My good friend Russ Hubbard and I had been plotting and scheming a boys weekend fishing trip for some time. It began with planning a trip to Jupiter Inlet, where Russ was going to introduce me to some of his favorite big cows. Russ was in bad need of some R & R from the pressures of his job. I was just excited about the prospect about fishing Jupiter Inlet for the first time. We were going to use his friend Martin's boat, but as the time neared things developed that the boat would not be out of the shop in time. Our weekend fishing trip was put on the back burner.
A month or so later Russ emailed me that he was thinking about going to Flamingo the first weekend of October, and wanted to know if I would join him. I'd never been to Flamingo, but had made numerous trips to the Ten Thousand Islands via Chokoloski with my old friend Butch Boteler. According to Russ it was one of the most beautiful places on earth, with fabulous fishing as a bonus. It's his Valhalla! I figured that if it was half as pretty as the north end of the park, it had to be fantastic. We made a date for the weekend of October 1.
As the date drew near, and excitement intensified, Russ sent me a checklist via email. Problem was, it was garbled. I can remember how religiously I used a checklist for the first few months I guided years ago, like an airline pilot, making sure nothing was forgotten. I couldn't have anything interrupting my trip, or causing me embarrassment at the ramp. Well, I didn't know just how important this particular checklist was. As Russ later put it, I was a rookie to Flamingo. I didn't yet realize just how far removed from civilization and just how desolate this place was! I was soon to learn. Ice and fuel management are critical elements of every trip, as is mosquito management. But, I didn't know that yet. I didn't realize there was any civilized part of Florida without some sort of mosquito control. Wrong! Rookie!
Finally the weekend approached. Russ had volunteered to drive over to my fish camp, then accompany me back to Flamingo. It seemed like a lot of extra driving for him, but he didn't seem to mind. Of course, Russ is traveling in a gorgeous BMW M3 sporting a whopping 300 HP! I remember my Porsche and BMW days well. I was always looking for some place to drive to! I had a late afternoon trip that Friday, and Russ arrived before I hit the ramp. He came down to greet us as we came in. He was wired and ready for his R & R.
We had a great evening of beer, cocktails, and BS, and I treated Russ to a fabulous Dungeness crab dinner at the Seafood Center and Crab House. He raved about the crab! We organized coolers, bought last minute items, and readied tackle for our magical weekend. We were half in the bag, but finally ready, and there was nothing left to do but count snook in our sleep.
I was awake around five o'clock Saturday morning. I rousted Russ, made coffee, and we finished our last minute packing details. The final step was to get BarHopp'R I and her Boatmaster tandem axle trailer hooked up to my new Dodge custom van. It would be the first time towing with it.
On the road, again! The big Dodge towed the long Boatmaster/boat combo like I was driving a big semi. If it weren't for the extra weight back there, I wouldn't have know I was towing anything. When it was time for highway speed braking, the bronze saltwater disc brake system was fabulous. Once we were down the road and on Alligator Alley, well past the point of no return, I realized I'd forgotten a few things. Rookie move! Well, I haven't been out of my daily guide routine for years! Gimme a break! I'd forgotten a spare anchor, a tool kit, a spare trailer tire, the gas cap remover tool, drain plugs, all the fixins Russ had bought to make us lunches on the water were still stuffed into the meat compartment of my fridge, and other things I don't now remember. God! If we blew a trailer tire in the middle of nowhere, lost an anchor, couldn't get to the gas tank, or starved to death on the water, I'd never live it down! I set a new record for holding one's breath; all the way across Florida to Flamingo.
But, we made it at around the noon hour. Like a professional tour guide, Russ pointed out fauna, flora, birds, and gators along the way. He told me of all the wonderful things to come, but he had innocently forgotten to warn me of one little thing. As I slowed our rig to a craw on the approach to the office where Russ would sign us in, I realized there were mosquitoes already buzzing around my windows, as if starved and delirious; and I wasn't even stopped, yet! Russ disappeared into the office with all the speed of an NFL running back! I sat in the van, motor running, watching a black cloud of mosquitoes gather, wondering if I was hallucinating. This couldn't be; not in 2000! Not in the USA!
