Sunday, February 23, 2014
Due to exhaustion, pictures were not taken during re-entry into the beast.
As we started our decent back into the unknown around 9 p.m, with our minds filled with positivity, optimism and the idea of having to carry our kayaks back through the jungle over land for seven miles, we were all committed to the task at hand.
After all, we had just accomplished more, physically and mentally, than
most people have ever dreamed of, at this point we were invincible and unstoppable.
There were several things on my mind at the time and none of them circled around failure or defeat. I was more concerned about reaching the three Hobie kayaks we left in the middle of nowhere, making it back in time to return the wheels to Jorge Cancel, who kindly loaned them to us, but desperately needed them in order to compete in the tournament, and making sure we got Michael "The Hyena Man" back in time to compete, being he had an adventure of his own just to make it to the Everglades, and most of all, the safety of everyone venturing on this excursion.
A couple miles in, my senses started to work and my mind became clear. There was no way we were ever going to be able to haul these yaks back through several miles of this terrain. The trail we were on wouldn't even compare to the ones we all had as a kid leading through the woods to our make shift club houses. It was full of twists and turns and laid down trees all the way there, and I knew if we were going to take this route, that none of my promises of returning wheels or making it back to the starting point in time for the safety check were going to come true.
It was clear that our bodies were starting to break down and no matter how much mental strength we had, there was no way we could physically make it back the same way we went in and keep on schedule.
Although my mind was strong, my legs were slowly beginning to weaken, I felt fine and nothing was burning, but I noticed my steps weren't as high as they were before, and my heals were beginning to drag the jungle floor with every step.
I could here Russ behind me starting to trip on sticks that were laying in our path, and when I told him to look up at the stars, I've never seen stars like this, it was amazing, he almost fell down due to dizziness, I guess that's why looking up and touching your nose is on the DUI checklist, it really throws off your equilibrium when your not at your best.
I could also hear Elliot, second in line, repeating, "mind over matter, mind over matter" and at that point I knew he was also on the downside of strength and sanity and we haven't even reached the kayaks yet.
I finally stopped for a water break and shared my thoughts with Russ, he made it clear he was thinking the exact same thing, dragging our yaks back this far just wasn't going to happen.
With our thirst quenched, we kept moving on, stepping over sticks, finding ways around fallen trees, and knocking spider webs out of the way all the there (did I mention I hate spiders, well I hate spiders), we even joked about what might be living in our kayaks when we finally get there, spiders, the Roogaroo, anacondas, and anything else we could think of. Throughout the night the best thing we did to keep our sanity and motivation was to maintain a humorous atmosphere as best we could.
As my legs weakened and my chaffing was on the verge of becoming a full blown open wound, we turned the corner and I heard the Hyena Man say, "we are here, I see the kayaks" I almost cried with relief.
We all reached our yaks and sat down for a break, I began to share my thoughts of our return, the Hyena Man was real quick to say, "at about 5 miles in, I knew we wouldn't be able to go back the same way."
With us all in agreement, we pulled out maps and turned on the GPS, the same GPS that had failed us throughout the day, but this time we weren't going to play pin the tail on the donkey with a blindfold on, we new we had to proceed with doubt of its accuracy.
The funny part was when the unit turned on and Russ read out loud the Warning that pops up when you turn it on: this device should not be used as your main source of navigation, guess they put that clause in there for situations like this. Thanks Mr. GPS.
After 15 minutes of looking at maps and the GPS we discovered a camping area along the beach that was 1.2 miles away. Only 1.2 miles of dragging yaks over land verse 7 miles the way we came in, this was a no brainer, we can do this.
With it decided, Elliot, Russ and I used straps to create makeshift shoulder straps that lead to the nose of each yak, so the weight would be equally distributed on our shoulders rather than holding the front handle of the yak in one hand, and the Hyena Man lead the way with his pen light that was on the brink of dying batteries since the moment we stepped in the jungle.
We were on our way, very slowly, I think a turtle even lapped us a couple times throughout the drag.
After about 300 yards Russ chuckled and made the comment that there was no way we could have done this for seven miles, he was right, the loaded down kayaks seemed like they weighed 400 pounds at this point in the night. With every break we took, about every 100 yards, we could here the waves crashing in the distance. We new we were close, but we also knew we were traveling west and not south. The thought in everyone's mind was one thing, when are we going to turn south, freedom is right there, we can hear it. There is nothing like being so close to something, but in realization being so far, it was one of those, you can't have your cake and eat it too scenarios, well who in the heck wants a cake if they can't eat it, gimme my dang cake.
Thankfully Michael would walk ahead of us all, at some points so far we couldn't hear or see him, and while this only showed us how much further we had to go and dimmed our spirits, each time he would return and tell us, "its right there, we're gonna make it." Well that was all good and fun, but after 3 or 4 of those walk abouts, we caught on and started asking, "Can you see the beach?" and each time he responded, no, but I can hear the waves.
Well we could hear the waves too, and I'm confident it was an unspoken torture for us all.
It was now almost midnight and the moon was beginning to rise and shed a soft light around us all, it was a nice relief to actually be able to see around us with something other than a flashlight.
As the clock keeper I knew we had to get on the water by 1 a.m. or we wouldn't make it back, so now was no time for quitting. We then made it into an open area, that again, looked like the Serengeti, and if lions were on the prowl, we were perfect for the taking.
The openness of the jungles canopy allowed us to really hear how close we were to the crashing waves. Almost 75 yards ahead of us we could see in the moons glow what looked like a levee, the usually ridge that you see on the northern side of white sandy beaches, and all of a sudden our spirits were lifted again.
