Deep in the Everglades

Deep in the Everglades

In winter, try real backcountry fishing.

  • By: Chico Fernandez
  • Photography by: Chico Fernandez
Deep in the Everglades

The florida everglades provide all sorts of unique angling opportunities, but fly fishers must target specific areas depending on the season or they’ll miss out on the best that the Glades has to offer.

For some anglers fishing the Glades means working the outside keys during summer and fall for a variety of species, such as snook, redfish, tarpon, seatrout, triple tail, mangrove snapper, and even sharks that range to 400 pounds.

But, during winter, when water levels drop due to a lack of rain, and a saltwater intrusion pushes deep into the Glades, wise anglers armed with an adventuresome spirit and a GPS, or a seasoned guide, carve their way far inland, following obscure channels to reach undisturbed snook, redfish and even some baby tarpon. This is true adventure angling and you’ll fish portions of the Glades that are nearly the same as they were 100 years ago, remote, wild and seldom fished. After all these years I still see these trips as an adventure—always will.

Fortunately, I can report that the fishing is still good in the deep Glades, despite the terrible freeze of 2009 when thousands of snook, and even 100-pound tarpon, succumbed to the weather. But don’t take my word for it. I recently called an old friend, Dr. Lloyd Wruble, who has fished these backwaters a couple of times a week or more for decades. He is probably as knowledgeable on the area as anyone, and offered some historical perspective.

Wruble told me that many years ago the backwaters held mostly redfish, with a few snook and all the other species. Over the past 10 years or so the population changed and was dominated by snook, 10 to one over redfish, with other species taken from time to time. But, after the snook kill of 2009, Wruble feels we now have more redfish, just a few snook, and those baby tarpon here and there (and bass if you get far enough into fresh water).

Personally, I know the snook fishing has come back steadily, because I’ve taken a few this year in the park. So, 2012 may be a good year in that paradise. I’m betting on it.

I’VE FISHED THESE BACKWATERS AT one time or another during every month of the year. But the summer months get extremely hot in these confined areas, often close to 100 degrees, with very high humidity. And the mosquitoes and other bugs can be so thick as to slow down your backcast (it seems like that, anyway).

So, it’s best to be there during the cooler months; late October to late May is usually the accepted window. A good indication that the area is right is after the first or second cold front, when the rains subside (that could be well into November some years).

Captain Steve Huff, who has guided fly fishermen in these remote backwaters for four decades, had this to tell me about winter fishing in the Glades:

“The cooler months are best back there because the water table at that time is a good two feet lower on average. That means more flats to sight-cast. And even better, the water then comes up much slower so you have more time to fish at the right level for visibility. Also, the typical large schools of mullet become much less active on the flats and they don’t muddy the water to the point you can’t see fish, as may happen in the summer. I recommend when it’s real cold, that you fish areas with little current, where the water is much warmer, and you’ll find snook and reds feeding there. The opposite is true in the summer.”

Unless you have fished the area for years you’re better off hiring one of the few guides in south Florida who have taken the time to learn the ins and outs of the Everglades labyrinth.

Usually, your guide leaves from the ramp that is closest to the area he wants to fish. It could be out of Everglade City, Chokoloskee or Flamingo, or some out-of-the-way ramp. You’ll usually ride the skiff through open water, then a turn here or there, and a zig-zag up some narrow creek, and you’ll arrive at some small pond. Your guide will slow down, find a small opening in the mangroves that you didn’t notice and he’ll push the skiff inside. Then, he may putt-putt almost at idle as he moves up the narrow creek, or he may simply pole the skiff.

Occasionally, you will have to help guide the skiff while kneeling or sitting up front, by pulling mangrove branches right and left—the water level makes a huge difference in how hard or easy it will be to travel. But finally, you’ll come out to an opening, usually a small pond. If the water is low enough to see fish you’ll sight-fish; if the water is too deep then you’ll probably work the shoreline, covering ground, all while your guide poles the skiff.

