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“There are no other Everglades in the world. They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth, remote, never wholly known.”—Marjory Stoneman Douglas
Though I had heard that quote many times, I never quite grasped the scope and the truth of it until I experienced the everglades for the first time myself. That’s probably because it is impossible to simply imagine the Everglades—to comprehend the magnitude of its bays, the tangle of its red mangroves, the sounds of its birds, the colors in its sunsets, or the labyrinth of channels pouring through its flats. To see it is to believe it. To fish it is truly an experience like no other.
When I first met Captain Paul Ray of Eleven Angling at the boat ramp in Chokoloskee, Florida, for our two-day adventure in the Everglades, I really had no clue what to expect. For weeks we had been in contact and he kept me up-to-date on conditions and fishing reports. The report look dire days before our trip, as a cold front pushed through and put a lot of the fish down, but on arrival the sun was shinning and temps were rising, a hopeful sign.
I had just walked off the plane in Fort Meyers an hour and a half before we shook hands at the docks. I had been traveling since 4 a.m. to get there, and now, two flights and an hour-long rental car ride south brought me to the edges of The Everglades National Forest. The moment had finally arrived.
We hopped into the immaculate 18-foot Beavertail Air skiff and began to wind our way through the Chokoloskee Pass. This skiff was not only well maintained, but it also rode like a dream through whatever the wind and the waves threw at it. One nice feature for the angler’s comfort was that the front console seat was equipped with arm rests and a well-padded seat cushion. The front deck was rigged with a toe rail with line spikes and another casting platform that gave a real advantage when spotting fish in the murky waters.
Another key component of an angler’s experience within the Eleven Angling network is the company’s apparent approach to guiding. Captains, like Paul, are salaried employees of Eleven Experience and work hard to maintain that position. The company provides them with top-of-the-line gear, boats, and clientele, and they work hard to earn good tips and keep their positions. I have never been out fishing with a more professional or knowledgeable guide.
It was obvious from the get-go that Paul knew his way around this place like the back of his hand. Each turn and pass were navigated with certainty and speed—and there were a lot of turns to reach the bay.
We started out the trip heading for blue waters and the boundary of the park, where he handed me an 8-weight rod and told me to sit on the forward casting platform as we motored down the line of buoys looking for tripletail. It didn’t take long to find a couple and begin our assault. These fish absolutely hunted down my shrimp fly with reckless abandon, and it didn’t take long before we had boated two nice fish. The first of which put up a great fight. It was a great way to break the ice and get warmed up. We motored down the line some more, but there weren’t many fish on buoys, so Paul said we would head inland.
We moved on to the tidal flats to look for snook and possible tarpon. Along the flats, the water was stained, but it turned clear within leeward coves and shallows. Within a minute or two, I began to catch small snook that were hiding along the mangroves and structured shoreline. These were mostly small fish under the two-pound mark, but they were all wild and beautiful, and I enjoyed it immensely. At one point, Paul told me, “Big snook at 1 o’clock,” but I had just released a cast at 11 o’clock that got clobbered by a small snook. I looked up, and that’s when I saw the larger 30-plus-inch fish swimming away from the commotion of the jumps and thrashing of my smaller catch. Bad timing, but it was great to see a big fish patrolling the flats. I caught a half dozen smaller snook in just a few hours.
Then, we decided to have a much-needed lunch break. Beverages and food were just another small part in the larger picture of Eleven’s premium approach to guided trips. We had deli subs for lunch, and Paul had one cooler stocked with condiments, snacks, and protein bars, and another stocked full of about anything you could wish to quench your thirst: water, Gatorade, coconut water, cold-brew coffees, and soda. You couldn’t ask for more in a day trip.
Next we planned on heading for the backcountry at an entry point farther down the coast, but not before motoring back out to the buoy line to see if the fish had shown up with the changing tide. Sure enough, there they were. It was like a switch was flipped, because now there were tripletail everywhere, and we fished and boated a dozen before finally setting a course for the backcountry. After navigating our way through a precarious and low-hanging mangrove tunnel we found our way to more open waters, where we fished for more snook and micro-tarpon. Before the cold front, Paul assured me, the micro tarpon would have been a sure thing, but during our time in the backcountry they mostly just rolled, avoided us, and sometimes swiped at our flies halfheartedly, though there were a handful of times where slow hookset may have been to blame. The snook however were always willing, and we boated another dozen or so before the sun began to set; and what a sunset it was.
