February 06, 2023
By Gary Oster
Captain Matt Sturdivent, a guide in the Everglades for over 11 years, picked me up in Chokoloskee, and as we idled away from the ramp he explained how we were going to fish the Everglades in a clockwise manner. The tide at the Gulf was currently low and not ideal for catching. He planned to eventually work the incoming tide and boat through the mangroves in a northeast, east, next southeast, then southerly, towards the west, and finally northwest back to the boat ramp at Chokoloskee Island, where we began our day.
Because of the tight fishing conditions, it was necessary to cast with laser precision to hit targets just 20 feet in front of us. The issue was getting your cast well back of low-hanging mangrove branches. Captain Matt taught me a different casting technique he called “the sling low-underhand-arm-flick cast.” For the record, my first half dozen (okay a dozen-plus) attempts at this technique were, in a word, disastrous. However, I eventually got more accurate and consistent with these casts through repetition, which was crucial as Matt moved us deeper and deeper into the mangroves.
Here’s a general chronology of our day, a very good window into how Everglades fishermen work the tides.
8:45 A.M. Slowing and stopping about 15 minutes after launching at the boat ramp, we cast to several points where the tide provided decent water flow and bait movement. Still, after working four or five different spots in the larger river openings with no strikes, Matt said, “It’s time to go up and in,” and that we did. After years of fishing, I had never experienced anything that came close to what we were about to do.
9:30 A.M. We began pulling into several narrow creeks, looking for structure that could hold fish. When I say creeks, I am not referring to a body of water 100 to 200 feet across. No, we were navigating through creeks that were initially 20 feet wide, then 10 feet across, and then narrowed to offshoots barely 6 feet across! The tiny creek’s mangrove shoreline was touchable by hand from either side of the boat. There were times we barely even saw the water; it was as if we were floating on the mangroves.
10:30 A.M. After traveling seven miles into the Everglades, deep into barely navigable water, I finally hooked a small snook, then a slightly larger snook, then another one, and another one. In less than 10 minutes, I caught and boated seven snook all under 24 inches. All the snook were caught in the same target zone, using a tiny jig tipped with shrimp, in a spot that was only 8 feet wide and 20 feet long. This hot spot was a considerable body of water compared to the other tight areas where we had been fishing.
Matt then pushed us about 20 feet farther to the left, and we hit a dead end. No, the creek didn’t stop; but we couldn’t get the boat through because the mangroves touched from each side of the creek. He then looked at me, pointed to a bit of opening about 3 feet wide and 6 feet high, and said, “Cast in there!”
I turned and looked at him rolling my eyes. He said, “Go ahead, flick it in there.” I did, and as soon as the lure hit the water, I got a hookup; the fish jumped, a tarpon! Even though it was only a juvenile, it was jumping and running like it was performing under the big tent of a circus. We got it to the boat, took a photo, and safely released it to perform for an angler another day.
By then the tide had nearly stopped draining out of this part of the Everglades, so we backed the boat out and around (it reminded me of making a three-point turn in driver’s ed. However, this 180-degree pivot was much more difficult). As we crept our way back out, the no-see-um’s found me, and because we were moving slow, there was no-see-um where to hide. Captain Matt to the rescue, he gave me a small spray bottle of Sawyer Products 20% Picaridin Insect Repellent (it has two lids—powerful stuff), which I liberally applied. Two minutes later, no-more-no-see-um’s. This is the stuff that the National Park Service Everglades rangers recommend and use. It works. Look it up on Amazon, nearly 19,000 positive scores. I bought two, one for fishing and one for camping.
11:30 A.M. Matt mentioned the outbound tide should be moving south of us, so he decided to try a spot in open water. Once we got out of the tight, skinny creeks, he plotted his course for an oyster bar where two rivers converged that he hoped might hold some speckled trout. After running about 20 minutes, we stopped about 40 yards from an island and could see from the wind and tidal movement where the shallow ended and dropped. We each changed from shrimp-tipped jigs to topwater lures, casting white Rapala Skitter Walks. Both of us immediately hooked nice size trout on our first casts. Between the two of us, we released twice as many as we kept, limiting out in about 30 minutes with seven trout just under 20 inches. The good news? I had scored a morning slam (tarpon, snook, trout). Unfortunately, still no redfish, but there was still time.
