Capt. Gary Henderson, Florida

July 5th, 2004

The 'Glades
Part One
By Captain Gary (Flats Dude) Henderson

There are many places we fondly refer to as, "God's Country." This is certainly one of them; The Florida Everglades. In the Seminole language it means, "Sea of Grass."

I was introduced to the Everglades many years ago by my "best-est" friend, Jim Wilson. I consider Jim to be my brother, even though we are not blood related (that's another story).

Jim had been fishing down there since the mid-sixties and wanted to show me around, so we planned a five-day trip. Let me back up a little and try and describe this place.

When most people, even those who live in Florida, hear the word, "Everglades," they immediately think of acres and acres of saw grass, marshy wetlands, Seminole Indians, 'gators and cypress trees. That's a fairly good description, however, there is more to the story; a whole 'nother world exists, as we move westerly from the "interior" 'glades to the Gulf coast fringe of the Everglades. Here, the water turns brackish, as the interior's freshwater run-off mingles with the Gulf of Mexico.

Sure, there are alligators, even crocodiles, yep, crocks. There are sharks...BIG sharks! There are millions of mosquitoes; probably billions of the little black pests, and they never loose their appetite. And, they just don't feed in the early mornings or late afternoons, either. They eat all day! So, why is this God's Country? 'Cause there ain't no place on this Earth like it, that's why!

I was thrilled when Jim asked if I could take a few days off during the last week of May, and head down to the little fishing village of Chokoloskee, which means "old home" in the Seminole language. I made arrangements and packed up the boat, tackle, and clothes to last for a few days. Jim had called ahead and made reservations at one of the few remaining places left to get a room. This time of the year is snook season at its finest, and snook are the most sought-after saltwater game fish in southern Florida, to me, anyway.

Snook are the hardest fighting, pound for pound, fish I have ever caught. Whether on fly, live bait or lure, they will try the patience of the most seasoned angler. A snook, in his kindergarten years, learns to tie half-hitches on everything in his feeding area. They are masters of the knot, and no matter what line you use, he will raise all sorts of hell, rip line from your best reel's drag, then demonstrate the craft of half-hitching, as he explodes back into the mangrove roots. The snook is also one of the most delicious fish that swims, reminding me of grouper in taste. Therefore seasons, slot sizes and limits are strictly enforced, and in the Everglades National Park, the rangers take no exception.

We left Jim's place in Orlando around one in the morning and headed out on west Interstate 4, then south on US 27 (the same area I used to explore with my parents when I was much younger). Once we turned off of 27, we headed southwest along State Road 29, which dead-ends into Chokoloskee.

We arrived around six in the morning and pulled into a little café called, "The Oar House," in Everglades City for breakfast. As soon as we stopped the truck, the "skeeters" flocked around the windows and, I swear, appeared to be pulling out glass cutters and crowbars to extract us from Jim's Suburban. We literally ran into the café to keep from becoming victims. They really are that bad!

After our breakfast of eggs, grits, bacon and biscuits, we headed to the southwestern edge of the island of Chokoloskee to check in, but check in time wasn't until eleven o'clock. What to do? What to do?

We let the guy in the motel's tackle shop know we had arrived and would be back in time to make our arrival official. We hastily threw all of the necessities in the boat, launched it and headed out of the small lagoon that was surrounded by a seawall where small camper trailers and motor homes resting on concrete slabs.

As we headed out of the lagoon, I noticed immediately that everything in sight looked exactly the same. The shorelines of the small and large keys blended together as if it were as one. So, that's why they call it, "Ten Thousand Islands." I had never been there, but I knew already I was in for the learning experience of my life. Thank God Jim was with me!

I brought the skiff up on plane, and Jim pointed to a small, white, wooden post to my port side a thousand feet out. "Head directly at that marker, and stay to the right of it...almost run over it." I did as directed, and immediately Jim pointed to the next one, and the next, and so on, all the while coaching me on which side to line up on. We had only gone a few miles, and I was a nervous wreck. Sand bars and oyster bars lined the narrow, natural channel and being off course within a foot, could leave us stranded in mud, on a sand bar, or the hull of the boat ripped from beneath us by beds of sharp oysters. And still, everything looked the same; mangroves and water.

Once out of Chokoloskee Pass, there before me, appeared the emerald-green, Gulf of Mexico. At last, something looked familiar. I had survived the first un-nerving, navigational nightmare. Then Jim says, "We're going back in there." He was pointing toward the "back country," back into the mangroves. Dammit! By the time we had reached one of the medium-sized keys, I was mentally and physically worn out.

Slowing the skiff, I could now look around. It was the most spectacular place I had ever laid eyes on. Before us was Rabbit Key, a mangrove island surrounded by brilliant, white sand beaches, and the tide was just beginning to fall. I beached the boat.

I reached into the rod holder and removed a twelve-pound spinning rod loaded up with a top water plug attached to a thirty-pound shock leader. I dang-near ran up the beach. My first cast into the current produced an immediate explosion. Line blistered from the reel and I ran down the beach again, in the same direction I had traversed thirty seconds before. When the battle ended, a twelve-pound snook lay in the white sand...supper! It was time to check in to the motel...dammit!

We waded back to the skiff and I eased her back away from Rabbit Key. "Okay, which way back?" It all looked the same, comin' or goin'. It was going to be a long, five days.

As soon as the motel room was loaded and secured, we were off again, same lagoon, same waters, same pass. "Okay, which way?" I could literally stand up in the boat, close my eyes, turn in a circle and not have a clue where in hell we were! Jim just shakes his head.

