Destination Saltwater | 10k Islands

Negotiating the thin line between the worlds of adventure and danger, three anglers embark on a fishing excursion teeming with comedy, mystery, successes and failures. From hidden oyster bars and foul weather to personal best fish and fires on the boat, their journey provides insights, lessons and laughs for anglers young and old alike. Do you hunger for tips and tricks about planning and executing a chaos free DIY fishing trip? Are you thirsty for unapologetic saltwater tales that will leave you dreaming about your next vacation? Do you wish to live vicariously through the shared experiences of three old friends while they venture into unknown waters?  Or do you just want a simple list of ways to help you catch more snook? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you’ve come to the right place. These topics and more will all be discussed in this month’s issue of Destination Saltwater | 10k Islands edition.

Destination Saltwater | 10k Islands
The paddle of a Goliath Grouper

Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands Region

Nestled in the Gulf-side cove of Florida’s southern tip, the Ten Thousand Islands area is an angler’s paradise. For starters, it is massive. It’s northern section, the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, boasts more than 35,000 acres of protected habitat. And the southern section is part of the Everglades, the third largest national park in the contiguous United States (over 1.5 million acres). During our 5 day trip, we barely scratched the surface. To thoroughly cover its entirety, it would take stringent dedication and decades.

Within its substantial area, the 10k Islands region holds endless fishing opportunities in a myriad of habitats. Mangrove islands, tidal flats, estuaries and saltwater marshes are a few options at an angler’s disposal. And as for target species, there is an abundance. Nearly 200 varieties of fish have been documented in the area. Snook, tarpon and red drum are among the top three sport fish. But other target species include permit, sea trout, cobia, mangrove snapper and grouper. And of course, there’s always bycatch. When we were on the hunt for snook and redfish, we landed our fair share of ladyfish, jacks, spanish mackerel and even a couple stingrays. As a predominately trout fly fisherman, it’s always fun hooking into a fish with some mystery surrounding it.

Destination Saltwater | 10k Islands

While out on the water, it’s impossible to overlook the sheer beauty of the 10k Islands region. It is not uncommon to spot manatees, sea turtles, dolphins and alligators while cruising the channels. And with over 200 species of birds calling this area their home, lofted frigates, prowling osprey and dive-bombing pelicans are usually within eyesight. So when the fishing is slow or you’re moving to your next spot, be sure to take in the view and enjoy all of the offerings Mother Nature provides.

Lofty Goals & Unforeseen Obstacles

We set out on this trip with the intention to primarily target snook, redfish and tarpon. And although we still went after all three species, a cold snap the week before our arrival dropped the water temperature significantly, effectively crossing tarpon off the list. As it turned out, the cooler temperatures had put a lot of the bigger fish down, scattering them into deeper water or further inland.

We were also plagued by high winds. A good portion of each day was gusty, making pinpoint casting nearly impossible. Thankfully, we were usually able to find a sheltered area to counteract this hurdle. Leeward sides of mangrove islands and protected lagoons were our typical go-to’s. In any case, we refused to let the weather change our plans entirely. At least, not until our last day (more on this below).

10k Islands Redfish

What did change our plans (not weather related) was something you never want to experience on a boat. Halfway through our second day on the water, Greg, our informal guide, captain/owner of the skiff and local fish biologist, turned to us and asked, “do you guys smell that?” Being upwind and at the head of the bow, all I could smell was the sunscreen I had just lathered on my face. I shook my head. A moment later, Brian chimed in. “It smells like something’s burning.” Memories of the cigar I had smoked 30 minutes earlier panicked my mind. Had I dropped the embers in the boat somehow. The three of us quickly scoured the skiff for any sign of smoke or fire. Upon opening the hatch to the bow storage, a cloud of smoke spewed out. As that cleared, Greg noticed the trolling motor battery had somehow dislodged from its mounting tray. And then, the ‘aha’ moment.

