Family Paddling in the Everglades

Family Paddling in the Everglades
Randi with her trophy.
Raising two teenage daughters sure has been an experience. I've learned so many things about young ladies that I never knew. Some of it I never wanted to know. Some of it would've been damned handy as I navigated through those weird high school years. Apparently there are more shades of eye shadow than there are models of MirrOlures and they're pickier than a winter trout about which one is right on any given day. Having three women in one house has been trying at times, but overall it has been a fun ride that I wouldn't trade for anything. Life became much easier when I finally accepted that I should never get comfortable assuming I fully understand what is going on under my roof. I'm afraid they all get a sense of joy throwing poor old dad completely off track.

A few weeks ago my wife approached me with, "How would you feel about spending a week in the Everglades for the Holidays?" First thought, "Is this a trick question?" Before I could process that thought and check out all the possible angles she continued, "I was thinking that we could all go see Captain Charles while the girls are out of school. It'd be a fun family trip. I already talked to the girls and they're all for it."

Really? My girls have been raised around the outdoors so it wasn't all that surprising that they would want to go. I just wasn't sure they had all the information. This was a paddling trip in the Everglades. There is no connection to My Space. What about that near-constant activity of texting? And Erin really has an issue with alligators. She does realize there are more than a few of those down there right? I really wanted to be happy about this trip, however my mind kept running through the mine field of trip-deflating problems. I was repeatedly assured that everything would be fine.

Well- alrighty then- let's call Chuck! Captain Charles Wright owns and operates Everglades Kayak Tours as well as Chokoloskee Charters. I've been down there to fish with him a couple times over the past three years. He runs a first class operation and is excellent at tailoring a trip to fit your needs. I don't think I've ever seen anyone with an operation as versatile. From his base in Everglades City there is a huge variety of fishing opportunity within easy reach. With four boats and a couple dozen kayaks at his disposal I don't think you can throw him a pitch he can't hit. He can run you offshore, pole you across the flats or get you lost in the mangrove jungle. Charles can also take you far into the back country using one of his twenty-eight foot Carolina skiffs loaded down with kayaks for a paddling trip like nothing you've ever experienced.

Take your pick from fishing, birding, photography and nature viewing trips via boat or kayak. There are so many options that it can be tough for some folks to narrow it down. Due to my serious addiction to back country snook fishing I don't have much of a problem deciding. Nothing gets my blood pumping like a big snook busting a topwater under the mangroves. But this one wasn't about me. I wanted the girls to enjoy the trip. With the eldest headed off to college and the youngster getting heavily involved in high school activities, the reality is that this could be our last big family adventure for a while. Chuck managed to come up with an itinerary that would provide plenty of variety and let the family experience the beauty and magic of the Everglades.

With packing and logistics planning that would make a military unit jealous we set off. Leaving a cold and rainy Texas, our sights were set on the southern tip of the big sandbar state looking for a few days in the sunshine. The long ride was a grind, but it went off without a hitch. And I did learn something as I drove. My wife and youngest daughter can sleep more than I thought was humanly possible. I started referring to Erin as my puppy. Eat, potty break, and sleep for two hours. Repeat. Randi wasn't too far behind them, but near constant texting with her boyfriend kept her awake more than she slept.

We arrived in Everglades City and found eighty degree temperatures and sunshine. Chuck had arranged for us to stay in his cabin located right on a small canal. Civilization is on one side and the Everglades jungle is on the other. As soon as the truck was unpacked I headed over to a small pier. The current was ripping with a falling tide exposing a small oyster reef on the far side of the canal. On past trips I've stood there a dozen times watching the current flow, but this was the first time I'd seen the reef. Just as I was turning to head back to the cabin I heard the unmistakable smack of a snook busting the surface. The swirl was still evident in the eddy behind the little reef. Game on. Within a few minutes my whole crew was out there pounding the canal with a variety of lures. Several snook fed in the canal but we couldn't entice any solid strikes. Erin was the only one to score by catching a cool little grouper. The current slowed and the no-see-ums arrived in force to drive us inside.

The next morning we met up with Charles at the dock. It was a leisurely exercise as we were going out for a nature paddling tour through the mangrove tunnels south of town. Every excursion down there is heavily dependent on the tides. During our trip the differences between the high and low was around six feet. That's hard for a Texas boy to get used to. The currents through the creeks and rivers can be unbelievable. Chuck wanted to wait about an hour until the tide turned so that our crew would be able to ride the falling tide instead of battling the incoming flow. Fine by me, I've already tried paddling against the flow down there. Besides, it gave us a chance to have breakfast overlooking the town harbor and watch the tarpon roll. Yes, I said watch the tarpon roll. I love this place.

Back at the boat Chuck introduced us to a young couple visiting from Spain and Jason Sine, our guide for the tour. We loaded our gear into the boat and motored away from the harbor. Within minutes we were cruising through the wilds of the Everglades. It was fun watching the girls' faces as they were soaking it all in. Every once in a while Charles would slow the boat to point out an interesting bird or a long-abandoned Calusa Indian settlement. He and Jason pointed out and explained the differences between the red, black, and white mangroves. Then there were the dozens of osprey and innumerable other birds lifting out of the trees around every corner. The girls were completely drawn in.

