Somewhere around the Intersection for Hwy 29 (to Everglades City), the Tamiami Trail really started showing it's freshwater side. Canals lined the shoulders of the trail, and they were full of fish. The hardest part was just figuring out where you could safely pull over. One of the first places we stopped to get a closer look was HP Williams Roadside Park. The park is full of "no fishing" signs, but the waterway at that stop was littered with bass, sunfish and gar. We decided to move on to the next fishable spot.
This stretch of the trail is lined with roadside attractions. From the Skunk Ape Headquarters to airboat rides to Indian Reservations. If you have a few minutes, take the time to check out the Big Cypress Gallery and see Clyde Butcher's beautiful black and white photography.
I wonder if the Skunk Ape fly fishes?
We pulled over at the first easy spot to park. There was a couple cleaning their catch along the side of the canal where we parked. They had a pile of Oscars that they were filleting and we watched them toss the scraps to the Alligator patiently waiting 5ft from them. Speaking of gators, there is no shortage of them. I loved seeing them everywhere we went, but I was very mindful to watch my step and not dunk my hand in the water to land a fish.
The canals were thick with aquatic vegetation and crystal clear in most of the places we stopped. This was the dry season, and the water was low, which pulls fish out of the swamps and concentrates them in the canals. And boy were they ever concentrated. I honestly don't know if I have ever seen such a concentration of fish in one place naturally. Obviously I'm not comparing it to a school of winter Redfish or blitzing Albacore, but for a freshwater pond/canal scenario, it was literally ridiculous. Not only was the water thick with fish, but there was a huge variety of both native and exotic species.
When we first stepped out of the vehicle at this spot, we could see the water alive with movement. An area the size of a living room was churning with fish. When we approached the edge of the water, I was shocked to see thousands and thousands of Asian Walking Catfish. One of many exotic species that is taking over South Florida's waterways. I can't even explain how many of these catfish there were, it was mind boggling. There were so many that you could even see a few albino cats within the ball of dark colored fish. They moved throughout the canal, in unison, but never strayed too far from the culvert pipe and the moving water that flowed through it. The catfish had no interest in any flies we threw to them, but I did accidently snag one while stripping through the school. We unhooked him and watched him walk back to the water and join his ten thousand comrades still churning at our feet.
Beyond the mass of Asian Catfish were plenty of other exotic species. The two most common were the Tiger Oscars and the Mayan Cichlids. Oscars originated from South America in the Amazon River Basin. They are a very popular fish available at most pet stores. Unfortunately, most of the people who purchase them don't realize that their cute 2" fish will very quickly become a 2lb fish. And one that will re-arrange their tank and eat anything that will fit in it's mouth. Once they realize that the fish is too big for their tank, and that the pet store has no intention of taking it back, most novice fish owners come to the incorrect conclusion that the fish would be better off in the neighborhood canal. The problem is that the habitat in South Florida is perfect for these new species to flourish and reproduce, with very few predators to keep the populations in check.
Another species that was very concentrated along the canals was the Mayan Cichlid. Mayans come from Central America and are given the nickname Red Terror Cichlid. They will definitely terrorize a small clouser fly pulled within their view.
The smallest of the exotics was the African Jewel Cichlid. Although tiny, it made up for it's size with a huge attitude, and would snap at any fly small enough to fit in it's mouth. The tiny Jewel Cichlids were the chihuahuas of the canal.
Although there were unbelievable numbers of exotics in the canals, there were plenty of native fish also. Some of the most notable were Largemouth Bass, Spotted Sunfish, Bowfin and Florida Gar. The Bowfin would slide through the aquatic vegetation, and the gar would float along the surface. There are huge populations of gar to be found in the slow moving bodies of water along the road. We spent 30 minutes trying to figure out how to make the gar eat our flies, and once we finally figured out the trick, it became pretty easy to get a reaction.
As a gar would pass by we would make a cast across his nose with a small Clouser or a Wooly Bugger. If you timed it right, you could strip the fly slowly across his snout as he passed by. The gar would ignore the fly as it was pulled up over his snout, but as soon as the fly would fall off the other side of his snout past his teeth, he would make a quick sideways snap at the it. A lot of these resulted in missed hookups but we stuck a few which was a lot of fun and worth the challenge.
Between all the freshwater species in the canal, any random cast had the chance of being eaten by a fish from North America, Central America, South America, Asia or Africa.
Although I expected to see them along the trail, Peacock Bass were noticeably absent from the places we stopped. I'm sure they were around, we just weren't seeing them. We continued on towards the end of the trail in Miami, were we would have ample shots at Peas.
We grabbed a quick bite to eat in Miami and then headed for Snapper Creek, one of the canals where I have had good luck with Peacocks in the past. The canals we fished in Miami, have high banks that drop down into several feet of normally very clear water.
On this day, the water was a little cloudy and you could only see down about two feet. In years past, you could see several feet down and it was easy to walk the canal banks and sight cast to Peacocks from a distance. Even though it was a little dirty, we made the best of it and caught a handful of Peas along the canal. I also saw a monstrously huge Snook, and lots of big Tilapia in the Snapper Creek Canal.
After Snapper Creek, we drove over to the Blue Lagoon area near the Miami Airport and accessed one of the nearby canals. We pulled a few Peacocks from around the bridge pilings. At this point, the sun was low in the sky, and we were losing our opportunity to sight cast to fish. I figured we were done, but the crew had it in them to make one more stop.
We ran over to the Blue Lagoon lake. The sun was so low by then, that the fish we picked up here were from blind casting along the bank and around downed trees. We fished the lake until the sun set and we couldn't see any more.
It was a heck of a day and one I won't soon forget. I'm pretty sure the rest of the crew was satisfied, since they were hinting at doing it all over again before we were even finished. We grabbed a bite to eat at the Islamorada Fish Company in Ft Lauderdale and made the trek back to Mike's parents house near Orlando. We pulled into their driveway at 2am, exactly 24 hours from the time we had left the previous morning. We all got a full night's sleep (well maybe 6hrs) and left later that morning for the long ride back to North Carolina.
Between the 4 of us, we managed a total of ten species of fish, both fresh and salt, from 5 different countires, in one day in the Everglades. Next time I head to the Florida Keys, it will be hard to drive past the Tamiami Trail exit without making a short side trip.
All of my saltwater fish came on a 6wt with a clear-tip intermediate line and about 6ft of leader. I would have been under gunned if bigger Snook or Tarpon had showed up, but the 6 was more than adequate for the fish we were seeing. I fished a 30lb fluorocarbon bite tippet around the bridges for Snook. A small white hackle fly called Gibby's DT Fly is all I used in the salt.
In the freshwater areas, we fished 4-6wts with a floating line and the standard 9ft leader. The flies that worked best were small Clousers tied on size 4 hooks with bead chain eyes. Wooly Buggers worked well too. The fish really liked brightly colored flies in combinations of yellow, chartreuse, orange, red and pink.
A medium or medium-slow strip works fine for all of the fish but the Peacock Bass. To get a Peacock Bass that is following your fly to strike it, strip it as fast as you can away from him. They will follow, but not eat, a slow or medium stripped fly, but the second it's getting away from them as fast as possible they will charge and inhale it.