-half, we catch plenty of larger ones. One of Jack's clients landed a 10-pounder, but Jack doesn't make a big deal of it. In fact he insists, "The hit's so out-of-proportion to the size. And who cares about big fish, anyway?" The Everglades remains as much a state of mind as a geographic area. Call bugging the southern-fried equivalent of dryfly fishing. I might add that the marshes have been attracting converts recently. Novitiates include my friend, Laswell the Lawyer, a recovering bluefin tuna addict who became equally disenchanted with melting reels and the criminal justice system. Nowadays, Laswell's happy to plod along and pop in the fashion of a reborn St. Augustine who once prayed for chastity, "but not yet." Laswell and I enjoy fishing the Alligator Alley canals, each of which is separated from the highway by a wire fence. Like the songwriter says, I don't know if the fence is supposed to keep people out or keep Mother Nature in, but bank fishermen are constantly cutting it in hopes of reaching productive water. Laswell and I sometimes take advantage of these breaches in order to launch our canoes, although boaters and canoeists are better advised to utilize several well-maintained ramps to fish the area's productive canals. There's a deep one running along each side of the Alley, plus the L-67 canal, which runs from the Lauderdale toll booth south to the Trail. Forget the section west of the 44 Mile Marker, as tribal property restrictions and shallow water render it iffy at best. However, don't pass-up the Miami Canal, which crosses under the highway near the easternmost rest area. If you look hard enough, you'll find other canals and spurs, most of which offer productive fishing at one time or another. Most Everglades fly-fishing takes place in the canals, where it's most productive to work the shoreline from a boat or canoe. Although bass sometimes hide in syrupy nooks and crannies, they don't mind roaming steep banks that harbor minimal vegetation. Look closely and you'll see why: Baitfish congregate in the shadows. Laswell and I prefer these rocky haunts. We'll start fishing with size eight poppers and switch to sixes as the season progresses. The small fish retreat back into the grass soon after the rains come, leaving behind three- to six-pound "chunkers," to hit well-placed bugs. Although I conceal such blasphemies from Jack, I'll occasionally tie on a huge deerhair bug and deliberately prospect for big fish. I, like the largemouths, am enamored with floating vegetation. Swamp cabbage, with its dangling root system, is a particular favorite. You'll find it along the Alley as well as the Tamiami. In the vicinity of Ochopee, where sweetwater gives way to brackish, the vegetation changes. Although the actual salt content varies according to tide and time of year, it's in these creeks and canals that freshwater inhabitants share space with saltwater interlopers from the Gulf of Mexico. Snook, tarpon, jacks and redfish are just a few of the saltwater species that enter freshwater creeks in order to feed, find agreeable temperatures, or rid themselves of parasites. You'll find predators from both camps feeding together in an environment bubbling with mollies, mosquitofish and baby cichlids. The resulting explosions are riveting. During strong tides when all the variables collide, it's possible to witness schools of snook driving baitfish amid a cacophony of concussions. The western Trail resembles its eastern counterpart and Alligator Alley in this respect, although there it's the bass rather than saltwater species that are responsible for all the action. The Everglades ends in the vicinity of US Highway 27. This road (or its continuation) parallels the marsh's eastern edge from the Broward-Palm Beach County line (where the power lines split) to where Krome Avenue crosses the Tamiami Trail. Despite the Glades' proximity, the only practical way to get there between Alligator Alley and the Tamiami is via Everglades Holiday Park in southwestern Broward. Although salty action isn't as predictable as the bass angling, it offers the thrill of hooking large fish on tiny sub-surface flies and occasionally, on poppers. There's also the novelty of catching snook, tarpon, reds and bass on successive casts. And that's what makes the Everglades so great.