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(If you have not read the first part of this adventure blog it can be found here)
Ask any fisherman/woman, and they will tell you that waking up at 3am to go fishing is ABSOLUTELY easier than waking up at 7am to go to work. But when the previous day involved 1600 miles of travel, and sleeping on the ground without a pillow, coupled with going to bed after midnight. 3am is EARLY. Our guide Kevin (The Machine) Hughes is an absolute… well… machine. The guy wakes up and is ready to go paddle 10 miles in the dark, in the Everglades, where I am still certain EVERYTHING wants to kill you, did I mention it is still dark?
As I exit my tent with my headlamp on the red beam to avoid dealing with the fact that it is still pitch black outside, alarms start ringing across our campsite, as people groan and snooze it one more time. I grab my French press and make my way over to Grant’s tent where I ask to borrow his cook stove, promising hot caffeine in payment. Kevin is already loading up coolers and gear, as I shuffle over to the picnic table to do the whole “don’t talk to me until I have had coffee” thing. Kevin being the thoughtful host that he is hands me a Red Bull and waits until it has crested my lips to tell me we would be paddling through a tight, lightly maintained (read, full dark, roots and webs everywhere, and almost non-navigable passes) mangrove tunnel in complete darkness. I am going to need more coffee.
One by one I start seeing headlamp beams blazing through the darkness across our campsite as people start emerging from their tents. A few groans and greetings and a few more rounds of coffee and we are packed and ready to head to the launch.
When we get to the launch site, we park with the headlights on so we can load up, and this was the first moment I realized just how gnarly the Everglades are. The number of flies that were attracted to our wonderful beacon of necessity was incredible, they were so thick… you could almost… taste them. We each grab a Shearwater, and in traditional Vibe product photo shoot fashion, that is our kayak for the rest of the trip. So, we all take the time to deck them out with our mounts and gear, which we are all pretty used to doing so it does not take too long.
After everyone is acquainted with their new boat, we establish an order for navigating the first mangrove tunnel. Erica all but demands that she goes somewhere in the middle of the pack so if one of the many dangers (crocodiles, venomous spiders, snakes, croco-spiders etc.) were to show their 8 legged many toothed faces, she had human shields to protect her from danger. I offered to take up the back of the train to try to keep the group together (and to have a fast exit if needed, one can never be too careful)
We set off. Navigating these mangrove tunnels in the dark was unlike anything I have ever experienced. With just the headlamp of the person in front of you to guide your next move, making careful calculated maneuvers around, through, and under all sorts of logs, roots, and webs. Kevin (The Machine) deftly maneuvering through the salty swamp like it was a cruise down a lazy river, making us all question if he was human. I didn’t really know what to expect on the other side and just as a bit of light was cresting the horizon, we exit the tunnel into a massive salt lake.
As I emerge out of the dark tunnel to see everyone gathering, turning off their headlamps and taking off their rain gear (did I mention that the Everglades air is so wet at night that you basically take a shower until the sun comes up to burn off the moisture?) Kevin goes “okay, we aren’t going to do any fishing in this lake, our next tunnel is directly across the length of the lake”.
2 miles later we arrive at another mangrove tunnel, this time it is daylight, so it should be easier to navigate… WRONG. Daylight just means you can see all the stuff that you were able to skirt over in the dark. These tunnels are a lot work, but by the end of this one I am starting to appreciate the difficulty of getting to where we are going.
Emerging to the other side to another lake, this one not nearly as big and brutal, and apparently this one holds fish, so we get to spread out and finally get a line wet. We are throwing primarily variations of Z-Man Jerkshadz on a Mustad Grip Pin hook in various weights. The water is chocolate milk silt and salt. Working the banks and the islands like you would for bass. It was not long before Josh was hooked up with a nice size snook, these guys are super isolated, and are COMPLETELY different in the way they act from most snook. Big breaching jumps and hard fighting head shakes.
The crew has hooked up a few times all mid-small sized snook, and everyone is starting to get into the cadence and getting used to the spot. Kevin speaks up “Alright if we are going to catch any tarpon today, we need to get across this lake and through the next mangrove tunnel, lets go” Say no more Mr. The Machine, we all came for a shot at some tarpon. Even though we missed the big ones by a few weeks, we were still all hoping to land some silver rockets. So off we go, across another lake, we split up our crew here. Outdoors Allie wanted to stay and keep snook fishing, hoping to land a few on the fly. And Grant from Vibe stayed with them so they would have a radio and a way to communicate with us over in the next lake.
