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April 22, 2013

Fishing Florida Bay and Everglades National Park

The Florida Bay backcountry provides world-class flats fishing in a national-park setting.

Click through the gallery above to view all the images.

[Everglades National Park occupies the southern tip of Florida, encompassing thousands of square miles of wilderness and a wide diversity of habitats. Florida Bay is the part of the park found beween the mainland and the Florida Keys, a rich body of shallow water that’s both remote and also eminently accessible.]

At the extreme southern tip of mainland Florida, Everglades National Park spreads out across the state in an array of divergent habitats covering almost 1.5 million acres. Most people think of the vast sawgrass marshes made famous in Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ seminal 1947 book, The Everglades: River of Grass when they envision the park, and while it is made up mostly of such terrain, there also exists a different part of the park that fishermen can’t resist.

Think Shallow

Florida Bay, known universally among those who love to fish there as “the backcountry,” stretches from the southernmost tip of the mainland, south to the Florida Keys. The water in the bay seldom exceeds a depth of five feet, and in many places, it’s less than 18 inches deep for miles on end. Hundreds of mangrove islands dot the bay, and are ringed by shallow flats that make a perfect home for snook, redfish, spotted seatrout and lots more.

The mainland itself offers equally impressive ­opportunities along the shoreline, in the four shallow bights — Snake, ­Garfield, Rankin and Santini — carved into the landmass just east of Flamingo, the outpost at the end of the road stretching through the park from Florida City, or in several bays farther east. These bights and bays contain super-shallow water in a lot of instances, and can sometimes be fished only during high-water moon phases or weather conditions. But when you can get in there, the fishing can be spectacular.

Start Right

The problem lies in knowing where to start. You can access Florida Bay from Flamingo, or from dozens of jumping-off points in the Keys from Key Largo through Islamorada, so getting there isn’t a problem. But with so many good-looking shorelines and flats to choose from, it’s a bewildering ­predicament deciding where to fish.

As with many such places, a good guide is worth his weight in gold. I happen to live at the southern end of the park; in fact, the boundary is just over a mile north of my house, and having fished there for 20 years or more as a nonprofessional, I have a decent knowledge of where to fish in Florida Bay. But I can’t hold a candle to the professionals who’ve devoted themselves to the bay; some of the finest shallow-water guides in the world ply the waters of the park every day, and days spent on the water with one of them will cut down your learning curve immensely.

Capt. Robert Klein is one such guide. Klein and his brother Tim are natives of Islamorada, and both are acknowledged experts at fishing Florida Bay. I recently got the chance to join Robert in fishing the first-annual Cheeca Lodge All-American Backcountry Fishing Tournament (see “SWS Planner"), and so got to spend several days taking advantage of his years of experience.

Work the Country

Klein stopped at several islands on the way north into the park from Islamorada, and poled his skiff along the edge of mud flats where large white potholes dotted the lush grass beds just beneath the surface. The areas attracted his attention because of “muds” near the flats — clouds of mud stirred up by feeding fish. On the third such stop, we struck pay dirt casting into these muds, as I hooked up with a nice redfish on my first cast.

We were throwing bonefish ­skimmer jigs tipped with live shrimp — a deadly combination for virtually everything swimming in the bay. “I’m a big fan of jigs tipped with shrimp,” Klein said, “but lots of other baits and lures work too. The live-bait guys do well with pilchards most of the time, and other people like Bass Assassins, Twisty Tails or Gulp! baits. It’s all about what you’re comfortable using.”

Where you fish depends on tides much of the time. “It’s always productive to work shorelines and the potholes in the grass flats,” Klein said. “Lots of different species lie in the potholes, waiting to ambush a bait that’s swimming by. Mostly you’ll find redfish and snook in there, but trout and jacks will lie in there too.”