DFR Exploration Blog

This page was created to chronicle our progress with the site build and detail the ins, outs, ups, and downs of traversing Southwest Florida to bring you the best of the best. 

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29
Dec

DoFloridaRight - Finding Mr. Watson

Written by Ryan S on Sunday, 29 December 2013 19:42.

Larger than life characters from novels are usually confined to the pages in which they are born and the imaginations of the readers that set them free. Peter Matthiessen’s novel Shadow Country details the life of Edgar Watson. From his childhood living with a wildly abusive Civil War vet father to his death at the hands of his neighbors following the great hurricane of 1910, Matthiessen breathes reality into the life of E.J. Watson. The story told is a mix of factual events and details filled in with fiction where the facts didn’t fit or weren’t known.   Much of what Matthiessen writes about can still be found documented in and around Chokoloskee or fading away back into the earth on Watson’s former property on the Chatham River, the aptly named Watson’s Place.



This isn’t a book review. In fact, the book itself, while it tells a great story, is incorrigibly slow at times. However, after finishing it up more than a year ago, I knew a trip to visit Watson’s old stomping grounds was inevitable, so I got to work planning (click to see the Watson's Place plan).

Watson’s choice to make his residence and start a plantation on the Chatham River Bend was no accident. First, it was a thousand miles away from anyone that might be looking for him. Second, it was positioned on a peninsula sticking out into the river so that he could see anyone coming for miles. Third, the mouth of the Chatham River is virtually invisible to passersby in the Gulf of Mexico. While this was all ideal for the secretive and shady Watson, it makes getting there—even 100 years later, a bit of a challenge.

After doing some research, I found a boat rental out of Everglades City from Mark Lamphere (http://www.everglades-wilderness-waterway.com/Contact.htm) who was happy to work with our plans to stay overnight in the Everglades National Park and give us a group rate. After pitching the idea to shark biologist and good guy Pat O’Donnell on a recent Shark Tagging with a Marine Biologist trip, he expressed interest in coming along and offered to bring his boat and backwater experience which made the logistics quite a bit easier.

We had the boats in the water and the gear loaded by 9am Saturday morning, and from there we rode over to the Gulf Coast Visitor Center to pick up our back country wilderness permit (required for any camping). While camping at Watson’s would have been great, there were some other campers already there and the weather conditions were not favorable to camping upriver. Our next choice was New Turkey Key, then Pavilion Key, then Turkey Key, all of which were already full. Next time, we get our permit the day before (they can only be pulled up to 24 hours ahead of time). We settled for Mormon Key, which in the grand scheme of things was far from “settling”.

We set out with our two boats from the gateway to the Glades headed south toward Sandfly Pass after checking the marine forecast one last time. The 18’ Key West would have no trouble handling a little chop, but the 2 man crew of the 14 foot flat bottom Carolina Skiff that I captained would definitely get a little wet (fully saturated).  With 2 foot seas, we did our best to stay inside of the barrier islands, but a few long runs between islands left us soaked and the bilge pump working overtime.

With the boats loaded down with camping and cooking gear, it made sense to make camp before attempting any exploring or fishing, so that’s just what we did. We made the 17 mile run to Mormon Key in about an hour. The boats were unloaded and we took off for Watson’s.

As you head north up the Chatham River, depending on your familiarity with the Watson legend, your mind can start to play tricks on you. It’s easy to picture Watson in his 20 foot handmade skiff, or his schooner that he used to run his syrup to Key West cruising up the river. You start to look out for large floating objects—the remains of the many workers who “left” Watson’s plantation and were never seen again. These days, The Bend is hardly visible but for a dock with a blue porta-potty, but in its heyday Watson’s house would have towered above the surrounding flora. Looking at the satellite imagery available on Google Maps, you can see a different shade of green where plants left over from Watson’s plantation have grown up in the midst of an endless barrage of mangroves. Immediately, one admires the courage and vision of a man who looked at a small clearing on the Chatham River Bend and saw a potential sugar cane plantation.

Many maintain that Watson’s work was done on the backs of virtual slave labor, but many of his neighbors would agree that Watson was fair in his dealings, just so long as you held up your end of the bargain. By 1900, Watson had a sprawling estate including 2 cisterns, a large house, and even the first automobile that the 10,000 Islands ever saw which is still there, overgrown and difficult to find. One still has to question the sanity of a man who would make such a purchase knowing that the nearest road was at the time (and still is) nearly 20 miles away. Watson was clearly a very skilled farmer, however, and some speculate that the massive US Sugar Corporation, who has nearly 200,000 acres of sugar cane south of Okeechobee, uses a strain of sugar cane developed by Watson on his plantation more than 100 years ago.

