A whitish-colored blob with bulging eyes hovered stock-still in Lake Okeechobee’s shallow Moonshine Bay, illuminated by Captain Charles “Skeeter” Holland’s headlamp. “Okay,” …
Fishing The Wild West in Florida's Ten Thousand Islands
[Everglades City, FL–] Yes, the weather may still be hot, muggy, and buggy in southwest Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands, but the fishing is what is truly smokin’.
Pending the onset of late fall/winter cold fronts, this remote region of jagged oyster bars, mangrove-fringed mud flats, and offshore wrecks and artificial reefs can be unmatched for rod-bending action and bountiful table fare.
Consider: on calm-weather days, anglers are free to motor 30 miles west of Everglades City into the open Gulf of Mexico to catch a limit of snapper, grouper, and whatever else deigns to stop by on rock piles, artificial reefs, and shipwrecks.
Or, those who prefer near-shore sight-fishing can battle big snook along the shorelines of most of those Ten Thousand Islands, especially the natural moats surrounding the mangroves and in the sloughs that ring the outside sand bars on lower tide stages. Redfish also are plentiful along those sand bars, as well as oyster bars and island moats. Large numbers of spotted sea trout patrol the sloughs and channels on higher tides and can also be found –(surprise!)– on live, rocky bottom 10-12 feet deep several miles offshore. There’s also a good chance of locating resident tarpon around island points and river mouths.
Fall is a great time of year to hunt for tasty tripletail, a mysterious fish found throughout Florida from near shore waters a few feet deep to miles out in the Atlantic Gulf Stream. But here in the Ten Thousand Islands, the search area is narrowed to crab trap lines strung a few miles offshore in the Gulf and dead tree stumps that have washed up in the shallows.
And there are several more species to be found cruising the region this time of year, including cobia, sheepshead, pompano, black drum, and Spanish mackerel. And don’t forget sharks; they’re pretty much everywhere and very satisfying to catch and release on all ranges of tackle. Lucky anglers might even catch sight of an endangered sawfish– a very distinctive-looking member of the stingray family– plying the flats or the sloughs, but they are closed to all harvest.
While it is possible to catch many of the region’s fish on fly rod and on artificial lures such as plugs, jigs, and soft plastics, using live bait is far and away the best bet for closing the deal. Securing enough bait for a day’s fishing is rarely a problem around the Ten Thousand Islands at this time of year.
Check out dimples on the surface revealing the presence of threadfin herring and pilchards. In open water, diving pelicans are very helpful guides. Mullet can be found schooling on the flats, especially in coves and creeks; single fish will be seen flipping for no apparent reason or else leaping en masse when chased by predators. Bait hunters finding no joy on the flats may find it necessary to head offshore to live-bottom areas to get what they need. Being able to throw a large cast net is a necessary skill. Caution: using live shrimp for bait will probably draw all kinds of unwanted interlopers such as ladyfish, blue runners, catfish, and who knows what.
Anglers not inclined to get wet and dirty throwing a cast net will probably do just fine purchasing live or fresh-frozen bait in Everglades City. A couple weeks before the Oct. 8 recreational red grouper closure, part-time Everglades City resident Lou Volpe and a companion caught their limit of four (and released 30 that were undersized), plus a dozen lane and gray snapper and a limit of eight sea trout using mostly dead finger mullet and pilchards on ‘knocker rigs’ where the egg sinker is next to the hook. The pair had a well full of just-caught pilchards, mullet, and pinfish netted by Volpe on his 22-foot bay boat, but they didn’t really need all that live ammo. And despite fishing on a sunny, calm Sunday, they encountered perhaps four other boats the entire day.
Despite its proximity to Naples (45 minutes) and urban Southeast Florida ( 1 1/2 hours), the Everglades City-Chokoloskee region still has the feel of a fishing frontier.
Saddle up and check it out.
Sue Cocking chronicles the Guy Harvey Outpost travel and adventure experience in regular blog posts on GuyHarveyOutpostNews.com/. For 21 years, Cocking covered the full spectrum of outdoors adventure opportunities in South Florida and beyond for the Miami Herald, including fishing, diving, hunting, paddling, camping, sailing, and powerboat racing. She is a certified scuba diver and holder of an IGFA women’s world fly fishing record for a 29-pound permit.