Exploring the Everglades has been a passion of mine for the last 20 years or so. I have spent a lot of time scouring maps and online resources finding new and interesting fishing and camping spots that are off the beaten path, and that search has yielded some interesting finds. One of the most notable is Bear Island in the Big Cypress National Preserve. It’s home to incredible wildlife, excellent fishing, some of the best backcountry camping and it’s the only place in the Big Cypress to take a street legal 4X4 off road.
The area has long been known to South Floridians for its hunting. It’s not the most productive hunting area around, but those who put in the time and effort are rewarded with wild hogs, whitetail deer and Osceola turkey. In fact, the recreational opportunities we know Bear Island for today may never had existed if it wasn’t for the efforts of local hunters to keep the area open when it was added to the Preserve back in the seventies.
Getting to Bear Island is definitely part of the adventure. Taking Wagon Wheel Rd from State Road 29 to Turner River Road, or Turner River from US41 will get you there on washboard roads that will knock the fillings from your mouth. The roads cut through some of the most picturesque areas of the ‘Glades as you travel North. Along the way there are drainage canal accesses where largemouth bass and oscars can be caught using light tackle and beetle spinners.
|Turner River Road|
During a recent weekend trip there with friends Chris Patricella and his son Ethan, Gary Rothenberg and Mark Olson, I stopped along Wagon Wheel Road after spotting a small pond just off the road. During winter months, most of the water that the Everglades are known for recede into small ponds like this one, along with the fish that had been spread out. Casting a small tube jig on light tackle, I landed several oscars and bluegill before continuing on.
After several miles, Turner River Road passes under I75 just before the entrance to the Bear Island Campground. The campground is maintained by the National Park Service and has almost no amenities. There is no fresh water, no electrical hookups but there are vault toilets available. This is definitely primitive camping. At either end of the long campground road are backcountry access points. To cross these gates, you must have an inspected four-wheel drive vehicle, a Park Service ORV driver’s license and a backcountry ORV sticker for your vehicle, all available at the Oasis Visitor’s Center on US41.
The campsites are carved out of the vegetation and are set back from the main road. This adds to the remote feeling of the area. Fire rings and gear hangers are provided and bear-proof trash containers are located along the road. Large pines, oaks and saw palmetto surround each site, with ample natural area between. This is the epitome of “roughing it”.
We reserved two sites close to the ORV trail entrance and set up camp. Mark did a little foraging and we enjoyed a salad of dollar weed, thistle, grape leaves and Spanish needle with a wild orange and pepper dressing. All these edibles and more grow in abundance in Bear Island and Mark took full advantage. Both Chris and I brought Jeeps for the backcountry trails so we loaded up the fishing gear and headed out.
|edibles in abundance|
The primary backcountry trail is a loop beginning at one end of the camp road, up through the wilderness and back to the opposite side of the camp road. There are 21 miles of primary trails, and the secondary trails have been closed due to a continuing lawsuit brought on by environmental groups. At the eastern access gate, Ridge trail moves North through an area of pinelands on a dry but rocky route. Eventually, the trail opens up with a view of sawgrass prairies punctuated by cypress. This is a slow trail due to large rock outcroppings and deep muddy runs that are taxing to even the more robust off-road vehicles. Most of these technical areas have pass-bys allowing the fainter at heart to avoid them. The trail continues for about three miles before intersecting with Harold Strand Trail.
Chris hit the trail in front as his Jeep has a four-cylinder motor and it would be easier for me to pull him out in the event we found deep mud. As it turned out, his vehicle handled everything the trail offered, and then some. His off-road driving skills had a lot to do with that as well. The trail was mainly dry, save for a few deeper mud holes and aside from a few paint scraping branches, we went through it all with no issues.
After Harold Strand, the trail becomes more like a hard pack shell road as it continues north. Along this portion is the Gator Head camp. These sites are much like the Bear Island campsites, but these are situated around a deep pond. Largemouth bass, bluegill and the occasional mayan cichlid can be caught there. The road becomes the Hardrock Trail and turns more westerly before heading South. The trail meanders through alternating vistas with some stretches running under a canopy of pine and sabal and others skirting the edge of open swampy prairie. Shortly thereafter the road intersects with Bear Island Grade that runs due West toward the Pink Jeep Camp. This camp is smaller than the others and just beyond it on Bear Island Grade is a clear, spring fed pond. There are some very nice largemouth in the deeper areas of the pond and lots of bluegill.
|reach for it|
As we fished this clear pond I realized the bigger fish weren’t interested in the artificial baits we were using. I managed to catch a small bluegill on a spinner and, after tying on a hook, I used him as bait. The deeper parts of the pond were more opaque and the fish here were deeper. As my bluegill was fluttering around on the surface, I saw a large shape beneath it coming to the surface. Suddenly, it’s giant gaping mouth opened and swallowed my little bait whole. I set the hook and after a few minutes of a splashy fight, I landed a nice largemouth bass, the biggest fish of the weekend!
Continuing South from the intersection of Bear Island Grade, the Hardrock Trail becomes the Perocchi Trail and has some of the best scenery of the backcountry. The road travels under a canopy of pine and hardwood before passing between two ponds. These ponds are great for fishing and hold bass, bluegill, mayan cichlid, oscar, tilapia, gar and catfish. These ponds also hold a couple of the largest gators north of US41.
|Ethan Catching Fish|
The fish in these ponds were voracious and tore our little spinners and wacky worms to shreds. These were some of the largest oscars I have seen in the Everglades and fought like hell on our light tackle. Ethan couldn’t keep the fish off his line and he easily caught more than the rest of us combined. When we were all fished out, we continued on the trail, stopping to photograph gators, birds and a doe with two new fawns.
Another mile or so south and the trail ends at the game check station at the entrance to the Bear Island camp. Aside from hunting season, the trails at Bear Island don’t get too much use. Off road drivers rarely see other vehicles on the trails and are able to enjoy the natural outdoors with little interruption. Common sights are deer, wading birds and raptors. There are many bear sightings and more than one panther has been spotted in the area.
|Getting the Shot|
Late that night we enjoyed a camp dinner of low country boil and retired to our tents. I reflected on the weekend’s adventure as I drifted off to sleep in one of the most beautiful places on earth, the North American Amazon, the Florida Everglades.