After hanging around with the ghost of Watson for an hour or so, we decided we’d better get going and start fishing. We found some deep water down closer to the mouth of the Chatham River and managed to catch a good variety of smaller fish using live shrimp. As the sun started approaching the horizon, we headed back to camp to tend to any pressing issues before we ran out of daylight and were inundated by mosquitoes.

Around sunset, the 5 of us piled into the small 14’ skiff and ventured to the west side of our “home” island, Mormon Key, to search out bait fish and enjoy the more scenic of the two sides of the island. The west side had more exposed beach and sand and was riddled with massive pieces of driftwood and mangrove snags that made for good firewood and better pictures. Pat managed to catch himself some sizeable mullet to go on the smoker when he returned home, while the rest of us explored the island with cameras in hand looking for whatever might come along. Finding more than we could ask for, we ended up with some terrific video and stills from Mormon Key. So much for settling.

As the darkness and the mosquitoes engulfed the Everglades, we headed back to campsite on the windward side of the island and built a fire which did provide some protection from the mosquitoes. With the fire blaring, Cougar brought out his discada or “disco”, essentially a Southwest version of a mobile wok. Using the disco, we managed some pretty darn tasty tacos from a hunk of beef and some vegetables that we had brought.  With full bellies and a fire slowly being overtaken by the tide, campfire stories were shared while we each tried to secure a liquid blanket as an additional layer of protection from the mosquitoes.

Morning comes slowly when dozens of mosquitoes find their way into your tent and it is too warm to hide in your sleeping bag, but it did eventually come with an unbelievable mosaic of color. The sun rising in the east revealed our boats still lashed together but high and dry by 15 yards, having misjudged the negative low tide by the slightest of margins. Not being in any hurry, it was no problem to watch and wait as the tide made its way up and under the boats toward highercground. Pat and I headed out to find bait for the day, as the shrimp in the bait bucket hanging over the side of the boat had trouble surviving without any water within a dozen yards or so. We came back empty handed but ready to chow down on more breakfast tacos courtesy of the disco.

After breakfast, we headed out toward New Turkey Key to find some deeper water to fish. Despite finding a promising channel and a new potential campsite for the future, fishing was slow at best. A mass of dark and ominous clouds in the distance put a damper on our plans, so we ran back to pack up our campsite and avoid the rain. After doing so, we promptly got back on the water and headed west to Pavilion Key, another prime camping spot that we were a bit late to sign up for. More deep channels lead to a mediocre bite before we were chased out by rain coming in off the gulf. We headed all the way back up Sandfly Pass to Everglades City where we fished just outside of the EGC airport with some success, but by then the day was nearly done and our boat rental deadline was fast approaching. The call was made to get in off the water and pack it up, but not before deciding to head to Cougar’s outpost in Big Cypress to catch our collective breathes after a phenomenal weekend adventure.

Following in the footsteps of historical figures is not hard to do in many places. All you have to do is show up to a building or a road and read some well placed signs. When the historical figures made it their goal to hide in one of the last great untamed wildernesses in the world, following in their footsteps becomes more cumbersome but a whole lot more exciting. While Ed Watson may not be a household name and the infamy surrounding his popularity casts a dark cloud, walking in the shoes of a true pioneer and one of history’s great gladesmen is simply unforgettable.  It’s hard to imagine a better way to Do Florida Right.

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27
Nov

Koreshan State Park Camping

Written by Ryan S on Wednesday, 27 November 2013 21:36.

November in SWFL begs you to be outside. That was the basic impetus behind a recent Friday night trip to Koreshan State Historic Site. Why sit around imbibing on the lanai when you can do it in the woods? So that’s what we did—libations in the wilderness, a.k.a, camping.

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03
Nov

Record snook!

Written by Ryan S on Sunday, 03 November 2013 16:30.

Most people brag about their biggest catch, but today, we bring you something different: The smallest snook I've ever seen! He was caught in a cast net alongside some finger mullet and whitebait in a tidal pool just south of Big Carlos Pass. He might not make the slot, but it's not every day you get to snap a pic of a truly juvenile snook the size of your thumb. 

 

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21
Oct

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Written by Ryan S on Monday, 21 October 2013 02:06.

No, not Christmas. A couple of weeks before Halloween, everyone who has lived in SWFL throughout the oppressively humid summer months breathes a collect sigh of relief. It happens all of the sudden. One day you walk outside and your glasses fog up, the next you receive your yearly affirmation of what you've loved about Florida all of these years. A few day preview is usually all we get at first, but then around Halloween the weather breaks for good. This is my (any many Floridian's) favorite time of year. It's still quite warm, but the humidity is low and the sun is high. The days are still relatively long, and most of the snowbirds haven't returned yet keeping the restaurants, beaches, and roads at low density. It's a magical time in Southwest Florida, and apparently local event planners know this as well as anybody. 

