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Ole Alligator Alley Fishing

If you haven't made the trip to fish Alligator Alley, you need to do so!  And we ain't talking about the I-75 Alligator Alley. We are talking about the OG alligator alley aka the Tamiami Trail. The original Alligator Alley runs across the state from Naples area into Miami. It's a two lane road carved out of the mud and swamp, the Everglades, which is what most of Florida used to look like a long time ago. It's a step back into time with some interesting places to stop along the way. 

There are many fishing opportunities along the way, with some being safer than others. Safe meaning primarily two things:

1. There is a lot of alligators as one would expect on Alligator Alley. Many of the gators from our experience were not afraid of us, and many were looking to be fed and approaching us. This limited fear results in tight quarters and many of our catches were chased by these toothy dinosaurs. You must be mindful of where you are and whats around you!

2. Many of the shoulders are extremely tight, especially on the various bridges and Tamiami Trail isn't a slow two-lane dirt road. Its a two-lane highway and many drivers are haulin at 70mph, which could be within 2-3 feet of your fishing location. Watch your back cast!  So, we tried to mitigate this risk by finding areas to fish where we were a bit further off the road or at a minimum put a guard rail between us and the traffic rushing by while we try to enjoy the scenery. As much as we love fishing, one person texting and driving would ruin you... This was situation was not the whole trail, just the western portion of the trail.

Let's get into the fishing, which is why we were there in the first place. On the West side of the Tamiami trail, the water is brackish resulting in numerous spots to pull over and fish for snook and small tarpon. These fish come in at different times of the year and the tide will also dictate whether you will be successful in finding them. Unfortunately, we were not successful in the brackish waters during the month of March. We had a few weak attempts on the clouser minnow, but not the opportunities we expected.

Moving East towards Miami is where the bite started to really heat up! The water changes from brackish water to pretty clear fresh water, which also brought a ton of different freshwater species of fish available at each spot. Over the two days, we saw more peacock bass than we could count all just from the shoreline! In addition, we caught numerous species of cichlids, bowfins, largemouth bass, and plenty of opportunities at gar. Almost every cast resulted in some sort of bite! The majority of the fish were on the smaller side, but an amazing fishery nonetheless. We had much luck on a large pond on the side of the road with ample area to fish, and also the canals closed to the spillways from Lake O. The canals sending the over fertilized water east/west vs. south through the Everglades. During our fishing travels, we were even able to spot Capt. Benny Blanco and others filming the Lake O. run-off for a future, conservation film. We are lucky to have people like Capt. Benny and Captains for Clean Water fighting for us.

We also had the pleasure of fishing with Capt. Jeff Legutki, who is a wealth of knowledge and an icon in the fly fishing World. Capt. Jeff was also the last person to fish with Jose Wejebe. I remember watching The Spanish Fly as a kid and dreaming of fishing all those amazing places. Capt. Jeff has a tribute to Capt. Jose on his poling platform and it felt powerful. We met Capt. Jeff in Everglades City, and he  took us through a maze of oyster bars and mangroves throughout Chokoloskee Bay. No GPS, just decades of local knowledge. It was amazing. Of course it had to be windy, which is never ideal for fly fisherman but we made the best of it!  An amazing experience with an expert fly fishing guide! We had an unusual negative tide that day which changed the game plans some, but he presented us numerous opportunities at big fish including the 50lb tarpon that broke off in about one second of hooking up! Man I love tarpon! Super fishy guy, great teacher, and just fun to be fishing with. My next trip is already booked in March 2023! If you want to know more about Capt. Jeff, please check out his website and also episode 50 of the Mill House Podcast. I can neither confirm nor deny whether some of his phrases were used on me during our time together! 

There are a few areas to stay in the Everglades including a few hotels in Everglades City, which oddly the city shuts down around 6pm. We tried to find out why, but no one seemed to know! It's just what they do! Another place to consider staying is Port of the Islands, which is on the water and a decent place to get some rest.

The Tamiami Trail, Alligator Alley, is an amazing fishing experience and I encourage everyone to check it out! Just be aware of the gators and the cars!

 

The Wind Will Humble You!