Suddenly Russ hit the passenger side door with such speed and determination that I though he would run across my lap and out the other side, the door slamming behind him. He looked at me and smiled, and said, "Butchie, I guess I forgot to tell you about the mosquitoes!" He directed me to our little motel room, giving me instructions for survival once we parked and began unloading and dragging our gear to the room. This would be a contest of speed, perseverance, and determination; just to get unloaded!
I was sort of shell shocked. I hadn't seen anything like this since I was a young boy growing up on Captiva Island in the 50's and 60's, before there was an organized mosquito control effort. I felt like I'd gone on a wild ride in a time machine, and wound up back there on Captiva in my early youth. I can remember times when the mosquitoes would turn our legs and arms black, and we would scream and cry in pain and frustration. We kept palm fronds outside the doors, and as we went through the door, we grabbed them and began swatting front and back for all we were worth as we walked. There wasn't much in the way of mosquito repellent back then, and curiously, the mosquitoes in Flamingo seemed to be immune to our Off. They seemed to be enjoying it! It didn't keep the bugs from biting me, but I guess it did keep them from sucking me dry before we could get the boat launched.
Since I knew zip, zero, nada about the area, I'd given Russ the keys to the boat and the Captain's license for the weekend. I was really looking forward to a relaxing, no pressure weekend of fishing with my good friend. I was also looking forward to doing some lure fishing; something I rarely get to do these days. But as we idled our way out the no wake zone toward Florida Bay, I wondered if I would survive long enough to even get to fish. As Russ jumped BarHopp'R I up on step and we left the cloud of hungry carnivores behind, I felt the same relief you'd feel as you jumped from a burning ship, or parachuted from a falling aircraft! God, it was great!
As we rode, I was sticken by the sheer size of it all. Looking south across the bay was like looking across an ocean. Russ, diligently steered my baby across miles of flats. He was overly concerned about sticking her on a sandbar, or something. I assured him that unless it was damned near dry land, he needn't worry about where he was going. Still he was concerned; the mark of a responsible individual. But the tension was broken by a small herd of playful dolphin, who jumped and played in our wake for quite some time. It reminded me of the dolphins that used to follow the ferry boats back and forth across the Sound when I was a kid.
Russ was looking for a ledge, or drop off a shallow flat, which would be our first stop for trout. It took a couple of moves to find what he was looking for, but once he did, we had all kinds of action. Within a half hour we'd caught trout, jacks, ladyfish, blacktip sharks, catfish, and Russ had jumped a tarpon that ate a ladyfish as he reeled it in. I was throwing jigs, and didn't really care what I caught, but did have good action from time to time. Russ was catching pinfish, then filleting and striping them into minnow sized pieces and tossing that out under a popping cork. Then he made long sweeps of his rod to make loud popping and gurgling sounds with the cork. It drove the trout nuts. I'd never seen trout fished that way before, but it sure worked down there.
We got back to the dock about an hour before sunset to a welcoming party of vicious mosquitoes. We had some nice fish to clean, and soon found that the fish cleaning station was out of service. Damn! We wound up making due on a picnic table. A short distance away there were several large gators watching us with a longing eye. Washing your boat and flushing your motor are forbidden activities in the park, so we had done a saltwater brushdown while coming in.
We made our way back to the motel and fought our way back and forth unloading the essential gear. Russ warned me that the raccoons would open hatches, coolers, or anything else you have in the boat and steal your food! So, we left all the hatches open, and took our cooler back inside. By the time we were done we were half eaten, and there must have been a thousand hungry mosquitoes trapped in our room. I had visions of being siphoned dry during the night, and having the cleaning lady find a couple of shriveled, mummy looking corpses in the morning. Russ wisely didn't shower that night. the lesser of two evils. We had several rum and cokes, mostly in an effort to reduce our "give a shit" factor. The mosquitoes are a little more tolerable when your senses are somewhat numbed! I introduce Russ to Sobe drinks mixed with rum. Just dandy.