Michael quickly walks ahead and yells back, "guys, its water," and we got excited, "but it's not the beach," and our spirits would begin to crack.
It was yet another obstacle in the way of our escape to freedom.
I was convinced at this point that getting out of Alcatraz was an easier escape then getting out of the gullet of this monster.
We pulled our yaks up to the waters edge and we stood in disbelief as, one by one, we all started to sink into the mud. You could see footprints going through the slough of water, making us think it was passable, but only when the tide was low and the sun dried the mud that laid beneath 6 inches of the waters surface.
As we observed the slough it was hundreds of yards long in both directions and about seventy yards across and scattered throughout it were grassy island that looked strategically placed by mother nature as a resting place for crocodiles to attack their prey.
All that was going through my mind was, if we were going to be attacked or eaten, this is where its going to happen, close to open water, at the end of our brutal excursion, and in a place that if an artist were to draw up a perfect hunting habitat for wildlife, this is what it would look like.
Michael, weighing in at 150 pounds wet, proceeded to the east of the slough in hopes to find harder ground that we cold cross, you could hear his feet pulling out of the mud as the suction was broken, it was a sound that if I ever hear again it will be too soon.
To look at it from another point, I am carrying 220 pounds of my own flesh, and then what feels like a 400 pound kayak on my shoulders, I can only imagine how deep I am going to sink in the slop, and I know I don't have the strength to pull my legs out from thigh deep mud if an attack was to happen. Put all that together and I am a human hot pocket just waiting to be eaten.
Michael finally crosses the slough and disappears for about 10 minutes, my heart is pumping, concern is rising, and he's got the pistol in his backpack, what the heck are we going to do if he doesn't return.
About that time we heard him, ''It's here, I see the beach, I see the waves," and at that point we all stood from exhaustion and the light bickering silenced.
Michael returned to say if we can cross the slough, we got it. Well that's all I needed to hear, crocodiles hiding in islands didn't bother me any more, I wanted out, and I wanted it now.
Being we were all too tired to drag our yaks east 100 yards we decided to go straight across, while Michael directed us from the other side. We would step into the mud and sink knee to thigh deep and then pull our yaks to us, use the yaks to pull ourselves out of the mud and then do it again and again and again until finally we made it to solid ground.
As we all sat in agony from the mud and exhaustion, Michael chimed in one more time, "over the next hill is the beach, but what I didn't tell you, is that its low tide, and we are going to have to pull the kayaks through the sand and then through mud for about 100 yards before we can reach the water."
It didn't matter, we were ready, we pulled over the hill, across the beach and through the mud and with the kayaks sitting in 6 inches of gulf water and all of us sitting in ankle deep mud, we discovered the obvious,
there were four people, but only three kayaks, and it was a 7-9 mile paddle against the falling tide and against a head wind.
It didn't take us long to figure this one out, Russ was in a Hobie PA 14 and Elliot and I were both in Hobie Outback's. After repairing two mangled Mirage drives, and making sure the backup was still in working condition, we emptied the items from Russ' kayak into the two Outback's, so Russ and Michael could ride together, Russ peddling and Michael riding shotgun in the back, he looked like that little statue of the boy holding a cane pole you see perched on the side of a subdivision pond or lake, I called him Little Bo Peep at this point.
In our minds the hard part was now over, we trekked over 15 miles on land and pulled kayaks over 1.2 miles of land and have already travelled over 25 miles on water for the day before we started home at this point.
It was now 1 a.m. and I knew if we maintained two and half miles per hour we would make it for show time. The half moon was directly in front of us and guiding our way home, all we had to do was keep telling our legs, I think I can, I think I can, I think I can, and before we know it, we will be back at the tournaments launch point.
Well that was easier said then done, we loaded up and paddled out to peddle depth water and made the turn east, about 20 minutes into the trip we hadn't even reached 2 miles per hour on my GPS yet, we weren't going to make it.
I kept encouraging the tandem team in the solo kayak that we can do this and its almost over. I told Elliot that no matter what happens, those wheels need to be back at the beach by 5:30 a.m. for Jorge, and if you have to go ahead to make it there in time, then you're going to need to go.
Almost an hour into the trip, Russ's back began to act up and he and he couldn't peddle anymore. He and Michael were going to have to switch drivers, in the dark, in the water, and without the help of solid ground. They turned the yak towards land but several hundred yards before they could reach land they were in standing depth water, Russ piled out and Michael took over the helm, and within 15 minutes they were back at it and peddling east.
At this point Elliot had got ahead of us all a good distance and stopped to wait for us to catch up. As we made it to Elliot he didn't move, he didn't speak, he was just bobbing in the moon lit waves and the wind, and as we passed him and yelled several times, he began to peddle, as he finally caught up to us we were informed that while waiting, he fell asleep, and didn't know exactly what was going on.
Exhaustion at this point was an understatement.
With the wind in our face and the waves continually crashing over our yaks from almost every direction, we kept up pace, we were now maintaining 2.8 miles per hour, and if we could hold this speed, we were going to make it.
The only issue at this point was Michael was having problems turning the PA to the left, with the waves crashing off his port side and carrying a nearly 7 foot grown man in his trunk, the kayak was not performing as normal, not like they were exceeding the weight limit or anything, yeah right, but Michael kept moving forward.
As we neared Curry Key, maintaining the exact bread crumb trail on the GPS that we took almost 24 hours earlier, we ran into one more issue, grass, it was everywhere, at times it felt the yak was sitting on land it was so thick.
We did our best to turn into the waves and head due south until we found the channel of deeper water(this mishap was a game changer in part 4) it was a rough paddle for me, I can only imagine what it was like for the dynamic duo to have to swing a paddle in the air after all we had been through and carrying two people in a one person yak.
