Friday, January 27, 2017

67 Fish - Loop Road Luck

Collier County - Miami-Dade County - Monroe County

The Florida Everglades is a mysterious, wild land. Driving across Florida on the scenic Tamiami Trail gives a brief glimpse into the vast sawgrass prairies, hardwood hammocks and cypress sloughs that make up this habitat for many creatures, real and imagined. But you must leave the relative safety of pavement to delve deep into the real historic ‘Glades and to reach some of the best backroads fishing Florida has to offer.

Sawgrass Prairie

Loop Road is a 24 mile, mostly dirt road that spans the three southernmost counties in Florida. Begun in 1921 under the original name of Chevalier Road, it was to be part of the Tamiami Trail. The Town of Pinecrest was founded along the road with the hopes it would become the “new Miami”. However, Barron Collier soon took over the construction of the Trail and bypassed the road, proving too much for the little town to survive. Eventually, most of the land surrounding the road was sold to the Federal Government to create the Big Cypress Preserve. Loop Road begins at the "Forty Mile Bend" in the Miccosukee Indian Reservation and ends at the historic Monroe Station near Monument Lake on the Tamiami Trail.

The Lonely End of Loop Road

I was excited to explore Loop Road for a couple reasons. First, it passes through three counties, Collier, Miami-Dade and Monroe. Each of these counties are well known for their world-class saltwater fishing.  Places like Biscane Bay, the Ten Thousand Islands and the Florida Keys are well known fishing areas.  But, little is written about their equally spectacular freshwater fisheries. Second, I LOVE the Everglades. It's like stepping back in time. Cell phones don't work and you can go days without seeing another human if you so choose.

A group of fellow adventurers and I set out for Pinecrest Campground near the Eastern side of Loop Road.  No electrical hook ups or water source meant “roughing it”, but this camping area put us right near excellent fishing opportunities. Driving in from the easternmost point, we entered the Miccosukee Indian Reservation. The first part of the road from this entry is lined with  the large homes of tribal members. Just across the street from the homes is a picturesque canal lined with water birds and alligators, some very large. As we travelled on, the road passed through dwarf cypress and hardwood hammocks which are forested areas that usually have a more diverse population of animals and plants than the surrounding sawgrass. We arrived at camp, dined on a wood fired low country boil and discussed the next day’s plans.

Pinecrest Camp

Later that evening, I ventured over to one of the Everglades best kept secrets. Lucky’s Place is an out of the way, back country compound on Loop Road. Lucky Cole is a very well known Everglades Photographer who instead of focusing on the indigenous flora and fauna of the ‘Glades, uses it as a backdrop to photograph nature’s “exotic beauties”, nude women who pay for the privilege. Lucky’s compound is a reminder of the way things were many years ago when Pinecrest had many more residents and many nefarious visitors. 

Lucky's Place

Lucky himself is like a character from a book. Actually, he is! He was the main character in Tim Dorsey's Electric Barracuda. With his flowered shirt, outback hat, cigar and clutching a glass of scotch, Lucky showed me around the compound. He told me of Pinecrest back in the day, when most folks who lived there were hiding from something. The Federal Government moved in earnest in the late 70’s to move out anyone who didn’t hold title to the land. Camps were burned and Pinecrest was reduced to a ghost town with very few legitimate residents left.

The Outhouse

Now, Lucky and his wife of many years, Maureen are host to many of the visitors who come to enjoy their company and have a cold beer. The compound is home to Lucky’s artwork, historic memorabilia and even a pool. When I left to head back to camp, I truly felt like a had gained two new friends and I will be back to spend more time there.

Lucky and Maureen

The next morning, we enjoyed a tasty breakfast and broke camp. Lucky and Maureen stopped by to say hello and see us off. We travelled out to the Trail and and a bit West, to the Dade-Collier Training Airport. With construction beginning in 1968, the Everglades Jetport was supposed to be the largest airport in the world. Construction ended just two years later over obvious environmental concerns. 

The facility is used for training today and the surrounding quarry lakes that were created are deep, clear and full of fish. After arriving at the main entrance, a short off-road drive through some mud brought us to the rocky edge of the first lake. Using beetle spins and soft plastics, we began catching fish right away. Largemouth bass, peacock bass and oscars voraciously attacked everything we threw at them. I walked through some sawgrass to another of the lakes and landed the largest peacock bass of the morning. This was my Collier County fish. Soon we moved on to cover the rest of the counties.