A good thirty minutes into the run Chuck slowed the boat to a stop in a small lake. He and Jason off-loaded the kayaks while everyone fitted themselves with PFDs and grabbed a paddle. Once everyone was settled in and comfortable, Charles fired up the big engine and headed off to our rendezvous point. Jason led the expedition towards the mouth of a small creek with a solid canopy of mangroves. What a cool place. We eased along with the falling tide while ducking the low limbs and listening to Jason as he talked of everything from how the Calusa Indians lived and thrived in this harsh environment to stories of the Spanish explorers who searched the area for the Fountain of Youth. The guy is a wealth of information regarding the flora and fauna of the region and how it all intertwines to make this place so special. As testimony to his ability to deliver the information in an interesting and entertaining manner, my girls were right by his side through the three hour paddle listening to every word. It's fun to watch your kids learn anything useful, but it was special to see them getting so much out of this little paddling trip.

The creek meandered through the jungle and eventually dumped out into a large shallow mud flat. And of course, redfish spooked in every direction as we paddled across the flat without a single rod among us. We met up with Charles out in the deeper water and loaded the kayaks for a short trip to one of the outer keys for a little beachcombing and exploring of the adjacent sand flat. Again, Jason was spot on with the kids as he went along naming all the shells and flipping things over to reveal all of the cool creatures. The biggest hit was when he showed them the baby horseshoe crabs burrowing along just under the sand. A contest to find the smallest crab broke out with the winner being just under an inch across. The water was still falling and Charles announced that we needed to leave unless we wanted to spend the night on the island waiting for the tide to return. I must admit that I started the day a little bit disappointed that we weren't going fishing, but I wouldn't change anything. It was a special day that I think the girls will be talking about for many years.

The next morning we were back at the dock and geared up for fishing. The plan was to run far into the back country and then paddle a tidal creek known to hold snook and baby tarpon. After many miles of winding through a maze of rivers, bays, and small lakes we shut down in a protected cove rimmed with mangroves. Chuck announced we had arrived at our fishing destination. As he started to unload the kayaks Erin was eyeballing a gator cruising along the surface.

"Are we really fishing here?"


"You do see that alligator, right?"


It took a bit of convincing, but she eventually trusted us enough to get into her kayak. She made a beeline for the mouth of the creek while keeping an eye on the gator. Mom and Randi weren't far behind, but the whole crew came to a screeching halt at the mouth of the creek as they were met by the big brother of the gator by the boat. Chuck assured everyone that he's never had a problem with them and eventually convinced them it was okay to enter the river of no return. By the time they had passed a dozen or so everyone settled down and concentrated on fishing. I must admit that it was pretty entertaining to listen to them talking to the various gators that came and went.

The fishing wasn't spectacular. Heck, it wasn't even very good. Chuck caught a few snook and I think I picked up three or four, but it wasn't easy. The fish were there and they were feeding. The problem was they were keyed in on clouds of tiny minnows and we couldn't match the hatch. The fish were just opening their mouths and rushing into the schools to get their fill. The only bites we could coax came by slowly drifting a DOA shrimp or lightly-weighted jig through some of the deeper holes at the bends in the creek. Even those bites were very light and tough to feel. The girls hung in there and fished hard all morning. It just wasn't happening.

That afternoon we followed Chuck's directions to a dirt road north of town to do a little exploring and fishing in a freshwater canal. Talk about gators! Wow! And these guys weren't the least bit shy about swimming over to see if you might toss them a chicken or something. I assume that these guys are pretty used to getting handouts from the tourists. Again, we saw fish feeding on the surface and couldn't buy a bite.

On the ride back to town I announced I was going fishing in the morning for a couple hours before we had to pack up and leave. I had talked to Charles and he was going to let me borrow kayaks to fish the harbor area. Randi was my only taker. She said she had come all this way to catch a fish and didn't want to go back without catching something... anything. Erin and Camille were going to sleep in. I guess they needed to rest up for all the sleeping they were going to do on the ride back to Texas.

Before daylight we were standing on Chuck's back porch. We loaded into the big skiff and headed for the harbor. The tide would be pushing us back to the house so he was going to drop us off a mile or so away allowing us to fish our way home without having to do a bunch of paddling. It's nice to have enough tidal movement to plan a drift using these currents. We weren't far from the house, and nowhere near our destination, when all hell broke loose. The jacks were ripping the surface in typical blitzing fashion. I was hoping for tarpon, but eager jacks on the surface would fill the bill for a quick fix. We off-loaded the kayaks and headed into the fray. I had Randi throwing a slow sink MirrOlure while I chunked a topwater. Two fish and multiple strikes on top made it pretty clear what these guys wanted. They were the perfect size jacks. Five to ten pounds is about right in my book. Not so big that they wear you out, yet big enough to put up a good fight. I tied a Spook Jr. onto Randi's rig and gave her a quick lesson on walking the dog.

We spent the next hour chasing the roving schools all over the harbor. We'd see them bust up and by the time we got within casting distance they'd show up a hundred yards away. I was on stand-by with my camera at the ready. Time was running out and Randi was looking pretty disappointed. Then it happened. She spotted a big swirl and dropped a good cast into the zone. The baby jack slammed the lure and the fight was on. She got a sleigh ride around in circles all across the harbor before the fish finally gave up. That was about as big of a smile as I've seen on her face in quite a while. Too cool.

To book a trip with Captain Charles you can contact him through his website, or call him at 239-695-9107.