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The "Big One That Got Away"

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May 12, 2011    We’d been home since January, so it was time to hit the road again.  We made reservations at Bahia Honda State Park early last December.  This popular destination fills up months in advance, so we were lucky to find a campsite for five nights in a row.  Water front sites require planning a year in advance.  Driving through the concrete and asphalt jungle of South Florida only serves to accentuate the thrill of driving over the first bridge into the Keys and looking out over the turquoise waters as far as the eye can see.  Loaded up on all our toys, our 16-foot flat bottom boat, kayaks, bikes, snorkel gear and fishing rods and reels, we were ready.

On our two fishing trips from Bahia Honda we fished on the slack/incoming tide near the Overseas Hwy.  We reeled in mangrove snapper, yellowtail, hog snapper, grunts, bluefish, and grouper.  Most were returned to the seas, but we kept several to provide some seriously good dinners.  And of course, we had the requisite “big one that got away.”   Probably a grouper, but we’ll never know. 

A snorkel boat departing from the Park provided transport out to Looe Key.  Considered one of the best snorkel areas in the U.S., water depths vary from 5 feet to 30 feet in the designated area.  Everything from yellowtail snapper to parrot fish and bull shark to goliath grouper were spotted.  The 3-hour outing provided able time to scope out the incredible diversity.

Kayaking in the Keys allows you to glide through the mangrove-lined shores in water that is only a foot deep.  It’s like sitting in a glass-bottom boat.  You can watch the rays, horseshoe crabs, blue crabs and a variety
of small fish skitter around.

Next, we headed to TenThousand Islands.  Detoured by a fire burning in Big Cypress National Park, the one-hour drive became three hours.  Over 38,000 acres were burned in this fire, which is now 95% contained.  

We had secured a campsite overlooking the Chokoloskee Bay.  As novices, in this type of waterway, we ventured out in our boat very cautiously.  I’m not sure who counted the islands, but the number must be close to correct.  The mangrove-treed islands provide a confusing puzzle.  The boating chart did little to resolve our apprehension.  Between our campsite and the Gulf of Mexico, we spotted one marker (in a five mile distance.)  Even though we had reached our goal, we turned the boat back for camp, knowing that even an hour later the shoreline would look different and we would never find our way back. 

The following morning, we rose at dawn to take the boat out to islands within sight of our dock.  Aside from a purple sunrise, enhanced by the smoke in the distance, we had little luck.  Our fishing trips provided us with catfish and more catfish; all catch and release.  We spotted none of the redfish, snook or trout the area is known for.

On leaving Chokoloskee, the airboat businesses lining the street called our names.  Thinking we might see some backcountry waters and gators, we signed up for the next tour.  As it turned out the gators were nowhere around, having moved for their mating season.  Captain Bobby took us on a thrill ride through the narrow, mangrove-canopied canals swerving around the corners throwing a spray of the tannin waters on us and to the side of the boat.  He slowed down several times in search of the elusive gators but the only wildlife we saw was a raccoon.

Ft. Myers Beach, our next destination, provided sugar-sand beaches and crowds of people even during off-season.  As we cooled off in the gentle surf, we were treated to a half-hour show starring brown pelicans as they dove for dinner and co-starring seagulls sitting on the pelican’s heads and pecking at their beaks trying to weasel any food from them that they could. It was a hilarious program provided by Mother Nature and, of course, we didn’t have the camera with us. 

J.N.”Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is a 5,200 acre refuge located on the Sanibel/Captiva Island.  On our first visit, we drove thru the refuge, stopping to exam the fishing possibilities, to photograph birds and to launch our kayaks into the waters to explore beyond the road.  Sighting a myriad of birds as we paddle along, the ultimate delight came as we paddled upon a flock of roseate spoonbills.  Two to three dozen of the birds were perched in a group of oak trees overhead.
Paddling quietly, we were able approach and then sit and watch the birds before they finally took flight.

Thoroughly enamored with our experience at the Refuge, we returned the following day to go fishing and seek out the roseate spoonbills.  Fishing became a frustrating experience as crabs repeatedly stole my bait.  Alan had a little bit of action from Ladyfish, but in the end we had no keepers.  The serene setting, multiple bird sightings and conversations with other visitors made for an enjoyable day even though we had no luck with our fishing or the roseates.

Friday morning we drove toward Sarasota.  But that will be another story.  
                      


         

   

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