Saturday, October 8, 2016

Chasing Ghosts in the Everglades

The 10,000 Islands are a vast and mysterious place. This remote area is known as the end of the Everglades, the place that civilization has forgotten. Ghosts of the past still haunt the islands, none more so than the ghost of Edgar Watson, husband, father, farmer and cold-blooded killer.
Ed Watson showed up in the islands in the early 1880’s and already had a reputation. He allegedly killed the notorious Belle Star while out west and was known to have a short fuse. The folks on Chokoloskee Island would steer clear of him when he visited Smallwood’s store. 

Edgar J. Watson

This is where Allen Reddick and I launched his boat into Chokoloskee Bay. Our intention was to find some fish, and maybe look for signs of old Ed Watson that still survive. As we slipped into the windy bay toward Rabbit Key Pass, we motored by Smallwood’s store. I tried to imagine Seminole dugouts tied to the dock and settlers inside this remote outpost trying to escape the mosquitoes. We made our way to the outside in the early light, then headed south to Lostman’s Key at the mouth of Lostman’s River. On an outgoing tide we found small redfish and trout around the oysters and sandbars of First Bay.

First snook of the day

Lostman’s Key is where Wally Tucker lived with his pregnant wife and nephew. They farmed the sandy island, growing vegetables to live on and to take to market in Key West. Old Ed Watson secretly bought the deed to the island and ordered Wally to get off his land. Wally refused saying he had a legal claim to the land. A few days later, neighbors went by to check on the family and found them dead. The area residents blamed Watson, but with no proof, the Sheriff was never contacted.
We drifted up to the north end of the bay along a sand bar. Mullet were everywhere and the water was moving quickly as the tide rushed out. A couple casts with a jig earned Allen the first snook of the day. Taking drag, the fish worked the edge of the bar looking for a channel to shoot through, but eventually Allen won out by bringing the snook boatside. Soon after we both landed several good sized trout, the bite was on.

Watsons Landing

After a few hours the wind picked up and we headed north to the Chatham River. The river is a wide tidal river leading to Chevelier Bay, named after French plume hunter Jean Chevelier. He and Watson had an ongoing feud, and when Chevelier died, Watson was the last one to see him alive. Ed Watson’s homestead was on Chatham Bend, about half way up the river. Here he farmed sugarcane and made syrup that he would bring to Key West. It was during one of those trips he had an argument with Adolphus Santini, one of the first settlers of Chokoloskee. Watson cut Santini’s throat and paid a $900 fine to stay out of jail. 

Chatham River

 We eased up to Watson’s Place, now a backcountry campsite. The two story kit home that Ed Watson built here is no longer, but the cistern, cane furnace and other evidence of his homestead are still there under the overgrown mangroves and shrubs. A large alligator stood guard on the rocky shore. The place was eerily quiet with only the sound of a soft breeze rustling the foliage being heard. Allen and I walked the site and I found myself imagining what life must have been like living in such a remote area so long ago. Ed Watson tried to get his family to join him, but they would have none of it, choosing Ft Myers as their home. Maybe if they stayed on Chatham Bend things would have turned out differently for old Ed.

Watson's Homesite

As I looked around the old homestead, there was rustling in the underbrush, probably by resident raccoons or the memory of the dead. Several people ended up living in Ed’s house, most of them nefarious in nature. It seems everyone living in the islands at that time was running from some sort of past. Rumors about Ed Watson circulated around the area and anyone missing was always blamed on him. Finally, in October 1910, the body of Hannah Smith, one of Watson’s tenants, was found tied up and weighted down just below the surface of the water near Chatham Bend. Fishermen saw her blonde hair floating in the tide and they pulled her up and buried her. When word got to Chokoloskee, the suspicion fell on Ed Watson. 

Watson's Home taken a few days before his death

The Cistern

 After exploring the site, we had lunch and continued our journey. We passed the place where Hannah’s body was found and I imagined her there, blonde hair floating as if on air, her blank dead eyes staring upward. At Huston Bay we turned North, taking the backwater up to the Lopez River. We fished some oyster beds just south of Chokoloskee island and Smallwood’s Store came into view. 

