The Myakka River is a unique river… a treasure, for a nature-loving kayaker like myself.  It meanders back & forth through natural oxbows, trying to put off its eventual mixing with the salt water at its mouth, 30 miles away, in Charlotte Harbor.  If you were to stretch this river out straight, it would probably be five times longer than it appears to be, on a map.  These wildly twisting turns create niches along the way, with deep narrow channels of moving water, bordered by shallow weedy marshes that are loaded with wading birds of all kinds.  There are the elegant black-necked stilts, bold-patterned anhingas, and the strangely exotic and colorful roseate spoonbills.  The drama is apparent with the many places on the shoreline, where the weeds are flattened to the ground by sun-seeking alligators.

Compared to many other rivers, the Myakka seems to have more than its share of gators.  Driving into Myakka River State Park, just east of Sarasota, it seems that every time you drive over the bridge, or go to the concession area, there are people ooh-ing and ahh-ing and snapping pictures of gators from a safe distance.  For a tourist adventure, you can book a short trip on the Myakka Maiden or the Gator Gal… huge airboats that carry a sizeable crowd out to Upper Myakka Lake, where you can take more pictures of the gators from a safe location.  If you’re lucky, there might even be a wading bird or two that aren’t scared out of their wits by this monstrosity that invades their feeding areas.

I prefer a quiet approach, that doesn’t leave the local wildlife scattering to the winds or the waters.  A quiet paddler may see deer, wild pigs, raccoons, otters, turkeys, white ibis, and a wide variety of herons and egrets.  Probably because the river isn’t bordered by residential areas for many miles of its length, the alligators are far more likely to show their more natural behavior.  Rather than being accustomed to our noisy intrusions, the gators along the upper parts of the Myakka still have a natural fear of anything that is bigger than they are… or bigger in most cases, I should say.  There are some BIG gators in this river.

“THEY… are afraid… of US???” – I seem to hear you asking.  Well, yes.  These alligators are very wary of intruders.  If you like to chat loudly with your fellow paddlers, you’ll still see gators.  Most likely though, all you will see is their eyes and nostrils barely protruding above the water’s surface.  Then, as you approach, POP!  They submerge.  If you & your paddling companions have a lull in the conversation, you may see the gators laying on the bank up ahead, warming their cold blood in the mid-day sun.  As you paddle closer, they start shifting their positions, then finally stand up and walk to the water, sliding gracefully in until they can hide their bodies while keeping a hesitant eye on you.  Then… goodbye!  You won’t see them again, unless you sit quietly and wait.

If your group can move quietly downstream, including keeping your paddle strokes as silent as possible, you will see even more.  There are places along the river where it is not uncommon to see as many as 20 of these prehistoric beasts looking like a lineup of cut logs.  The river is never terribly wide, so it seems that you can’t pass by quietly enough and far enough away, to keep from spooking them.  It looks like a scene from an old Johnny Weismueller Tarzan movie, when you see a mob such as this, rushing the water in a frantic effort to disappear into the depths.  The difference is, there is no film editor, to add in the scene of Johnny swimming, knife in mouth, then wrestling the rubber critter and stabbing it to death before he can become its lunch.  It takes a Hollywood writer and creative film editing, to create that kind of drama.  In all actuality, these are just some nervous animals that don’t want to deal with “the unknown”… YOU.

A few years ago, my paddling group had heard of a place that’s downriver from the state park, known as “The Deep Hole”.  We were told that it was in the vicinity of Lower Myakka Lake, and that it was a natural sinkhole, that was 50 to 60 feet deep.  The surrounding lake is quite shallow and fairly large.  In the dry season (winter, to you “snowbirds”), water levels in the river and its lakes drop significantly.  The gators like to have water nearby, that is deep enough for them to be able to disappear completely.  They can be found in isolated spots along the lakes and the river, but they tend to congregate in numbers in places like The Deep Hole.  I have seen as many as 60 alligators in the vicinity of the Hole at one time.  This is especially impressive when you consider that the entire Hole is no larger than a football field.

