Monday, December 10, 2012

Fishing Adventures in Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands

Fishing Reel and Tackle
Fishing porn.

Since backcountry is my favorite type of fishing, I couldn’t resist the opportunity for a full immersion weekend in the Everglades region of Florida’s gulf coast with Ladies, Let’s Go Fishing, which took place this past October. (As you may recall, I attended a similar seminar last year in Islamorada and fished with Captain Bob Jones.)

I set out before dawn, westward bound on Tamiami Trail.  Just after the sun rose and the mist lifted over the river of grass, I arrived at Port of the Islands, a resort that seems to be in the middle of nowhere, situated in between Marco Island and Everglades City, with water access to the 10,000 Islands via the 3.5 mile Faka Union Canal.

Pavillion Key, 10,000 Islands, Gulf of Mexico
A maze of islands makes up this area of the gulf.  Port of the Islands is just off Tamiami Trail. I fished out of Chokoloskee.

The 10,000 Islands are particularly special for me.

I know this place. Oh yeah.

Years ago, Sir Fish A Lot and I would trailer our Hewes Bonefisher out here. We called her the Cyan, because of the color of her hull. One day, on the way back from the pristine islands where, thankfully, there is no human civilization, our outboard engine failed mid-journey in the Faka Union Canal.

We went into survivor mode, long before there was even a TV show by that name. We were alone here -- no boat traffic, no cellphones.  And the radio? Battery had run out.

Every dog has his day and boy, this really just wasn’t our day.  Nothing seemed to be working.

Poor Sir Fish A Lot did his best. First, he tried to pole us back to port while standing on the flats boat platform, but the water was too deep and the tide was outgoing, current flowing against us -- a Herculean task, to say the least.

Then we lost the pole close to the banks of the channel. He jumped into the muddy oyster banks on the edge and waist-deep in the water, threw the anchor forward to drag the boat forward while I steered. 

Under the hazy colors of dusk, gators were floating nearby, mosquitoes were buzzing and biting, flies the size of quarters were crash-landing on our faces, but he remained stoic, steadily dragging the boat forward until – gasp! – we lost the anchor.

We drifted aimlessly along the current for what seemed like an eternity.

And then a miracle happened.

Another boat was also returning to port, with a biblical inscription about fishermen painted onto the hull. 

The kind gentlemen on board towed us back to safety. I'm not particularly religious,  but I'm pretty sure this is what Jesus would have done.

Once back at Port of the the Islands, Sir Fish A Lot and I fell utterly exhausted into bed, too tired to even consider supper.  A day of complete frustration, with no fish caught, but certainly much courage and pluck mustered.

We may have not stayed a couple forever, but I do count this as one day where I thought we could get through anything.

So, dear readers, imagine my connection to Port of the Islands when I arrived at the seminar!

The first day at Ladies, Let’s Go Fishing was chock full of learning through a no-stress, pleasant series of lectures and hands-on mini-workshops. About 40 women attended talks on backcountry fishing led by local guides, as well as sessions by representatives from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, who discussed conservation policies. Our afternoon “skill stations” included de-hooking fish, venting fish, casting light tackle, net casting, boat handling, knot tying and even kayak fishing, among other techniques.

Ladies, Let's Go Fishing - Everglades Seminar
To the left, Barbara Evans, a licensed Captain, practicing ultralight rod casting techniques with Mary Fink of Island Girl Charters, to the right.

Kayak Fishing
Jean McElroy, the redhead on the left, is pro staff at Ocean Kayak in Palm Beach County and a master at kayak fishing. Pretty ballsy if you ask me!

Ladies, Let's Go Fishing - Everglades Seminar
Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission representatives taught us much about conservation and proper handling of fish.

Ladies, Let's Go Fishing - Everglades Seminar
A participant learning how to tie a clinch knot from Captain Mark Worley. I tried it as well, but already forgot.  I need to keep fishing lines and knot books by the can -- the most recommended way of practicing.

Betty Bauman, founder of Ladies, Let’s Go Fishing, demonstrated the proper reeling technique for catching large game fish:  rod holder belt on, squat, straighten your back, let the fish run then reel in when it relaxes.

I raised my hand. “Betty, what happens when the fish feels like a Mac truck at the end of the line?” I asked. “I hooked a beast two weeks ago and couldn’t even wind the reel.”

“Just practice, Maria.” She replied.

And practice I would. I didn’t know what I was in for.

Ladies, Let's Go Fishing - Everglades Seminar
It's all about physics.  Even a petite, slim lady can catch a big fish.

The next day, I was up at 4 am to get ready for fishing with Betty, her husband, Captain Chuck – the inspiration behind the “no-yelling” school of fishing – and a photographer from a gulf coast newspaper. Other ladies went fishing as well, but with different guides, some even on kayaks.

The journey seemed long although we weren’t far from the marina in Chokoloskee. I was so eager to be on the water with rod in hand.

So was Captain Chuck. Just after sunrise, we finally blazed across the flats of the 10,000 Islands, remote waters he knows intimately.

I knew it was going to be a good day when after anchoring off Pavillion Key, Captain Chuck rigged a spinning rod with a gold spoon and -- bam! -- first cast resulted in a keeper redfish, which I hooked and landed.  Folks, for those of you who aren’t familiar with fishing in the backcountry, this rarely, if ever happens. First cast? No way.

