Biology was always my favorite class in high school. Freshman year Introduction to Biology was taught by C.A.R. Johnson, a quirky old fellow that had a lot of love for his subject, and for his students. C.A.R. always enjoyed taking his classes out for walks around Lake Ellen, behind Glenbard West High School, to show us the many varieties of trees that grew in that picturesque setting. He had a variety of stock phrases that he would use… some as teaching aids, and some as a way to keep the group together, and listening. “Tree of Heaven… smells like the OTHER PLACE”. “Xylem and Phloem… food flow through ’em.” “Slippery Elm… leaves like sandpaper!”  These stock phrases worked like a charm, to glue these little facts into our brains.  When some of the kids would start to wander off, he would draw us back together, saying, “Come little brother… come, little sister.”

Years later, I would find myself following another person on nature walks, but this time it was on the beautiful barrier island, Camp Lulu Key, in southwest Florida, in the 10,000 Islands National Wildlife Refuge.  The person leading these walks was another interesting character, known as John “Crawfish” Crawford.  John is a Marine Educator with the University of Georgia’s Marine Extension Service (MAREX).  The thing that initially drew me to Camp Lulu Key, was the gathering of fellow kayakers to the remote island for the New Year’s celebration, far away from the dangerous roads and loud gatherings on “amateur night”.  We partied, to be sure, but the next morning, we would always be there to do the cleanup.  Our motto was to always leave it as we found it, or leave it BETTER.  We picked up the remains of the night before, as the tide was on its way out, leaving 100 yards of tidal flats where the water had been, just hours before.  The morning of New Year’s Day, during my first trip to Lulu, I noticed John.  He was wearing his trademark white rubber shrimper’s boots and walking out from his campsite, which was nestled amongst the red and black mangrove shoreline.  A small crowd was quickly forming behind him, following his every move.  “Hmmm… interesting…”, I thought, as I quickly stashed the trash in my tent, and joined the group.

It was more than just “interesting”, following Crawfish onto that tidal flat… it was fascinating.  He would pause, pick up a live shell, and then talk about it for a bit.  He would tell the common name, like “lightning whelk”, and then go on to tell its Latin name (Busycon contrarium), and some of its particular traits.  The “contrarium” part of the Latin name was due to the fact that, unlike most other whelks and conchs which, when held “crown up”, had their opening on the right, the lightning whelk had its opening on the left… giving this shell its other common name, the “left-handed whelk”.  Crawfish had a wealth of knowledge about the shells, crabs, sponges, and other invertebrates.  Like a sponge soaking up water, I tried to learn all I could while following, listening, and asking questions.

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My friend, Kent Van Slyke, holds a live lightning whelk (Busycon contrarium), which we found crawling along the tidal flats recently, on Pavilion Key, in Everglades National Park.  In the second picture, you can see the whelk’s “operculum” – the “trap door” that protects the animal from predators, covering the left-handed opening and the soft animal inside.

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Fast-forward.  I’ve picked up a lot of bits of information over my 25 years of kayaking in SW Florida & beyond, through observation & investigation on my own, sharing with other knowledgeable people, and through my studies with the Florida Master Naturalist Program (FMNP), associated with the University of Florida.  My instructor for the Master Naturalist Program was Cindy Bear-O’Connor, who is the Site Coordinator at the Randell Research Center, an ancient Calusa Indian shell mound at Pineland, Pine Island, FL.  This is an outstanding program, which I would highly recommend to anyone that is interested in furthering their knowledge of the many varied Florida ecosystems.

You could say that I am now, a “version” of C.A.R. Johnson and John Crawfish Crawford, and myself, combined.  I don’t claim to have the extensive knowledge of either of these two men, but I will say, quite proudly, that I know more than most.  It is my pleasure to be able to share that knowledge as a kayak guide for Everglades Area Tours, in Chokoloskee FL, at the doorsteps of Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve.  It is a true pleasure to open up some eyes, while showing off the amazing abundance of life in this tremendously diverse natural area.  If you’d like to follow along with me, subscribe to my blog, or come join me on a kayaking trip, and see nature’s beauty through your own eyes.