The great part about the Everglades is the abundance of beautiful habitat and wildlife. Their were birds everywhere, including roseate spoonbills, wood stork, herons, terns, and cormorants galore. We also spotted the occasional alligator swimming or sunning along the mangroves. The one thing I was surprised by was the lack of bugs. There were hardly any even in the backcountry, which Paul later told me was not a good thing. The next morning, the bugs greeted us at our hotel door and Paul thought it was a sign of a good day. Indeed it was.
On day two, we woke early and motored through the dark to a new river system much farther down the coast. Talk about trusting your guide! These waters are convoluted and can be perilous enough in the middle of the day, but at night, you really have to know them well.
We greeted the sunrise in the middle of a large channel with a smooth surface, which was perfect for spotting rolling fish. We spotted a few early, but as the sun rose higher the activity began to increase, and we followed several large fish into a smaller channel no more than 90 feet wide and approximately three to four feet deep. There were a lot of tarpon in this channel, and we spent the morning blind-casting and trying to get casts at rolling fish.
After a while, I cast a soft wake in the water and came tight on a 100-pound tarpon that went berserk in the shallow waters. I fought this tarpon for upwards of 15 to 20 minutes through six or seven big jumps and had it whipped. A slight roll to one side sent the hook flying and that was that. It’s always hard to lose one past the point of leader touching. Roughly an hour later, I dropped a cast on top of a rolling fish and we got to watch him surface and slash at the fly with nearly his whole back out of the water. What a take! The hook set was a bit shallow, however, and after two great jumps the hook was thrown loose.
Fishing for tarpon this size in such close quarters was absolutely heart pounding. They weren’t spooky at all in the tannic waters, and the hardest part was just timing casts or getting within casting distance of rolling fish. I enjoyed this style of fishing immensely; less waiting around for fish and more stalking and actively pursuing them. What a rush.
The rolling activity started to decrease, and soon we motored out to the bay to see if fish were free-jumping or rolling. Along the way we stopped at a few historical sights to take in a bit of history, of which Paul is an enthusiast. And there is a lot of history there to learn.
In the bay, we saw a few fish rolling, but it just wasn’t happening. Paul said that a week earlier it was crawling with fish, but that they just hadn’t returned in great numbers since the cold front, so we had lunch and skipped out to the buoy line to boat some more tripletail before moving on to a point where we poled for tarpon. After only seeing a few distant fish, we headed to the flats to catch a few more snook and look for laid-up tarpon. We boated a few more snook in the process.
Our 3 p.m. quitting time was quickly approaching—I had a 7 p.m. flight time out of Fort Meyers—so we took the time to go check out an isolated flat in the middle of the bay and to see if fish were swimming there. It was the final piece of the puzzle that let me finally grasp Ms. Stoneman Douglas’s quote. This little flat resembled something akin to what you might see in the deeper Caribbean— teeming with rays, sharks, mullet, and small baitfish. It was incredible to see so much diversity within a 20-minute boat ride. She was right; you could probably spend your whole life in the Everglades and never truly “know” it. I’m glad I finally got to know just a little piece of it.
In two days, we saw hundreds of large migratory tarpon, tons of snook and resident tarpon, tripletail, sharks, and even a few redfish. What we did not see were a lot of other boats and anglers. There were maybe five boats seen the whole time, and never within shouting distance. You couldn’t say the same for anywhere else on the Florida coast during the migration window. It’s hard to put a price on all of that space and abundance.—Editor, Seth Fields
Postscript: Day trips to the Everglades with Captain Paul Ray are $650 full day (8-plus hours) and can be booked at https://www.evergladesguideservices.com/ or by calling 231-409-4231. You can also find out more about Eleven Experiences’s various fly-fishing trips and travel adventures at https://elevenexperience.com/.