Sugar Cane Syrup Pot

Watson's Home

When Ed Watson learned of Hannah’s death, he blamed others living at his homestead. Vowing to deal with the guilty parties himself, he left Chokoloskee for Chatham Bend, just as a hurricane was arriving. For three days, no one heard from Ed Watson. Then, one morning the residents could hear the distinct sounding motor of his boat approaching. All the men gathered around on the small beach landing next to the store where Ed stepped out of his boat. What happened next remains a mystery and highly debated. According to some witnesses, the men of the town, including Ted Smallwood, opened fire on Ed Watson, hitting him with over 30 bullets, killing him. While they were shooting, a female voice cried “Help, they are killing Mr. Watson!”. 

Smallwood's Store

Ed Watson was towed to Rabbit Key with his own boat and buried in the hot sand. A few days later the Sheriff came and heard the witness accounts. No one was charged in Watson’s death, because as Ted Smallwood said, “If no one is innocent, none can be guilty”. About a month passed when Watson’s family came to the 10,000 Islands to retrieve the body from Rabbit Key and bring it back to Ft Myers, where he remains buried to this day. 
I landed a pretty sizable ladyfish from under the Smallwood Store dock. It was the last fish we caught on our adventure. On the way out of Chokoloskee I thought about the beautiful scenery and the places I had seen on our adventure. One hundred and six years ago, almost to the day, Edgar Watson paid the ultimate price for his wrongdoings. The 10,000 Islands are a beautiful mangrove maze full of fish and wildlife….and ghosts.

Watson's final resting place in Ft Myers

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Python Challenge Update Collier County

This weekend my Florida Sportsman teammates Eric and Chris were working, so I decided to work a littler closer to home. I did a little research on Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Collier County. 

On the northern end of the Ten Thousand Islands, the Reserve is one of the few remaining undisturbed mangrove estuaries in North America. Encompassing 110,000 acres, it includes pristine mangrove forest, uplands and protected waters. Wildlife, including 150 species of birds and many threatened and endangered animals, thrive in the Reserve.

Only participants can enter this area - Photo by Doug Stamm

In early 2010, the first burmese pythons were found in the Reserve. Since then, more than thirty large snakes have been captured within the Reserve and these snakes are believed to have come from the original point source near Everglades National Park.

I have never visited the Reserve so the Python Challenge was just the excuse to check it out. My friend, Photographer Doug Stamm came along hoping for some pictures. It was a cool morning and the sun was expected to shine, warming up the trails we’d be walking. Heavy rains had made the area very wet and the night before a large python was photographed just outside of the Reserve escaping the waterlogged area for the higher ground of a nearby housing area.

The running total from Rookery Bay

Soon after we entered it was clear just how wet the area was. At several points the trail disappeared into water ranging from ankle deep to over knee deep. We walked the trails and the power line road for miles in the morning sun searching path edges and looking deeper into wooded areas. There were many birds and I even glimpsed a large wild boar crossing the trail ahead of us. On our way out, empty handed, we came across other hunters just entering the Reserve. They had hunted the area several times and had not seen pythons. In fact, only one snake had been taken from the Reserve during the hunt so far.

Very wet trails - photo by Doug Stamm

Checking the underbrush - photo by Doug Stamm

Back at the entrance, we checked out of the Reserve with FWC and met another hunter. His name was Ken Flute and he hails from Ontario Canada. Ken is the hunter who caught the only python in the Reserve, an 8.5 footer, and was headed back in to look for number 2. While talking to Ken his motivation for participating in the Challenge was apparent. He obviously loves the outdoors and his youthful exuberance speaks of a childhood spent in the wilds of Ontario chasing snakes and learning about nature.

Python close-up

Ken's capture

 Team Florida Sportsman still has yet to catch a python, but everyday I go out I learn a little more about the invasive burmese python and a little more about the real intent of the challenge. Maybe its really about visiting places you have never been, spending time with friends and family in the great outdoors and meeting new and interesting people who share a love of the outdoors. Next week the team has a plan that will give us our best chance yet at a python, but I’m just looking forward to another weekend in the Everglades. Maybe that is the real intent.