This wasted almost 30 minutes of our, previously on schedule, trip. As I waited for Michael and Russ to catch up into the channel, we couldn't help but laugh out loud at the idea of a simple peddle home, after all we had faced and overcome, why in the world would we ever think the rest of this trip was going to be flawless. The idea of something going as planned was now a joke, we were actually beginning to look forward to the next unforeseen challenge at this point.
Around Curry Key, around Bradley Key, and finally around Joe Kemp Key, we could see another glimmer of hope, it was a light, a light that we knew was our final destination. All we had to do was turn the yaks 35 degrees and travel another mile and change and we were there. I could see truck lights pulling up and dropping their yaks off at the starting point and then driving off to park.
My heart was racing and my peddles were moving as fast as they could go, but as I eased out of the channel, I again hit the grass beds.
Really, are we going to be this close, and not be able to get in? I turned back into the channel and peddled up even with the lights I could see, from this point I could use my paddle and the wind would guide me to safety.
That is until I floated over a shark of giant proportions. As the sharks tail raised out of the water on the left side of my yak, and shined bright as my headlight bounced off is rough skin, his head was on the right side of my yak, this creature erupted under me like nothing I have ever experienced and I was inches away from turning over.
As the beast swam away he left what felt like a three foot swell as the wind blew me over the wave.
Now my heart was pumping for a lot of reasons and joy and relief wasn't one of them. After a few choice words I was able to refocus on the light ahead of me and get back on track headed north.
Elliot reached land first, although it as several hundred yards west of the launch spot, but within the campgrounds, I landed second, and Michael and Russ landed third, next to Elliot.
As I was attempting to stand up out of my yak I noticed two kayaks already at the landing, and in one of them a man stood up with his light beaming toward me. He walked over and asked if I had been night fishing, I laughed, and then I gave him the short version of what happened, his response was, "Bro, man, dude that's crazy, Bro, really, dude," and I understood exactly what he was trying to say.
As I checked my watch I saw it was a little after 4:30 a.m. and I quickly asked him if he could give us all a ride to our vehicles so we could start preparing our equipment for the safety check that started in less than an hour.
At this point we have seen the sun rise, the sun set, the moon rise, and soon to be another sunrise, traveled over 30 miles on water, over 15 miles on land, and now I am rushing to get prepared for what I know is going to be yet another grueling 20 plus mile paddle for the tournament. Remember earlier when I said I was thinking clearly? Apparently I wasn't. Either way, we all loaded up in the back of the truck and headed toward our vehicle when .................................
Part 4 soon to come
Which Way do We Geaux
So day one ended on a positive note, I was able to meet a lot of new people from across the country, I added a new species of fish to my list, I saw several things I never new existed and most of all I was amped up for two more days of fishing in paradise.
Day 2 was another story, I was awakened by the sound of trucks cranking and anglers getting everything ready for the last pre-fishing day before the Championship began. As quick as I could, I gathered everything I could and was loaded up ready to go, I knew today was going to be a bruiser of a day. I had developed an idea in my mind of going to the furthest western boundary by open water and weaving my way through the back country with hopes of ending up at the launch location.
As I thought about last years event, I was trying to make this one very similar in that you should be able to leave from one location, see the world, and make it back to your starting point from an entirely different direction. Well folks, this ain't last year, and that plan likely should have been evaluated by a true professional, someone like Crocodile Dundee and definitely not by me.
While loading my gear I stopped to claw on Elliot's tent like a Florida Panther, to wake him up nicely of course, when Russ Pylant walks up and ask what our plans are for today. Russ' partner Michael Ethridge, who is from Mississippi, was flying into Miami from Minnesota, but had been rerouted to New Orleans due to weather and was forced to sleep in the airport just to make his connecting flight to the tournament. Mike and Russ were partners last year and looking forward to making a move this year to the front of the line of winners. If you know Russ, he's dang near 7 foot tall and if you gotta go wrestle the wild, he's one you want to wrestle it with.
I explained to Russ what my plans were and asked if he would like to join us, he quickly responded, heck yeah, and he also had somewhat of the same idea in his mind.
Within minutes the three of set out for an adventure of a lifetime and the only time limit ahead of us was making it back to the camp ground for the Captains meeting at 7:00 that evening. Prior to launching off the beach we passed through the marina to pass the idea on to a few of the locals and some said that we could make it through with the route we planned, while others simply said, good luck, but in all the conversations no one ever said don't do it, you can't make it.
So to the beach we went, and while we were unloading our kayaks and getting everything set up for our initial 9 mile paddle through open water, a local angler pulled up and asked what our plans were, when we told him, you could immediately see the look of disbelief, and his response to the plan matched the look on his face, but we weren't phased.
With the sun up, a solid plan, and wind at our backs, we hit the water, and In just under 3 hours we reached our destination, East Cape, the most southern tip of the Florida mainland, the only thing below us was the Florida Keys. We turned into East Cape canal, which I had been warned to prepare for crocodile encounters throughout the area, and headed to the dead end. When we reached the dead end, we pulled up and over the damn and we were now in the most southern part of the back country, this my friend was awesome. The water was crystal clear, you could see several feet down, the mangrove roots were towering above the waters edge, wildlife was hiding under the trees, and crocodile slides were everywhere you looked.
Within minutes of traveling north down the canal, I landed a mangrove snapper, lesson #1 learned, don't put a finger in this fish's mouth, they have some seriously shard teeth and a jaw with some crunching power behind it.
It wasn't long after that, I was able to entice a Snook from the mangroves with an inline spinner, but unfortunately I was traveling too fast and wasn't able to slow the lure enough for the beast to catch it.