I set out to plan my weekend last Friday, and quickly the options started enumerating. The third Friday of every month brings Music Walk to Downtown Fort Myers which is always a nice time--particularly when your wife is a music educator. On Saturday after the musicians had all cleared out, the living dead came to play as Zombie-con took over the streets of Fort Myers. Bonita Springs held their annual Riverfest complete with rubber ducky races on the Imperial River. Taste of Coconut Point featured the best of the best from the massive outdoor mall. Naples is preparing for the Stone Crab festival next weekend near Tin City. But what speaks to me is somewhat simpler than all of those those things: meat, beer, and foods that have no place being fried being dropped in a vat of hot oil. That's why I put on my cowboy hat, found an F-150, and headed out to the Collier County Fairgrounds for the Big Swamp BBQ Competition. Ribs, brisket, pork, fried oreos, and beer makes me smile. 

On top of the myriad events happening all around town, the fishing in SWFL during October is stellar. The water is starting to clear up from all of the summer rain, the flounder, redfish and trout have started coming back out in numbers, and there is still plenty of bait around. Oh yea, and the weather. The idyllic, picture perfect weather. With my boat inoperable due to a bum trailer bearing, I decided I'd take the canoe out for a trip. I chose New Pass due to the interesting contours inside and outside of the pass and its ease of access. There was a point in the day when I was poling around on a sandy oyster bar inside the pass looking for snook. A single small cloud lazily meandered past the sun. As the shadow spread over the beach, the crystal clear water, and my perfect little fishing setup I was surprised to hear myself let out an audible grunt. How spoiled I have become with my October weather in SW Florida.

Arguably the best part about the whole scenario is that the weather doesn't just hang out for a few days, or a week, or even a month. Most winters here in SWFL, highs stay between 75 and 85 degrees with the exception of a passing cold front or two. If I were a travelling criminal, I would move to SWFL for the winter because when that weather hits, every door and window is open for 50 miles. Luckily, nobody seems to have taken advantage of this. 

For me, this is the most wonderful time of the year. If you need me this month, you'll find me on the lanai, by the pool, or out looking for the next perfect way to spend a perfect day. 

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06
Oct

Do Florida Right Shark Week starts with a dud

Written by Ryan S on Sunday, 06 October 2013 21:12.

Ever since I was a kid, I have been utterly fascinated by sharks. I watched all the shark shows I could find before Shark Week made it cool. I have dozens of shark books. I've always wanted to get up close and personal with some sharks, and while I probably have during some of my long ocean swims as a beach lifeguard, the best shark experience to date has to be Shark Tagging with a Marine Biologist. Toward the end of the summer, I got the itch again, so I called up Pat O'Donnell at Rookery Bay to see if I could again ride along on one of his shark monitoring trips. 

While I had this plan laid out for Tuesday, the week didn't become shark week until a friend casually suggested that we should try our hand at shark fishing. I saw that as a good opportunity to get my feet wet, so I went out and spent $60 on some new heavy duty fishing line, steel leaders, massive hooks, and some lead sinkers that could be used as dumbbells. 

We got off to a late start, which immediately put us at a disadvantage. We didn't have a supply of shark bait; the plan was to catch our own. However, to catch our own we would first need jack crevalle/ladyfish bait which is usually copious at Big Carlos Pass where we fished. Catching said bait is fairly easy. Except when it's night and you can't see anything. Add to that the fact that we were well into the waxing crescent moon phase (almost new) with a very late moonrise and party cloudy skies, and we could scarcely see our hands in front of our faces. 

All this variables negatively impacting our chances aside, we tried our darnedest to huck some big catfish chunks as far as we could, which given the spot I chose, was not very far or deep. The only thing we managed was some more hardhead catfish--not even gafftop sailfish (which are a little more fun to fight, albeit slimy as all hell). Without much success, we made a move to New Pass. There we managed to work our way a little up the food chain, first cast netting mullet and then landing a jack crevalle, but we never as much as rigged up a shark bait due to an abnormally high tide. 

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10
Sep

Trip 6: A Day at Delnor Wiggins Pass State Park

Written by Ryan S on Tuesday, 10 September 2013 02:48.

Another swing, another homerun. I’m fully aware that one of these days, we’re going to set out to do something for Do Florida Right and our luck is going to run dry. The truck won’t start, it’s going to pour rain the whole time, our canoe is going to straight up sink in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico (why it’ll be out there I’m not sure). Our sun up to sundown trip to Delnor Wiggins Pass State Park was not that day, however, it was just another in a ever growing list of days that I will fondly recall when I am an old man of 84 laying in a hospital bed. From start to finish, it was another day that leaves you wondering, “how in the world did I get so lucky?” Maybe we are on the right side of karma because of our positive chi that we stockpile during the week. Maybe we really are just that lucky. Maybe the universe just likes to reward people who get off their ass and try to make their day great.  Either way, this day at Wiggins Pass firmly cemented the park as my favorite beach after years of leading the pack.

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