Tag Archives: Everglades

Winter Camping in the Everglades

Contributed by Alex Vail of The Flying Kayak

When you think of camping and boating, generally an image of warm summer days and swimming come to mind. But let’s be honest—chances are that if you look out of your window right now, it’s far from a warm summer day outside. There is, however, a place in the U.S. where winter is the best time of the year to camp: The Florida Everglades are calling your name.

Sunset

Image: Alex Vail

Unlike the rest of the country right now, the Florida Everglades are actually comfortable outside, and winter is the best time of the year to go out there and camp. Generally temperatures range anywhere from the high 40s to the upper 70s from the months of November through March, which is perfect weather for camping. A large majority of the mosquitoes have also died off, so you can pitch a tent and not worry about severe blood loss. It isn’t, however, as simple as driving out there and pitching a tent. There are a few things to prepare for and keep in mind before venturing out into the ‘Glades.

Before You Go

Unpacking a tent.

Image: Alex Vail

Only about 1/8 of the available campsites in the Everglades can actually be reached by foot. Another advantage of it being winter is that water levels are down so actually walking to campsites in areas like Everglades National Park or Big Cypress National Preserve is a pretty dry trek. Try doing this in summer or fall, and you’re guaranteed to be wading through knee-deep water. The other 7/8? Those campsites have to be reached by kayak or boat. Almost all of the campsites along the coast, like the Ten Thousand Islands and the southern point of Everglades National Park, must be reached by water, either by power boat or paddle craft. Be sure to be wary of shallow water if you’re bringing a boat. Most of the water out in the ‘Glades is only about three or four feet deep. It’s entirely possible to get stuck for upwards of six hours thanks to extreme tides.

Preparation

You’re going to want to bring all of your usual camping equipment. If you’re going by paddle craft or hiking, however, weight is going to be of a big concern so cut down wherever you can. If you’ve also decided to camp within the Ten Thousand Islands, you’re going to have to bring all the water you need with you. Sun protection is still very important, even this time of the year, so sunscreen and long sleeves/face protection are an absolute must. Weather is still just as unpredictable as ever, so rain gear as well as rope to tie down the tent are a good idea, too. As far as navigation goes, you should always carry two different ways of navigation at all times. I prefer a map with a compass for standard navigation, and I carry a GPS as a backup. The last thing in the world you want is to get lost out there. Finally, even though the mosquitoes have died off quite a bit, they’re still a very real thing. Heavy applications of Deet and Thermacell are a good idea.

On Arrival 

One of the big kickers with camping in the Everglades is that campsites are limited to a certain amount of campers per site. This means they need to be reserved. However, you cannot reserve campsites beyond 24 hours in advance of your trip, which really translates into reserving them when you check into the ranger station. There are stations located in Flamingo as well as Everglades City, and they have maps and information inside that can be pretty helpful as well. The ranger will want to know where you plan to camp each night of your trip, and you’ll have to reserve one for each night you plan to stay. This is obviously for safety, but also for the simple fact that some campsites only fit so many people.

In the ‘Glades

It’s wild out there—be sure to consistently check your bearings and location to avoid getting turned around. There are generally three different types of campsites out there: ground sites, beach sites, and chickees. Ground sites are simple campsites on some of the sparse dry ground in the backcountry. These sites have picnic tables, a porta-john, and that’s about it. Since these are usually tucked back into the mangroves, the mosquitoes can be horrendous. You also can’t have fires at these sites, so keep that in mind when considering how you’re going to cook food.

Tent camping.

Image: Alex Vail

Beach sites are exactly like they sound: a campsite on a beach. But they aren’t really a sandy beach with coconut palm trees on them. The beaches are made up almost entirely of crushed shell and mangroves that are within just a few yards of some of the sites. There are no tables at these (they’d get washed away), and there aren’t usually any porta-johns (some have them, though). You’re welcome to build a fire at these using the abundant driftwood that washes up.

Kayak packed with camp gear.

Image: Alex Vail

Finally there are the chickees. These are essentially raised up dock platforms that are located randomly right on the surface of the water in many of the bays and estuaries. There’s a single roof on these, no walls, and enough room for your tent, a little gear, and a porta-john. That’s it. This is where the rope comes in handy to tie your tent to the dock since you can’t place stakes. You obviously cannot have fires on these either, unless you really feel like having an adventure and burning the whole platform down with you on top. The mosquitoes can be relatively bad at these, but my big thing is just comfort. Bring a sleeping pad for your tent as the dock platform isn’t the most comfortable thing in the world to sleep on.

Tent on a deck.

Image: Alex Vail

So if you’ve got cabin fever and are walled-in behind endless amounts of that white nightmare called snow, consider coming down to give the Everglades a try this winter. Keep these tips in mind, and you’re sure to have a great experience in the ‘Glades. Just don’t forget the bug spray.

Summertime in Hell

Contributed by Alex Vail of The Flying Kayak

Hell’s Bay in the Everglades backcountry of southern Florida is one of the best, and most diverse fisheries in the southeast. With summer right around the corner, the temperature isn’t the only thing that’s beginning to heat up. The fishing is, too. Before you go racing off into the backcountry, keep in mind a few helpful tips that will make your trip safer, more enjoyable, and hopefully more successful.

Boats 

Though I’m a big fan of kayaking and paddle craft, I have to advocate the use of power boats in Hell’s Bay and the surrounding areas. There’s simply too much water to cover. With the closest kayak launch being over 12 miles away at Flamingo, you’d end up spending your whole day paddling. Instead, shallow drafting flats boats, or the ever popular Gheenoes are perfect for this area. You can cover a lot of water much faster and they’re overall safer than a kayak. Why, you may ask?

