Sunday, May 2, 2010

Circumnavigating Whitewater Bay

On December 24th 2009 Connie, Alex and I started our trip around Whitewater Bay. The mileage was roughly 90 not counting the many paddling miles trying to locate the snook while in the Lane and Hells Bay area. We had three cold fronts back to back making travel a bit slow here and there. These fronts also affected the fishing somewhat. When we got back in on January 1st, 2010, a very strong system brought a persistent cold snap that would eventually kill hundreds of gamefish.

My favorite part of the bay is the eastern shore from Watsons River to Hells Bay. It was the best in terms of fishing and protected paddling. This map shows the campsites we stayed at during our 9 days:


On our first day the winds were in the 15 - 20 knot range from the SE so we routed the trip from Hells Bay trail instead of Coot Bay Pond. Long range forecasts warned of a very strong front that would affect us on the latter part of our trip. Therefore, we opted to leave and come back into the Hells Bay area. Our friend Alex was going to join us on several of the sites and he took out at Flamingo's backcountry ramp. We were unaware he was not able to get the first night at Hells Bay with us and could only get North Joe River. With a fully loaded kayak and a 15 -20 mile wind he had a very exciting first day journey. Luckily he is not only a very strong paddler but is also a competent outdoorsman.

I've been fishing the Hells Bay/Lane Bay area these last few winters making a trip at least twice a season. So far I have learned that the winds dictate where the fish will concentrate and that the higher the winds the better the fishing. I usually bring shallow running or weedless lures to use in the ponds. Depending on the water level these ponds expose plenty of grass you have to work through. The connectors between these ponds are a bit deeper and you can fish your 1/8 oz and 1/4 oz lures. These connectors were what I targeted on this trip and found very hungry snapper. One of the snapper had a huge shrimp in it's mouth and still aggresively attacked my Mirrorlure 7M with a vengeance. If any of you experienced Hells Bay fishermen can give me some more tips, I would be most appreciative.

Typical snapper at Hells Bay:

The snook are with the snapper in all the areas I found them. I just had to use a jig to get below to them:

I did not fish Hells Bay long because I did not feel good and was getting over a bad flu. I also had to help Connie setup the tent in some big wind which was not fun from an open chickee platform. After setting up the tent and securing the gear so it would not get blown off the platform, we settled down to dinner. I had pre made a hearty lentil soup and froze it for an easy first night dinner. We also brought flatbread, wine and desert. It was a long day so we turned in early.

The next day we planned to get out of Hells Bay through the East River into Whitewater Bay. My fishing plan was to target the points of land leading towards Tarpon Creek. A storm of wind and sporadic rain greeted us as we came out of the East River but it quickly passed us. Winds were still up in the 15 knot range and I could not totally concentrate on an area to fish other than to cast at likely places as I drifted quickly by. I found no takers anywhere along the route even at the pond/creek west of South Joe chickee.

Points along the way:

We finally meet up with Alex who had secured an adjacent platform on the same chickee with us at South Joe River. After a nice meal of spaghetti and sauce with garlic bread and wine we enjoyed catching up with him on his experiences and his paddle alone to North Joe chickee. The next morning we were to camp on the Oyster Bay chickee. Alex had a permit to Watsons River chickee so we planned to meet up with him on our way up to Canepatch.

Oyster Bay Chickee was always one of my favorite chickees to stay at when I had my powerboat. This chickee and Roberts River were the platforms I mostly camped on when fishing Whitewater Bay. From a canoe or kayak prepare for tidal fluctuations as much as six feet from boat to platform. It would be good if you had a morning high tide for your departure. We had an extreme low tide and luckily learned from Alex, a system of securing a canoe or kayak to the ladder with a series of rope and carabiners. His method made my canoe so stable I could stand up in it. This technique needs some perfection but that is how he managed to get on and off the two chickees in Florida Bay from his kayak. I am in the process of making a set of ropes/carabiners to carry on my next chickee adventure and will take pictures to share.

I did not fish because of the nasty headwinds that just tired me out in my weakened state. I did fish a bit from the chickee when the no see ums were manageable and caught numerous ladyfish. No pictures. That evening Connie and I had a great dinner of veggie burgers loaded with melted cheese, tomatoes, onions and a side of Amy's Mac and Cheese. After a desert of ginger snaps and brandy we settled in for the night.

Next day the Shark River Cutoff towards Canepatch:

We left very early the next morning and I fished areas I thought looked good. I caught NUMEROUS lizardfish along the way that were not worth a photo. They loved my Walleye Assassin shad in pink in case anyone wants to know how to target these elusive creatures.

Alex came in loud and clear on the VHF as we approached the Shark River chickee. He was waiting for us and paddled toward us to tell the story of his solo Labyrinth adventure. I was very happy to hear it was a very easy crossing and quite wide to get through. We proceeded up the Shark River when we came across a man in a houseboat by the name of John Buckley who volunteers for the park. He powered down so we could talk to him and I asked him about the fishing he said, "freshwater is so plentiful up in there you won't find any fish...neither fresh or salt type" heart was broken, I was looking forward to spending a layover day fishing the area and had geared my packing towards this plan by bringing an extra travel rod and lot's more lures. After the bad news I tried to change my goal into exploring the area instead so that my vacation would not be ruined.