NOONISH As we started to make our turn towards the Gulf of Mexico, Captain Matt changed his mind and made a quick, hard turn east and said, “Before we leave the backcountry, I want to try a special spot not far from here where the tide should still be draining.” We made the short journey. He slowed and stopped us about 60 yards from a nondescript shoreline and said, “Let’s switch to a couple of white 1⁄8-ounce jig heads with white Salt Strong Slam Shady 3-inch paddle tails.” He decided to cast shoreline left; I took right. The trees were shading the waterline, which no doubt provided a cool attack zone for some predators. After no strikes, we moved about 50 yards down the shoreline, repeating our casting, and we both hooked up, one right after the other. We both caught 32- inch snook. That was fun!
After about another 30 minutes of casting, the bite stopped. We grabbed sandwiches and cold water. While we enjoyed our break and midday nourishment, I learned that Matt had obtained his commercial rating at 18; he also holds a 100-ton Master Captain license and runs a 54 Viking full-time in the Keys. He loves to fish the backcountry, Key West, Big Pine Key, and Naples. He is a water-loving and accomplished guy at the age of 30 and is engaged to be married in May. Matt is easy to be around, gives excellent instructions, and focuses on finding fish, making sure his clients are happy and successful during their trip. He also stocks/supplies his boat, so he is ready to change the action at a moment’s notice.
1:00 P.M. The wind was beginning to pick up. Matt looked at his watch and said he was keen on finding us some reds, (and I was secretly hoping to score a grand slam) so he released the spot lock on his trolling motor, stowed it, and once it was secure in the cradle, he throttled the boat towards the Gulf to catch the first part of the incoming tide.
We ran for about 25 minutes before stopping at a spot that he hoped held redfish. We worked the long the shoreline aggressively, casting 3⁄8-ounce Flashabou jigs, with tiny surgical tube and tipped with shrimp. The clock was ticking, the grand slam pressure was mounting, our time on the water was soon going to end and there was no redfish to be found. Captain Matt said he still had one more spot that he was confident might hold fish now that the tide was coming inshore with a vengeance.
We moved about 300 yards inshore, to a location loaded with shoreline exposed tree root structures. I thought, oh no, a too-aggressive cast with the wind to my back, and I would be a break-off in the trees or the roots. Matt tied on a fresh leader, changed to a 1⁄8-ounce jig in chartreuse, and added a Berkley Gulp! scented shrimp. A drop in lure weight meant more airtime, meaning I better control my casts. The first cast was conservative and if I had been a fish waiting for a meal, I wouldn’t have been where my jig landed. Second cast more of the same, except feeling the waning hour of the day, I instinctively sped up my retrieve. Matt watched me and said, “It is alright; slow it down and cast it up current and closer to the exposed tree root and let it drift pass the structure.”
I knew he was correct in his recommendation, so I followed his instruction, made the cast, let it sink and drift, seconds later there was a bump, thump, and tug.
There wasn’t the tell-tale tarpon, snook or trout surface-breaking-shenanigans. This fish felt like a red. He stayed in the water, tried to run in two different directions before I succeeded in bringing in a silvery, fresh from the Gulf redfish and my inshore grand slam! Excitement and relief came upon me.
2:30 P.M. Minutes later, same strategy and another one into the boat for extra measure.
3:00 P.M. We arrived back at the dock. Captain Matt had done a great job teaching me how to fish Glades-style by paying attention to the Everglades tidal time-table, which was crucial knowledge that helped me secure my first inshore grand slam.
It was a great learning day of Everglades fishing! FS
COLLIER-SEMINOLE STATE PARK
Frequently when I travel in Florida for fishing adventures, I like to do it in our Leisure Travel Van motorcoach. This trip, I spent the night at Collier-Seminole State Park, a 7,200-acre preserve on the Blackwater River and one of Southwest Florida’s darkest sky locations, where the naked eye can easily see the Milky Way.
The park has 19 tent campsites and 85 RV sites (with water and electric) and is on a 13.5-mile water trail that boasts the third largest mangrove forest in the world. It also has one of Florida’s oldest geo-caching sites known as the Christmas Cache (established in 2000). The Park has both alligators and crocodiles due to its brackish and salt water and is home to both Florida panthers and black bears.
Known as the “Front Door to the Everglades,” the beautiful and winding canoe trail is home to snook, redfish, tarpon, dolphin, sea turtles and sawfish as well as a diverse variety of birds such as bald eagles, herons, osprey, spoonbills, swallow-tailed kites, red-shouldered hawks and many other species. Canoes and kayaks can be rented and launched at the park basin, but should be reserved in advance.
Learn more by visiting www.floridastateparks.org or call the ranger station at 239-394-3397. – Gary Oster
Published Florida Sportsman Magazine February 2022