Fishing the Everglades National Park at the southern tip of Florida begins well before dawn. A daisy chain of skiff boats headed south converges in Homestead and makes a sharp turn towards the largest sub-tropical wilderness park in the US. But not without a pit stop at Diane’s gas station, a fueling grounds for fishing guides and their sports. We admire each others skiff boats under the fluorescent lights.
Once at the park entrance, you can’t help but read the ‘Mosquito Level: High’ sign and quixotically wonder at the system for calibrating such lethal metrics. Your guide offers a practical means of defense: spray Deet (40%) before you step out of the vehicle. Another suggestion: Don’t open the windows.
The drive from the park entrance to the sea-side marina is longer than anticipated, and straight as an arrow. That is, until a sharp 90-degree curve wakes you from your eerie surroundings. The angular curve has historic meaning- it is the namesake which gave Flip Pallot his moniker after rolling his trailored skiff there over 30 years ago.
The thick vegetation swallows the two-lane blacktop which leads to the only Marina in the park: Flamingo Bay Marina. The marina is similar to a golf course club-house. And, like a golf course, the park is divided into two sections: a front (nine) and a back (nine). Today we choose the open flats surrounding the front of the park.
As the sun ascends from below the Atlantic we glide onto the flats of Florida Bay. A flat is an expanse of shallow water, generally between ankle and knee deep. Our arrival coincides with an incoming tide. The influence of fresh water is to our advantage by flooding the shallows of the flat we are floating over. The aquarium-clear water is full of abrupt noises: Lemon Sharks hunt in splashy ‘S’ curves, mullet constantly torpedo out of the water, an alligator submerges into the drink. Birds of all sizes roam the sky. The distractions are constant and dramatic.
There are no empty moments; spotting fish is a full time pursuit. Redfish reveal their location by exposing their tails above the waterline, a reflex caused by poking their noses into the turtle grass in an effort to dine on crabs. To witness a postcard-size tail off the bow is a suspenseful event. Red fish, which are more of a copper color, are not easy prey. The goal is to place the fly accurately below their snout. Because, as my guide reminded me, “they don’t eat with their ass”.
Sight fishing is the name of the game. Standing on a raised platform on the bow of the skiff, you remain attentive and ready to cast by holding the fly and leader in your left hand with as much line as you can cast coiled on the deck next to you. You are a statue carrying an 8#- abrupt movements are discouraged in this skinny water, as the fish spook easily. The guide is poised atop the rear platform fixed above the engine, considerably higher than you, exploiting an excellent vantage point. He is poling the 16′ skiff with a 25′ graphite push-pole as quietly as the sting rays glide ten inches below your toes. Dialog is reduced to directions and distance – sometimes species identification – and nothing else. The ideal target (for a right-handed caster) is 11 o’clock, and the guide will swing the skiff in position to give you a favorable casting position, often times with a trigger statement, “…Now”.
By mid morning the heat has intensified. A cool-down boat ride towards a series of keys is in order; Hold on to your hat. Each small island is a veritable bird sanctuary, and their songs sound like packs of monkeys. Snook, an aggressive predator fish with a classy pin-stripe running down its lateral line, live in the mangrove roots which tangle the shore-line. They feast in the perimeter channels surrounding the islands, which, thanks to the tides, flow with a uniform direction not unlike a stream. The pace of the current reminds me of the Lazy River at Wild River Country Water Park.
The afternoon agenda is much the same, only the glare comes from the other direction. Continuing to explore the area, we visit Clive Key, Pelican Key, and Murray Key. Each has its own underwater composition, bird-life, and personality. Our final hours are spent back on the flats at Snake Bight. The day-long underwater feast has taken its toll on the water quality which is now murky as milk. But you can still see clouds caused by redfish, and even blind-casting produces hook-ups.
A large manatee rolling in the evening light at the marina puts a smile on my sun-burnt face as the guide trailers his skiff. Exhaustion sets in the instant we begin the drive home. A key-lime milkshake from the famous south-Florida fruit stand with the funny name “Robert is Here” reinvigorates us into a frenzy of chatter. We have been together for fifteen hours.