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. 


Trip 5: Lover's Key Paddle and Hike

Written by Ryan S on Wednesday, 04 September 2013 22:23.

If I’m being totally honest, the thought of going and paddling and hiking Lover’s Key didn’t excite nearly as much as some of our other adventures. It wasn’t that I didn’t think it would be cool, it’s just that I have boated, beached, walked, and biked just about every inch of the perimeter of Lover’s Key several times over. With that said, I had never actually been into the park center, mostly due to the fact that there is an $8 entry fee, and so much of the perimeter of the park is accessible for free. You can paddle in from the back side starting from Little Carlos Pass. You can walk around to the beach from the north side via Big Carlos Pass, although they recently built a fence to alleviate the monetary lost from everyone who knew that trick. I believe they now charge just a couple of bucks to enter from that side. On a low tide, you can even walk in from New Pass (link) to the south. In fact, if you have some sort of boat, you could do laps around Lover’s Key all day, stopping just about anywhere to gain entry into the park for free. And yet, there we were, waiting at the park entrance with a $10 bill in hand. Not because we couldn’t get in for free elsewhere, but because we wanted to make sure to get the experience from the epicenter of the park and where we could branch out to from there.


Trip 4.5 - Fishing in Estero Bay

Written by Ryan S on Saturday, 24 August 2013 20:18.

Going fishing in the Estero Bay isn't exactly a special occasion type occurrence for us. It's something that we do as often as possible, really. So to call this trip a one of a kind DFR trip would be a bit of an exaggeration(hence Trip 4.5), but that didn't make it any less awesome. The original plan was to bring along our friend Scott who grew up tooling around in his jon boat in Rocky Bay. However, we had a rare opportunity to bring a big smile to a family member's face, specifically Ryan Y's aunt Casey. She was in town visiting from Washington D.C. and is an avid and skilled angler. Having a small 15-ft boat, there's really only room for 3 people plus gear, so Scotty agreed to sit this one out and let Casey step up to the plate. 

The initial plan was to get on the water early--around 7, to catch the bulk of the incoming tide. The alarm clock woes continued for Ryan Y, and in spite of a couple of texts and phone calls, no real progress was made on the trip until near 9am. Instead of waiting, I decided I'd head out, try to catch some bait, and come back to pick up up Ryan and Casey when they arrived. I was unsuccessful on the bait front. Sort of. There were massive schools of glass minnows everywhere--too small to net, but perfect to draw in predators. I threw the net a few times regardless to see if there was any larger schools hiding underneath. There were not. The scouting trip wasn't a total bust though, because I found some crystal clear water over a shallow flat loaded with glass minnows around the western tip of Coon Key. I was easily able to spot several large rays patrolling the area. That didn't pique my interest, but when I watched a massive redfish nearly bump into one of these rays and then spook, I determined that this would be our first spot. I rode back to the ramp at Lover's Key to pick up Ryan and Casey with their gear, they grabbed some shrimp, and we were on our way back to Coon Key.

As we arrived, another boat pulled up just ahead of us almost exactly where I wanted to be, but the school of bait extended well along the perimeter of the island. He anchored up, and we drifted on by in search of a hot bite. We were casting live shrimp over the grass flat and under the mangroves, and it wasn't long until a ladyfish hit a shrimp under a popping cork over the grass. This provided us with another option for bait, so I anchored up in a fishy looking spot, cut up the ladyfish, and we put out a few lines. The action was pretty good in this spot, and we managed to pull in 6 different species to the boat in relatively short time. A jack crevalle inhaled a piece of cut ladyfish, a relatively rare barracuda followed suit, and a trout learned that shrimp shouldn't be so easy to catch. Out on the flat, Ryan Y had a small permit take off with a shrimp, and he managed to bring it boatside in short order. All the while, most every bait we tossed close enough to the mangroves had mangrove snapper nibbling gingerly on them until one got too greedy. 9:30 am might be too early for some people to crack open the beers, but we felt we had earned them. 

The bite did eventually slow down with the tide, so we decided to go look for more bait in Big Carlos Pass. We weren't the only ones with that idea, and after going under the bridge we could see the castnets flying by the downed trees on the south side of the pass. There was plenty of bait to go around, and after a few throws we had enough whitebait to fish all day. At that point, I should have replaced my already worn leader (see the barracuda picture), but it's entirely too easy to be lazy. 