It was around one in the afternoon when we blew passed Rabbit Key, I almost recognized it, I think. Here we go, back behind other keys, following the same type of little, white posts, white-knuckled... whew; we arrived at Pavilion Key. Pavilion was a little larger than Rabbit, and, it too, was surrounded by white sand beaches. I again beached the boat and we waded the waters around this key. Explosion after explosion, as large snook took swipes at our top water plugs. Sea trout would knock the lures out of the water. Small black-tip sharks swam leisurely by, within feet. Then it was time to go back to the motel to unpack, shower and fry up a twelve-pound snook! "Okay, which way?" Jim, again, shakes his head and points.

The next morning didn't change anything; I still didn't know where I was. So, I politely turned the helm over to James! He shook his head again, and engaged his mental GPS, throttled up, and off we went swerving around mangrove keys and following those damned little white posts...oyster bars go by at fifty miles an hour! As the sun was just beginning to lighten the morning sky, I could now look around, as we skimmed the slick surface of back-country waters. By the way, back then, a GPS unit was totally out of my price range.

That day took us to Turkey and New Turkey Keys. The snook hell-hole!

Carefully, I chose my weapon, a 9x9, IM6 Loomis fly rod, weight-forward line, tapered leader, then knotted to an eighteen inch piece of 30 pound shock leader, and a red and white Lefty's Deceiver. Again, we began to wade the sandy shoreline. Within a few casts, a huge wake followed the fly, and WHAM!! Another snook went towards Mexico.

A younger flatsdude

From sunup to sunset, we beat the waters around those keys to a froth. Snook, red fish, sea trout, ladyfish, tarpon; oh yeah, I almost forgot about the tarpon!

Day three took us back to New Turkey Key. I had chosen to cast my top water plug again, using my 12 pound class rod. We were wading the island and were a hundred yards, or so, apart. The tide was coming in and I noticed a wash coming over a shelf of coquina rock fifty feet off the beach. A great place for a snook to ambush baitfish, I thought to myself! I cast the five inch "Jumpin' Minnow" so that it would carry over the rock; I twitched it. Immediately, a large swirl appeared under the plug. Within a split second, a seven foot tarpon, 'round about a hundred and fifty pounds, came out of the hole, plastered the lure and launched, rattled his gill plates, spraying water everywhere and took off due east...on twelve pound line..."RUT-ROW!!" He then jumped, clearing the surface by three feet, did a complete summersault and threw the mangled lure at me; all in four feet of water. I stood there for several minutes assessing my heart rate, and attempting to take steps toward the skiff on my shakin' knees. Wilson just shook his head and laughed at me. But, I got to watch him that same day, get damned near spooled by another enormous tarpon, and that one broke off his top water plug; his "secret weapon," as he called it! He called that tarpon everything but what he was! I shook my head and laughed...pay backs, at least I got my lure back!

I had mentioned earlier the 12 pound snook we cooked for supper. If a snook isn't skinned, they taste like soap, really. Many years ago, fishermen thought they were trash fish and simply didn't target the snook.

These fish, cut into nuggets, marinated in fresh lemon juice, Louisiana hot sauce and seasoned salt for thirty minutes, removed and dredged in a mixture of seasoned cornmeal and flour, then deep-fried in peanut oil, well, they can't be beat, especially with a pot full of buttered grits, Jim's camp beans and other sides.

It took me twelve years to figure that place out. I still don't know my way around the whole area, I'm not sure anyone really does. If you plan to go down to the 'glades, hire a guide! Take plenty of "skeeter dope," 2/0 deer-hair poppers and sliders, "skeeter dope," bend-backs, deceivers, "skeeter dope" ...a nine-weight; did I mention, "skeeter dope"? ("skeeter dope" is southern slang for DEET!)

Down in the 'glades, I've been witness as twelve-foot sharks cut hundred and fifty pound tarpon in half. I've been attacked by squadrons of mosquitoes as I attempt to remove a fly or lure from the god of the mangrove's possession. I've been bitten by no-see-ems, horse flies and deer flies. I've been chased out of the water by four-foot sharks that got just a little too frisky. I've seen extremely large 'gators, and a few crocodiles sunbathing on the beaches. So why go there?

Here's why!

I have watched ospreys dive on snook so big they couldn't get out of the water without turning the fish loose. I've seen some of the prettiest sunrises and sunsets in the world. I have walked on shell-covered, white sand beaches where Seminole Indians once fished. I've worn myself out to the point of almost collapsing, and then make reservations for the next year to do it all over again; bitchin' the entire time I would never return to do that to my body. I have been privileged and humbled to be a part of Mother Nature's play. So, why do I return there time and again?

That's easy...it's "God's Country." Now, which way do I get outa here?... JIM!!!???

See y'all next week. ~ Capt. Gary

About Gary:

Gary grew up in central Florida and spent much of his youth fishing the lakes that dot the area. After moving a little closer to the coast, his interests changed from fresh to salt. Gary still visits his "roots" in the "lake behind the house."

He obtained his captain's license in the early '90's and fished the blue waters of the Atlantic for a little over twelve years. His interests in the beautiful shallow water flats in and around the famous Mosquito Lagoon came around twenty-five years ago. Even though Captain Gary doesn't professionally guide anymore, his respect of the waters will ever be present.

Gary began fly fishing and tying mostly saltwater patterns in the early '90's and has participated as a demo fly tier for the Federation of Fly Fishers on numerous occasions. He is a private fly casting and tying instructor and stained glass artist, creating mostly saltwater game fish in glass.


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