Come, little brother… come, little sister!

http://evergladesareatours.com/

 

 

 

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One of my favorite parts of wilderness kayak camping with the local clubs, is sitting around a nice campfire, talking, sharing food & drink, and the story-telling. Stories of past trips – some funny, some dramatic. Some tell an occasional bawdy joke or two, or… ten. Some tell stories of tough conditions & how we got through them. On this particular Friday, the stories continued into the night, through the shared blackberry brandy & warm duck (isn’t it supposed to be “cold duck”?).  Bit by bit, the circle got smaller as people drifted off to their tents, to rest up for the next day.

Sitting around the campfire.

Saturday, to me, is the “payoff day”. You plan for days, or even weeks. You wake up in the pre-dawn hours, load the car, drive, pack the kayak, paddle 10 miles or so, set up camp, and after all of that – on the first day, you’re almost too tired to do much of anything. On a one-night trip, you have to do the whole thing in reverse almost as soon as you wake up! But if you’re out there for 2 or more nights, you have ALL DAY Saturday, to explore, take pictures, fish, or even simply lie on a beautiful, quiet beach and read… whatever you want to do. I wanted to go fishing.

Going fishing.

I paddled out between Whitehorse & Gullivan keys at first, hoping to find some of the mackeral that we had seen on our way out on Friday. I didn’t find the mackeral, but I did catch & release some ladyfish and spotted sea trout. The spotted sea trout were out of season, but I toyed with the idea of keeping some anyway. It’s a dishonorable, yet time-honored tradition among campers, to call it “mystery-fish”, or “camp-meat”. People that wouldn’t otherwise even go so far as to jaywalk, have been known to do this. I thought, for a while, about keeping a ladyfish and using it for shark bait, but then I thought that I’d much rather catch a nice snook or redfish, so I didn’t. Pete had mentioned the Four Brothers Key area as a possible fishing spot, so I headed over that way.

Whitehorse Key, Four Brothers, and the Hidden Lake.  Click on any of the images to enlarge.

On my way to Four Brothers, I hugged the shorelines, casting my tipped bucktail jig under the mangroves at all of the likely points, but having no luck. I continued this way, working the shoreline until about 2:00 or 2:30… getting more & more frustrated at not finding the snook & reds. The afternoon heat was steamy, so I loosened my sprayskirt from the cockpit, to let the air circulate. It was a calm day, with no power boat traffic, so I didn’t need the sprayskirt to keep waves from crashing into the boat. I finally came into an area where I was catching some ladyfish and… uh… ummm… a kind of fish that shall remain unidentified, but let’s call them “speckled-mystery-sea-mullet”, OK? I wanted something to share with my campmates, and that seemed to be all that was available. I put them on a stringer, and clipped it to a bungee on my kayak’s deck, to keep them alive and fresh. Hopefully, I would catch a redfish or snook, and release the “mystery fish” alive.

After fishing the shoreline along the full length of Four Brothers Key, I decided to try a hidden lake in the center of an un-named island just to the north. My chart showed that there was a mangrove-lined creek that entered the lake from the north side of the island. The creek was easy to find, and quite picturesque, with the mangroves even forming a shady overhead canopy as it wound its way into the interior of the island. It was a fairly deep creek, with a good amount of flow from the outgoing tide. As I made my way to the hidden lake, a beautiful pink roseate spoonbill took flight ahead of me, flashing the bright slash of red on its shoulder. There were other wading birds working the shallows, as I entered the lake. Now that there was room enough to cast again, I made a few tentative casts, while watching for the telltale signs of snook popping the surface, or reds tailing.

I sat there, close to the opening, trying to decide which part of this fairly large hidden lake to fish first. I was about 15′ from the mangroves to my left, and maybe 50′ to 75′ from the mangroves to my right. As I sat there, pondering my plan, I saw a large wake coming from the mangroves to my right, and heading straight for the bow of my kayak. All that I had on my mind, at this point, was snook & reds. My first thought was “Snook! BIG snook!”. The wake crossed under the tip of my bow, and did a 90 degree turn to the left, no more than 2 feet from the side of my kayak. I positioned myself to cast behind me, to place my lure ahead of the fish, to “lead” it, when the wake seemed to disappear.

At that moment, it all happened. The left side of my kayak lurched underwater, and I was pulled upside-down instantly. I instinctively knew what it had happened. A shark had grabbed the fish on my stringer and pulled me down. My spray skirt had been off, so in an instant, the kayak was half-full of water, and I was dumped into the water with the shark, with my kayak drifting away from me. I took a couple of quick strokes & grabbed the kayak, scrambling to pull myself up onto the hull of my upside-down boat. I wanted to be OUT of that water, and NOW. My only thought was, how much my kicking, lily-white legs must look like fish on a stringer.