The last mangrove tunnel was cleared a bit better than the previous ones, and even offered a few spots to stop and toss a few lines out at some roaming snook. Kevin was already hooked into a decent sized one by the time I rolled up on him, man, this guy has no quit.
Enough messing about, we finish up the last tunnel and come out to another large lake. Kevin naturally is already fishing by the time I emerge. He is slinging flies now hoping to show us a tarpon jump on camera. He looks back to see that the whole group is there, and goes “okay we need to cross this lake now, the tarpon spot is on the other side, don’t worry the wind (20mph) will change directions before we are done”
Following The Machine across the lake, paddling the Shearwater in the wind and chop was great, if the mangrove tunnels were pushing its nimbleness beyond what it was designed for, this was EXACTLY what it was made to do. It cuts through the wake and splashes the spray outwards away from you, and WOW this thing is fast. Erica and I get to the other side some time after “The Machine” and Josh Thomas, we start casting towards all the deadwood on the lakes edge, small snook after small snook.
The fishing action is incredible, even if we are not catching the target species, a bycatch of snook is NEVER something to complain about. And none of us has been eaten by a croco-spider yet! The Miami sun is glaring down on us, and we are all laughing and enjoying some fishing, though we are starting to doubt that there are any tarpon in here at all, we were told they would be literally jumping in our boats…
5 minutes later I hear “ow!!! what the heck was that?” “holy crap, a juvenile tarpon just jumped and hit me” apparently they fight back around here, and we all had bruises to prove it by the end of the trip, no one landed one on day 1 of fishing, but we got our fix of snook fishing and had a good feel for how we were going to approach fishing day 2. Now we just had to follow Kev…er… The Machine back 5 miles through the tunnels and lakes.
We turn around to head back and Kevin was right, the wind changed directions, we were fighting it going out, now we will be fighting it going back. He is but a speck in the distance and by the time Josh, Erica, Kirby and myself get to him he has already hooked into another snook. We toss a few lines out before heading back into the tunnel to go meet up with the rest of the crew at the 2nd lake. We don’t waste any time getting across the 2nd lake, the other crew is waiting for us at the entrance to the next tunnel so we just booked it across, the Shearwater cruising through this shallow lake, not seeming to care that a lot of what it is floating in is more silt than water. Catching up with the other group, we hear they had a great day as well, Allie managed to get a bunch of content for her channel, and they almost all managed to catch some fish… Sorry Grant.
By now my shoulders and arms are starting to feel the 6 or so miles we have paddled today. I think we all are feeling it because there were a LOT more hang-ups going through this mangrove tunnel than there were this morning. After we all picked our way through we were greeted by that first giant lake, and a stiff breeze. Ugh… tomorrow we are DEFINITELY going to use the X-Drives that we had overnighted from Atlanta. Eventually, an exhausted crew made it across the lake where The Machine was waiting (notice a trend here?) One more tunnel, I got a bit hung up on this one and had to figure out the best way to get a root out from under my pod bay, it turns out taking the Versa Pod out on the water is easy, and a great way to clear yourself from any obstructions.
Upon re-arrival at the launch pretty much everyone was beat. A few cold Gatorades and some Clif Bars (Sorry Miriam) and it was time to recount how everyone’s day went, before loading back up to head to the campsite. Where, we said goodbye to Josh, who was off on a mission to find the Walgreens that our X-Drives were mailed to from GA. It was not until this point that we realized that while we were out in the middle of the salt swamp, the world was shutting down around us. Josh ventured to Miami and upon returning told us the story of the outside world.
States were declaring a state of emergency, restaurants were shutting down, parks were closing, travel was being limited, stores were not allowing people inside, many were closing entirely. And the park was going to shut down all non-essential business, then close the gate entirely once they could get everyone out. This meant for us that the food and ice we had… needed to last us until the trip was over because restocking was suddenly “not going to happen”.
When Josh returned to the site with all the chaotic news, it was dark. So, we assembled the steering handles, seat perches, and X-Drives that we had to mail (lack of space in the vehicles hauling our boats) by headlamp, man I am glad I brought my headlamp! A bite to eat (rationed) over the fire, and we finished up around midnight, good thing because Kevin speaks up, “I think since we got everything together this morning and tonight, we can wake up about an hour later tomorrow” it is the small victories. But that did not stop me from double checking his tent for where he charges his dang batteries, because he is not human.
But tomorrow... tomorrow we have pedals, and Bixpys.
(Cover Image By: Erica DeLana)