The wind is blowing a steady 20 mph with gusts easily exceeding that! One moment no tarpon, next moment several shadows quickly move in from the channel to the flats. Seconds to get out the perfect cast! A bit of panicked excitement sets in! This was the moment I have been waiting weeks for! My guide, Captain Court Douthit, with amazing skill and precision, maneuvers his pristine Bonefish 17 Bohemian skiff to put me in the best position to work with the wind. Here come my loving foe and here is my chance! I have about 50-60 feet of line in the basket. I get out two false casts, double haul, and the line shoots out but without the oomph needed in this wind. It was not a great cast, not even a good cast, but maybe just good enough to be seen. The tarpon may have seen my weak attempt but they are much smarter to take a fly swimming towards them and not away from them!  Not many baitfish have the “balls” to swim towards the silver king! My favorite fish all gave my fly a sideways look and disappear just as quickly as they appear. Capt. Court gave me a few more excellent opportunities throughout the day ending with similar results. 

Capt. Court gives me a bunch of tips/techniques and demonstrates the differences in dealing with these conditions, which I greatly appreciate and keep trying, and trying some more with some success. Capt. Court makes it look easy as most experts do. I realize it just isn’t my day and switch over to spinning gear, despite my goal to catch a monster tarpon on the fly. It will happen, but not today in these conditions. These tips/techniques will take numerous hours to apply properly. 

I felt this situation was important to write about, even if I throw a little bit of shade at myself. Despite what social media shows, not every trip results in a trophy fish and many often result in learning opportunities. Don't fall for the hype! Sometimes the learning experiences are far more important. I know I am a decent fly fisherman and don’t pretend to be more than that. As a bell curve demonstrates, most of us are average as our time on the water and practicing is limited compared to the outlier expert fly anglers. No shame in the game! The true experts spend a lot more time fly fishing and have learned many of these tips/techniques much earlier than others. The more experienced fly anglers have put in their 10,000 + hours in ALL conditions. Many of us have done the 10,000 + hours, but for me (and most likely others) only in much better weather conditions. Big mistake! I have never dedicated myself to only fly fishing and have always just changed my tactics based on the conditions.

  • It’s windy, fly rod stays home and spinning tackle comes out.
  • It’s not windy, bring fly rod for sight fishing, plus spinning for blind casting.

This strategy works great most of the time, until you have a guided trip arranged to only fly fish and the conditions are nasty. The wind will humble you! No doubt about it! I have never been a fly fishing purist, but every fish I have ever caught on spinning gear I wish that same fish was on the fly!  I always ponder how much better that fight would have been on the long rod! So what’s next?

  • I will continue to learn and this will include a formal lesson. I have been taught since i was young from my late grandfather, my dad, and in the recent past Youtube videos. It may be time for a true professional to step in to help me with these improvements and how to deal with less than ideal conditions. As many of us, especially us men, think we are doing XYZ perfectly, but someone with a fly fishing eye will see the minor mistakes throwing off your casts that may be invisible to most. I will report back with what I have learned.
  • I will practice fly fishing in windy conditions going forward so when another windy opportunity comes I will be prepared. Practice. Practice. Practice!

I appreciate everyone for reading this long blog. I hope this blog helps someone in a similar circumstance, as being humbled by the wind isn't exactly fun! But being able to smile about it and learn from it - is part of the takeaway! 

Don't let the Wind Humble You! Put in the work now for the pay off later! Don't let your own lack of preparation potentially ruin a fishing trip! 

Couple of shout outs:

Shout out to Captain Court Douthit for showing me a great day on the water. I cannot recommend Court enough for his patience, teaching skills, the fun we had, and his ability to put me on fish in the windy conditions. Super fishy guy and has put in the hours! We even saved some tourists from drifting out to sea! All in a days work! Great guy! Go book a trip with Court!

Shout out to Captain Brian Jill  for helping point out some fish coming in our direction. Super fishy, stand up guy, and hope to fish together in the future! Thanks for being cool! 

Man Overboard

Well, it happened, it was frightening, and a little embarrassing. I went overboard but not in a fun cannonball type of way. A real scare for myself, how I, and many of us often put ourselves in situations and don't think twice about the potential danger. Tarpon season is coming up and just wanted to share a scary experience I had a few seasons ago, which could potentially help others.

