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Snook, reds & tarpon deep in the Everglades
It's the largest subtropical wilderness in America and
a marvelous place for a do-it-yourself fishing adventure

Editor's note: ESPNOutdoors.com is pleased to announce that Ken Schultz, former Fishing editor of Field & Stream magazine and the author of 16 books on sportfishing, is joining our team as Fishing editor and will be contributing regular columns. Schultz also is a commentator for "BassCenter," which air Saturdays on ESPN2. Look for his "Reel Speak" segment on "BassCenter."

Always ready to spin a new angle on a story, Schultz was thinking about the Super Bowl and came up with some tidbits that probably have not occurred to sportswriters covering the big game. Please see the sidebar below.

Meanwhile, we hope you enjoy his debut column.

Three of us had drifted together in kayaks near a mangrove point, causing a noisy splash in the tree roots.

The thought that perhaps we'd alarmed an alligator gave me a split-second adrenaline rush.

Fishing the Everglades
John Meskauskas hefts an Everglades baby tarpon.

But a small wake swiftly bulged the muddy shallow water as a redfish streaked toward me, then turned and thumped into the kayak of my wife, Sandy, who shouted with surprise. That caused an eruption of wakes as skittish reds bolted through the 6-inch-deep bay in every direction.

Slipping on top of shallow fish was not unusual, as it turned out.

We were paddling deep in the no-motor zone of the southern Everglades, having gotten there by making camp on a deserted five-mile stretch of Cape Sable's shell beach — almost as far south as you can get on the mainland of the eastern United States.

The better fishing was not in the shallows, however, but in deeper pockets, sloughs, and channels, where snook, redfish, baby tarpon, black drum, goliath grouper and the occasional seatrout succumbed to soft-bodied jigs.

The Everglades is the largest subtropical wilderness in America and a marvelous place for a do-it-yourself fishing adventure.

  Super Bowl back story

The most-watched sporting event on American television, the Super Bowl, will be held Sunday in Jacksonville, Fla.

Did you know that the world record for largemouth bass — 22 pounds — was caught about 130 air miles northwest of Jacksonville?

And did you know that the stadium where the Super Bowl will be played is adjacent to the bass-rich St. Johns River?

The St. Johns is one of the longest northerly flowing rivers in the world. Striped bass run up the St. Johns to spawn. So they're actually heading south when they swim upriver!

The river goes from a relative trickle in central Florida to the wide expanse of Lake George on the eastern side of Ocala National Forest. After Lake George, the St. Johns broadens and is influenced by tidal flow. That's where the bass fishing really gets good. The stretch between Lake George and Palatka is self-proclaimed as "The Bass Capital of the World." Really.

Somewhere along this stretch of river in 1773, the celebrated Philadelphia-born naturalist William Bartram caught a 30-pound largemouth bass on a deer-hair jiggerbob, whatever that is.

Thirty pounds! Now that is Super.

Day-fishing trips from the different main entry points — especially Flamingo, Everglades City, and Chokoloskee — are feasible for light fishing efforts. A longer stay is required for those seeking a combination of good angling, wilderness exploration, wildlife viewing and unique experiences.

To say that you can fish here for years and not cover much of it is an understatement.

The southern Everglades wilderness from Shark River on the Gulf Coast through immense Whitewater Bay and including all of Cape Sable is an extremely shallow network of saltwater marshes and mangrove islands replete with saltwater game fish.

This is the region that we explored on a four-day December trip. Just north, in the freshwater confines of the Harney River area, however, it's possible to catch largemouth bass — as well as snook or tarpon — on back-to-back casts.

You can make this a low-budget undertaking if you have your own kayaks or canoes and camping gear.

Backcountry campsites are primitive and include chickees (raised platforms in the water), ground sites and beach camps. We stayed at one of the latter, which allows fires but can be exposed to wind.

Our visit was made with guide friends who had been here before and had the necessary camping and boating gear.

We took skiffs to Middle Cape Sable and used them to tote our kayaks to the edge of the no-motor-zone, then paddled deep in the backcountry where motorized boats are prohibited.

Near the end of the trip we fished for tarpon out of skiffs at the edge of Florida Bay.

You also can embark on a totally non-motorized, multiday camping-canoeing-fishing trip from Flamingo, via the well-marked Wilderness Waterway. This method allowed us to get into hard-to-access areas and maximize our fishing time.