Canepatch finally! I was very excited to be here at last as this was one of my favorite backcountry land sites. It has been many years since my last visit. A group of 7 fishermen were there and they reported NO FISH ANYWHERE when I saw them on the Shark River.... We set up camp and explored a bit around the land site. It was great to be on land and not on a platform! The walk to and from the canoe to the campsite allowed me some much needed exercise. This trip has been difficult because of all the sitting/kneeling in the canoe and once on the platform you are limited within a small area.

I rigged up a privacy tarp so we could take turns bathing. Listening to the VHF we learned that the cold front forecasted would be very strong and was going to bring down the temperatures considerably the next day. The winds were forecast to 20 knots sustained and that meant changing our plans of exploring Rookery Bay, I certainly was not up to fishing in a windswept bay. So we planned to travel up into the freshwater areas and see if we could find some birds to photograph. We decided to have an early dinner and take full advantage of the luxury of a picnic table to make gear repairs and layout the charts to plan the next days trip. Connie had planned instant mashed potatoes, teriyaki tuna and a can of mixed veggies for dinner. Very easy after a long days paddle and meant more time for conversation and wine drinking with friends.

The next day we travel 11 miles up the Rookery Branch and looped around towards Tarpon Bay the water was gin clear with no fish, alligators or pythons...not even birds which Connie was after to photograph. Mr. Buckley was right…too much freshwater.

We head back to Canepatch to have lunch and I take advantage of the last of the warm weather at the campsite for a much needed full body bath and shampoo. Afterwards, I spent the afternoon working on my manicure and reading. We also prepared for the drop in temperatures that evening and had another early dinner. Tonight we had black beans and rice, yuca with olive oil and garlic, yum! That evening the front came through and the temps started to drop.

The next morning we would wake up to really cold weather! My hands were so numb I had to get out my fleece gloves. We paddled towards the Labyrinth with a wind at our back and a gorgeous blue sky. Alex accompanied us into the Labyrinth and then we parted ways, he was staying at Oyster Bay that night.

Labyrinth is pretty wide:

Approaching Watsons Chickee a single platform:

Watson River: This turned out to be one of my favorite areas of the trip and the fishing was a not bad considering how cold it was and that a front has just come through. Having a single platform and normal water fluctuations meant I could easily get on and off the platform. So I managed to get out in the afternoon to do a little fishing. This was after I put on several layers of clothing. I paddled to the lee of one of the nearby islands and caught plenty of trout and ladyfish. I had left my camera in my PFD back at the platform and cannot share any pictures of the catch.

That afternoon back at the chickee the winds were getting stronger and the direction was from the North which is straight onto the chickee…brrrr! We decide to have yet another early dinner of red pepper soup, couscous and smoked salmon, flatbread, wine and some hot chocolate spiked with brandy for desert. We turn in early to try and get warm in the sleeping bags.

The next morning we leave Watsons Chickee around 7 am to intercept with Alex at the mouth of the North River. He had planned to stay with us at Roberts River chickee that night. Today is windless and gorgeous, Whitewater Bay is magnificent in its calm state but it still very cold when we find Alex at our designated meeting place:

We now head up the River:

I fished just about every section of the North River, Cutoff and intersections of creek into river with not one nibble. But I was going back to the chickee that I had used for many years in the 80's so it gave me something to paddle towards. Roberts River is in a beautiful setting where you can experience a great sunset and moonrise. The platform that we took had no roof on it, I suspect they are behind on building funds out here. Luckily no rain was expected but I would have liked some shade from the bright sun. Not having a roof also meant a very wet tent the next day. That evening we got together with Alex for dinner and conversation. We compared notes of our night at Watsons River chickee and he told us of his adventures the night before when he stayed at Oyster Bay.

The next morning it was still calm as we get out of Roberts River and turn into the Lane River. The view of Whitewater Bay takes your breath away, it is so calm the sky and the water are one:

I fished for a pretty long time at the intersection of these two rivers where I've usually done well but not this time. The paddle to Lane River Chickee was easy after we set up in this very beautiful bay I head out to explore some of the lakes/ponds I had studied on the map when I had planned on spending the day in this area. The winds picked up from the South as yet another very strong front was predicted to pass in the afternoon the next day. These ponds were now without much water so I hit the connectors instead. JACKPOT I found the snappers and knew the snook were in there with them:

I must have caught at least 20 snook in the span of one hour! It was as easy as trout fishing once you locate the spot. I fished until dinner time then rigged up another privacy enclosure to use as a bath house and took bucketfuls of water to get 2009 off my body. I wanted to get nice and clean to welcome in a New Year. We cooked dinner and watched a gorgeous sunset, no bugs (for once) there was plenty of wine to drink. It was our last night we had couscous with almonds, olive oil with dehydrated veggies added. A box of red pepper soup on the side with garlic toast. Somehow everything, even instant food tastes great when you are camping.

The next morning we woke up very early and high tailed it out of the Hells Bay area to get back before the strong front hit. I did not fish much but Connie took some gorgeous pictures of the blue moon morning and the entire trip, check out her slideshow.

Here we are back at the launch site. We headed to Flamingo to get a much needed cold diet pepsi and visit with our friends that were camping at the loop sites. On our way home the front hit bringing wild winds, extreme cold and ruined fishing for months to come.