Rolling With The Punches

As the three of us put two-and-two together, Greg unplugged the trolling motor from the battery. The plug head was, in fact, smoking a bit and completely melted on one side. Here’s a quick breakdown of what we guessed had happened:

  1. While en route to southern Florida, we drove over a rutted bridge which left the trailer and boat bouncing heavily.
  2. The bouncing dislodged the trolling motor battery from its mounting tray.
  3. While sliding around in the bow for the next two days, the battery gradually pulled wires free of their fittings.
  4. Overtime, the faulty connection heated up and eventually started on fire.
  5. Smoke on the boat. Panic. Toasted plug receptacle.

So there we were. Day two of our trip and the trolling motor (our primary mode of navigating with stealth) was out of commission. We limped through the rest of the afternoon using the boat motor and the wind to drift along mangrove islands, blasting the banks with our streamers as we passed. But our conversations were now focused on troubleshooting the trolling motor issue.

We decided to head in and finagle a solution. With only a handful of tools at your disposal, we disassembled the plug receptacle and housing gaskets, miraculously found a few heat, shrink and crimp wire connectors (necessary for wet conditions) and hard-wired the battery to the trolling motor. Then, the moment of truth. We hit the ‘on’ button and boom, we had power and a functioning trolling motor. After sealing the wire port between the outer and inner hull with some gorilla tape, we cracked some celebratory beers. MacGyver would have been proud.

Destination Saltwater |  10k Islands

Fish On!

So what if a lot of the bigger fish were holding deep or had moved inland. Who cares if we had to battle high winds. So what if we had to figure out hot spots and honeyholes on our own. We made the journey to southern Florida for one reason…to catch fish. And that we did.

Destination Saltwater | 10k Islands

Each day on the water, every man on the boat landed fish. And usually, we did very well. There was the typical afternoon lull which, during our time down there, coincided with a low, slack tide. But other than that, we were getting into fish with some regularity. As I mentioned earlier, we were really gunning for snook and redfish. Well, we caught plenty of both. But like damn near all anglers on this planet, we wanted to haul in some big boys. Trophy specimens. Saltwater monsters.

The day after Greg’s 36th birthday, we were out in open water fishing a submerged oyster bar. But the wind was ripping so hard we were about to call it and head in early. Greg was making some hail Mary casts towards the edge of the oyster bar when he got a massive strike. Hook set, rod bent, big fish on. I’ll be honest. The next 15 minutes were pretty chaotic.

Brian and I both had to reel in like crazy so that we wouldn’t tangle with Greg’s rig. The fish kept running for the oyster bar, increasing the chances of it breaking off. And the wind was rapidly blowing us into very shallow water, even with the trolling motor on full blast. So I fired up the main motor and pointed us towards the fish. Finally, we got a glimpse of the beast. It was an enormous snook.

Massive Snook

5 Tips For Catching & Handling Snook

Once we got the snook netted, the standard barrage of high-fives, photos and smiles followed. It measured in at 36.25” and weighed over 17 lbs. This was a personal best for Greg, beating his previous record by over an inch. It seemed only fitting that for his 36th birthday, he’d catch a 36” snook.

Destination Saltwater | 10k Islands

Snook are powerful, hard fighting fish. They spend a lot of their time searching out baitfish and crustaceans, typically near some sort of structure. And a lot of the time, they are elusive. Here are some tips for helping you catch more (and knowing how to handle them once you do).

  1. Knowing where to cast is half the battle. With snook, target the edges of structures. Oyster bars, mangroves and man made areas like bridge abutments and jetties are all safe bets.
  2. Once you get your fly as close to the structure as possible, let it sink. Oftentimes, snook will be feeding 2-4 feet below the surface.
  3. Utilize GPS apps like Google Earth or BaseMap to identify deeper channels and cuts near structure. Snook tend to lurk in these areas for convenient feeding.
  4. Use a heavier tippet section at the end of your rig. Snook have abrasive lips and mouths, similar to sandpaper. When you’re playing them, your tippet gets shredded and the risk of losing them is high. Add 6-8” of 40 lb tippet at the end of your line for increased durability.
  5. Snook have an extremely sharp forward gill plate (operculum). One got loose on our boat for a split second and sliced through Brian’s pants, cutting his ankle. When handling them, grasp the tail in one hand and then lip the fish with your other hand. Their mouths are rough but they do not have teeth.