After you work the pond, you’ll probably go through another narrow place or mangrove tunnel to another and then another of these ponds. The ponds will be different sizes and shapes. Some are almost round, and others long and skinny. They may provide great fishing, and all while you are looking at the Everglades the way they were 100 years ago.

You can also access some of these areas by mounting a canoe on top or on the back of a skiff, and when you get to a place that is too narrow for the skiff, you stake out the skiff, launch the canoe and proceed by poling.

Once you’re deep in the Glades, whether by canoe or skiff, you’ll typically find snook, redfish, baby tarpon, jacks and ladyfish. In areas with the lowest salinity you’ll also find black bass, and even a few small bull sharks in the 10- to 30-pound class. It’s neat to catch a redfish on one cast and a black bass or some other species on the next, and doing so during winter, in a wilderness setting built for adventurous anglers, is great fun.

Chico Fernandez lives in Miami and is the author of Fly Fishing for Bonefish.

Canoe on top of skiff in water. Gear
for the Glades

Tackle requirements for this fishing aren’t complicated. For flies, I like Sea-Ducers, Crystal Shrimp, Hot Lips and sliders, and a great variety of minnow-type and shrimp-type patterns. Most of my flies for this area—and for most of the Glades—have a weedguard, to deflect any floating grass, and to glide over the mangrove branches when I miss my cast. My favorite colors are red-and-white, all chartreuse and all black. Most of these flies are around three inches long and tied on a size 1 or 1/0 hook. But when I’m working a shoreline or blind casting to a deeper area, I often prefer a bit bigger fly, say closer to four inches and tied on a 2/0, hoping for that big snook.

A 7-, 8- or 9-weight outfit casts most of the above flies easily. My favorite is an 8, because it casts the flies and bite tippet well and, when needed, has the power to fight a big snook off the mangroves. But if I’m fishing a big fly I might use a 9-weight to make casting easier, and to give me the extra power to fight that big snook I’m dreaming of.

Also, I have a set of 7'11" fly rods for the close quarters of the backcountry, and I often use them when there is little space to backcast or when visibility is poor and most casts are short and quick.

For these short casts and tight spots, I like a weight-forward floating line with a short head, often called a redfish taper, since it loads the rod a bit deeper with less line. Some manufacturer’s redfish tapers are a bit heavier than the line stated, and I like them best for this application.

Releasing a nice snook.Any fly reel that matches these rods will do fine in capacity and retrieve. You are not going to get a 50-yard run in this neighborhood. It’s not a Madison Square Garden fight, it’s an alley fight; fast, furious and short.

The best all-around leader length is nine to 10 feet. Too short and the fly line spooks fish. Too long and you won’t be able to get enough fly line out of the rod tip for a short cast. Use a butt section of 40-pound-test or so (0.024" or bigger in diameter) for the 8- and 9-weight. For the 7-weight you could go with 30-pound. I like a butt length of at least 50 percent of the leader length.

I use 12-pound tippets when fishing a 7-weight, and 16-pound for my 8 and 9. Bite tippet should be around 40-pound to overcome the abrasion of a big snook. Pound-for-pound, baby tarpon do not abrade tippets nearly as much as snook, so even if you hook a 40-pound tarpon you should be fine. Well, maybe. No guarantees.

Even though this is south Florida, the temperature during the coldest months, especially in the middle of the Everglades, could be in the low 40s in the morning, and humid. So do bring some warm clothing, and raingear as a wind breaker. A can of bug repellent probably won’t be necessary, but just in case, at least ask your guide how it’s been back there.

—C.F.


Backcountry Savy

Few guides can navigate the labyrinth of mangroves so far back into the wilderness, find gamefish
…and then find their way back to the dock! Three great guides I’ve fished with are:

Captain John Donnell: 305-394-1454; [email protected]
Captain Rob Fordyce: cell 305-970-0177; 305-248-6132; [email protected]
Captain Andy Thompson: 305-246-4669; [email protected]

Other well-known captains who fish these remote areas:

Captain Brian Esposito: 954-592-0844
Captain Eric Herstedt: 954-592-1228; [email protected]
Captain Mike Ehlers: 305-393-0650; [email protected]