Finally, half starved but almost willing to skip eating dinner, we ran like a couple of escaped convicts toward the large, caged pool/cooking area. Yes, it was screened, but the screen was full of good sized holes, so all the screen did was to serve as a minor obstacle to the mosquitoes. There were still plenty inside the eating area. Russ had bought a couple of steaks and potatoes, and they had actually gotten packed, so we had something to eat. Russ did a great job of cooking them on one of the grills with nothing but salt and pepper for seasoning. It was delicious. There were a couple of groups of guys there who obviously spend a lot of time at Flamingo. They had fried up a bunch of snook fingers and hush puppies, and invited us to share some of their food. I offered rum in return, and we were all happy. We never saw them again after that evening.
After the 100 yard dash back to the room, Russ and I had a few more rums while he primed me for the next day's fishing adventure. We were going up the Joe River to no man's land. Fuel would be critical. The route we would be taking is often not traveled by others for days, even on weekends! I went to bed with fingers crossed praying that we didn't run out of gas, and that nothing broke. I made all kinds of promises I'll have trouble keeping. As we went to bed, I realized that the rookie gets the bed in the direct path of the air conditioner. That wouldn't normally be important, but there in Flamingo, with a room buzzing with mosquitoes, the last line of defense is to turn the air on the coldest temp setting, and the highest fan setting. This fills the room with freezing air, and what little warm air remains is forced to the ceiling. Guess what? That's where the mosquitoes go. They don't like the cold. That's something to remember. All this after we spent a good hour swatting mosquitoes with wet towels!
Morning came all too soon. Between the bugs and the Olympic Snoring Competition Rus and I had during the night, neither of us got much sleep. Rus quickly disappeared in search of coffee. When he returned to the room he had the strangest combination of grimace and grin on his face, and said he didn't know how to tell me the bad news. God, I thought, could someone have stolen the boat or broken into the van and stolen the gear? "You're not going to believe it!" Rus ushered me out toward the boat. I was shocked! I'd never seen such a mess in my life. I had left a bucket of Purina tropical fish food chum in the boat in a bucket with the lid on. The damned coons had gotten the lid off, and from the looks of it, found the chum to be quite intoxicating. The whole boat was covered from one end to the other, in every nook and cranny, with coon crap and fish chum. I had committed another rookie mistake. I never imagined that the coons would be interested in powered fish food, but they were. The boat looked like the coons had staged a drunken orgy through the night. Looking at the mess Rus and I had visions of the coons rolling around, laughing and carrying on, and having the time of their lives.
BarHopp'R was too nasty to try to launch. I sure didn't want to get into it. Piles of crap were everywhere, including in the storage wells. We drove down to the ramp where there was a hose reel, and the park ranger was nice enough to waive the park rules and let us wash the boat down. It took a full half hour to get the worst off, and I'm still finding that stuff in the far reaches of her hull. Finally, we raced the mosquitoes back to the room to load the boat, and hit the water. We launched at what Rus called the freshwater side, which took us up a long canal into Whitewater Bay, and eventually to the Joe River. We were harassed by the bugs until we were out of the no wake zone! Ah, speed! I never imagined my need for speed would be to escape mosquitoes!
Rus made the first stop at a place I couldn't find again if my life depended on it. It was a small bay that often is full of tarpon, and has a great shoreline for snook on topwater plugs. It was the favorite haunt of one of Rus' good friends, who is now deceased, and buried there. Rus told me the story of the day they buried his friend, Martin I believe, and how the tarpon came from everywhere and rolled and played all around the boat as they spread his ashes over the water. It was as if they had come to honor him. The story gave me goose bums!
The poons were nowhere to be seen, so we worked down along Rus' favorite shoreline, casting Mirrolure Top Dogs into the mangroves. The best we could do was raise a couple of semi-interested pops at our plugs. I sensed Rus was a bit frustrated, but I was enjoying the day. Rus headed the cat up the river once more, pointing out points of interest and possible fishing spots as we went. The first time you go somewhere it always seems like such a long way. This ride was no different. It seemed as if we rode forever. I was already concerned about gas. I'll admit that I prayed for our safe return. We finally emerged from the river on the gulf. It was beautiful, and everywhere I looked I imagined big snook and reds hiding, ready to strike.