Proper Handling of a Snook

How To Execute A Smooth DIY Fishing Trip

Without getting into the pros and cons of a resort/lodge/guided style vacation versus a DIY approach (you can read our blog on it here), I will say this. DIY fishing trips require a LOT more work and preparation. So, to help you with your next homegrown adventure, here’s a handy list of insights and tips.

  1. If going with a group, teamwork is your number one ally. “Many hands make light work” is the perfect motto. And following that mantra will make everyone’s time more fishing-focused.
  2. Hit the water early. To pull that off, prep coffee, breakfast and lunch the night before (reference Tip #1 above). Zip-locked sandwiches and breakfast burritos = Happy anglers on the boat.
  3. On trips that span 2 days or more, designate tasks and stick with assigned chores throughout your trip. Repetition creates efficiency. If you are in charge of making sandwiches, you’ll be a flipping pro by day 5.
  4. Minimize gear and provisions on the boat deck. No one likes tripping over backpacks and empty beer cans while trying to land a fish of a lifetime.
  5. Plan ahead. Know what to expect with weather, tides, gear required and navigation. Don’t be the guy who’s bumming layers on chilly mornings.Destination Saltwater |  10k Islands
  6. Respect and support the local community. Be polite to your neighbors both on and off the water. Purchase items from mom and pop shops. Visit historic landmarks and old restaurants & bars.
  7. Bring extra tools. We learned this lesson the hard way after our boat fire and the subsequent MacGyver repairs. A small toolbox could save you hours of time.
  8. Roll with the punches. Don’t get hung-up on strict itineraries. Sometimes, the best fishing is the least planned.Destination Saltwater | 10k Islands

Everything Is Clearer In Hindsight

With any anticipated fishing trip, expectations can run high, plans will go awry and the fish will sometimes give you the middle finger. And that’s how it should be. If everything went exactly the way you wanted, your fishing excursions would be boring. Adventure lies in the unknown, not in the predicted. In my opinion, learning from those curveballs is one of the most important elements of fly fishing. That being said, here are a few afterthoughts from our trip to the 10k Islands region.

Goliath Grouper

  1. Changing the plan can be great. When the forecast for our last day at 10k Islands was dismal, we decided to head north and fish the Peace River. It ended up being a great change of scenery. I also landed my two biggest fish of the trip there.
  2. Enjoy the bycatch. Everyone wants to land monster snook, redfish and tarpon. But that doesn’t always happen. Take pleasure in catching different species.Destination Saltwater | 10k Islands
  3. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of saltwater fly patterns. I had my best luck with a simple white clouser minnow pattern. In fact, I landed more fish on it than all the others combined.
  4. Cook up some freshly caught fish. I follow catch and release practices 99.999% of the time. But there’s nothing like sampling some fish that you landed hours ago. Know limits, size and seasonal regulations.
  5. Until the second to last day, we fished dawn till dusk. Make a point to save some time for exploring the area you’re visiting. If you head to Everglades City, Florida, have lunch at the Havana Cafe. Then cruise on over to the historical Rod & Gun Club and have a cocktail on the porch or while shooting a game of pool. You will not regret it.Destination Saltwater | 10k Islands

10k Islands Fishing Trip By The Numbers

Hours fished: 46 (not including prep time or loading/unloading skiff each day)

Biggest fish to net: 36.25”, 17 lb snook

Distance from bed to boat: 30’

Breakfast burritos devoured: 17

Species landed: 11 (Crevalle jack, spanish mackerel, snook, redfish, sea trout, lizardfish, goliath grouper, stingray, mangrove snapper, sailfin catfish, ladyfish)

Days on the water: 5

Earliest morning: 4am wake up

Anglers on the boat: 3

Oyster bars hit with skiff: 0

Beers consumed: just a few….

Keep ‘em wet, handle them sparingly and always appreciate where you are.

Seth Kulas, Vail Valley Anglers Content Contributor, @sethkulaswoodsmith