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.


“The Battle of Fisheating Creek” sounds like it may have taken place at an obscure Civil War battlefield, but this is a battle that is being waged today, between one of Florida’s cattle baron families, and the public.  The creek has been traveled by the public since the early days of Florida’s settlers, when the waterways were the highways that were used for trading and travel.  These days, it is used for recreation, by paddlers, campers, hunters , fishers, birdwatchers, and photographers.  It has been immortalized in stunning black and white photos by the world-famous photographer, Clyde Butcher.

Fisheating Creek is well-known amongst the kayakers and canoers of south Florida, as a great place to see the kind of scenery and wildlife that you might only expect to see in old-time photographs.  You can still see the real natural beauty of this place, just a little over 100 miles south of the city that “The Mouse” built, Orlando.  Fisheating Creek is a nature photographer’s paradise, with majestic cypress trees, spanish moss-covered live oaks, and the tea-stained red-brown, yet clear water, twisting and turning throughout its length.

Here, you can get up-close to nature in its beauty, with great blue herons that squawk at you angrily, as they give up their fishing spot, and hot-pink roseate spoonbills, swishing their heads side-to-side as they search for shrimps and small fishes in the shallow waters.  Sometimes, as you glide silently amongst the cypress trees in the narrow channels, you get a hint of what is to come.  Downy feathers cling to the bushes, and an earthy odor of guano tests your senses, just before a flock of a hundred white ibis fly up, with their “grumpy old man call”… awk, awk, awk, awk… like an old geezer complaining about kids invading “his” sidewalk with skateboards.   The limpkin looks at first, like the older brother to the ibis, because of its general shape, and the long, somewhat curved bill.  But they are larger, they are colored brown with white specks, and they are louder as well.  Their cry will wake you out of your reverie, and if you’re fast enough, maybe you can snap a shot before he takes off with his apple snail meal.

Of course, being wild Florida, there are gators, big and small.  You might not see any for a few miles, but then again, you may see enough that you will lose track if you try to count them all.  These gators are wild, and wary, and are unlikely to approach humans.  They are much more likely to watch as you approach, then silently slip into the water, still watching, with just their eyes and nostrils protruding above the surface.  If you get closer… poof!  They submerge and wait for you to go past, before quietly surfacing again.

In the 1980’s, Fisheating Creek’s natural beauty began to be known by more than just the local residents.  People came from miles away, to paddle its pristine waters, and camp & fish on its shores.  They recognized the creek for the treasure that it still is, mostly, to this day.  That was perceived as a problem by Lykes Brothers, the big cattle company that owned hundreds of thousands of acres on both sides of the creek.  They claimed ownership of the creek, and erected fences and felled trees across the waterway, to restrict access.

The Battle of Fisheating Creek had begun, and Lykes Brothers had fired the first shots.  These were answered by people such as Becky Hendry, and then Ellen Peterson, through the organization that came to be known as “Save Our Creeks”.  David Guest, now a lawyer for Earthjustice, filed a lawsuit against Lykes.  Working with Guest, Monika Reimer searched through nearly a century’s-worth of records, until she found a hand-drawn map from the 1920’s that proved conclusively, that Fisheating Creek had historically been a navigable waterway along its 50 mile length.  It was the evidence that was desperately needed, to stop Lykes in its tracks.  In 1997, it was decided in court, that Fisheating Creek belongs to us, the public.

In the 1997 agreement, it was decided that exotic vegetation that had clogged Cowbone Marsh, about halfway between Rte. 27 and Lake Okeechobee, would be removed, to restore the natural flow of the creek.  That task was turned over to the Florida Game Commission.  According to Earthjustice, the money that was appropriated for this purpose, was misspent, and instead, was used to buy swamp buggies for hunters and fishermen.  The Army Corps of Engineers got involved, and brought their own “solution” to the Cowbone Marsh “problem”.  Their plan is to dump 50 million pounds of sand in the marsh, and build several roads through it, effectively splitting the creek, creating a lake, and cutting the flow of water to the lower part of the creek, and Lake Okeechobee.

David Guest and Monika Reimer are in the process of filing several legal actions to prevent this, but in the meantime, a series of dams have already been built across Cowbone Marsh.  As recently as July 2008, I paddled from Lake Okeechobee up to Cowbone Marsh.  At that time, the flow of water was still getting through the marsh, and I was able to paddle my kayak the 9 or 10 miles to get to where it was blocked by water hyacinths.   In September 2009, I kayaked from the Fisheating Creek Outpost by Rte. 27, nearly 12 miles downstream, to where thick grasses had blocked navigation from the other side of Cowbone Marsh.  At that point, I had paddled all but 1 or 2 miles of Fisheating Creek, from the mouth, to approximately 36 miles upstream.  I was eagerly anticipating being able to “connect the dots” after the exotics were removed.

