Sunday, June 24, 2007

Mini skiffs and winter creek fishing.........

This past March, Connie and I had planned to get a shuttle to Watsons and explore the Sweetwater Bay area. Dan (gatorguy) and Les, would meet us on day one and camp with us at the Watsons place. The following morning while we paddled to Darwins, they would motor to Chokoloskee to pick up Stubb. You see, a few of our kayak fishing buddies had gone out and traded their paddle craft for mini skiffs.

Les ordered a Gladesman:

Stubb bought a used Riverhawk:

Dan bought a new Gheenoe:

They decided to meet us out in the backcountry and test their mini skiff's and hopefully catch some fish. Stubb, at the last minute decided not to bring his skiff down thinking there would be ample room for fishing aboard either the Gladesman or the Gheenoe. Unfortunately, the conditions did not look favorable for fishing. A full moon, lunar eclipse and a cold front coming in all in that same weekend with high winds predicted. The front even promised to lower the temperatures to the lowest that winter. Yeah, prime fishing conditions. I'll let Stubb....tell you the rest....

The Wilderness at Low Water

mike stubblefield
sanford florida

Gator, Les and I gazed at two mini-skiffs, a Gheenoe Classic and an East Cape Gladesman, loaded to the gunwhales with camping and fishing gear. Fortunately, both boats were beached on Chokoloskee Island. Their bows were high and dry because we weren’t quite sure either one would float once we boarded and shoved off. Assuming, naturally, that the gear loads would let us “shove off.” . If they would float, there were valid concerns about the amount of freeboard available to handle the fifteen knot NNW winds that lashed at the inland bays along the Wilderness Waterway.

“Hmmmm,” mused Gator. “My tupperware tubs fit just right on the foredeck and behind the live well but I ain’t sure but what I didn’t bring a bit too much stuff.” “I keep telling you, Bubba, that all that water, ten gallons at eight pounds per gallon, is a lot excessive. A half gallon of rum would last you 4 days just fine and only weighs about a pound.” Nobody responded to my comment, however, so I kept my thoughts to myself.
“Can you leave that tub behind?” asked Les and he pointed to the container full of tents, camp chairs, cook stove and cans of Beanie Weenie, Gator’s version of emergency rations.

There was no reply to this outrage because, given our combined record of skunks, Beanie Weenie might constitute our first camping night’s dinner .. if not night numbers two and three. So, with a glance to the low cloud cover and gusting winds, we grunted the bows off the bank, fired up the mighty 9.9 and 15 horse outboards, and galloped into the Turner River headed twenty miles SSE to Darwin’s Place.

The plan was to meet with friends Vivian and Connie. They are confirmed yakeros and canoeists and had been mothershipped into the coastal ‘Glades the day before by Captain Charles Wright of Everglades City. From Darwin’s we would roam the small creeks and bays in all directions. You note I said “small creeks” and with good reason: the strong winds made the larger bays wildly choppy.

The two skiffs had no difficulty meandering the 20 odd miles to Darwin’s. We only ran aground fifteen or twenty times, even using what we thought were good GPS tracks made on previous trips. We got turned around twice and ended up doing two tours of Crooked Creek; none of us noticed it until I sighted a dead mangrove I’d shot a picture of thirty minutes earlier. We stopped, conferred, consulted charts and GPS tracks, cussed each other out, and got headed in the right direction.

Eventually, we landed on Darwin’s Place campsite. Viv and Connie, models of minimalist wilderness paddling, were set up: their tent tucked against a Gumbo Limbo tree; water in coon-proof containers; canoes snugged up on high ground.

We lumbered to a stop on the shell landing and were treated to loud, long and outraged comments from the ladies about the amount of gear we brought. However, knowing them as I do, I produced a genuine four cup coffee press and a freshly ground pound of Starbuck’s Ethiopian Sidama coffee, and became an instant hero. My mama didn’t raise a fool.

The next two days were one’s of exploration coupled with fishing. And freezing! The sunrise showed the temps at forty degrees (Gator’s infamous watch not only gives us altitude, barometric and humidity readings but also the temperature. I think it tells the time, too.).

The strong winds kept us in the aforementioned creeks and we caught snook; few were keepers but they were of a size to make us happy. We ventured down one creek, poling, slogging through mud bars, and on into a series of large shallow bays. And the snook were in there! Smart, the snook were laid up in a foot of water and mud since the sun warms those areas up quickly. We didn’t see them, until poling by, and it was like sight fishing redfish: a fin here, a tail there, a cast into the movement, a “whoa,,, got a hook up!” Dinner was assured.

There was a slight problem, however. Every evening, each morning, we’d look at the water level on the tiny shell beach where the skiffs and canoes rested, and noted something disturbing: the water level did not go up with tide changes. Strong northerly winds were stalling tidal surges. However, since to our eyes the surrounding levels were constant, we didn’t worry about it much.

We should have been concerned.

Our last day at Darwin’s Place had Les, Gator and I loading the skiffs back up; we eyeballed the water level again .. hadn’t budged. Winds were still strong, to fifteen plus and gusting NNE, but “ho hum .. looks OK to me!” was the attitude. Viv and Connie were to be picked up with their canoes by Captain Wright; no worries there, so we took off.

Details of the return trip would be tedious here. So, I’ll summarize. In a mini-skiff running a 9.9 or 15 horse outboard, the trip from Chokoloskee Island to Darwin’s, or the return, via the Wilderness Waterway, should not take more than an hour. Just coasting along, enjoying the scenerey.

But, unknown to us, the water gauge at the mouth of the Turner River that day dropped off the graph. We got beat to death in Chevalier Bay by the chop; got detoured out of several creek passages that had gone dry; had to pole our way through the two Cross Bays; and pushed the skiffs out of Mud Shoal Bay. When we got to Chokoskee Bay .. there was no water!! I climbed an oyster bar to see if there were channels with water to get us to the launch ramp. The return trip took four hours .. but we made it.

Would I go back? Yup. Scheduled to be down there again in April. I’ll have a pair of wading boots with me this time.