April 16, 2008

Anglers Can Find Solitude, and Fish, in No-Motor Zones

MIAMI _ Veteran guides don't like to talk about it. Even the few weekend fishermen who go there don't brag about it much. But the fishing can be superb in the miles of winding creeks, freshwater lakes and brackish ponds in the no-motor zones of Everglades National Park.

"I like it because, most times, there's no one here," Islamorada, Fla., light-tackle guide captain Paul Hunt said. "The solitude is part of the whole thing."

That probably is why you don't hear a lot of grumbling among anglers about having to use muscle power to pole and paddle in these areas: The extra effort pays substantial dividends in terms of peace, quiet and fish.

Fishing the no-motor zones takes a bit of advance planning and local knowledge because they generally lie deep in the Glades, and accessing them without running aground or getting lost can be challenging. A map on the Everglades National Park website shows their locations and details which bodies of water are paddle-only (www.nps.gov/ever/planyourvisit/motors.htm).

However, depending on tide and weather, some might be virtually inaccessible. For example, a lake that appears wide and deep on the chart could be almost dry following a cold front and full moon conditions when northerly winds combine with lower-than-usual tides to expose mud and grass flats.

Anglers and guides network quietly among themselves to learn about the conditions, and each has his own setup for getting to the no-motor zones.

Hunt, who guides out of World Wide Sportsman marina, has a 17-foot Maverick Mirage HPX skiff on which he ties down a beamy, 60-pound, 16-foot plastic We-No-Nah canoe. The canoe is outfitted with a bracket for portable stabilizers _ plastic pontoons _ to be fastened quickly to the gunwales.

The pontoons enable Hunt to stand up and pole from the stern while his angler stands in the bow and casts. This solves the nearly universal paddlecraft problem of poor visibility; it's hard to spot submerged fish while sitting down.

On a recent weekday, Hunt and I made the 45-minute journey from World Wide to the interior lakes of Monroe, Middle and Seven Palm. He staked out at the entrance to Monroe Lake, unstrapped and lowered the canoe into the water, and we transferred fishing tackle, a cut-down pushpole, two paddles and a small cooler.

The stabilizers worked just fine as Hunt poled across the lake. Both of us managed to stand and scan the flats without rocking each other overboard.

Although an easterly wind was blowing steadily, with occasional 20-mph gusts, the water was clear enough to spot fish from 30 to 40 feet away.

Problem was, there were very few fish.

Hunt had noted the chilly water temperature on the Maverick's gauge as he we entered Monroe Lake: 65 degrees. A cold front had swept through the area several days before, and it appeared the flats hadn't had sufficient time to warm.

I cast a chartreuse Saltwater Assassin jerkbait to a couple of isolated snook along a mangrove shoreline. One fish gave halfhearted chase; the other appeared frightened and dashed off.

Then Hunt spotted a baby tarpon that engulfed _ and then quickly regurgitated _ my bait. Oh well.

The wind began to howl as we paddled bent-backed into Seven Palm; maddeningly, it seemed to change direction when we reached the opposite shoreline so that there was no lee to escape the breeze.

Except for several schools of giant mullet, we saw no bait pods at all.

The brackish marshes and ponds of the Everglades, especially around Cape Sable, are rich havens for small bait fish. Long ago, several dams were constructed to prevent too much saltwater from intruding and flushing out precious fresh water. Old age and hurricanes have degraded the dams and the habitat they once safeguarded, which is home to the American crocodile and several species of wading birds.

The breach in the dam on Raulerson Canal east of Middle Cape Canal and northwest of Lake Ingraham not only boosted salinity but enabled some motorboaters to sneak in illegally to the interior marshes of Cape Sable. Last month, workers replaced the Raulerson Canal's failed earthen plug with rip-rap and sandbags. A string of buoys prevents motorboat access.

Hunt hopes summer rains will enhance the health of the ecosystem and promote a surge in baitfish populations.

Losing the battle with the wind in vast Seven Palm, Hunt and I retreated back to Monroe Lake, where we spotted a few more reluctant snook. Then, as we rounded a shoreline, I saw a pair of periwinkle-tinged tails of what could only be hungry redfish.

I made a cast with a blue-black and silver "sea shad" Saltwater Assassin, which was gulped immediately by one of the reds. Thinking about the scarcity of real baitfish, I guessed my plastic fish imitation might have been the only game in town that afternoon.

The red made a spirited fight in the cool water, requiring Hunt to pole quickly to keep up.

After a 10-minute battle, I brought it close to be weighed and photographed.

Although tipping the Boga-Grip at only 5 pounds, the fish represented a moral victory over less-than-ideal conditions. Hey, it made me happy.

Hunt put it back into the water and it quickly disappeared. On the way back to the waiting skiff, we encountered a snorting manatee and a bald eagle sitting atop a mangrove bough.

I guess I could make that hackneyed qualitative comparison between a day of fishing and a day at the office, but I don't want to make anyone too mad.


(c) 2008, The Miami Herald.

Visit The Miami Herald Web edition on the World Wide Web at http://www.herald.com/

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):


For reprints, email [email protected], call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.