On my last attempt to reach Cowbone Marsh via the mouth of the creek, the flow of water had trickled to almost nothing, as a result of the dams that had been built at the marsh.  Only a mile into the trip, the water was so shallow that I had to get out and walk my kayak for a hundred yards at a time.  This is a kayak that can easily float in 8″ to 10″ of water.  After slogging through the shallows like this, for 2 1/2 miles, I gave up the effort and turned around.
Cowbone Marsh dam pic 1Pic #1 of the dams at Cowbone Marsh.
Cowbone Marsh Dam pic 2Pic #2 of the dams at Cowbone Marsh.

Cowbone Marsh dam pic 3Pic #3 of the dams at Cowbone Marsh.

Now I hear about this misguided plan to change Cowbone Marsh, and Fisheating Creek, forever.  These closed-door decisions have been made, with zero input from the REAL owners of the creek, you and me… the public.  I am just one paddler, but this doesn’t just affect me.  It affects every member of the public that might want the future generations of, not only Florida residents, but of the USA and the world, that want to have the natural beauty of Florida’s still-natural waterways to remain pristine, for the people, and the animals, to enjoy.

What can you do to help?  Visit the following links, and donate your money, or your time.  They will both be needed, and you can help.

Save Our Creeks:

Here is that part that to some, may seem like a dramatized fiction… but it happened just this way. Today’s trip has provided Jim Baldwin with a “catch phrase”, and a story that I am sure that he will be telling, for years to come… and it will go, something on the order of: “Did I ever tell you about the time I was in the 10,000 islands, and…?” Yes. It’s that good.

The day was beautiful… as I mentioned, the tide was with us; we were making great time; we had gentle breezes & good temperatures, and a layer of clouds that kept us from burning up under the hot sun. We had just finished checking out Panther Key, and had started to go around Gomez Point, at the outer tip of Panther. The water was shallow, and we were occasionally bumping our paddles on the bottom, so we were edging away from the shoal, but still in fairly shallow water. Mullet were jumping and splashing here and there, and an occasional ladyfish even jumped high enough for us to clearly distinguish them from the crazed antics of the bellyflopping mullet.  Jacks boiled the surface in their schools from time to time, and suddenly, out of nowhere, one made a 10′ long jump, about 3′ out of the water, and sailed over Brenda’s kayak deck, just in front of where she sat in her cockpit!  “Jumping jacks” is nothing out of the ordinary, but the funny thing about this one was, it went over sideways! I think everyone in the group witnessed the fish’s great leap, and we talked and laughed about it for several minutes afterwards.

We were still abuzz over the excitement of Brenda’s fishy encounter, when I saw  something small and round break the surface of the water, maybe 20′ in front of Jim’s boat. I pointed, and told him that I thought that a small sea turtle had surfaced just in front of his boat. Jim peered in front of his kayak, and gave it a couple of strokes forward, to close the gap. Then he started to say, “That’s a BIG TUR-“

I’ve got to break into this story here, to explain something. There are moments in a person’s life… moments in time… when the events of a few fractions of a second couldn’t possibly fit into the actual amount of time that they are supposed to have taken.  For example: In the fraction of a second between the time that Jim said the two syllables, “tur” and “tle”, I had enough time to realize, before he finished the word “turtle”, that this, indeed, was the complete word that he was about to say. I not only had enough time to think that, but I ALSO had enough time to clearly enunciate, in my mind, the complete thought… “This is extremely shallow water. We are past turtle egg-laying season, aren’t we? And, we aren’t really anywhere near a beach that any proper-thinking, self-respecting turtle would lay it’s eggs on – we’re on the outside of a shoal! So-o-o-o… why in the heck would there be a BIG turtle here?” In the next nano-second, STILL before Jim had a chance to utter the 2nd half of the word, “turtle”, our entire group watched with amazement as Jim’s kayak started to rise out of the water and pitch over to the right side, as a volcano of water began to erupt under him. Sitting, as I was, 10 or 15 feet to his left, and maybe 20 feet behind him, I lost sight of the red color of his boat’s deck as the entire white underside of his kayak appeared, seemingly suspended, over the surface of the water.  The stop-motion nano second ended, as Jim completed the word: “TLE!!!!”

The funny thing about this is, as we had been paddling down the 3 mile canal from Port of the Islands, Brenda, Pete and I had been telling Jim and Paul some of our manatee stories, about our own encounters, and those of our friends. One of these, had been the story of a friend who had encountered a manatee in very shallow water. It had not only bowled him over, but it had cracked his fibreglass kayak hull as well. Up until today’s encounter, though, I think that Jim and Paul had been having a difficult time believing just how fast, and how incredibly powerful, a very scared manatee can be.

Think about it for a moment. You take a kayaker in a 40lb. kayak, and you take a half-ton manatee… put the manatee under the kayak and scare the hell out of the manatee.  Who do you think will come out the winner in that little conflict? Ask Jim. He’ll tell you. And, don’t forget to say to Jim, if you’re ever kayaking with him…

“That’s a BIG turtle!!!”

(note:  Have any doubts about this story?  Watch the accompanying video.  See just how difficult it can be, to spot a manatee.  Then, watch the “eye-opener” at 2 minutes, 14 seconds into the video)