On The Fly Saltwater
Article and photos by John Kumiski
You find the largest wilderness in the southeastern United States in Everglades National Park. Brackish marsh, tidal creeks of all sizes, saltwater ponds, expansive bays, breathtaking beaches, grass flats, oyster bars, mazes of islands, the open Gulf of Mexico – the range of habitats here will astonish you. You sift through all these places as you watch the wind and tide, searching for snook, tarpon, redfish, and many other fish that make their homes here.
Limited lodging exists in the park in Flamingo, where the Flamingo Lodge has just re-opened. When I visit, I stay in a tent, usually somewhere in the backcountry. Be ready for blazing sun! Be ready for biting insects! You can choose to set up a base camp from which to explore, or you can camp at a series of backcountry locations.
Almost any type of vessel will work if you use it to its best advantage. I’ve used canoes, kayaks, jonboats, and flats skiffs as my transport mode through the years, and have enjoyed all of them. While the boat choice is yours, my most recent trips have all been by paddle.
Mike Conneen and I took a multi-day kayak camping trip. On day two we paddled through a shallow, muddy pond, seeing and spooking snook periodically. We did not see the ten-foot crocodile Mike paddled his boat into until it went water-skiing across the surface of the pond. Thankfully it was even more frightened than we were!
Later that day we came across a place where a tidal creek emptied into a salt pond on the rising tide. The place was lousy with snook, and a few redfish and jack crevalle crashed the party too. Even with muddy water the fishing was outstanding.
Later on that same trip we fished a shoreline and grass flat in Florida Bay. The water was clear, the fish spooky. We had shots at lots of snook and redfish, only fooling a few. We found it challenging, yet satisfying.
Popping bugs can provide some outstanding fishing. On one trip son Alex and I took the canoe out of Flamingo. We paddled it into a tiny, out-of-the-way pond. Baby tarpon rolled everywhere. They went crazy for a small, White Gurgler.
Alex jumped a dozen or so, only landing two after battles where the fish spent more time in the air than in the water. One fish got hung in the mangroves, shaking off the fly after a minute, and forcing us into the mosquito-filled trees to retrieve line and fly.
On another trip son Maxx and I took a canoe out from Flamingo on a sunny winter day, paddling it to a shallow bay. Snook cruised in water that barely covered them. They terrorized the local mosquitofish population. Maxx threw a tiny Crease Fly at those snook, and enough fish nailed it to give Maxx a very memorable day’s fishing.
Another trip was with Mike Conneen, out of Everglades City, camping on Jewell Key. On day two a strong cold front blew in. It knocked the fishing down, but not out. By working hard we were able to get redfish, snook, and seatrout, enough to keep us entertained. We even had fresh fried seatrout fillets for dinner one evening.
I love the everglades so much!
I dropped the kayak at the water’s edge behind the National Park’s ranger station in Everglades City. After loading it with my gear, food, and water, paddling began. Tiger Key, lying at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico and only six or seven miles away, was the destination. The plan was to stay three nights in what proved to be a no-see-um infested paradise.
Proper planning (important!) had the tide flowing in the same direction as my travel. The day was glorious, the paddling leisurely, with stops to fish likely looking spots. None produced. In the Everglades everything looks fishy, even when it’s not. You try places and look for clues, hoping to figure out the patterns. Finding patterns takes longer when you work solo, without a doubt. After three hours in the boat I reached my campsite without seeing or touching a fish.
That changed the next morning though, close to the campsite, in the first obviously fishy-looking spot I came to, a shell bar created a tidal rip. Everglades fish, like fish anywhere, use current breaks to ambush passing edibles the current sweeps by. I cast a streamer and let it swing, working it in the current. Bam! A snook, a small one, but a fish. Eureka!
That rip, one I could walk to from my tent, held redfish, snook, and seatrout. Swinging streamers produced the best fishing of the trip, fishing that was duplicated on every rising tide during that visit. There were no monsters, or even 10-pounders, but I’m past the point in my angling where anything less than huge is disappointing. It’s the Everglades. The chance for hooking a monster snook or tarpon is always there. The discovery of fish, so close to my campsite and so far from anyone else, was sweet. I owned that spot.
Timing is crucial – the everglades are sub-tropical. My favorite time to visit is between Thanksgiving and Christmas because the place is deserted then. Any time between November and April is good. From April to October it’s real hot and real buggy, not recommended except for day excursions.
Let’s end with a few notes on tackle. Most saltwater fly fishers use the standard 8- weight, floating line outfit. For shallow water fishing, I find the 8-weight too heavy (especially for baby tarpon), but go with what’s comfortable. Big fish are found here and the chance of hooking a freight train is real.
For shallow water fishing a fluorocarbon bite tippet from 20- to 30-pound test is recommended. Some fish will wear through it, causing loss of fish and fly.
Heavier tippets equal fewer bites, but you land more of the fish you hook. It’s a balancing act.
Flies range in size from little No.6 mosquitofish imitations to 3/0 streamers. Be able to cover the water column. Have flies that imitate small fish, shrimp, and crabs, and have some attractors that don’t imitate anything.
Sharks will take some of your hooked fish. Don’t be shocked.
The everglades are wild and not for everyone. But be warned, if you visit you may be hooked. It’s a wonderfully incurable disease.