Winter of 1970 we lived in northern Illinois, about 35 miles west of Chicago. I had been reading in Field and Stream about a new fishery in the canals along the new cross-Florida highway called Alligator Alley that crossed the Big Cypress and Everglades swamps. That place really sounded good.
Ted Trueblood wrote about catching small tarpon near the western end and monster bass in the Everglades portion. I was determined to share that adventure.
Timing was good. There was a National School Boards Convention in Miami in February that I should attend and my employer was threatening to cancel part of my several weeks of accumulated vacation time. I scheduled 10 days vacation ending in the three-day convention.
My plan was to drive to the western end of Alligator Alley at Naples and work my way east, ending at the Ft. Lauderdale exit in time to attend the convention. I would camp and fish at various stopping places. I would take my SportYak II and my little Johnson 3HP for gaining access to places I could not reach from the banks of the canals. The SportYak fit nicely on a luggage rack on top of my 1965 Mercedes 190 Diesel and the cavernous trunk had plenty of room for luggage, tackle and a small ice chest.
The day I left home it was minus 20 f and there was about 18″ of snow on the ground. I estimated that the 1300 mile drive would take about 30 hours, including a couple of nap stops.
I arrived in Naples around mid-day of the second day and immediately entered Alligator Alley eastbound at the toll gate. In those days it was a new two-lane highway, arrow straight and pool table flat from Naples, 70 miles, to the Ft. Lauderdale toll gate at Andytown. Most of the way there were canals on both sides of the highway, but . . . oops! . . . only a few places to pull off the road and park. It went from pavement to shoulder to water in very few feet. From time to time there were bridges to allow water flow north to south as all water in South Florida will do. It was at these bridges that most of the pull-off space was located. I wondered what a person would do if they had a breakdown between those pull-offs.
A few casts of a popping bug produced a fat bluegill for dinner and I settled down to the symphony of remote, wild country music.
Back on the road at sunrise, I moved on to where the Miami Canal crosses, taking water from Lake Okeechobee to Miami. This crossing offered an excellent camping spot and access to Everglades waters north and south of the highway. I also had access to the roadside canals, which were narrow enough that I could easily cast across to fish the far shore.
The bridge was high enough that it offered excellent shelter and a convenient spot to set up my camp. The big canal invited me to explore in my trusty SportYak II, so I was soon putt-putting south to see what there was to see and look for that monster bass I had dreamed of catching.
I very quickly felt like I had entered a wildlife adventure film. I could write a whole column just describing the birds and other critters I saw, but this is a fishing story.
I soon found a large flat of lily pads with about 2′ of water. It was a simple matter to maneuver the SportYak II in there with the little Johnny.
That flat was bass fisherman heaven. I quickly gave up the fly rod for a casting rig with more strength for hauling the fish out of the vegetation. I kept a couple of 2-pounders for eating and released the rest. The largest I would estimate at about 6 lb. After several hours I motored back to my camp.
I took my fly rod and walked up and down the roadside canal catching big bluegills.
The next three days passed quickly with several highlights.
I had some very unusual catches. A gigantic bowfin that must have weighed 20 lb gave me a great fight. A small alligator attacked my plug and fortunately was not hooked but an alligator gar was. The gar was a small one . . . maybe 4-5 lb.
Less fun occurred when I went to my stringer to get a couple of bluegills for breakfast and found a big cottonmouth trying to make off with one of my fish. The snake did not survive that confrontation.
The SportYak II was a perfect boat for this adventure and the little 3HP Johnson perfect power. It was a simple matter to maneuver into waters I cannot imagine any other boat but an airboat traversing. In the four days I putted about in her she burned about 2 gallons of fuel. Even my 135 lb. scrawniness was enough to lift it to the top of my car as I prepared to leave. (Yes, I was skinny in my youth. I used to joke that I could turn sideways in the shower and not get wet. )
I arrived in Miami for the convention heavily tanned and in dire need of a shower and a good meal. Both needs were quickly satisfied.
Over the next few years I repeated the midwinter Everglades Adventure, taking a different one of my 4 children along each time. Some serious bonding took place out there in the wilderness.
I went back in the mid ‘80s and was terribly disappointed by the crowds and the litter where I had spent a week without seeing another human being except in cars speeding by.
I highly recommend the winter vacation in the south to folks who live in the frozen north and suffer cabin fever or, worse, SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder).
(JB Cornwell writes from “The Hideout” in Whitt, TX, and is also an expert moderator, instructor, and fountain-of-knowledge in the iboats.com Boating Forums, where he may occasionally share a yarn of his own.)