There are many places we fondly refer to as, "God's
Country." This is certainly one of them; The Florida
Everglades. In the Seminole language it means, "Sea of Grass."
I was introduced to the Everglades many years ago
by my "best-est" friend, Jim Wilson. I consider Jim
to be my brother, even though we are not blood related
(that's another story).
Jim had been fishing down there since the
mid-sixties and wanted to show me around,
so we planned a five-day trip. Let me back
up a little and try and describe this place.
When most people, even those who live in Florida,
hear the word, "Everglades," they immediately
think of acres and acres of saw grass, marshy
wetlands, Seminole Indians, 'gators and cypress
trees. That's a fairly good description, however,
there is more to the story; a whole 'nother world
exists, as we move westerly from the "interior"
'glades to the Gulf coast fringe of the Everglades.
Here, the water turns brackish, as the interior's
freshwater run-off mingles with the Gulf of Mexico.
Sure, there are alligators, even crocodiles, yep,
crocks. There are sharks...BIG sharks! There are
millions of mosquitoes; probably billions of the
little black pests, and they never loose their
appetite. And, they just don't feed in the early
mornings or late afternoons, either. They eat all
day! So, why is this God's Country? 'Cause there
ain't no place on this Earth like it, that's why!
I was thrilled when Jim asked if I could take a
few days off during the last week of May, and
head down to the little fishing village of
Chokoloskee, which means "old home" in the Seminole
language. I made arrangements and packed up the boat,
tackle, and clothes to last for a few days. Jim had
called ahead and made reservations at one of the few
remaining places left to get a room. This time of the
year is snook season at its finest, and snook are the
most sought-after saltwater game fish in southern
Florida, to me, anyway.
Snook are the hardest fighting, pound for pound,
fish I have ever caught. Whether on fly, live bait
or lure, they will try the patience of the most
seasoned angler. A snook, in his kindergarten years,
learns to tie half-hitches on everything in his
feeding area. They are masters of the knot, and
no matter what line you use, he will raise all
sorts of hell, rip line from your best reel's drag,
then demonstrate the craft of half-hitching, as he
explodes back into the mangrove roots. The snook is
also one of the most delicious fish that swims,
reminding me of grouper in taste. Therefore seasons,
slot sizes and limits are strictly enforced, and in
the Everglades National Park, the rangers take no
We left Jim's place in Orlando around one in the
morning and headed out on west Interstate 4, then
south on US 27 (the same area I used to explore
with my parents when I was much younger). Once
we turned off of 27, we headed southwest along
State Road 29, which dead-ends into Chokoloskee.
We arrived around six in the morning and pulled
into a little café called, "The Oar House," in
Everglades City for breakfast. As soon as we stopped
the truck, the "skeeters" flocked around the windows
and, I swear, appeared to be pulling out glass cutters
and crowbars to extract us from Jim's Suburban. We
literally ran into the café to keep from becoming
victims. They really are that bad!
After our breakfast of eggs, grits, bacon and
biscuits, we headed to the southwestern edge
of the island of Chokoloskee to check in, but
check in time wasn't until eleven o'clock. What
to do? What to do?
We let the guy in the motel's tackle shop know
we had arrived and would be back in time to make
our arrival official. We hastily threw all of the
necessities in the boat, launched it and headed
out of the small lagoon that was surrounded by
a seawall where small camper trailers and motor
homes resting on concrete slabs.
As we headed out of the lagoon, I noticed
immediately that everything in sight looked
exactly the same. The shorelines of the small
and large keys blended together as if it were
as one. So, that's why they call it, "Ten Thousand
Islands." I had never been there, but I knew
already I was in for the learning experience of
my life. Thank God Jim was with me!
I brought the skiff up on plane, and Jim pointed
to a small, white, wooden post to my port side a
thousand feet out. "Head directly at that marker,
and stay to the right of it...almost run over it."
I did as directed, and immediately Jim pointed to
the next one, and the next, and so on, all the
while coaching me on which side to line up on. We
had only gone a few miles, and I was a nervous wreck.
Sand bars and oyster bars lined the narrow, natural
channel and being off course within a foot, could
leave us stranded in mud, on a sand bar, or the hull
of the boat ripped from beneath us by beds of sharp
oysters. And still, everything looked the same;
mangroves and water.
Once out of Chokoloskee Pass, there before me,
appeared the emerald-green, Gulf of Mexico. At
last, something looked familiar. I had survived
the first un-nerving, navigational nightmare.
Then Jim says, "We're going back in there." He
was pointing toward the "back country," back
into the mangroves. Dammit! By the time we had
reached one of the medium-sized keys, I was
mentally and physically worn out.
Slowing the skiff, I could now look around. It
was the most spectacular place I had ever laid
eyes on. Before us was Rabbit Key, a mangrove
island surrounded by brilliant, white sand beaches,
and the tide was just beginning to fall. I beached
I reached into the rod holder and removed a
twelve-pound spinning rod loaded up with a top
water plug attached to a thirty-pound shock leader.
I dang-near ran up the beach. My first cast into
the current produced an immediate explosion. Line
blistered from the reel and I ran down the beach
again, in the same direction I had traversed thirty
seconds before. When the battle ended, a twelve-pound
snook lay in the white sand...supper! It was time to
check in to the motel...dammit!
We waded back to the skiff and I eased her back
away from Rabbit Key. "Okay, which way back?" It
all looked the same, comin' or goin'. It was going
to be a long, five days.
As soon as the motel room was loaded and secured,
we were off again, same lagoon, same waters, same
pass. "Okay, which way?" I could literally stand
up in the boat, close my eyes, turn in a circle
and not have a clue where in hell we were! Jim
just shakes his head.