About that time Russ pulled close and I began to share with him my technique and how I was working the lure in and out of the mangrove roots and as I pulled the inline out of the exposed roots and stopped it to let it hover to the bottom, a gorgeous Tarpon showed up and engulfed my lure in front of all three of us. You could see the beast attacking it from almost 4 feet below the surface, it was as if the Coors Light silver bullet train just flew in to town and my hooked snagged the grill of the engine. I set the hook with all I had and immediately the he cam flying out of the water, four flailing jumps later and one tail walk and I had him in my paws with a monster smile to go with it.
I couldn't believe what this trip was turning in to. Did I really just land a Tarpon in the Everglades???? You dang right, a country boy can survive.
My first Tarpon ever, was landed in Sarasota, Fl last year, but due to the overwhelming attack of sharks, I was unable to get a picture, the Tarpon was even more unfortunate than I was, but I'm sure the shark tells the story from an entirely different angle.
Anyway, this was one of those catches that you want to get out of the kayak and into the water and elements with the sparkling silver bug eyed trophy. As both Russ and Elliot were helping taking pics, I started explaining how I wanted to get in the water and complete this photo shoot the right way.
We were talking and laughing and drifting from the wind right past an exposed mud flat, and what just so happened to be on that flat watching the entire show, you got it, a crocodile.
Well that sealed the deal, I am not getting in the water with a crocodile, about that time the croc turns and slides in the water headed in the direction of all the commotion, yeah, that was me making all that commotion, Tarpons don't just sit calmly on the side of the yak and say cheese, they flail and fight and splash, pretty much ringing the dinner bell for any predator that's looking for an easy meal. I snatched him out of the water(which I know your not supposed to, thanks Elliot for the quick action shot)
and immediately began on getting the hook out of the poons mouth. I eventually had to use pliers, but it was quick, and he was released and swam away vigorously. Unfortunately I didn't get the chance to hang on to him, and wish him luck, and let him free willy right out of my hands into the deep blue yonder, instead he got a flying experience on the other side of the yak away from the croc, I was doing everything I could to avoid another encounter where my catch becomes a meal for some toothy critter that isn't willing to chase down its own meal, but would rather steal my trophy moment instead. Me and Tarpon one, crocodile zero, at least for now.
As uncomfortable as the situation was, we continued to fish, of course now we new to be a little more wary of our surroundings, because we were in there living room at this point, and I sure didn't want to visit their kitchen or dining room. After I calmed down a little, a few cast later I was hooked up again, and this fish was pulling hard, but wasn't rising to the waters surface like all the other game fish I had landed, and as the day before, he finally came to the surface with that signature circle of death, another Jack.
As I was unhooking him and contemplating feeding him to the crocs to save my own skin, the Fishfinder hooked up with a fish that was ripping drag, and to tell you the truth, I was relieved that the crocs focus could now change to the bright red yak and not the yellow one, I mean red says a lot to a croc right, heck it's gotta say YUM more than yellow. Another Jack landed.
From there we decided it was time to move to safer waters so we took a steady paddle toward the end of the canal were it entered a line of mangrove canals and tunnels and what we hoped were less treacherous waters. As we made the turn to what we considered safe waters, I made one last cast on a point with my "seein spots" inline spinner and bam, a Snook, and with that my day was complete. As far as I was concerned, it was now time to focus on finagling our way through the back country and finding a solid path back to the campsite, and we were all in agreement.
At that point we got in line like kindergarteners in lunch line, we were making waves and gaining ground by the second, that is until the water started to pour out. Before we knew it we were in waters that were less than a foot deep, and at times encapsulated in mangrove tunnels that were so tight, we had to take our paddles apart because it was impossible to swing a two sided paddle with the low surrounding canopy of branches. I can remember knocking what seemed like a 3 pound spider out of my yak (I am deathly afraid of spiders), Russ even asked what the heck I just threw out as it made a wave when it hit the water it was so heavy. It freaks me out to even write about it.
We followed these tunnels and pathways for between 5-8 miles and at every turn there was a dead end, we even searched exits of bays to only end up at dead ends. Then finally the inevitable happened after miles of shallow water and exhaustion, a mechanical break down,
Elliot's drive took a turn for the worse, but like I said earlier, we prepared for it all, almost, I actually brought my spare drive and swapped him out and we were back on our way within minutes for another hour or so of pushing and poling through the mud.
Finally we stopped to regroup, gather our thoughts, take an inventory, and prepare for what might or might not happen. It was obvious the maps we had weren't helping, even the very expensive GPS card that we had was brining us to impassable passages.
At this point in the game, we decided that we were going to try and reach the back end of what we called canal number 1, it was a canal that ran into the open waters of the Gulf, but was cut off by a short piece of land that we would have to cross on foot, no problem right, wrong, think again. With the sun dropping, water running low, mosquitos coming out, the wind dying down, and tide still falling at a steady pace, we were forced to push our way through shallow water and deep mud for several miles around islands, points, and flats. When we finally reached the canal that was going to lead us to canal number 1, we were relieved, we cheered, we smiled, our spirits were high, and nothing could stop us now.
In the canal we encountered a few fallen trees and Elliot has now broken his paddle from pulling through all the mud, but we weren't going to let any of that hinder our motivation to make it back to camp for the captains meeting. What did in fact stop us after we all pulled over several different obstacles within the canal was when the canal ended. It didn't end at a damn, it didn't slowly become smaller and dry up, it just ended. And again, we were devastated, but we also kept our heads high. There were times were we argued, there were times were we laughed, and there were times were we teeter tottered on the lines of defeat, but at each dead end we were hit with, one of us within the group was able to pull us all back together and keep us all moving forward. We may have left as the three stooges, but in the face of danger and defeat, we fought back like a Roman Army of thousands.