During the 2020 tarpon season, my friend and I were fishing off his Glasstream 221 during the pass crab flush at the St. Petersburg Skyway bridge. We met up at the Fort De Soto ramp to get some Friday evening fishing around 4:30pm. It was fairly windy conditions and we quickly loaded up on some tarpon candy aka pass crabs. It was going to be a good day!

Everything was perfect!  We had a livewell full of pass crabs, not many boaters, with a ripping outgoing tide. All we needed was the tarpon to also know about these great conditions, so we could get a hookup. We started doing various drifts under the bridge trying to find a tarpon ready to play. After numerous drifts, we decided to put out the anchor w/anchor ball and set up shop. We would drop in our pass crabs, let them drift out under the bridge, no bites, reel in, and repeat. 

We noticed no one was getting bites including ourselves. The tarpon just weren't in the chewing mood, so it was starting to get dark. We decided to pull anchor and get going before it gets dark. As its my friend’s boat, I always chip in for the dirty work which to me includes pulling anchor. Unfortunately, this anchor was not budging…  We pulled forward on it vertically and tried to bring it up. Nope…  The next move for many of us boaters is to try to take a different angle at pulling the anchor out, which often works.

Unfortunately, in this situation, I was holding the anchor line and the ball was also unclipped. I was the only connection to the anchor and the boat. As we were taking this different angle, the slack of the anchor line was quickly pulling out of my hands. I tried to do what I could to not lose my friend’s anchor and line. But before that even happened, a rope loop on the deck grabbed my ankle and without hesitation I went airborne.  Bang! Off the bow and into the bay!. It took me a second to realize what had even happened. It happened so fast! Like every bad thing seems to manifest. It was similar to what they are always talking about on the Deadliest Catch tv show!

Fortunately for me, it wasn’t exactly like the deadliest catch as a 800lb crab pot wasn’t taking me to Davy Jones locker and water wasn't freezing. Luckily, enough anchor line was out that I could get to the surface, so I wasn’t being held underwater. I was able to determine the anchor line was wrapped around my foot, including my flip flop. I was able to escape my foot from my flip flop and start swimming towards the boat, and climb back in.

Once I got back on the boat, my friend and I both realized how dangerous this situation was and how much worse it could have been. I had no PFD on, no light on me, maybe a small pocket knife, and what if I would hit my head on the way overboard?  What if I was fishing solo and this had happened? No one is swimming against that current!

I never would have imagined this could happen so easy. It’s the first time I have seen or witnessed it in my whole life of being on boats, but it only takes once. 

So many takeaways, but here are a few:

  • WEAR A PFD with a whistle attached to it!
  • Make sure the anchor line is always connected to the boat 
  • Make sure the deck is clear around your feet
  • Zip Tie your anchor to break free easier (when possible)
  • Try not to fish solo in those circumstances, but bad things can happen in much calmer conditions
  • AGAIN WEAR A PFD with a whistle attached to it! 

Just wanted to share a story that could have gone much worse. If you’re not already, please consider wearing a PFD in the future. I know I will!

A Floridaman, his truck, and alligators

As a life long Floridian, I have always been respectful of alligators and luckily have had very few run-ins with these prehistoric monsters. I have had several situations when wade fishing in the Indian River, where they would lurk at a bit of a distance but still close enough where you still pucker up a bit! I never considered applying for a gator hunting tag until this year.  It was 2020, so why not!

With oversight from a friend, we applied into the annual lottery with our preferred gator hunting spots listed in priority. We were both selected in the lottery to hunt STA_1W-North, which is a water treatment area in Belle Glade, Florida. The tag allows an individual to harvest two alligators during the season. The STA_1W North area is essentially a small grid of dirt roads with small canals on both sides within about a 3-5 mile area used to clean water from Lake Okeechobee.