The thing I didn’t realize was, the huge splash that I made, and the solid resistance of the weight of the kayak against the stringer of fish, must have scared the shark off. All I knew was, it was somewhere close by. As I climbed onto the kayak, it sank at my end, filling it with more water, so I did the “cowboy crawl” toward the center of the boat, to balance it, all the while, keeping my arms & legs on top as much as possible. If you think that it’s any easy thing to do, balancing on top of a 22-inch-wide, upside-down sea kayak, then I invite you to try it yourself, sometime. You could say, that I was “highly motivated”. I reached around to the front deck, where I had the stringer clipped, and unclipped it, then I threw the clip away from the kayak. I didn’t want that shark to start pulling the kayak around again, since I had a pretty tenuous grasp on the boat at this point.

Now that I was in a “relatively safe” position, I had a chance to assess my situation. I was unhurt, balancing on top of my upside-down kayak, still holding onto my fishing rod! I never let the rod go, through the whole ordeal. To this day, I have no idea how I did that.  As I looked around for signs of the shark, I could see my paddle, chart, and water bottle drifting slowly toward the creek, with the outgoing tide. I was in a hidden lake, where no passing boat could ever see me. Even a plane flying overhead in a search pattern would have to have a tremendous amount of luck to spot me. I got there on my own, so I was going to have to get out, on my own.

My paddle. It was floating toward the mouth of the creek. I was going to need that paddle to get back to camp, and there was only one way to get it back. I had to swim for it. I hadn’t seen the shark’s wake since before everything started happening, and all was quiet, so I decided to go for it. I slipped back into the water & swam over to the paddle, still with a firm grip on my fishing rod, using the smoothest stroke possible, so as not to make attractive vibrations. Then I swam back to the kayak with the paddle. Nothing was happening… I wasn’t being bitten! So, with feelings of trepidation, I decided to stay in the water & swim the kayak to the mangrove shoreline.

The mangroves were thick, with no beach area to speak of, and the water was fairly deep right up to within about 6′ or so of their roots. There were enough roots to keep me from sinking into the muck, so I started emptying the water from my kayak. It was then, that I saw that the stringer was still attached to the kayak, having gotten tangled up in the deck bungees! I pulled on the stringer, and to my horror, I saw that the fish were still there! Shark bait!!! I quickly stuffed them into the cockpit behind the seat, and continued to empty the water out, as quickly as possible. You have no idea of the relief I felt, when I was once again able to climb into that kayak. I sat there trying to calm my breathing, and slow the pounding of my heart.  After a few minutes, I finished clearing the water out with my sponge, then paddled back out the creek, in a vain attempt to find my chart and water bottle.

I had spare charts, a submersible GPS and VHF radio, and they were both still functioning properly. At this point, however, the emergency situation had passed, so there was no need to call anyone.  I knew exactly where I was, so I headed back to camp by the shortest possible route. Somehow, I just didn’t feel like fishing any more that afternoon.

After getting back to camp, I took my first good look at the “spotted sea mullet” that were on that stringer. There was a bite mark that measured 5 1/2″ wide, cut cleanly about 1″ deep on one side, with small lacerations matching that size on the other side. I “guesstimated” the size of the shark to be in the 5′ to 6′ size range.

Shark bite.

After relating my story at camp, a few people asked me if I was done with kayak fishing, or if I would do it differently. No – I am not done with kayak fishing, but I AM done with stringers. I was aware that a shark could come along & grab fish off of a stringer, but for some reason, I thought that there would be more warning – like tugs on the line, that sort of thing. It was that scene in “Jaws” that had me fooled. Do you remember the scene, where the guy throws his wife’s roast off of the dock, tied to an inner tube? That gigantic shark gave a couple of feeble tugs on it, before shredding that dock to pieces. That, my friend, was FICTION. This was REAL. That rushing wake was my only warning, and I didn’t recognize it as the only warning that I would be given.

There’s always a few stories that come out of each camping trip, and that’s mine, for this particular trip. I learned from it, came out of it unscathed, and hope that by sharing it, that others will learn from it too. If you use a stringer in salt water, YOU. ARE. TROLLING.

Anybody else up for some kayak camping, and fishing? I am… but don’t expect me to provide you with any “mystery-fish-camp-meat”, OK? Karma… is real.