The crossing: Fishing in the Everglades
By Lawrence Jordan
Shannon Jordan and I were eating lunch Sunday after church and she asked me to make sure our stay was confirmed for our trip to Islamorada. I assured her that everything was fine but I checked the calendar anyway to appease her. I was shocked to find that we were supposed to have already been there. Shannon and I sprung into action. The car and boat were packed and were on the road by 3 p.m. We arrived at our place in Islamorada at 5 a.m. Monday. I could not believe I mixed up the dates but we did not dwell on it; there was uncharted water and uncaught fish to be had. One of our objectives in this trip was to take the skiff from Islamorada, across Florida Bay, and into the Everglades National Park to catch tarpon, trout, snook, Jack Crevalle and Red Drum. The Florida Bay and Everglades are a remote place where crocodiles, alligators, manatees, anacondas and sharks all live together in not much harmony. The wind was blowing across the Florida Keys at a sustained 20 mph for the entire week but Shannon (who teaches in the Darlington County schools) and I did not come all this way to leave the area unexplored. We untied the skiff and departed from our villa before sunrise to make the crossing. The 25-mile crossing, vast fishing expanses to cover, and the unknown of this area coaxed me into bringing an additional 20 gallons of fuel. I watched the GPS and Shannon held the charts. Both were crucial because the GPS showed our position while Shannon used the chart to find our nearest landmark. Crossing the Florida Bay is the most treacherous of mazes with expanses were so vast and the next landmark being a small post in the water. A few degrees off in any direction and the boat would run aground. We crossed Cotton Key Basin and passed through a narrow channel splitting the Crab Keys. From there, we turned to cross the Lignumvitoe Basin for the Pollock Keys. We ran aground here and had to step out the boat to push her into navigable water. We made our pass through the Gopher Keys instead. We had to stop because the boat’s exhaust was muddy. The motor sucked up weeds and mud when we ran aground and had to be cleared. I used a piece of leader to clear the weeds and mud to prevent the motor from overheating. We continued to Snake Key, then Whipray Keys, across the vast Whipray Basin to Bouey Key. There we entered a channel only as wide as our boat. The water was ankle deep on either side of the boat. Here we came into a desert of water scattered with mangrove islands. We started fishing at Bradley Key and spotted lots of bait. I could only catch a few mullets so we decided to start fishing instead of spending the day searching for bait. I cast a mullet to the mangroves and realized that my line was wrapped inside the reel. I took the reel apart and at that moment, a snook ate the mullet and got away. We moved to Murray Key and I hooked a snook with my last mullet, but the drag was still loose from when I reassembled my reel earlier. The snook threw the hook and I was getting ill. Shannon on the other hand was casting into open water, catching speckled trout. We called quits this day and made the return voyage back to Islamorada. We had traced our route on the way out so to go home, we simply had to follow our red line. The hard part was that the return voyage was headed against the wind and waves … not what a skiff was built for. Whitecaps extended as far as we could see, and every wave splashed over the bow. I told Shannon that this place would haunt me forever. All I could think of was that I wanted to get back to the dock, but when our weary boat reached land and we stumbled ashore, I could only think about our defeat. Shannon declared that we had to go back. I knew that we had to go back the next day, but I dreaded the waves and the shallows. Day 2: Shannon and I were not in a hurry to depart for our second attempt. We did not leave the dock until noon and we did a few things different this time. We learned that we did not need extra gas and we also knew that we would not find live bait. We resolved to fish using only artificial baits. The wind was blowing harder than the day before, but we were riding with the seas, and I didn’t want to think about how rough the return voyage will be. Our first stop was at Bouey Key where Shannon’s line was snapped by a giant 35-inch snook. We moved farther toward the Everglades and caught Jack Crevalle and speckled trout at Murray Key. Still no sign of the snook or tarpon which were our targeted species. We followed a narrow channel to Clive Key where our luck was about to change. I set the trolling motor to hold us in casting range from a fallen tree and the mangroves. Shannon and I started fishing and I soon heard the drag pulling off her rod. Shannon had a snook on the line and we carefully brought him alongside the boat. This snook was 26 inches long and we took some pictures before releasing the snook. I caught the next snook and heard Shannon say, “Mine was bigger!” She was right, but I was excited about catching the species. I took another cast and got a big hit. I said, “It’s a big snook!” and to my surprise, a young tarpon jumped, thrashing and flipping before landing again. The tarpon put on an air show for us, spending the fight throwing his head and flaring gills all over the water. We had the tarpon beside the boat, and I carefully picked him up. This was a young tarpon, maybe 10 pounds, but in the battle I enjoyed the highest-energy fish I’ve ever caught. Shannon and I had won, and with a two-hour return voyage ahead of us considering the waves, we decided to make our way home. The wind howled through the T-top and we braced for a rocky ride home. Every wave was a whitecap and the T-top was shaking loose from the deck. Shannon moved the cooler to rest on top of a post, and she sat on the cooler holding the T-top for the entire ride home. Shannon was on the windward side of the boat and every wave splashed over the boat. On top of that, the wind was howling like I have never heard. Most people on land would have enjoyed the sunny day but it was one of the worst days on the water. Shannon had a towel over her head but it was soaked through. We had to change course and ride to Long Key, south of Islamorada to be able to cope with the waves but we finally did reach land. From there, we idled north towards our villa, shielded from the wind, we were able to warm up and dry off. Our battered boat idled into the marina with the tarpon flag hoisted. We cooked our speckled trout on the grill and enjoyed a beautiful sunset.