As we reached the end, we sat and discussed options, it was only .4 miles through the everglade jungle to the beaches that would set us free, .4 miles of dragging unwheeled kayaks through thorned brush, gumbo mud, and who knows what else, and that's not even considering the wildlife we could possibly encounter. We decided to pull our yaks out of the canal and start the journey toward freedom on land, I mean really, it was less than a half a mile, we can do this. Yeah right, after pulling our yaks from the waters of death, and hearing what I thought was branches breaking on the trees I was squeezing my yak through, I ended up breaking three of my custom built Bull Bay rods, I was fuming. I wished a crocodile would have been laying around the next thorny bush, because at that particular moment, I might have gone against better judgment and tried my strength and furry on the beast.
Thankfully for us all, during my time of solitude, foul language, and kicking the wind, Russ and Elliot decided to walk to the beach to see just how far it really was. Wouldn't you know it, another obstacle, they came across a waterway of sorts that wasn't on any map we had and it didn't show up on GPS, but it did run east and west, where the canal we needed ran north and south, so it was yet another confusing dead end. They then decided to head back toward the guy that was acting like a 4 year old that couldn't have two scoops of ice cream and had to settle for just one, yep, they were headed back to me. On their way they crossed a hiking trail, and it ran in the direction we needed to go, and after we all pulled our yaks about 100 yards through the jungle it was clear that .4 miles just wasn't going to happen whether we knew how to find the beach or not. At this point the sun was falling, and we had estimated our walk to camp at 7 miles through the unknown and all that the Everglades has to offer.
We grabbed our cameras, a pistol, the one bottle of water that was left, flares, a compass, and some mosquito spray and that was it, we were off. We knew two things at this point, we had to move to get to the captains meeting, and we had to move if we wanted to keep this story from hitting the news channels, in turn, creating worry to all those that cared about the lost coon asses in the Everglade Swamps.
We started on our brisk pace, to me it was almost a jog, and for the first mile or two I was barefoot, because the wet mud in my crocs kept them flying off my feet with every step. The terrain was flat, but curvy, and the trail wasn't wider than a foot. At times we were in areas that looked like the Serengeti,
and at other times it looked like we were in a scene from Lion King near where Scar lived. We also encountered more tunnels as the trail winded through the woods, back into the open, and back in the woods, it was a walk that I wasn't excited about, but I knew we had to do it. As the sun set and I was the one with the headlight, so I lead the way forward, and I lead it at a fast pace. At one point Elliot asked if he could have the light and he would run back to camp and make sure everyone knew we were ok and on our way. That idea took about 5 seconds before Russ and I both laughed and responded with, you aint getting my light, and that was the end of that, Elliot Fishfinder Cheetah speed Stevens was gonna have to complete the hike with us.
After over an hour of walking and throwing around ideas of how we are going to get our kayaks back before the tournament, we came up with towing them back on straps over our shoulders while they rode on wheels that we would have to borrow from other anglers at the camp.
Seven miles pulling a kayak over land through the Everglades at midnight thirty was our most solid idea, it was sure better than borrowing a bicycle and fabricating a trailer, or stealing the rangers golf cart and using it with a fabricated trailer, heck we didn't even have electricity at the camp grounds more less the materials to fabricate a paper airplane let alone a trailer. During our hike back there was several outburst of laughter between us all, I would start laughing outloud for no reason, other than a crazy thought, and it would immediately become contagious among us all. We talked about the famed RugaRoo and the Ruken and any other swamp monster we could think of, the hike was tiresome, but a bonding experience to say the least. We considered shooting a flare at one time, but were concerned we might set the woods on fire and then we would lose more than just our dignity, but our kayaks would be gone too.
After nearly 3 hours of a fast paced walk, we made it to the back of the campgrounds, we went to the first tent we saw and asked if the gentleman would give us a ride to our vehicles, after we summarized everything we had been through of course, at this point we felt like kings that just conquered a new country. Without question he jumped in his truck and told us to load up, and he brought us to our vehicles.
Now, you have to realize what we look like, we have fought mud for hours, trekked through thorny brush, and have been sweating since 7 a.m. that morning, I even had to cut the sleeves off my shirt to use as a chaffing barrier between my legs it had gotten so bad. To say we were Funky, would be an understatement, I'm still not sure we got a ride so fast because he felt sorry for us or because he wanted our funk away from his dinner and campsite. Either way, the reason didn't matter, we were appreciative. Once we reached the vehicle, we rushed to the captains meeting just in time to catch up with John and Woody and explain the situation, they said as long as we were here and ready for the safety inspection at 5:30 am than we were good to go.
That's all I needed to hear, we went back to the campsite, gathered almost a case of water in backpacks, got some wheels from one florida angler, and a buddy of mine Jorge from Alabama(don't hold that against him) and we ate some of the feast that TK had once again perfected on the Orion cooker.
Now is when our journey really becomes interesting. As we filled up on TK's food, and quenched our thirst with Gatorade and lots of water, we told our story to the crew surrounding the buffet of Beef, Chicken, and Pork. People were quick to offer up their wheels, water and food if we needed it, but one individual jumped up and said, "lets go, I'm in", and that guy was Michael Ethridge, who just showed up from sleeping in an airport, his flight was rerouted, the airline lost his luggage, and all he had on was a t-shirt and a pair of work slacks. Michael you are the man, and we thank you!
We stayed at the campsite for no longer than 45 minutes before we were loaded up and headed back into the belly of the Everglade Monster. When we reached the entrance to the where the fun was to begin, we all took a deep breath, paused in a moment of silence, and took our first step.................