With the tide turned, we had to change our tactics, so we made the call to head to the back to chase the tide back out. riding along Davis Key, a massive fish, more than likely a snook, absolutely destroyed some unsuspecting bait a short distance away. So we went to investigate. I placed a bait right near the hiding spot that the first attack came from, and in less than 5 seconds my drag was screaming. The behemoth went straight for his hiding spot; a deep tangly mangrove shelter. With a drag a bit loose, he had no trouble burying himself back behind those wooden prison bars. Instinct says try to muscle him out when you're dealing with medium heavy spinning gear, but the proper tactic may be to just open the bale, take the pressure off, and hope he forgets you're there and swims back out. I acted on instinct, not intellect, and the already frayed leader never stood a chance. It snapped right in the middle of the loop knot and this unknown monster became the latest "one that got away".

Moving on, at a pair of mangrove islands near Davis Key, we began catching mangrove snapper right away. As I was tending to some other pressing issues, like my beer getting warm, something picked up my bait and swam straight back into the very center of the mangrove island. The fish must have been a little tipsy himself, because as he swam back, he systematically wrapped my line around every mangrove branch within a quarter mile. I went in after it, but couldn't reach where the hook was snagged on some barnacle encrusted prop roots, so biologist and swamp navigator extraordinaire Ryan Y came to the rescue. He did eventually get the line and hook out of its tangled mess. 

From here, things started to get interesting. We noticed some massive, ominous looking black clouds headed our way. We kept a close eye on them and after some deliberation, we decided that they were going to miss us. Well, they did miss us, but not by much. While we didn't get rained on, the winds moving the storm to the northwest whipped up the water pretty quickly, so we decided to go seek refuge at the centuries old Calusa shell mound, Mound Key. High ground, protection from the wind, and even some primitive shelters would do just fine in case the rain did make its way to us. It was a slow, wet ride to Mound Key, but by the time we got there and found shelter on the leeward side of the island, it was like a brand new beautiful day again. We fished the west side of Mound Key, only picking up a catfish, and then headed toward a deep water spot where we thought fish might be hiding out to beat the heat. This spot is right in the middle of the Horseshoe Keys, and the depth drops to 12 ft rather suddenly. In addition, there is always a strong current ripping through there, making this a potentially very fishy spot. We tied off to a snag, and played with the mangrove snapper alongside the trees for a little while before deciding to call it a day. 

The rain had moved far out to Sanibel (where it nearly sunk my coworkers boat), so the ride back was a quick cruise. Upon reaching the ramp, we exchanged goodbyes and capped another successful day of living the dream in SW Florida. It's hard to stay stressed very long when you live and work in a place that offers so many unbelievable adventures--many of which are right in the neighborhood. 

Doing Florida Right!


Trip 4: Big Cypress, Fakahatchee, and Goodland

Written by Ryan S on Monday, 12 August 2013 01:34.


Trip 4 was a huge trip for us. It was the culmination of a lot of planning and it was really the first full day, multi-site trip that we'd done. Add to that we were still acclimating to the cameras and how we want to lay everything out, and really felt like there was a lot riding on this trip. And what a trip it was. 

It was off to a shaky start when a 7am meetup time turned into a 9am meetup after a nameless person slept through his alarm. And 3 phone calls. And several text messages. Some people just work too hard. However, being 2 hours behind our loosely affiliated schedule took nothing away from the trip. We knew we wanted to hit a few spots like Jane's Scenic Drive (link) in Copeland, and Marker 8.5 in Goodland, but we weren't exactly sure what would happen between. After picking up a new memory card for the GoPro, we took the drive down I-75 to State Rd 29 (exit 80)--about an hour from Bonita Springs. The decided first stop would be Jane's Scenic Drive which is just off 29, across from an old church rumored to have been busted for housing drugs smuggled in from Mexico during the Everglades City drug running days. The inauspicious entrance to Jane's Scenic Dr. looks like you are pulling into any other road in the backwoods neighborhood. As you progress down the road, it opens up to wet prairie and eventually into deep cypress swamp. At this point, the road is the only raised land for miles in any direction. Being there in the middle of one of the rainier wet seasons we've had in a while, the swamp around us was covered with as much as 3 feet of water. 


