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As this issue goes to press, "Snowbirds" by the thousands are massing in New York, Chicago and even farther north in Montreal and Calgary for their annual migration to the warmer climate of southern Florida. If you are among them, likely as not you hope to wet a line somewhere in the region – perhaps in Miami’s Biscayne Bay or on a flat near Islamorada, Marathon or Key West. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with these traditional fishing places, and you’ll find all the names and phone numbers you need to put a trip together in our new "Southern Florida, 1995-97" Trip-Planning Package (85 pages. $24.95. Call 800-272-5656 to order).

But, hey – if you want to break the mold and do something different this year, read on. Here are six different fishing opportunities you can enjoy this winter in that delightful sprawl of marsh and marine environment stretching from Lake Okeechobee southward to Florida Bay. Most of them are do-able on a day-trip basis from vacation bases in Miami, Naples, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Fort Myers. Others necessarily involve a stayover of a day or so. Enjoy! – Don Causey.

Backcountry Fishing Out Of Chokoloskee: The sport and commercial fishing village of Chokoloskee, southeast of Naples, is one of those out-of-the-way spots in Florida that retains some of its pre-tourist-invasion charm. The historic Smallwood Store (*) and the lobby and bar of the famed Rod and Gun Club (*) in nearby Everglades City are both worth a visit on their own, even if the fishing weren’t world class. The latter used to be one of the great places of the world for sportsmen to stay, incidentally, but of late it has become very eccentric. The old hotel itself, upstairs from the lobby and restaurant, is closed these days. Guests (up to 17 at a time) are housed in cheaply built motel-style units on the grounds of the club. A better place to stay is Captain’s Table Lodge (*).

The fishing available out of Chokoloskee is very different than that available in The Keys or around Miami. The water is less clear for one thing and the principal species are snook, redfish and tarpon. Fly fishing is tough here by and large, but can certainly be productive if you put yourself in the right guide’s hands. One recommendable guide is Tom Tripp (*), who has moved here from Key West where he spent eight years guiding mostly fly fishing clients after bonefish and tarpon. He charges $350 for a full day of fishing. Another competent fly-oriented guide is Robert Collins (*).

The charm of this fishing is in the scenery, the bird life and the maze-like quality of the waterways you ply. If the fishing tapers, as well it can in between prime tides, there are roseate spoonbills, ibises, ospreys and more to admire. The silence can be immense as the tidal current slides by around you. Make no mistake – you can catch a lot of fish in the 10,000 Islands and get surface strikes from snook and tarpon so ferocious they make the hair on your arm rise. The wonderful thing about this area is, you don’t have to in order to have a good time.
Base An Outing Out Of Flamingo: Another off-the-beaten-track place to base a fishing trip is the village of Flamingo, on the southernmost tip of mainland Florida. Located deep in the heart of Everglades National Park, Flamingo is one of those park-sanctioned concession villages of the sort you find in Yellowstone National Park. It consists of a marina store, a motel and restaurant, some boat launching ramps and various park buildings.

The appeal of the fishing here is the access one has to the northern end of Florida Bay with its snook, redfish, tarpon and trout. Weather permitting, you can sight fish Florida Bay. Additionally, you can fish backcountry waters from Flamingo that are every bit as remote and beautiful as those around Chokoloskee. Guides who know the area and how to handle fly and light tackle anglers include Leon Howell (*) and Adam Redford (*). The latter makes a specialty of day (or overnight) canoe excursions into the remote reaches of the park where motorized craft are forbidden to go.

The wilderness quality of one of these canoe trips is wonderful, and the fishing can be downright spectacular, but the rigors should not be underestimated. Necessarily, guests are expected to help paddle. Gear has to be moved from flats boat to canoe and then back to the flats boat in the evening. Getting almost eye-level with big ‘gators can be intimidating. Plus, there are the insects, which can be a problem at times even in winter.

A day-long fishing trip is a better choice for most visitors. Both Howell and Redford charge $325 a day. The drive down to Flamingo from Miami takes about an hour and a half; or, you can stay at the motel in Flamingo (*). Rates run $79 a night until mid-December and then jump to $95 a night through March. If you want to really enjoy this area, you can rent a houseboat (two nights in the cheapest model costs $475 in the winter – same telephone number as for the motel) and chug away on your own into the wilderness of Whitewater Bay and environs. You can rent a skiff ($90 a day) or canoe ($32) for forays into the mangroves. Given the vastness of the area and the technical nature of the fishing, it would be wise to spend at least one day with a guide. Either of those mentioned above will meet your houseboat on the water at a prearranged hour; or, by special arrangement, they will operate the whole trip for you on a turnkey basis.

Night Fishing In Miami: A less ambitious (but no less offbeat) way to get in a few hours’ angling on a South Florida visit is to book a night-fishing trip right in downtown Miami. The most spectacular night fishing available is for large tarpon at the mouth of Government Cut, which is the local name for the entrance to Port of Miami. We’ve written about this fishing before (see February, 1994 issue; page 8) and mentioned that the top guide is Bouncer Smith (*). The angling is for truly big tarpon up to 180 pounds. Bouncer charges $250 for a four-hour outing (up to three people) and it is worth every penny if the tarpon are in. As we said in 1994, anglers who have enjoyed this fishing in the glow of cruise ship lights "…speak in hushed tones of the number and size of fish that roll sometimes in this very urban water. The sound of the fish striking bait sometimes sounds like huge boulders being hurled into the sea."