Part 3 of 4 soon to come.
After everything that took place on this trip, its hard to put into words all that happened and make it believable. If someone was to tell this story the way it happened, I am not sure I would even believe it. I've heard words like crazy, FiN CRAZY, insane, your lucky, that was impossible, I can't believe it, no way, how did you make it, I would have shot flares, I would have started a fire, I would have cried, beast mode, yall are tougher than woodpecker lips, and many others that I can't recall at the moment due to exhaustion, but here is how it all started.
I arrived in New Orleans on an airplane from an interview in Dallas, Tx, my company is going through a restructuring, at 6:45pm and continued my drive home to Madisonville, La. The only thing on my mind once my flight started was the Adventure Fishing World Championship and how I had been physically preparing for this event since January 6th and nothing was going to stop me from competing as best I could. I had lost over 30 pounds within 6 weeks and was feeling strong both mentally and physically and I knew nothing was going to stop me. Last year my partner and I finished 8th in the event and this year I had a goal of finishing in the top 5 with a new partner.
As I arrived home my road partner and pre-fishing cohort, Elliot Stevens, was waiting at my house anxious to hit the road. We had originally planned on leaving around 2 a.m. in the morning, but after relooking at the miles and hours it would take us to arrive in the Florida Everglades at Flamingo, we decided it was best to leave as soon as possible. I packed my bags, rods, kayaks, and ice chest, kissed my family goodbye and at 10:30 pm we were on the road.
The weather was perfect as we drove through the entire night Tuesday and watched the sun come up over the horizon a few miles before turning south on the interstate once past the panhandle.
Looking back at the events that took place there were several signs that what we were venturing on was going to be a challenge greater than all our expectations,
but they also said this is place we were meant to be.
We arrived at the Flamingo campgrounds Wednesday evening with just enough time to set up tents and get settled in for a solids night sleep. There was no electricity and it was an hours drive north just to reach any sort of cellular signal.
The next morning we awoke as the sun was breaking over the water that surrounded us. We organized our equipment and headed to the launch location. Our first trip was going to take us to an area known as Snake Bite, we chose this location because Blake Gill of Massey's Professional Outfitters in Louisiana is familiar with these waters and we were going to use any edge we could to find fish and figure out their patterns.
The night before we had heard stories of the area and to watch out for low tide, as some of our FiN Crazy counterparts had spent a good part of the previous day stuck on mud when the tide rolled out, so we made sure to find the channel and stick as close to it as possible. On the way to the Bite, I couldn't help but fish my way there, the scenery was amazing, the water was clear, and I was itching to put a fish in the yak. It wasn't an hour into the long paddle when I landed my first ever Snook,
it wasn't the largest Snook, but hands down it was a trophy to me. This is one of the most ferocious yet skittish fish I have ever chased and it was exciting to finally land one, especially after I failed to put one in the yak last year. After a few pictures and my heart stopped racing I was able to refocus on the task at hand, until three cast later, I hooked
into a fish that began turning my kayak and ripping drag, I tightened the drag and turned away from the mangroves to more open water thinking I was about to land an even bigger Snook, but as the fish surfaced swimming in a circle, I knew all too well it was a Jack.
With two fish landed almost back to back, it was time to make the turn and head straight for Snake Bite. As we made our way through the only channel in miles of open water, I could see on my left the water was a foot deep, and on my right it was 7 feet, I just knew there were fish hanging on this ledge somewhere along the several mile channel. As we got closer to our destination there were several bay flats boats with charter captains pulling in to certain areas along the channel and anchoring up, three locations to be exact, and as we passed the last boat the captain was kind enough to share with us what they were doing. Within the channel were three bottle necks where the flats intruded into the channel and formed a nice funnel for the fish that were traveling the channel. While we chose not to intrude on their local knowledge at the time, this tip later created the game changer on tournament day. We continued to the end of the channel where we found a small oxbow that provided us a chance at several Snook through site casting, but site casting for these skittish fish was a lot different than the redfish at home, with every cast it was as if they saw the lure leave my rod and they were on there way to a safe haven far away from me. Again, that
yielded a little more knowledge for later in the day. After a couple of hours of nothing landed we decided to turn back and head to what was known as the back country, but on our way I encountered a creature that I didn't even know still existed. Thinking of my daughter and her love for the outdoors, I had to catch this dinosaur and get a few pictures for her. It was a Horseshoe Crab, something I've never seen in any of the waters I have ever fished, but the south Florida guys had all kinds of stories to share around it. I guess its kind of the Armadillo of the area.
On our way back to the launch site we encountered yet another visual of something I've never seen in South Louisiana, Pelicans in trees. I always see Pelicans in one of two places, the water, and on the top of wooden pylons around marinas or channel markers. One thing I learned real quick about Pelicans in trees is, you better stay real close to them or far away, because when they leave that perch they don't fly up until they drag the water, and on several occasions I was almost beheaded by a couple of them, and one time I thought I was going to be hit square in the middle of my yak, like a torpedo attacking a battleship, and in a kayak, I already knew who was going to win that battle.
After 10.31 miles of paddling and fishing we made it back to the launch location, we picked up our yaks, filled our appetites, and reloaded on water for the trip to the back country. All we knew was it was a 3 mile paddle just to reach the first bay. On our trip we passed our fellow teammates and they all told us the same thing, when you reach the bay, go east, if you go west you will never make it back against the currents and the wind that was blistering through it, well of course you know that was a hard headed challenge that sat at the top of my to do list.