It was around one in the afternoon when we blew
passed Rabbit Key, I almost recognized it, I think.
Here we go, back behind other keys, following the
same type of little, white posts, white-knuckled...
whew; we arrived at Pavilion Key. Pavilion was a
little larger than Rabbit, and, it too, was
surrounded by white sand beaches. I again beached
the boat and we waded the waters around this key.
Explosion after explosion, as large snook took
swipes at our top water plugs. Sea trout would
knock the lures out of the water. Small black-tip
sharks swam leisurely by, within feet. Then it was
time to go back to the motel to unpack, shower and
fry up a twelve-pound snook! "Okay, which way?" Jim,
again, shakes his head and points.
The next morning didn't change anything; I still
didn't know where I was. So, I politely turned the
helm over to James! He shook his head again, and
engaged his mental GPS, throttled up, and off we
went swerving around mangrove keys and following
those damned little white posts...oyster bars go
by at fifty miles an hour! As the sun was just
beginning to lighten the morning sky, I could now
look around, as we skimmed the slick surface of
back-country waters. By the way, back then, a GPS
unit was totally out of my price range.
That day took us to Turkey and New Turkey Keys.
The snook hell-hole!
Carefully, I chose my weapon, a 9x9, IM6 Loomis fly
rod, weight-forward line, tapered leader, then
knotted to an eighteen inch piece of 30 pound shock
leader, and a red and white Lefty's Deceiver. Again,
we began to wade the sandy shoreline. Within a few
casts, a huge wake followed the fly, and WHAM!!
Another snook went towards Mexico.
From sunup to sunset, we beat the waters around
those keys to a froth. Snook, red fish, sea trout,
ladyfish, tarpon; oh yeah, I almost forgot about
Day three took us back to New Turkey Key. I had
chosen to cast my top water plug again, using my
12 pound class rod. We were wading the island and
were a hundred yards, or so, apart. The tide was
coming in and I noticed a wash coming over a shelf
of coquina rock fifty feet off the beach. A great
place for a snook to ambush baitfish, I thought to
myself! I cast the five inch "Jumpin' Minnow" so
that it would carry over the rock; I twitched it.
Immediately, a large swirl appeared under the plug.
Within a split second, a seven foot tarpon, 'round
about a hundred and fifty pounds, came out of the
hole, plastered the lure and launched, rattled his
gill plates, spraying water everywhere and took off
due east...on twelve pound line..."RUT-ROW!!" He then
jumped, clearing the surface by three feet, did a
complete summersault and threw the mangled lure at
me; all in four feet of water. I stood there for
several minutes assessing my heart rate, and attempting
to take steps toward the skiff on my shakin' knees.
Wilson just shook his head and laughed at me. But,
I got to watch him that same day, get damned near
spooled by another enormous tarpon, and that one
broke off his top water plug; his "secret weapon,"
as he called it! He called that tarpon everything but
what he was! I shook my head and laughed...pay backs,
at least I got my lure back!
I had mentioned earlier the 12 pound snook we cooked
for supper. If a snook isn't skinned, they taste like
soap, really. Many years ago, fishermen thought they
were trash fish and simply didn't target the snook.
These fish, cut into nuggets, marinated in fresh
lemon juice, Louisiana hot sauce and seasoned salt
for thirty minutes, removed and dredged in a mixture
of seasoned cornmeal and flour, then deep-fried in
peanut oil, well, they can't be beat, especially
with a pot full of buttered grits, Jim's camp beans
and other sides.
It took me twelve years to figure that place out. I
still don't know my way around the whole area, I'm
not sure anyone really does. If you plan to go down
to the 'glades, hire a guide! Take plenty
of "skeeter dope," 2/0 deer-hair poppers and sliders,
"skeeter dope," bend-backs, deceivers, "skeeter dope"
...a nine-weight; did I mention, "skeeter dope"?
("skeeter dope" is southern slang for DEET!)
Down in the 'glades, I've been witness as twelve-foot
sharks cut hundred and fifty pound tarpon in half.
I've been attacked by squadrons of mosquitoes as I
attempt to remove a fly or lure from the god of the
mangrove's possession. I've been bitten by no-see-ems,
horse flies and deer flies. I've been chased out of
the water by four-foot sharks that got just a little
too frisky. I've seen extremely large 'gators, and
a few crocodiles sunbathing on the beaches. So why
I have watched ospreys dive on snook so big they
couldn't get out of the water without turning the
fish loose. I've seen some of the prettiest sunrises
and sunsets in the world. I have walked on shell-covered,
white sand beaches where Seminole Indians once fished.
I've worn myself out to the point of almost collapsing,
and then make reservations for the next year to do it
all over again; bitchin' the entire time I would never
return to do that to my body. I have been privileged
and humbled to be a part of Mother Nature's play. So,
why do I return there time and again?
That's easy...it's "God's Country." Now, which way
do I get outa here?... JIM!!!???
See y'all next week. ~ Capt. Gary
Gary grew up in central Florida and spent much
of his youth fishing the lakes that dot the area.
After moving a little closer to the coast, his
interests changed from fresh to salt. Gary still
visits his "roots" in the "lake behind the house."
He obtained his captain's license in the early '90's
and fished the blue waters of the Atlantic for a little
over twelve years. His interests in the beautiful shallow
water flats in and around the famous Mosquito Lagoon came
around twenty-five years ago. Even though Captain Gary
doesn't professionally guide anymore, his respect of the
waters will ever be present.
Gary began fly fishing and tying mostly saltwater
patterns in the early '90's and has participated as
a demo fly tier for the Federation of Fly Fishers
on numerous occasions. He is a private fly casting
and tying instructor and stained glass artist,
creating mostly saltwater game fish in glass.