Florida Bay From Flamingo
by Farrow Allen
Before the sun was up, I was on deck casing into a channel filling with rolling tarpon. Most looked between 15 and 25 pounds, but occasionally a monster approaching 100 pounds broke the dark surface as it came up to gulp for air.
After checking into my motel in Florida City, I cranked up the air conditioner and phone Richard Wong of Wong’s House of Flies in Hialeah. He told me he and Capt. Doug Lillard would pick me up at 6:00 a.m. the next morning and reminded me to bring sun screen and plenty of bug repellant. “The mosquitos can be pretty ferocious this time of year, especially around Flamingo Lodge where we’re staying.” said Richard.
Before settling down, I decided to venture into the sun and see what Florida City had to offer. It didn’t take long to learn that besides a lot of gas stations, motels, fast-food restaurants, and an outlet mall… not much. Only half an hour south of Miami, however, Florida City is strategically located at the crossroads to Biscayne Bay, the Everglades, Florida Bay and the Keys.
The next morning, as promised, the guys were in front of my motel at 6 sharp. After a short drive down Route 9336, past a succession of cultivated fields and orchards, we arrived at the Everglades National Park Visitors Center and paid a ten-dollar entry fee. By 7:30, we were fully loaded and heading out into Florida Bay. Although we were a little late getting started, Lillard said there might still be some tarpon holding in the navigation channel just outside the marina, and thought it was probably worth a quick look. After about half an hour we’d seen only a few small tarpon roll and Lillard declared we were wasting time. He told me to reel up and said it was time to head out and look for redfish.
As we skimmed across the flat surface of the deserted bay, the water depth never seemed to vary, and I asked Capt. Lillard how deep he thought the water was. He looked over the side and estimated the depth between six and ten inches–and in some spots, much less. He went on to explain how the tunnel shaped hull of his custom jon boat allowed the prop to sit up inside the hull and permit us to run in very skinny water without damaging the prop.
After a short while, we pulled into the middle of a huge flat and cut the engine. Lillard suggested I rig up with a floating 8 or 9-weight line and start looking for tailing redfish. As I stepped onto the customized front casting deck, Richard passed me a homemade stripping basket and offered me one of his weedless Shrimp Sensations. I secured his fly to my leader with a look knot, pulled out about 60 feet of line and settled down to look for the first fish of the day. It wasn’t too long before we spotted some tailing fish off to our right and began to pole toward them. About the time we got within casting range, the wind kicked-up and started gusting across the previously calm surface. I looked up to see we were directly beneath a small dark cloud that had chosen this precise moment to act up. Although I made a dozen casts, I couldn’t get a fly to drop in front of a fish.
We were also having trouble controlling the boat in the wind, so when the cloud finally burst and it started to rain, we decided it was time to take a break.
In less than ten minutes, the rain stopped, the wind died and I jumped back on deck. Within minutes I laid a perfect cast on the nose of a tailing fish and was rewarded with my first hookup of the day. After landing a thick bodied, 28 inch redfish and releasing it, I thanked everybody all around. Richard for his fly and Capt. Lillard for his skillful boat handling. While the tide continued to creep over the flat, Richard and I took turns casing to tailing redfish which were popping up everywhere. But as the sun climbed higher into the sky and the water level gradually increased, we began seeing fewer and fewer tailing fish. Instead, Capt. Lillard began pointing out long milky trails left by cruising rays and puffs of fresh mud made by feeding redfish. Sometimes I could see the outline of the fish through the clouded water, but most often, I’d just cast into the middle of the freshest-looking mud and hope for the best. We continued like this for the rest of the afternoon, picking up a few more reds and a surprising number of medium-size jacks that were literally riding the backs of the rays. Around 4:00 p.m. Capt. Lillard put down his pole and said it was time to head back and rest up for an early start in the morning.
The next day, before the sun was up, I was back on deck casting into a 40 food wide channel filled with rolling tarpon. Most looked between 15 and 25 pounds, but occasionally a monster approaching 100 pounds broke the dark surface as it came up to gulp for air. I was fishing one of Richard’s black and purple rabbit-strip streamers and it wasn’t long before I was hooked into the first tarpon of the day. with a 10-weight rod, it didn’t take long to subdue the 20 pound tarpon and release it. Just as Richard picked up his 9-weight rod –similarly rigged with a clear saltwater intermediate line and an identical1/0 black and purple rabbit-strip fly–Lillard spotted the dark shape of an alligator several hundred yards away heading in our direction.
“will he put the fish down?” I asked
“No, he’ll probably keep his distance. We’ll keep an eye on him, though.” said Lillard.
Richard, who was paying more attention to the fishing, jumped a nice tarpon but didn’t get the hook set. Shortly after that, the tarpon virtually vanished and Capt. Lillard suggested we move on.
Like the day before, we spent the next six hours chasing redfish under a cloudless sky and landing quite a few. By three o’clock, we were seeing fewer fish and the ones we caught were mostly small.
Richard suggested that this might be a good time to look around for some sharks before heading back to the marina, but we had been on the water all day and the prospect of a cold beer seemed far more inviting. After a brief discussion, we agreed that beer was the better choice–the sharks could wait until tomorrow.
If you want to explore around Flamingo on your own, you can stay at the Flamingo Lodge (941-695-3101) and rent a boat or canoe at the Marina. Richard Wong of Wong’s House of Flies (800-970-6187), can set you up with the right flies, and if you’re looking for a really good guide, Capt. Doug Lillard(954-894-9865) is absolutely first rate.