Gator Closeup

Back on Loop Road we fished the canal along the edge of the pavement. On my first cast using a small spinnerbait, I caught a small largemouth bass. This stretch of the road is in Miami-Dade County so it was a quick resolution to catching a fish in this county. After a couple more bites and misses, we moved on.

Stumpknocker aka Warmouth bass

We drove past Pinecrest until the pavement ended. There, along the road, is a series of culverts that allow the Everglades sheet flow to go under the road. These culverts have small ponds that can hold a variety of fish. By this time were squarely in Monroe county when we stopped at one of these ponds. Casting beetle spins and tube jigs we immediately began catching stumpknockers that fought much harder than their size on our light tackle.

Culvert Pond

Along the way we enjoyed seeing many different species of wading birds, birds of prey and many, many alligators. The lack of traffic on Loop Road sometimes allows for closer interaction with some animals and photographers are a relatively common sight.

Native Bromeliad

About halfway on the road, I came upon another legend of the Everglades. A seven foot Burmese python lay across the road in front of me, soaking up the warmth of the sun after a somewhat chilly evening. As late as the 1980’s, the southern reaches of Florida were an almost untouched wilderness, a seemingly endless area of swamp and sawgrass. The warm climate was inviting not just to the people who moved here among the native plants and animals, but to species from other parts of the world that live in similar climates as well. Sometimes nonnative species are brought here intentionally, and sometimes they hitchhike, catching a ride with travelers. 

Burmese Python

While invasive wildlife species are found in many parts of Florida, they are especially prevalent in subtropical South Florida.  Arguably none have had more impact on the fragile Everglades ecosystem than the Burmese python. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has documented breeding populations of Burmese pythons in Miami-Dade, Monroe and Collier counties, mainly within the Florida Everglades. The impact has been far reaching with native small animal populations decreasing up to 88% for some species. In the case of the everglades marsh rabbits, introduced populations were completely wiped out by Burmese pythons.

I have some experience in catching these big snakes, so after snapping a few photos, I slowly approached to grab it. I suppose he was warm enough to move, because move he did. I did not expect the big snake to make a break for it as fast as he did, and before I could lay a hand on it, he scooted quickly into the brush. By this time, the rest of the group caught up and we spent the next few minutes looking for the python to no avail. Maybe next time.

Miles To Go

The rest of the drive was relatively quiet and aside from more photos, native snakes and a few more fish, uneventful. Soon we found ourselves at Monroe Station. The building that stood here until burning down last year was one of several service stations that lined the Tamiami Trail beginning in 1929. The old building was a historic site and one of my favorite landmarks on the Trail. I had always hoped someone would fix it up and open a store or museum there. 

Loop Road Resident

Taking a left onto the Trail, I was headed home. It was an adventure filled weekend and one I won't soon forget. With three counties out of the way, I only have 64 more to go to catch all of the 67 fish.

Watching Like A Hawk



Taking a swim

Sunday, January 22, 2017

67 Fish

I have been fortunate to live in Florida and experience the unbelievable outdoor opportunities for the last 25 years, but there are still areas of the State I have yet to explore. There are sixty-seven counties in Florida, each with their own rich history and unique spots, and each with great fishing opportunities that, together, make Florida the fishing capitol of the world.

My plan is to visit each county in Florida and catch at least one fish. I can probably do this in a week, but what’s the fun in that? While traveling, we will take the time to explore our surroundings to include places to eat and stay the night, and the local scene. Primarily traveling on weekends, this could take the better part of 2017. Each trip I will be taking a mix of friends and family, sometimes staying in local hotels and sometimes camping. 

Fishing will of course be fresh and saltwater and will be on foot, kayaks or boat. Sometimes we may have locals join us to show us around, other times we will just figure it out. I hope to be able to catch each area’s “signature” fish, but because of obvious time constraints I may have to resort to using a cane pole for bluegill to get the fish for that area. Sometimes I may spend more time in a particular area because of the abundance of opportunities there.

The end result will be unique and interesting insights for each of Florida’s counties. Each of these stories will be compiled into an adventure travel book that will allow anyone to visit anywhere in Florida and know what the locals know. Outdoor recreation like camping and fishing will be featured as well as local, hometown eateries and events. During the year I will write a companion blog chronicling each travel event as it happens.

I hope you all will join me as I catch 67 fish!