Here is the essential gear used:

  • A truck, preferably lifted so you fit in with the others
  • Medium Heavy Fishing Rod
  • 8000 Size Reel with 80lb braid
  • Weighted Treble hooks
  • Large Snatch Hook connected to a rope
  • Jon Boat w/oars
  • Bang Stick w/357 Magnum ammo
  • Harpoon
  • Waterproof Boots
  • And a lot of bug spray

In a nutshell, someone is driving the truck down these dirt roads and your hunting partners are standing up in the back of the truck scouting for alligators in the canals. Once something with some size is spotted (6 foot plus), a few slaps on the roof, truck stops, and the hunt begins! The hunters quickly work their down the shoreline and start casting weighted treble hooks over the alligator in an attempt to snag the alligator. This often occurs by blindcasting until you snag something, which is often also dead trees, roots, litter etc... 

If you happen to snag an alligator, the fight begins! The other hunters quickly pull the jon boat from the back of the truck and slide it down the bank. The hunters including the angler board the boat and launch in chase of the gator. Once launched, one of the non-anglers start tossing the snatch treble hook to get a better connection into the gator to better control its movement. If successful, you would now have two connections to the alligator, and able to somewhat control the alligator. Dependent on the gator’s size, it may be beneficial to also harpoon the gator. Eventually, the gator will exhaust itself out and a bang stick is used to finish the fight.

I was able to punch both my tags (9ft and 9ft 7inch) during the same weekend with help from my friends. 

Fortunately, many alligator processors exist in the area where you can drop off the gator and they handle the rest. The wife didn't like the idea of handling it at the house!

Gator hunting is as Floridaman as it gets and comes with a lot of risk. After all, you are fighting a prehistoric monster in their territory and in my situation a small boat. Things can go wrong and do occasionally go wrong. If you are interested in trying it out, please go with a professional or an experienced person. It's definitely an experience! 

The rules are set by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission aka the FWC. Rifles and other guns are not permitted by law and would probably just result in wounded gators. These annual controlled hunts are used to control the gator population and also help fund the management of Florida wildlife. This active management is what drives the USA to have such plentiful wildlife. In addition, the costs of the licenses and the special excise taxes from the hunting equipment are also used to fund the various state programs to preserve our wildlife.

For additional information, please check the FWC site.

Top Inshore Five

It's very difficult to list your top five favorite inshore saltwater fish. As for me, I enjoy catching every fish. Some obviously more than others! If I was forced at gunpoint to pick my top five Florida fish this would be them. At least for today.  I may even have to rewrite this blog in a few hours from now!  But here we go!  

1. Tarpon 

This one is going to be controversial as many anglers want to eat what they can catch. Don't get me wrong there is nothing like eating your catch the same day as you catch it. But.... its a megalops!  Come on people!  The amazing feats of strength, the bow to the king, the epic stories, the pure size!  Nothing gets me excited for fishing like the annual tarpon run!  

2. Snook

The number two/three spot was a challenge for me and if anyone switches these, I completely get it! I may even switch these tomorrow.  Snook are amazing!  They get large and in charge, also delicious, have some attitude, and those lines. 

3. Redfish

The number three spot is a bit tougher for me! I haven't lived any further south than Melbourne, FL, so permit and bonefish are excluded just because of my limited experience. A few reasons redfish are in my number two spot.  They are delicious! They get large! They are amazing for sight fishing! Those tails!  Come on!

4. Sheepshead

This is where things get real contentious! Let's Get Ready to Rumble!!!  For those that really fish, we know that sheepshead is an amazing and underrated tasting fish! Another delicious eating fish, but the scales will dull some knives. When fishing is tough in the winter, there is nothing like anchoring up under a bridge and putting down some fiddlers. Fish on!

5. Flounder

Flounders are extremely cool fish. They would be ranked higher, but they are definitely harder to successfully target for the majority of us. I am still learning how to target them, which has always been slow rolling jigs on the grass and sandy spotted bottom. Truth is I am always learning! Rumor is they hold offshore near Tampa Bay on sandy bottoms for mating. If anyone knows where to find them and needs some help, let me know!

What's your #SHO5 ?

Some things to consider:

  • If I had access to permit and bonefish, this would have made my top five much more difficult.
  • I classified cobia as an offshore fish, despite they are often caught inshore.
  • I love fishing for gator trout, but something had to give! There ferocious topwater bites may move trout up the list sometime soon!