The very scenic Jane's Scenic Drive  The swamp in which we waded around

Jane's Scenic Drive is a dirt road that stretches for 11 miles, and is in ROUGH shape in some places. During the dry winter tourist season, crews will come through and rake the road to fill in some of the massive potholes. We weren't there during the winter tourist season, leaving us up against some potholes that I wasn't entirely sure wouldn't eat the truck. Some tried. Being there for a purpose (besides being awesome in the swamp) we secured the GoPro to the hood of the truck and got to having some fun riding down Jane's Scenic. At first, the potholes were no match for my truck. Muddy water flew in every direction as we splashed through dent after dent in the road. It wasn't until we realized there was no way to get good footage with a camera lens covered in mud that we decided to slow down and reinstate Jane's Scenic Drive, as opposed to Jane's Kickass Drive. 

And so it went, we drove on for several miles until Ryan Y spotted a tree. A big tree next to a little tree, I believe were his exact words. There were trees literally everywhere. But somehow, he spots his tree and we pull off to the side of the road. GoPro goes on head, Ryans go in swamp. We trudged around in the swamp in 2 feet of water, praying that we see the gator or the water moccasin before they see us (even though we knew full well they'd see us long before). We looked for another tree among trees--the site of Ryan's old thesis monitoring. We never did find the exact spot we looked for, but after about 20 minutes of swamp hiking, we found our way out of the swamp a few hundred yards down the road from where we left the truck. Note: when hiking in the swamp, be damn sure to keep your bearings about which direction the road is in. It's a good thing Ryan Y did, because I was lost after our first turn. 

We continued down Jane's Scenic for a while looking for some video and photo ops. We did eventually stumble upon a few gators, one very large and very skittish gator that we couldn't get very close to, and one small one that dipped into the swamp before we could get anything decent. We saw plenty of hawks, egrets, and heron, as well as what I maintain is the world's coolest crayfish who was out for a Sunday stroll along the road. When it became evident that we'd seen what we'd come to see, I made the 14 point turn necessary to do a 180 on the narrow road and we headed back from whence we came.

After leaving Jane's Scenic Drive and Fakahatchee Strand behind, we headed north and east to Wagon Wheel Rd. Wagon Wheel becomes the entrance into Big Cypress National Preserve. Big Cypress presents you with a different yet equally breathtaking view of raw Florida nature. The road opens up into endless waves of grass dotted with sabal palms and crynum lillies. Sabal palms, as it turns out, have been a significant contributor to the decline of the bald cypress. When fires (natural or prescribed) burn an area covered with both trees, the fire burns far hotter due to the sabal palm discarded and dying fronds. The cypress can't take this level of heat, and more than a few have perished because of it. Heading down wagon wheel, we saw plenty of these bald cypress stranglers. Wagon Whee; is a short drive to a T in the road. To the left, Wagon Wheel continues and wraps around to Turner River Rd, while the east brings you back to US 41. If you take the east route, you will end up passing right by the home of the world's foremost panther tracker, Roy McBride, about whom novels have been based. Don't expect signs out front--Roy is a very private guy and one of the last true gladesmen in the world. We took the path to the left and ventured down Turner River Rd, another scenic drive in the heart of Big Cypress. 

At the end of Turner River Rd, there is access to the Turner River. One of the more spectacular paddles you will ever take can be accessed with ease from that spot. This paddle takes you through a dense mangrove tunnel that stretches on for nearly a mile. Parts of it are so narrow that a canoe will barely fit through. We didn't bring the canoe and the water level was probably so high that it would have been impassable, so we didn't take the time to get some killer footage. Passing that up, we stopped at a common tourist trap along the road, the smallest post office in the United States. After a failed attempt at an educational video, we called up our friend and panther tracker extraordiaire assistant to Roy McBride to ask him where to catch some fish in the area. He gave us a hot tip on a spot where he has caught jumbo snook, juvenile tarpon and heaven knows what else, and we had to check it out. We didn't have the same success fishing that he did, but we did get some good photos and video of a great area. 