Redfish Fishing - Everglades and 10,000 Islands
Not bad for the first catch of the day.

Pavilion Key, 10,000 Islands, Gulf of Mexico
Captain Chuck cast netting for pilchards around pristine Pavillion Key, which is close to the wide open waters of the Gulf of Mexico. We also saw a few campers who had reached the remote area by canoe.

We spent much of the morning fishing and cast netting along the shore of the key for bait. In the meantime, I hooked what was probably a ray, which gave me a good fight. Captain Chuck didn’t let me land it because he said it would spook other fish.

When we finally had enough ladyfish in the live well, we headed to an area more densely populated with mangrove islands.

“Now let’s do some real fishing,” said Captain Chuck.

We cast for snook along the mangroves but didn’t have much luck.  “I wouldn’t have picked this day for this kind of fishing,” Captain Chuck explained. “Tides and conditions aren’t right.”

But wherever we anchored, Captain Chuck put out a conventional reel with a ladyfish on the hook for me, while we fished with spinning rods along the shores. Twice “my rod” squealed and twice a big one got away.

Rabbit Key - 10,000 Islands
One of the spots where we fished. Camping is an option at Rabbit Key, part of the Everglades National Park system.

By 3:30 PM, when we were obligated to return to port, Captain Chuck asked us to stop casting. As we were getting organized to speed across the flats, my rod screeched.

“Grab it, Maria! Grab it!” said Captain Chuck.

In that moment of haste, my heart started pounding. Fishing can be incredibly boring, followed by rushes of adrenaline.

“Could this be it?” I thought.

What I felt at the end of that line was similar to whatever I had hooked in Cape Sable. A mammoth that could speed like it was racing at the Indianapolis 500 yet also become a dead weight, a concrete boulder.

It never jumped.

“It’s not a tarpon,” said Captain Chuck. “Keep reeling.”

There was no rod belt holder on board. I placed the butt end of the rod on my thighs near my crotch and prepared for what I knew would be a strenuous experience for my body. Within minutes, biceps were burning, hands felt feeble, fingers weak.

Something funny happens when you attempt to land a big fish. You wonder: why the hell did I sign up for this? Am I crazy?

I remembered my experience near Cape Sable and what Betty had taught us the day before about catching big fish.

The fish ran. I let it run. The fish stopped, I reeled in as hard as I could. My rod was constantly bent.

About 15 minutes into the fight, Betty asked me if I was OK. I had started inhaling and exhaling deeply -- my yoga practice in service here, to focus and be present in the moment, to get past the pain in my muscles. Think of it like a Lamaze exercise for a kind of labor that isn’t about giving birth.

Then Captain Chuck chimed in. “You can let it go if you need to.”

I didn’t miss a beat.

“Captain Chuck, I still have energy left in me. I’m not going to give up.”

“Atta girl! That’s what I want to hear!” he said joyfully. His face lit up. “You’re doing such a great job!”

That did it for me. No yelling here. And no way in hell was I going to give up. I was in the zone.

About another 15 minutes passed. Eventually, we spotted a 6-foot long fish on the surface. Captain Chuck grabbed the leader and and let the line snap.  

“That was a 200 pound bull shark,” he said as he patted me on the back. “I am so proud of you, Maria.  Really. Very, very proud of you.”

My body felt a huge sense of relief. My spirit soared. It was almost surreal. Had I really done this?

Captain Chuck is the kind of old salt who will tell it to you like it is. There's no fussy, girly nonsense on his boat. He’ll be honest when something isn’t right so you can get it right.

It’s not that I was fishing for approval from a fatherly figure. It just happened. I made it happen. I manifested this insane desire to practice the sport. And although I had received instruction and encouragement from mentors, when it came down to battle, I did it all with my own hands.

I really did it.

I caught and released my first big shark.

“This was the big one that didn’t get away!” I exclaimed. “Whew!”

Photo courtesy of via Lindsay Terry.  Click here to read the full article.

As we headed back to Chokoloskee, the islands took on a mystical quality behind my polarized sunglasses, which intensify shades of green and blue. Maybe it was the lactic acid in my muscles or maybe it was my mind trying to fathom what I had just accomplished.

 And then I reminisced about Sir Fish A Lot, finding ourselves astray in the Faka Union Canal and how he had been an inspiration for me, showing dogged resolve to get us through a rough patch.

Fishing is never just about the fish. It’s a test of the faith and strength in yourself.

Although I really, truly should practice tying my knots.


Visit Ladies, Let's Go Fishing to learn more about their education programs, which are open to all women -- novice and experienced alike.  It's not just about fishing skills; participants also enjoy great camaraderie. To inquire about fishing or camping excursions with Captain Chuck, please utilize the contact form on the website, which also features a curated list fishing guides in the Southwest area of Florida.  More photos from the weekend seminar on Flickr.

As always, I encourage anglers to be educated and practice catch and release. Know your regulations and only keep what you're going to eat within a day or two.  Learn more about fishing rules at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.

National Geographic has a good spread on bull sharks.

Learn how to dehook a fish.

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