During our group’s first visit to The Deep Hole, we were understandably cautious.  Despite our combined years of experience kayaking in Florida, we had never seen so many gators concentrated in once place.  The smallest ones were about 6 feet long, and I hesitate to estimate how long the largest could have been.  I will say this: when you see a gator that is a foot tall while LAYING DOWN… that… is a B-I-G gator.   Our group decided to close ranks to form a raft, with all of the inside kayakers holding onto the cockpit coamings of the two kayaks that they bordered.  The two outside kayakers would control the movement of the raft with their paddles, awkwardly moving the group into the center of the Hole as a unit.  It worked well, although as the paddler on the right, I wanted to move to the center of the Hole, while our paddler on the left would have preferred not to.  Lots of pictures were taken, along with a decent video of the nervous chatter amongst the group.
A couple of years later, the group returned, with a “Been there, done that.” attitude, and a somewhat relaxed opinion of the real danger that exists, in being surrounded by at least 40 (on this occasion) large, wild alligators.  We had two people, myself, and Joe, that were eager to capture this moment on video.  Despite the vocal warnings of some of our companions, Joe and I paddled into the center of the Hole, and drifted our individual kayaks as we shot and narrated our videos.  We drifted casually, and even bumped our kayaks together, chuckling as we got video of each other, saving the moment digitally.

There were gators lined up on the shore, sunning, and there were more wary gators that had entered the water upon our somewhat silent approach.  We had been there long enough, that some of the gators that had previously submerged, were coming up for air.  A bald eagle was eating a fish in one of the nearby cabbage palms, and anhingas dried their wings in the warmth of the sun.  It was a peaceful and tranquil scene.  It didn’t last.

Wham – SPLASH!!!  My kayak was suddenly rocking with an impact to the bow!  Without thinking, I instinctively dropped my camera (still running) and grabbed the paddle that was laying across my lap, and did some quick bracing moves, to keep from turning over.  The whole incident was over as quickly as it began, but that’s all it took for my heart to triple its beat.  I stabilized myself, and backed my kayak up, catching my breath from the close call.  I’m still a little bit amazed that I didn’t let out a string of obscenities through the whole event.

It was NOT an “attack”.  I’ve had this exact same thing happen on numerous occasions, but in the other instances, it had been with the “gentle giant” manatees that frequent the local waters.  That will get your heart rate flying as it is, but in THIS case, there was the added thought of all of those teeth, and all of those nearby toothy companions.  You could say, that it was a nervous moment for me (understatement of the year!).  The manatees in the previous instances, and this gator, just happened to be surfacing in a spot that was already occupied… by ME.  When it felt the weight of my kayak on its back, it panicked.  It just wanted to get away, and in its rush to escape, it hit my bow, HARD.  No offense meant, and none taken.  It’s just another story for the campfire, or for the blog.

One thing that you will learn about me, as you read my blogs, is that I’m a bit of a storyteller.  Some storytellers are notable, for the way that they, shall we say, “embellish” a story.  In an attempt to make the story better than the reality, the plot may be “punched up”.  “Facts” may be inserted ie: “there was a SEVENTEEN-FOOT-LONG  gator, staring at us hungrily!”  You will never see embellishments like this, in the stories that I tell.  Every tale is TRUE, as it happened.  Does this one sound a little bit too “fantastic”… maybe… “fictionalized” a little bit?  Watch my video, and decide for yourself.  The “action” starts about 3 minutes into the video:


That’s me last September, as Diana Nyad’s Kayak Team mothership, the “Becky Bad Girl”, motored in to Hemingway Marina, in Havana Cuba.  How lucky can a person get?

A couple of years ago, I posted a message on a local kayak club’s forum, about all of the spectacular things that I encounter while I’m out kayaking.  I mentioned my encounters with giant (and aptly named) eagle rays, flying mere inches away from my feet, with their eagle-like 6-foot wingspan.  I wrote of the prehistoric-looking smalltooth sawfish that followed the eagle rays, passing by so closely that I could have reached out and touched it.  Then I related a story of watching 2 Mama dolphins, chasing schools of fish right up to the shoreline, with their 4-foot long babies hanging by their dorsal fins the entire time.  From my vantage point in my kayak, only a dozen yards away, I caught all of the action.

I recall making the blind statement, that as kayakers, we were among the privileged few that get to see first-hand, things that you would never even see in nature programming on TV.  One of the responses that I received, came to me as somewhat of a shock.  A club member replied, by telling me that these things never happened to him.

The word “shock”, probably doesn’t adequately describe my reaction to this reply.  How could it be?  I know for a fact, that this fellow goes out kayaking about as often as I did… usually at least once a week, at that time.  He liked to go kayaking in some of the same places that I frequent.  How could he NOT be experiencing the same nature encounters, that seem to be almost commonplace during MY kayaking trips?  Have I been blessed with some sort of “kayak karma”… do I have some strange sort of “animal magnetism”, that draws these creatures to me, or me to them?  Or am I just incredibly lucky?