When we reached the bay, known as Coots Bay, we ran into yet another guide that went out of his way to point us in the right direction and tell us what tides to follow and where to fish based on rising and falling tides. Elliot and I both paddled away from the guide in disbelief of the information that he had just shared with us, and guess what direction we then headed, that's right, west, with the wind and the tide, knowing we would have to fight a battle to make it back to camp before sun down.
As we followed the guides direction we came across the white pipe that he said would be there and we ventured into our first mangrove tunnel. He told us that his buddy had fished the bay, Mud Lake, just two days prior and caught a boat full of 25''-30'' redfish. In order to make it through the tunnel we needed to lay all our rods down beside or behind us as the tunnel was barely tall enough for us to paddle through let alone with a 6'6'' rod sticking up above us. The trip was amazing, and at the end it opened up into a lake that was full of small islands covering the north end of it. It looked like a paradise for fish, and as small as that tunnel was, we just knew that it hadn't been overfished liked everywhere else we had experienced thus far.
I fished the lakes shorelines and mud flats as Elliot worked the middle, the water was extremely muddy, hence its name Mud Lake, so I opted to work a top water lure and try to attract the fish more through sound rather than site. At one point I noticed hundreds of fry bait gathering near an exposed mud flat and jumping out of the water continuously when all of a sudden a Snook
came flying up out of the water in the middle of them and landing halfway on land, I watched him flop his way back into a depth he could swim in
away he went.
Watching that and seeing the condition of where the bait was piled up, I chose to make a move to the corner of an island where the wind would have blown the bait into a corner location. As I reached my first island there was a tiny area on the back side that was just out of the wind and it looked like dead stagnant water, but there were fry jumping all over. I grabbed my skitterwalk and landed it at the edge of the mud, with every twitch bait fish were flying out of the water like my lure was chasing them. About that time the water erupted and my lure was engulfed in the mouth of another Snook, this time he put on an acrobatic display of jumps, I think he exploded out of the water 5 or 6 times before I was finally able to land him in the net.
After a couple of pics I was able to release the Snook in hopes of landing him another day, hopefully on tournament day.
The next island over I found the exact same conditions, but when I laid my lure out this time, it landed on a Snook, and not just a Snook, but a monster Snook, of course they are always huge when they get away. As the fish blew up getting out of the way of my treble hooked fish catching machine, he couldn't help but turn around and make an attempt at devouring what had spooked him just seconds before. I again began working the lure to me when he attacked it like a lioness protection her young, but in all the excitement I set the hook a split second too early and he was gone, had I not just landed one minutes before, I would have been devastated, but I was still living on the high of the Snook I had just released.
After that explosion, I looked at Elliot and made the suggestion to start our trip back, I knew it was going to be dark by the time we made it back, especially when we entered the mangrove tunnel and we almost needed a light to navigate through it, I just didn't realize how dark.
Our 12.4 mile evening trip was beginning to take a toll on our paddle back to the camp that took us nearly four hours of constant paddling against the tides and wind (that we were warned about), with one stop on the way to try for a few a trout with no success.
As the sun fell, we heard sounds that were foreign to us both, it was like what you hear in the movies of people spending the night in the rain forest, beautiful, but eerie all in the same breath. We passed three crocodiles on the way back that we could only see because of their glowing eyes as the headlight passed over the floating heads, but we made it back.
As we arrived at the launch, there wasn't a person or vehicle that remained in the area, we looked at each other with relief and excitement of what we had just accomplished in our first pre-fishing day of the AFWC. We loaded up the yaks and headed to camp, little did we know that our teammates were actually formulating a rescue plan, as it was an hour or two after daylight and concern was beginning to rise. While it was a concern it also set the ground work for what was going to take place on day two.
As we reached the campsite we were welcomed with hot ribs and chicken straight off the Orion cooker perfected by TK "animal" and Cebo, we were also welcomed with a little scolding from the poppa bears of the group for being out so late. But in the end we caught fish, we stayed safe, and we had pictures and stories to share around the feast with old and new friends.
Part two is soon to come...............
Sunday, February 9, 2014
I spent a good bit of time doing some research, making phone calls, checking old log books, looking at old articles and pre-fishing as much as I could manage in preparation for the first Double Trouble team event developed by Brendan "Lego" Bayard, of Bayou Coast Kayak Fishing Club, with a top notch weigh in set up by Blake Gill of Massey's Professional Outfitters on Carrolton Ave in New Orleans.
The last week and days building up to the event were challenging to say the least, there were days of sleet and rain, temps in the 20's, and a cold front that seemed to have taken 3 days to make its way through the southeastern states.
After evaluating all of my normal fishing locations and struggling to put together a confident stringer, I decided I would make the move west and try my luck in big lake, around an area that is consistent with landing good speckled trout.
I arrived at the launch site with an hour to spare and I was amped up with the anticipation of bringing in trout so large that I wouldn't even have to chase red fish to compete in the next days event. Well that anticipation dwindled quickly as I made my way down the channel to my destination.
The water was way lower than I expected, this was a day where you would normally grab a power boat and go check out all the structures that are usually hidden under the water, so you could mark them accordingly and prepare for future fishing when the levels come back up.
I spent several hours working a 50 foot hole off of a 25 foot ledge and after 4 hours only landed 2 trout, and neither one of them were tournament worthy trout. At that point I decided to tuck tail and head back east, were I know I could at least catch a weighing stringer, although it might not be that large.
On the way home I made the call to my tournament partner, Eric, and informed him that we were having a change of plans. Rather than hit the same area together, I was going to drop him off where I knew fish would be and he would be able to catch everything we needed in two locations while I would run further south with worse odds, but a better a chance of landing trophy fish, it was a perfect combination for a team event, at least I thought.