A good alternative for four to six people is to rent a houseboat for a week, which you can take from Flamingo to the northwestern portion of Whitewater Bay. This way you may tow or pack canoes or kayaks with you.

Fishing the Everglades
A skiff negotiates the Everglades labyrinth, where a wide variety of fish, birds and reptiles abound.

Though more expensive, the houseboat option eliminates time-consuming campsite chores, allows for showers, provides bug refuge and lets you change locations at will.

In addition to exciting fish action, Everglades outings are made a bit more adventurous by the existence of reptiles and biting insects. But don't let that deter you.

We saw plenty of alligators and a couple of crocodiles, as this is the only place in the world where the species coexist. We gave them wide berth and not once did they pose a problem.

With the hurricane season officially ending in November, and mosquitoes more bearable from December through March, the major hardships for an extended wilderness stay are having enough freshwater for personal use and coping with no-see-ums, which warrant a fully enclosed head net or bug suit.

But you should have no trouble catching something delicious to eat.

Game-fish profile

Species: Common Snook (Centropomus undecimalis)

Other names: Linesider, robalo, sergeant fish, snook; Portuguese: robalo; Spanish: robalo, robalito.

In general: The common snook is the most abundant and wide-ranging of the snooks and is highly sought after because of its strength and acrobatics when hooked.

Fishing the Everglades
Rick Murphy took a snook by kayak in the Everglades.

It is a member of the Centropomidae family, which also includes such prized species as the Nile perch, although it is superior to the former as a sportfish despite not reaching the same monstrous proportions.

This snook also is related to the barramundi, with which it shares some appearance and behavioral traits.

In all there are believed to be a dozen species of snook, six of which occur in the western Atlantic and six in the eastern Pacific, although none occur in both oceans.

Identification: A silvery fish with a yellow-green or olive tint, the common snook has a body that is streamlined and slender with a distinct black lateral line running from the top of its gills to the end of its forked tail. It has a sloping forehead, a long, concave snout, and a large mouth with brush-like teeth and a protruding lower jaw. The fins are occasionally bright yellow, though the pelvic fin is usually pale.

Size and age: The common snook grows much larger than other Atlantic-range snooks, averaging 1 to 2 feet or 5 to 8 pounds, though it can reach 4 feet and 50 pounds. Females are almost always larger than males, though growth rates are variable. The all-tackle world record is a 53-pound 10-ounce fish taken off eastern Costa Rica in 1978.

Distribution: In the western Atlantic, common snook are found primarily in southern Florida, as well as off the southeastern coast of the Gulf of Mexico, around most of the Antilles, and off the Caribbean coast of Central and South America extending southward to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. They are also occasionally encountered off North Carolina and Texas.

  If you're going …

For more information about Everglades National Park, call park headquarters at 305-242-7700 or visit www.nps.gov/ever.

Flamingo Lodge is the only motel in the park and is open year-round, with a restaurant and cafe open during the winter; call 800-600-3813 or visit www.flamingolodge.com. The marina has gas, bait, and assorted supplies, plus boat/canoe/kayak/houseboat rentals.

For a local guide, contact Rick Murphy at 305-242-0099.

Habitat: Snook inhabit warm, shallow coastal waters, and are able to tolerate freshwater and saltwater. They are most common along continental shores, preferring fast-moving tides and relying on the shelter of estuaries, lagoons, mangrove areas, and brackish streams, as well as freshwater canals and rivers, usually at depths of less than 65 feet. Occasionally they occur in small groups over grassy flats and shallow patch reefs, and may be found at the mouths of tributaries and along the ocean side of shores near tributaries.

Life History and behavior: Common snook congregate at mouths of passes and rivers during the spawning season, returning to the same spawning sites each summer. Spawning grounds in Florida include major passes and inlets of the Atlantic Ocean and the
Gulf of Mexico, as well as Tampa Bay. Young fish will remain in the quiet, secluded, upper reaches of estuaries until they reach sexual maturity, which males attain after 2 to 3 years and females after 3 to 4 years. Common snook are protandric hermaphrodites, which means they can change their sex from male to female; this change usually happens between the ages of 2 and 7 and between the lengths of 17 to 30 inches.

Food and feeding habits: Carnivorous predators that ambush their prey as currents sweep food into their vicinity, snook feed on both freshwater and saltwater fish, shrimp, crabs, and larger crustaceans.