Someone once said, “They named these 10,000 Islands correctly. That’s how many chances you have to get lost back there.”
Our sportfishing domain, that stretches over a hundred miles south, east and southeast is one of a kind. The labyrinth of mangrove roots and trees that dot this estuary create as one of most productive natural fish hatcheries in the world. Thus it is an absolute treasure for everyone who soaks a bait in South Florida and beyond.
But venturing into the creeks and cuts of the “10K” can be a daunting experience. There are no charts to tell you where you are or how shallow the water is once you leave the main channels. And visually, it all looks the same. Trees!
Your navigational enemies that await ignorant moves are such things as submerged oyster bars, fallen trees and limbs. But the Número Uno enemy is no water.
When you meet him you are aground.
That brings us to a story (what else ?) that took place a few years back, of a charter trip that will be long remembered – unfortunately.
Bob Lampe was a self anointed fishing guru. A full time Heartlander and a part time Floridian, he devoured every piece of fishing information that he could get his hands on. He was particularly taken with TV fishing shows – you know, the one’s that always have a fish on the line with two guys giggling.
Well, when here, Bob would charter with me – solo. No distractions by someone not at his level of angling prowess. And he would always have some new venture he’d like to try. We had done tarpon together; barracuda on light tackle was another forgettable experience. He always had something in mind that his fishing show had shown him that delivered non-stop action.
Our special adventure took place early spring, just as the water was warming nicely and the snook and redfish were beginning to break winter’s grip. Apparently, Bob had taken in a fishing fable on a TV show the prior weekend that extolled the excitement and action working snook and reds in the remote backwaters of the Everglades;” back where the water is thin and the fish are fat”, is the way he later described it.
Anyhow, when he called to set up the trip he was specific about the venue and the technique. “Want to go deep into the Glades and find these small pools that swarm with big snook and redfish and we want to work them on the falling tide.”
Explaining to Bob that it had been some time since I had fished that area didn’t slow him down a bit– “we’ll work topwater plugs and live bait. You get the bait”
Our morning dawned with favorable conditions; mild easterly wind and a low tide mid day. We were headed south to Gullivan Bay where we would work the outer edges from Gomez Point down toward Pavilion Key. That is until Bob blurted that a neighbor had told him that the go-to spot down here was Pumpkin Bay.
Big difference; Gomez to Pavilion Key was out along the 10K Islands edges but Pumpkin Bay was buried two miles back in the middle of some hardly navigable water. That’s where he wanted to fish.
Couldn’t say no. So we broke out the charts and off we went. We made our turn inland at Dismal Key and proceeded north into seriously uncharted waters. The charts showed fields of 1’s; that’s depth in feet not fathoms. We slowed and tilted up the engine, more concerned about the depth than our track back through the maze of little islands. You’ll hear more about that blunder a little later.
The tide was still ebbing when, on the western corner of the Bay we spotted a couple of small lagoons virtually surrounded by mangroves. “That looks like the spot on the fishing show” said Bob excitedly “Let’s fish there.”
The depth recorder was showing numbers like “1.5” as we scraped our way over the oyster bar and into the lagoon. Inside the depth increased nicely to 3-4 feet. We tossed an anchor and Bob grabbed his rod; tied on a plug and cast to the tidal eddies along the shoreline.
“Bam” on this first cast a big snook lurched to the surface and enveloped the plug. Bob could hardly contain himself and he fought the 30-plus-inch snook to boatside and release. That was just the beginning; he was in piscatorial heaven with all the action he could stand.
I tried to remind Bob that we were on the outgoing tide and losing navigable water several times. He just waved me off amidst his fishing trance.
We were on that one lagoon spot for well over an hour when Bob tired and wanted to try somewhere else.
“That won’t be happening any time soon, Bob. You can see the top of the oyster bar showing over there just under the water at the entrance? We’re here until we get some water from the incoming tide.”
“You’re kidding” was his response.
“We’re in here for at least a couple of hours. We might as well fish some other spots in the lagoon”. And we did for what seemed an eternity. Bob fishing and me watching the water rise. Luckily the fishing remained terrific on both snook and reds even through the slack tide and Bob stayed engaged, that is, until we ran out of live bait and Bob had slung his last plug up into the mangrove trees. Then it got dicey.
“We can make it over that oyster bar now”, blurted Bob, now an ordained navigator.
“Not quite, yet, Bob. But after that we’ve got another issue. Being in under this canopy of trees, the GPS could’t read the satellite and shut down awhile ago. We don’t have a defined route out of here”
He just sat there stunned. “What now? Was his muted response.
“We’ll have to pick our way south running against the strongest threads of the incoming tide till we get back to Dismal Key Pass” was the response in as confident a tone as I could muster.
Bob was nearing panic mode when he gasped “Let’s call the Coast Guard.”
“We could do that Bob but where do we ‘em we are, when we don’t know” was the cutting response. With that Bob sat down.
A half hour later we made it back over the oyster bar and started our ping-pong journey south heading blindly towards the pass. Bob was in charge of finding the faster moving water while I was steering and reading depths.
The sun was dropping quickly in the western sky when we finally made it into the Pass and set course for home. Bob had lost his bravado; the event rattled him for sure.
We fished together a few more times over the ensuing years but we never went near Pumpkin Bay again. He told me on one of those trips, that he even despises Halloween now !
Capt. Bill Walsh owns an established Marco Island charter fishing business and holds a current U.S. Coast Guard license. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.