Sunset over Hell's Bay, Florida [Image Credit: Alex Vail]

Image Credit: Alex Vail

Summertime storms. South Florida’s rainy season is already underway and when these big thunderstorms boil up in the afternoons, you have to be prepared to dodge them. That’s something that is very difficult to do while paddling a kayak, especially when you’re 10 miles from safety.

Safety

Hell’s Bay and the entire surrounding area is a massive mangrove swamp. Twists and turns, bayous, creeks, and small bays are what make up this place. And it all looks the same. Exactly the same. You absolutely need some form of navigational tool. I will not go out on the boat with at least a nautical map of the area, a compass, and a GPS. Preferably, more than one GPS with spare batteries. Getting turned around out there is a real possibility.

Glimpse of Hell's Bay in Florida on a sunny day [Image Credit: Alex Vail]

Image Credit: Alex Vail

In addition to that, sun protection is your next top priority. There’s no shade anywhere, so long pants, long sleeve shirts, and wide hats are a must. During the summer it’s oppressively hot. So sun gloves and sun buffs make that necessity list, too. And with it getting hot, the bugs begin to become a very big issue. Early morning and late evening is obviously the worst time, but simply being out of the wind or in the mangroves can be a one-way ticket to losing gallons of blood from mosquitos. Definitely bring plenty of bug spray.

Fishing

So why suffer through all of this? Well for the fishing of course!

Angler holds a snook at Hell's Bay, Florida [Image Credit: Alex Vail]

Image Credit: Alex Vail

Snook, tarpon, and redfish all call Hell’s Bay and the backcountry home over the summer. Flipping weedless jerk baits or DOA shrimp alongside the mangroves can be a sure ticket to some of these fish. Just be sure to bring plenty of extra tackle as losing fish in the mangroves is a harsh reality of this place. Also take special note of the tides. These fish need tidal movement to begin feeding and the more movement, the better the bite. Look for drop-offs and creek outflows to land some of the bigger fish. Like most fish, early morning and late evenings are the best time. Just be sure to give yourself enough daylight to navigate back to Flamingo where the only boat ramp is.

So, if you find your way down in sunny south Florida this summer, don’t hesitate to give the backcountry a try. It’s a fantastic fishery that shouldn’t be overlooked at any time of the year, especially not summer. Just be sure to plan ahead, bring plenty of tackle, and maybe just an extra can of bug spray.

Springtime Cichlids

Contributed by Alex Vail of The Flying Kayak

With the weather heating up, and summer right around the corner, now is the best time to fish for some of my favorite fish: Exotic cichlids in South Florida.

Fisherman holds a cichlid in swampy area [Image Credit: Alex Vail]

Image Credit: Alex Vail

Many of these fish were originally introduced into the canal systems throughout South Florida as far back as the 1960’s. Cichlids are primarily aquarium fish. You know, the kind you might find in your local pet store. Oscars, Mayan Cichlids, Jaguar Guapotes, etc. All these fish are loose and reproducing in the South Florida freshwater canal systems and are there thanks to irresponsible pet owners. Pet releases from home aquariums actually led to the establishment of many of these species.

The good news? They’re an absolute hoot to catch. Many of them fight as aggressively as some saltwater species and to make matters even better, they’re good to eat. And if that wasn’t good enough news, the state of Florida has waived any size or bag limits on them. You can keep as many as you catch.

Cooler full of cichlids [Image Credit: Alex Vail]

Image Credit: Alex Vail

Cichlids prefer warm waters (hence them being loose in South Florida), but even the winters down in Florida are enough to make them lay low. However, spring is here, and the water temperatures are heating up. That means that the cichlids are out in full force and ready to feed. Small diving lures, flies, and even earthworms are favorite bait for this ferocious species.

There is, however, a little bit of a time limit for these fish. Summer is closing in and that means rain for South Florida. Water levels will soon rise and most of the canals will flood into the surrounding areas. That means that the cichlids (as well as other fish) won’t be restricted to just the canals and will spread themselves out considerably. You can, of course, still catch them during the summer months, but don’t expect to find them in such high volumes during that time of year.

A ruddy-colored cichlid [Image Credit: Alex Vail]

Image Credit: Alex Vail

It’s important to note, however, that the small cichlids aren’t the only thing to target this time of the year. Their predator is, too. The smaller cichlids pose a big problem to some of our native fish species. They out compete many of Florida’s species, like Largemouth bass, bluegill, shellcrackers, etc. Realizing that the cichlids were an issue in the South Florida canal systems, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission purposefully introduced a predator of the non-native cichlids: the Butterfly Peacock bass.

Reaching sizes of up to 5lbs, these fish are just as ferocious as the small cichlids, but pack an even bigger punch. With their prey out in force this time of year, they’re actively hunting and feeding. On top of that, they’re beginning to bed as well. Anglers can catch them on live minnows, diving lures, and even flies. Since they’re spawning right now, look for them to be guarding their beds in the shallow waters lining the edges of the canals.

Butterfly Peacock Bass [Image Credit: Alex Vail]

Butterfly Peacock Bass [Image Credit: Alex Vail]

The rules and regulations for Peacock bass differ from their cichlid counterparts, though. They do have a size and bag limit set in place. The reason behind this? They were purposefully brought in to help control the cichlid problem. If they start to get over-fished, the already present issue of too many cichlids will become much more serious.

So if you find yourself in southern Florida this time of year, be sure to bring a rod. There is almost no roadway around the area that doesn’t have a canal nearby. And there is almost no canal that doesn’t have these aggressive and fun fighting fish in them. Just don’t forget the cooler!