The morning of the tournament was awesome, everything was going better than perfect. I left my house at 1:28 am and headed to Massey's to meet Eric. As I was backing in my trailer, he pulled up, we transitioned all of his equipment over and we were on our way, ahead of schedule. We took our time, stopped for fuel, grabbed a bear claw and a sandwich for lunch, we were in no hurry at all. When we arrived at the first location, there wasn't a soul to be seen, we unloaded Eric's yak and equipment under the darkness of the sky, an hour and a half before he could launch. After a quick review of some digital maps, and a hand drawn map, I was on my way. I felt like I had just left someone in the woods with a bowie knife and roll of duct tape and wished them good luck in surviving the night.
It was eerie and comical all in the same breath, because I'm sure Eric, standing at 6'3 with his Duck Dynasty beard and Santa Clause curls exploding from under his trademarked red Hobie hat, could scare off the Honey Island Swamp monster if they came into contact.
As I showed up to my launch location, it was still black dark and the wind was blowing stronger than expected, the weatherman was right again, NOT.
As I got everything set up I was able to watch a couple tenured anglers about 200 yards west of me stumbling and bumbling in the darkness as they were racing to get there amenities in order. These were the same two that called me 30 minutes earlier and poked fun at me for leaving Grizzly Adams in the cold while I was sitting in a warm vehicle.
The 5:30am launch time surfaced, I slid my yak into the water and climbed in prepared for a race to the anchor location. As I arrived at the point I wanted to focus on with 30 minutes to spare before lines in the water, I was entertained by the two anglers still on the shore line working hard to get ready.
All that was going through my mind was, this is it, everything is perfect, I'm set up, my partner is set up, the sun is beginning to break and I know my chances of a couple big trout are sitting right in front of me.
As 6 am rolled around and I was putting my phone away, I heard the most awful noise you ever want to hear, especially on a tournament day seconds into lines in the water. KER-PLUNK, I looked down and my custom Bull Bay rod and CI4 reel was no longer there, I turned to the depth finder, that I have always questioned its sensitivity and weather it really worked or not, and I could see my 6'6 lime green rod falling to the depths of 14-16 feet. I was devastated, as this is a rod the day before, I had decided to give to my wife along with hot pink custom rod, that is currently being built,since she is planning on fishing a couple tournaments with me this year. So needless to say, I spend the next 2 hours attempting to find my rod, while Sherman and Josh fished all around me. I guess it was karma, after all, the hour prior to that I spent entertained by the two anglers fumbling and bumbling on the shore line.
At first, I took a Little George and cut the spinner off it and fixed a second treble hook on the tail where the spinner normally was. I proceeded to drag the bottom of the pit for the next hour and a half with no luck, I couldn't even snag an oyster shell. If I was fishing for trout this slow with a dual treble I'm confident I would have hung everything under sun. Finally I decided to get serious, as my frustration was building and the thought of diving into 48 degree water was starting to circle my melon, I rigged up a Carolina rig like no other. I added giant trebles on both ends of the premade Carolina rig, and then a foot behind the rig was my little George trailing the way as back up. The ironic thing is the rod I was fishing for was a Carolina set up with a Catch 2000 at the end of the rig. Would you believe that on my third cast, I hooked into something with a steady pull and with each crank of the handle I said a prayer, I was shaking at the idea that I might have the rod, and as my leader knot cleared the surface I could see that lime green machine starring at me. I yelled and screamed with excitement, and as quick as I could get the rod on board I was peddling back to the truck, I didn't want anything else to do with that pit anymore.
I loaded up and went to spot #2. I knew the reds were there, but the wind was blowing so hard the water was beginning to muddy. I was racing as fast I could to the pond where I know a few reds would be. As I eased into the pond, I could see 3 fish, all hovering there on the edge of the current line, behind a point with no wind. My heart started racing, I placed my paddle in the paddle holder around my waste, I grabbed my rod that was rigged with a matrix shad and I dropped the lure about 15 feet past the school and crawfished it through the mud to within a foot from the nose of the lead red. I could see the jig head buried in the mud as the tail was waving to the sky, all of a sudden the red darted forward and inhaled the lure, I set the hook and the fight was on. It was solid fight, a drag ripping, kayak turning kind of fight with a fish I knew was within the upper slot range and obese when compared to the other two that were near him.
After what felt like 20 minutes, likely only 1 in reality, I had the red turned, and as I got him close to the yak he did that lay on the side move, the one they do when they have given up, and as I went to net it, my rod snapped back at me and the red was free, I lunged to the front of the yak trying to net him but I could only reach the back half of him and as I tried my final swipe he swam off like Michael Phelps swimming to a reef "er".
After further investigation it was clear that the culprit was a weak hook, believe me folks when I say, all hooks are NOT made the same. This same hook did the exact same thing to me at FNT last year, but for some reason, I thought I would give it another chance, but not again.
The day ended with a solid stringer and what we had hoped would have put us into the money round, but unfortunately we came up a little too long, for the first time ever, and that resulted in taking 8 lbs off our stringer to land us in 8th place. Being 50% of the field didn't even weigh in, I'm happy with where we finished. It was a fun day with a great partner and I would like to say thanks to Eric "Grizzly Adams" Muhoberac for stepping up and landing the majority of our bag.
I would also like to congratulate Team Pop N Cork (Clayton Shilling & Steve Lessard)for their 1st place finish and 18.80 lbs. for another outstanding finish.
And a special congratulations to Brian "Boudin" Genre for landing a tagged speckled trout. Unfortunately it wasn't a trout tagged by me, but its still exciting to say the least.
Thanks again to Brendan for developing the format and to Massey's for holding the weigh in and the generous contribution to the winners.
Until next time, stay safe and Catch1.....