Rus picked the first piece of shoreline, and we began casting plugs. Rus, ever the opportunist, put a chunk of ladyfish out behind the boat on his big rod. It didn't take five minutes before the rod was bent. Russ had a shark about five feet long. The jig I was casting was slammed shortly afterward, and whatever it was cut me off in something sticking up off the bottom. And boy, was there plenty of stuff to get cut on, even out away from the bank. We were there on low tide, which made it even easier to get to the cutoffs.
We covered a lot of territory, made several moves, and even saw a couple of boats, but couldn't raise a snook or redfish. All we had caught was jacks and ladyfish, and we'd spent a while trying to get some good sized tarpon to eat our plugs. Our offerings were ignored the way some kids ignore their parents.
We made another move to a point that was getting good tidal flow and looked snooky as hell. Rus was first with a well placed cast with a Mirrolure TT, which was slammed immediately by a beautiful snook. I tried to hold our position with the trolling motor, and we managed a couple of smaller snook and jacks. We kept seeing bait flash beneath the boat. Shiners would be a sure thing! Rus and I finally succumbed to the desire to catch, and I made one throw of the net. Fire in the hole! We had bait. And with that bait we caught about a dozen snook and some more jacks. We hit a couple of other spots and caught a few more fish, but it was getting late.
Rus wanted to take me to a spot in the rive where he catches jewfish and big mangrove snapper, so we were once again on the move. It took a couple of attempts in the raging current of a hard incoming tide to get the boat anchored where he wanted it, but finally we were fishing with 2 oz. weighted rigs with frozen shrimp. Russ got the first couple of snapper, but I got the biggie. It must have been a good four pounds.
We were both hot and tired, and tired of fighting the bugs, which had been on us pretty good. We decided to call it a day. Rus elected to take us home via Whitewater Bay. His logic was that it is marked, and does get some traffic, and if we broke down or ran out of gas, we'd eventually be found. It was a nice ride, and uneventful but for one missed marker. We were both happy to be back at camp. We elected to leave the fish in the cooler, and clean them back at Punta Rassa ramp when we returned to Ft. Myers.
We had fished under a strange looking sky all day long. I felt sure there was some kind of weather change coming. About an hour after hitting camp we were both happy as hell we'd come home when we did, as a terrific electrical storm swept across the area bringing heavy rains and lots of lightning. I sat next to the sliding glass door thinking about how exciting it would be to be broke down out there in the middle of nowhere at that moment. We had been delivered safely. As Rus and I shared victory cocktails, we looked at each other and knowingly declared we'd had enough of Flamingo for this time around. We decided that we would leave first thing in the morning. It was still raining when we hit the sack. I knew I would sleep soundly knowing I didn't have to face the mosquitoes except for long enough to get out of Dodge.
Rus and I were awakened the next morning to the sound of thunder. It was storming like hell again. We were forced to wait it out before we could pack our gear and hit the road. The tropical system in the western gulf was responsible, now moving from the Yucatan Peninsula back into the gulf, and intensifying. We were catching weather from the feeder bands.
As soon as the weather eased up, we began making mad dashes back and forth from the room to the van with out gear, coolers, etc. God, the mosquitoes were unbelievable. Seemed the rain had them all out hunting. Once we were finally underway, we rode for the first mile or so with the doors held open trying to blow the bugs out. Unbelievably, once we closed the doors, we were still being bitten. We realized we'd left the last can of OFF on the table in the room. God help us if we broke down now!
We drove through lots of rain. Fifty miles up the road, back in civilization, we stopped to eat. There must have been a hundred mosquitoes swarm out of the rear of the van when we opened it up. I guess we'll strengthen the gene pool in that area. We decided to take US 41 (southern route) back across the state to Ft. Myers. I hadn't been that way in years, and it hadn't changed much. It is much more scenic than I-75.
We pulled in to Punta Rassa around noon, and cleaned our fish. We had pulled off a successful trip to Flamingo. We had survived the bugs. According to Rus, a veteran of many trips, that's cause for celebration. I guess Flamingo is a little bit of both heaven, and hell! In spite of the bugs, it had been a fun trip, and I greatly enjoyed being able to spend time with Rus. He tells me that August and September are the bad months for mosquitoes. I think I'll make sure that next time I let Rus talk me into going there, it will be in spring! Meanwhile, I'd still like to do that Jupiter Inlet trip.
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