Thursday, March 16, 2017

Bear Island – Big Cypress National Preserve




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.

Big Cypress

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.

Bear Island

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. 

Ridge 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.

More Trail

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
Got Him!

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!

Rocky Pond

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. 

Mark's Bass
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.

Babies
Loner

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.


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

Reflections

Snake

Taking a swim