Luck certainly plays a part, but no.  I don’t have any “special powers”, and I don’t have a “guardian angel” watching over my shoulder… although there have been times that I would have welcomed some sort of a mythical creature, keeping me from harm.  Right along with some of the breath-taking beauty that I have experienced in nature, there have been some heart-stoppingly scary moments as well… but that’s another set of stories.  The question remained:  “How could someone, enjoying the same sport, paddling in some of the same places, and also spending a fair mount of time doing it, not have the same sort of encounters as I do?”  I’m not totally sure that I have the answer to this, but maybe I can speculate, by comparing my “paddling style” to many of the paddlers that I know.

Many of the kayakers that I know, are social paddlers, and I am as well, to a point.  They meet with a group, often anywhere from 4 to 20 fellow kayakers.  They launch as a group, often at a city or county park, and they will paddle a few miles through some very nice scenic areas, and socialize along the way.  It’s been a month since “A” had paddled with “B”, so they have a lot of catching up to do.  “C” tells a good joke, and everyone that was within earshot laughs and laughs, until “D” says that they didn’t hear it, so “C” tells the joke to the rest of the group.  The next thing you know… “OH!  Here we are, at the beach!  Anybody want some freshly baked brownies?”

In the meantime, I launched with the group, but I quietly paddle ahead a little bit.  I see a blast of mist rising near the shoreline, just 100 yards or so ahead, and paddle closer.  I hear the soft sssploooosssshhh! sound, and watch as a dolphin swims at the surface, with one eye cocked warily at me, to see if I’m going to do something stupid, like interrupt the hunt.  But I don’t… I just sit there for a minute or so, and watch, as the dolphin rushes the school, and fish are scattering to escape.  My kayaking group is starting to get closer, so the dolphin moves on, and so do I.  Up ahead, I see what looks like a couple of fins, just protruding from the water about 30 yards away.  Got to check that out!  I use my quietest paddle stroke, and slowly close the distance.  The “fins” are waving slightly, and as I get closer, I can see that it’s not fins at all, but it is the wingtips of a giant ray, just relaxing under the surface.  There is a little green heron perched on a red mangrove root, frozen stiff, so that it appears as just another piece of vegetation, to the little baitfish breakfast below.  My group approaches again, and the heron flies off.  Onward, to the beach!

As we pull our kayaks up on the sand, I say,  “Hey… did you guys see…?  NO?  I wonder why?”

Beginning kayak fishers may read the blogs and reports that I write, watch the You Tube videos, etc., and get the impression that this is an established sport, and that anyone with a kayak and a fishing rod can go out and do it. I do not mean to give that impression.

Fishing for shark, tarpon, amberjack, cobia, etc. from kayaks is NOT for the uninitiated. There are real risks, and real dangers involved. Sure, it’s exciting, but it is “extreme kayak fishing”. When you go after these, and other large species, you are dealing with an apex predator that is capable of putting a real hurt on you when things go wrong. You need to know the risks, and be prepared… and even then, things can still go wrong. If you are thinking about doing extreme kayak fishing, then you need to understand that you are taking the risks upon yourself. I understand that, and accept that.

I am not new to kayaking. I have been kayaking for about 20 years, and have experienced extreme conditions of wind, waves, weather, and currents. I am fairly new to kayak fishing – less than 10 years – but I bring my years of kayaking experience to the sport of kayak fishing.

Any kayak fisher, fishing in any water, can encounter dangers.

Wear a PFD. Have a knife handy to free yourself from entanglement, or to cut away from something that is too much to deal with. Have a first aid kit close at hand, including ways to stop bleeding, and some pliers capable of cutting hooks or leader wire. If you don’t have a VHF radio, or at the very least, a waterproof pouch for your cell phone, get one. Fish with a buddy – that’s what forums, such as the one that No Motor Angler’s Club has (my local club), are all about.  A great place to “hook up” with other kayak anglers.

I take some risks – but I am responsible for my own risks. I am not responsible for yours. Before I inspire anyone to go out there and try to duplicate some of the things that I do, you need to have a clear understanding of what is involved – what you might be getting yourself into. Extreme kayak fishing is NOT for everybody.  Be safe out there.