Paddle back in time on a storied tributary of Lake Okeechobee.
While we pack for an overnight canoe trip on Fisheating Creek, 21-year-old JT Graves hits 14-year-old Read Wolfe with, “Hey junior, leave your exfoliating lotion and your hair gel.” The crack dawns on Read slowly, but then Read, who I doubt even brought a toothbrush, tells JT that he’ll have a hard time keeping his legs closed in a canoe while wearing a mini-skirt. JT crushes him in a headlock, and says something about seeing who the sissy will be after he catches the trip’s biggest bass. Although I’m supposed to play the responsible leader, it’s never been one of my strongest roles and I can’t help but laugh. The furthest thing from sissies, these two young anglers will make a great crew, and I want them to catch big bass—lots of them. But ultimately, I want these sons of family friends to appreciate one of Florida’s last intact stretches of wilderness, and their right to access it.
Each spring, but many moons ago, my parents ritually brought my sister and me to the waterway the Seminoles named Thlothlopopka-Hatchee, or “the creek where fish are eaten.” For both the Seminoles and their predecessors, the ancient native “Belle Glade people,” the creek was more than a source of food and water; it also served as a canoe highway leading to and from Lake Okeechobee. Of course, Fisheating Creek was mainly for us a recreational resource, but as we watched the concrete jungle sprawl westward across Palm Beach County, we came to understand the lake’s only undammed tributary as a wild thoroughfare between pre-settled Florida and a future where Floridians would still enjoy opportunities to experience wilderness and to learn wilderness skills. Although at that age my sister and I couldn’t realize it, our paddles and rods connected us to this wilderness, and made us part of its natural history. Then, abruptly, the opportunity to make such connections on Fisheating Creek was gone.
Back in 1989, Lykes Brothers, the land baron that owns most of the land surrounding the creek, folded their campground and canoe-livery service and cut off all access. Their actions caused uproar within the Glades community, and a 10-year-long legal battle ensued. Ultimately, Fisheating Creek was declared a navigable waterway and the right to public access was guaranteed into perpetuity. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) now manages the creek’s riparian boundaries, as well as the 40,000-acre Fisheating Creek Wildlife Management Area, a property the state purchased from Lykes Brothers at the end of the legal battle. The Palmdale campground, which has recently been given a thorough makeover, is run for FWC by a concessionaire, and the concession offers primitive campsites, RV hookups and a canoe livery service.
Creek levels between two and three feet make for the best combination of fishing and canoeing conditions. At those levels, you rarely have to get out of the canoe, but the creek is still shallow enough that the fish gang up in the deep holes in the creek bends. But in April, we find that Fisheating Creek is extremely low—less than two feet. So, when we arrive at the campground, Bob Joyner, the new concessionaire, explains that only the creek’s widest reaches hold enough water to make for reasonable paddling and fishing. We are their only reservation, so Bob suggests we camp near the Burnt Bridge access, and explore that oxbow and as much of the creek as the low water allows.
The Burnt Bridge access road brings us lakeside beneath a canopy of spring-verdant cypress. The view is so breathtaking that Read and JT forget their fish lust and gaze across the shimmering oxbow where dozens of enormous alligators reflect the glare metallically. Read is duly impressed by the sizes of these lizards.
“Dude, that one’s longer than the canoe,” he says, pointing, so I playfully shove the skinny kid into ankle-deep water. He scrambles back up the bank. Then, a shadow passes over us so big it could belong to a pterodactyl. I recognize the whistle of a swallowtail kite and point out its scissor-tail to them.
“Those birds helped save this creek,” I tell them. “One of the world’s largest migrations of that species stops here to fatten up before flying down to South America. The state bought all that land along the creek in part to protect their habitat.”
Before we can even unstrap the canoes, JT starts working a plug around Burnt Bridge’s charred wooden pilings. While Read and I haul our gear to the water’s edge, he’s fighting bass. It would be a waste of breath to suggest that we make camp before we go fishing; JT looks like a man possessed and Read is just salivating. Read climbs into the bow of my canoe, and JT paddles himself double-time toward the opposite shoreline.
While Read knows more about boat-handling than a lot of captains, he’s new to canoeing. I explain to him what “draw left,” and “draw right” means, but first I tell him that the bowman mostly just needs to make long steady strokes that begin with a vertical dip of the paddle into the water. I also explain that by pushing forward with the top hand while the paddle moves sternward, he can save his bottom arm a lot of stress. But like a good fly-casting stroke, good paddling stroke skills are discovered by feel, and at that moment all Read really wants to feel is a deeply bent rod.
Bluegill beds dot most of the oxbow’s shores. We need something for the frying pan, so I hand Read a 4-pound spinner rigged with a small black-and-yellow Beetle Spin. Although he’s a bluewater expert, Read has never had to make pinpoint casts from a seated position in a canoe. His first cast lands way short, but something swipes the little spinner anyway. Read rears back like he’s jerking an amberjack off a wreck and the Beetle Spin whistles over our heads like a .22 Hornet.
“Junior,” I say, “I’m really not into piercings; when you feel a strike just keep on reeling.”
Read proceeds to drop half a dozen, paddle-width-sized bull bluegills into my lap. Meanwhile JT, who’s also fishing with an ultralight, is busy with a 4-pound bass that’s towing him across the creek. It buries itself in duckweed, so JT paddles over, reaches down, and jerks the fat fish out. When Read and I paddle over to admire the fish three humongous gators surface wearing covetous looks. JT releases the fish into the safety of the weeds.