Guide Adam Redford (see above) has worked out a gentler variant on the theme of Miami night fishing, though he will also take you to Government Cut in search of giants. For $225, he’ll take you on a six-hour, dock-light excursion after smaller tarpon around Star Island and Indian Creek Island, where Gloria Estefan and Julio Iglesias, respectively, have winter homes. The charm of this fishing is the ability to see your quarry move ghost-like in and out of the cone of light provided by the mercury vapor lamps some dock owners use as security lights. A moderate-size tarpon in the glow of one of these lights looks huge.

To be sure, this is low-volume fishing, unless you condescend to use live bait. It’s a good night when you jump more than a few tarpon and perhaps get one or two to the boat. But in between strikes there is the night skyline of Miami to watch, the sounds of voices coming across the water. Fun…!

Canal Fishing For Peacock Bass In Dade and Broward Counties:
Southern Florida is the only place in the continental United States where you can fish for butterfly peacock bass, which are native to South America. The Florida transplants are concentrated in freshwater canals and lakes, most of which are within the city limits or suburbs of Miami and Fort Lauderdale. One of the most appealing aspects of this fishery is that it is relatively weatherproof. In winter and early spring, strong winds as high as 30 mph frequently shut down the offshore and some of the inshore fishing. However, the canals and small lakes where the peacocks live are relatively unaffected by winds.

Florida peacock bass can reach weights of 10 pounds, and they make short, powerful runs and jumps. They can be caught on bait, artificials and flies. What they are hitting at the moment will depend on the season and conditions. Light spin or bait-casting tackle with six-pound test line is appropriate except when fishing around bridge pilings or snags. A seven or eight-weight fly rod is sufficient.

The enterprising traveler can find some fish on his own with a little guidance from local tackle shops such as Old Cutler Bait & Tackle (*) and Fishing Lines (*). But if you want to get into the best action, a local guide is essential. One you may want to book is Capt. Jim Anson (*). He offers trips throughout Dade and Broward counties. He uses a 14-foot jonboat or goes out simply on foot, and works with all types of gear. A full-day trip costs $275, while a half-day trip costs $200. Two other good local guides are Capt. Doug Lillard (*) and Capt. Steve Kantner (*). Lillard fishes Dade County canals and lakes for peacocks and other species from a 16-foot jonboat and can adapt to all types of tackle. He charges $300 per full day and $250 for a five to six-hour half day. Kantner fishes for peacocks and other species primarily on foot in Broward County canals and lakes. He is familiar with all types of tackle and charges $300 per full day and $200 for a long half day.

Largemouth Bass Fishing In Western Broward County: Like peacock bass, largemouth bass are wonderfully impervious to the effect of those cold fronts that wreak havoc every year on the well-laid plans of visiting anglers. In fact, largemouths spawn in the winter in southern Florida, setting up conditions for some memorable sight casting at trophy-class fish weighing upwards of five pounds. As the season progresses into early spring, the water level drops, forcing the fish to leave the shallows of the open Everglades and concentrate in deep water. This largely ends the sight casting but it ushers in some of the fastest fishing of the year. It is not uncommon then to have days with 80 fish released. Live-bait and lure fishermen have the most success, but some local guides have developed fly fishing for bass to a real art.

Some of the best South Florida bass fishing is in western Broward County in the vicinity of Highway 27. Bass boats or aluminum jonboats equipped with electric trolling motors are the norm, but a few guides consistently produce by fishing from a canoe or even on foot. As for which guide to use, three get the nod for having plenty of experience and offering distinctly different kinds of trips.

The first is Gezz Zampel (*), who fishes out of Holiday Park Marina on Highway 27, using an 18-foot Pro Craft bass boat. He competes on the local bass tournament circuit and has been guiding since 1988. His favorite time of year to fish for bass is from February through April and he is familiar with fly tackle as well as more traditional methods. He charges $190 for a full-day trip and $140 for a half day. The second guide is Jack Allen (*). He uses a trailer to take his 16-foot jonboat out to various locations in western Broward County. He has 30 years of experience and specializes in fly fishing with popping bugs. He furnishes all tackle including Sage fly rods, but he also fishes artificials when conditions dictate. March and April are his favorite time of year. Prices are $225 per half-day and $325 per full-day. And, finally, Steve Kantner (see above section on peacock bass) specializes in fly fishing for trophy bass. He gets clients onto largemouths throughout Dade and Broward counties by canoe and on foot. A full day’s outing costs $300, or you can go out for a long half-day (five hours) for $200.

Fly Fish For Bass In Lake Okeechobee: Still on the subject of largemouths, the winter visitor who wants to target this species should definitely consider Lake Okeechobee. The southern edge of this 730-square-mile lake is only 50 miles or so west of Palm Beach. It’s about 80 from Miami. A good spot to base an overnight trip here is Roland Martin’s Marina in the town of Clewiston (*). The marina has everything you need – guides, marina store, motel and cafe.

Bass guides here charge around $165 for a half-day trip and $225 for an eight-hour full-day trip. Not surprisingly, at a marina owned by a tournament bass star, the emphasis here is on the use of live bait and lures, not fly fishing. Still, successful guides here have long since learned to adapt to customers’ tackle preferences. One such guide is Chet Douthit (*), a nationally known tournament-class angler. He is easy-going and friendly with an air of quiet competence. He primarily fishes with live shiners and lures but his success speaks for itself. He says winter visitors on a good day can reasonably expect to catch 25 or more bass per day, including an occasional behemoth in the 10 to 11-pound class. Fly-only anglers who want to give Okeechobee a try in winter should probably request Danny Watkins (*). No one at The Angling Report has ever fished with him, but the folks at Roland Martin’s describe him as laid-back and friendly, around age 40. Enjoy!

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