In 1915 the North to South section of Florida's HWY 41 began construction. During it's construction HWY 41 was given the nickname "Tamiami Trail", referring to the route connecting Tampa, Fl to Miami Fl. The East to West portion began construction in 1923, stretching across the heart of the Everglades. A canal was blown out using dynamite, and the fill dirt from the canal was used to support the Highway. The Tamiami Trail officially opened in the Spring of 1928 after 13 years of construction.
The maze of man-made canals throughout the Everglades quickly became a gathering area for wading birds, Alligators and dozens of species of fresh and saltwater fish. These canals, especially the roadside canal along the trail has been a magnet for anglers since the very beginning. The trail became very popular with fly anglers in the 1950's and 1960's, as writers began penning articles about the area. With populations of Tarpon, Snook, Bass, Sunfish and more recently, several exotic species, anglers travel to the trail each year to throw back-casts between highway traffic in search of their target.
I have spent the last 10 years traveling to the Florida Keys in search of flats fish, but until this year, I had ignored the urge to sidetrack myself into the Everglades and experience the trail. I've visited the trail's Northern Everglades neighbor Alligator Alley, and I have caught Peacock Bass in Miami, but Tamiami kept calling to me. The old pictures of Flip and Chico fishing the roadside canals was a driving force in my urge to go.
I have always been one to look for an opportunity (or just a flat-out excuse) to go fly fish a new spot. My opportunity to hit the infamous Tamiami Trail came up this winter. I needed to bring my boat from NC to Orlando FL for some upgrades and I would have to make the trip again a few weeks later to pick it up. The first trip down to Orlando was a welcome one, leaving 50-degree temps in NC to bask in the 80-degree Florida sunshine. Being that close to South Florida got my mind cranking and a plan was hatched for the return trip.
I spoke with a handful of our local Project Healing Waters Vets and within a few days I had 3 anglers coming along for the ride to pick up the boat and make a detour through the Everglades. One of our participants, Mike, has parents living outside of Orlando, that were gracious enough to allow us to crash with them. Ryan had been hinting for a while about a fishing trip to Florida. And Abby had been talking about Peacock Bass for the couple years that she has been a part of PHWFF.
I spent a few hours on Google Maps pin-dropping every single fishing hole along the trail through the Everglades. When it was all said in done, I had marked somewhere near 100 possible fishing spots. With crew in tow, we hatched a plan to somehow drive a round trip from NC to South Florida, hit fly shops, pick up a boat, and fish the Everglades and Miami, all in 3 days. Yeah, a 2000-mile round trip in 3 days. It was 90% insanity and 10% ingenious.
We left NC at around 4am and grabbed lunch at the Daytona Pig Stand (highly recommended) and arrived in Orlando around 2pm. We shot the breeze with Kevin and the rest of the East Cape crew, picked up my Fury, and hit a few fly shops on the way to Mike's parents' house. We ran to Walmart after dinner and loaded up on fishing licenses, energy drinks and road snacks. We hit the bed in time to get in around 3 hours of sleep before we ran to the 'glades.
2 am found us cramming ourselves back in my truck with all our gear and running South. From Orlando we headed towards Tampa and then ran south towards Naples. By the time we passed Naples and entered the Everglades National Park, the sky was just starting to show some color as it announced the impending sunrise. We passed a few small bridges with fishable water before we pulled over at the first really good-looking spot. I pulled out the 6wt, tied on a foot of heavy bite tippet and a solid white hackle fly and headed straight for the bridge.
With just enough light to see what I was doing, I made a cast along the bridge and with a few strips I had a fish doing backflips with my fly in its lip. It's a pretty good feeling when you walk up to a spot and hookup on the first cast. That fish threw the fly quickly, and he was moving so fast I'm not still sure if it was a juvy Tarpon or a Ladyfish. The next few casts along the bridge didn't produce, so I made a side cast under the bridge to the second pilon back. I immediately saw fish flashing under the fly and I was hooked up before the fly came out from the shadow of the bridge.
That fish happened to be my first Snook ever. I have been wanting to catch a Snook for 10 years and have pursued it to a decent degree the last few with no success. I even cast to 500 beach Snook over a week-long period on the Gulf Coast of Florida last summer with not even a sniff. I've had a monkey on my back with Snook for a while, and although this fish was just a little guy, it made no difference to me. The Snook fishing in this salty creek was literally on fire for us for about an hour until the sun got up in the sky and the bite slowed. All of us got to tangle with these fish and I was blessed with quite a few myself. We saw a monster Snook working the shadows, but he wasn't nearly as interested in what we had to offer as the little Snook were.
A school of marauding Crevalle Jacks kept buzzing by, out of casting range most of the time. The few times they came in range, it was a mad rush to get to them and put a cast in. If you could get the fly near them, you were instantly rewarded.
This particular location was relatively salty, being only 4 miles from the Gulf. That being said, there was an unbelievable amount of freshwater species, all non-natives, in the same area as the Snook and Jacks. The rocky shorelines were covered with African Jewel Cichlids and Mayan Cichlids from Central America. I knew the Everglades had Plecostomus, a South American armored suckerfish, but I had no idea how many. There were literally tens of thousands (if not more) lining every rock or hard surface. There were also thousands of them dried up along the shore and way up on the banks. I spoke with a local who told me that they all ended up there when Hurricane Irma pushed through Florida last year and flushed a lot of the freshwater out of the upper parts of the 'glades. They looked miserable in the saltwater, doing their best to survive the high salinity, and managing to do so pretty well.
You have no idea how dangerous an invasive species can be to a new area until you stand in one spot and stare at literally thousands of those fish covering every single inch of substrate and rocks. Available at every tropical pet store, and released into neighborhood canals when they get too big, they thrive in South Florida and have few if any natural predators to control their populations. Some of the exotics hurt native fish populations by feeding on them or outcompeting them for food. The Plecostomus are algae eaters, but they destroy the creek banks by digging nests into them and cause the shorelines to collapse.
Once the sun got up and the bite slowed, we moved on down the trail looking for new spots to fish. There are an unbelievable number of places to stop and fish along the Tamiami Trail. Just take a look at a satellite map and you'll see. The main key is to find somewhere where you can safely pull off the side of the road. Be mindful of your back cast between traffic and watch out for trees and powerlines. Oh, and don't fish on bridges that say "no fishing allowed", they are real serious about that, trust us!
The western third of the Everglades along the trail has a good concentration of salt water species....Snook, Tarpon, Jacks and Ladyfish. From what we experienced and heard from locals, early and late is your best bet. Find a spot with some bait and water flow, and be on-site before the sunrise, or plan to stay through sunset, and you will be rewarded for it.
By 11 am we were nearing Everglades City and the canals had taken on a much more freshwater feel. Mangroves were replaced with Cypress, and the canals became clear and filled with aquatic vegetation. The fish we saw along the second half of the trail changed in species, but definitely did not decrease in number or willingness to eat.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our trip on the next blog post. As always, hit us up if you have any questions, and please share this if you found it interesting.