“I don’t think I’m going to set up quite so hard,” he says, while he rocks the canoe gently to underscore the need for caution.
Read keeps tossing the Beetle Spin out until we have enough panfish fillets for dinner. But after watching JT catch that nice bass Read casts the Beetlespin without much enthusiasm. Although he’s never caught one, the lad’s got a case of bass fever, and he’s studying JT’s every move. Finally, he turns to me and says, “Terry, show me how to rig those worms so I can throw them in the weeds like that.”
Although big bass will devour the tiniest spinnerbaits, nothing works better in Florida’s blackwater creeks than a Texas-rigged 4-inch plastic worm fished on an ultralight spinning rod. If there’s much wind or current, it’s necessary to thread a small bullet weight above your worm; but the conditions are calm and the current moves slowly so I show Read how to Texas-rig a worm sans weight.
“Without a weight, the worm has a much more lively action,” I explain.
It takes Read a few casts to learn to work the worm slowly enough and to give it action without throwing too much slack in the line. It takes him a couple of misses to get a feel for how long he needs to wait to set the hook. And it takes a deliberate splashing with my paddle to get him to stop dropping fish into my lap. But I am getting one helluva charge out of watching the kid tussle with these sinewy creek fish, which fight much harder pound for pound than larger bass that live in still water.
“These guys think they’re huge,” Read says, as he lips a splashing schoolie.
The three of us fish down opposite sides of the wide stretch of creek flowing out of the Burnt Bridge oxbow. By late morning, enough breeze blows that I have to slow our drift with continuous reverse paddling. JT, fishing alone in his own boat, deals with the wind as best he can by hugging the leeward shore while casting parallel to the bank. That angle allows him to cover shorelines most effectively and he catches a bass about every cast. But, both of us wish we’d brought bell anchors, and I won’t canoe the creek again without one.
About a mile below the oxbow, we come upon a couple of deep pools that are loaded with fish. Then, the creek bed turns bone dry. It’s well past noon, and JT, who’s never much for understatement, wants his lunch.
“Let’s eat,” he says. “I’m so hungry I could eat the rear end of a dead skunk.”
We double-time it back to the access point, devour a couple of sandwiches each, and then transport our gear across the water to a high spot we found on the western side of the oxbow. While I clean the fish, Read and JT pitch the tents, set up the kerosene stove, and gather firewood. The afternoon heat makes us drowsy, and it’s siesta time.
Two hours later, tree shadows fall across my tent and awaken me. JT follows me down to the bank, and we shove off quietly. We work our way upstream to a big flat created by the flow of the creek into the oxbow. A buzzbait would best cover the flat, but these schoolie bass aren’t picky. Every time JT’s chugger or my popping bug hits the water, we get a strike. I mean this place is 4-weight heaven. One fish swallows my popper, and while I’m performing surgery, JT tells me to look up.
“Holy cow,” he says sarcastically, “Here comes a Seminole.”
Read’s paddling toward us, but he’s paddling from the stern so his bow rises high into the wind. The wind blows across his port side, and plays hell with his progress. He makes three furious strokes on one side, but he’s paddling so hard that his bow gets to port of the wind and it tries to turn him around. He makes three furious, reactionary strokes on the opposite side, and the canoe turns broadside in the other direction. Like a drunken sailor, Read winds his way up the creek, but by the time he gets to us, the fish have shut off.
“You should have paddled faster,” JT ribs him.
“No,” I say, “you should have paddled smarter. When the wind’s coming across your bow, paddle on the opposite side just hard enough to offset the push. When you get into a lee or if there’s a lull between gusts, use your J-stroke to keep a steady course. No matter what, try to paddle from one side only.”
Read pulls alongside me and I showed him the J-stroke motion. The latter part of the stroke re-centers the bow after the thrust naturally pushes it toward the opposite side. It’s awkward at first, but I make him practice it on the way back to Burnt Bridge, and looking back, I watch him discover that like fly fishing, the art of canoeing isn’t an exercise in force; it only requires subtle management of opposing forces.
JT hops in the other canoe with Read, and both ask to borrow a fly rod. They’re both learning to fly fish, and either they’ve ripped enough lips wormin’ or the creek’s subtle rhythms have inspired them toward a more graceful approach. I leave the two novice fly fishers to flog water around the old bridge pilings. Paddling away, I hear both of them hoot as a bass whacks one of their poppers.
Below the oxbow’s mouth, the current flows at just the right speed for me to stand in the canoe and cast to the shoreline. By now, the sun is low, calm spreads over the water, and the loudest sound in the air is the hiss of my fly line rushing through the guides. Every time my popper hits the water it disappears beneath a swirl. Small bass after small bass comes to hand until approaching dusk an enormous bucket devours my bug and breaks the six-pound tippet as easily as corn silk. In the gathering dark, and beneath an aerial ballet of kites, bats and barn swallows, I head back toward camp. While the bullfrogs sing in chorus and the gators bellow, my paddle plucks a soft, carrying chord from the creek. It’s a timeless song.
Fisheating Creek Access
For a complete Fisheating Creek History lesson, search www.fisheatingcreekoutpost.com. This Web page also provides up-to-date water-level information. Scroll down to the very bottom of the page; the last chart gives the current creek level in feet. For reservations or information, contact the Fisheating Creek campground at (863) 675-5999. The concession rents canoes and offers three- , two-, and one-day canoe trips. If you plan to fish, you must have a Florida freshwater fishing license. FS