Realizing it was after 4pm and that we hadn't eaten yet, the call was made to go get some grub. Ryan knew a great little spot on the water in Goodland from his days as a turtle monitor at Rookery Bay. We made the left on San Marco Rd, a road that connects from US41 to Marco Island after passing by the quaint little fishing town of Goodland. This town is known for 2 things: world class fishing, and a huge party every Sunday during season at Stan's. We did snap a few pics at Stan's, but our target was Marker 8.5 restaurant just down the street. Having just changed ownership, this colorful bayside seafood haven was an awesome surprise. We ordered a few well deserved beers, marveled at the old pictures of massive tarpon and snook hanging after a day of fishing that will simply never happen again, and shot the shit with Jamie, our waiter and the acting manager on duty. He filled us in about the details of the change in ownership and some of the plans for the future, and gave us great recommendations. We ordered the smoked fish dip which was actually black tip shark caught just out back which was OUTSTANDING. 

On the way back, we went through Marco Island and around to the NEW Jolley bridge. Working on Marco Island 5 years ago, I drove over the old bridge 5 days a week, and I hadn't been to Marco since the new bridge was built. It turns out the new bridge is the same thing only different, a magnificent rise above the Marco River with a view to match. 

We parted ways after arriving back in Bonita Springs, and waiting for me at home was my family; my wife and black lab/hound Reef. The poor pup missed his dad something fierce and hadn't had much play time, so we opted for an evening trip to the dog beach. Not one to miss an opportunity, my wife suggested that we strap the GoPro to Reef's neck while he's at the dog beach. Why not! Hilarity ensued, and a few hours later we had this to show:


Pardon the slobber. Regardless, this was an unforgettable day for me, for sure. 


Trip 3: Naples Beaches

Written by Ryan S on Thursday, 18 July 2013 12:32.

Can a trip go too well? If not, this one was damn near it. The plan materialized slowly on a Tuesday. Hilary and I had planned to go to the South Naples beaches to hang out and get some photographs that day, but pressing matters (fishing and beach rugby practice) distracted me. At rugby practice that night, I convinced professional degree seeker and graphic artist extraordinaire Dan Banks to ride along. Meanwhile, a fellow teacher of science name Ryan, who we will heretofore call "Dragon", was looking for a way to break the summer monotony and offered up his pair of paddle boards to the equation.

We met up at Dragon's house in South Naples and picked up the paddle boards. From there, we made our way to the pier where Dan and Dragon immediately got to goofing around on the paddle boards while I parked the truck and began taking some pictures. Content with my pictures, I gave the paddle boards a go. My surfing experience paid off and I picked up on the technique in no time. It was around this time we acquired a few more members to the excursion. Two recent Floridians, Paige and Angela, the latter having moved down less than 2 weeks ago, met up with us as we left the Naples Pier area and headed up to Lowdermilk Park. 

Lowdermilk brought about more photos, paddling boarding, and the added bonus of a couple gals in bikinis. We spent some time on the beach before heading for the next spot, where we would increase our pretty lady quotient by 150%. The toughest part of the day proved to be parking at the Naples Beach Club. Initially, we loaded the last of our quarters in the public pay lot next to the hotel. We hadn't bought ourselves much time, so I headed into the hotel to see if I could score some quarters from the front desk of the hotel. Here I learned some very helpful information; free valet parking if you spend $15 at the Naples Beach Club bar. I happily gave up my spot in the pay lot which was immediately hawked by a middle aged woman, and headed to the valet turn around with a big "beating the system" smile on my face. The valet politely told me to get the hell out of there, in so many words, because they weren't accepting any outside traffic that day, presumably because of a conference at the hotel. Now I had no valet, no public parking and I was reduced to parking on the road far away like a mere peasant. Ha! Well, I did, because I am, and walked back to the hotel grumbling to myself like a crazy old man. 

We took our spots at the bar, snapped some photos, ordered some beers, and equaled out our guy to girl ratio by adding Aly, Dan's girlfriend. Soon after her arrival, we ate some insanely expensive burgers ($17? Really?) and joyfully celebrated the arrival of the last of the crew, Kristen, and the incredibly beautiful, incredible lucky Hilary. Maybe I'm biased. Sitting back and taking in the moment, I made an important realization. If you're going to Do Florida Right, you'd best do it alongside great people. 

I suppose I wouldn't have minded sitting there at the beachside bar alone. I suppose it would have felt a lot more like work if I did. However, eating, drinking, laughing, and telling stories with some of my favorite people leads me to believe that this crazy idea might be worth something, and I sure as hell am going to squeeze every minute of enjoyment out it that I can along the way.  

We did our best to salvage the rest of the day after that, but most people went their separate ways after that. Dan, Ally, Hilary and I stayed on to check out Freedom Park, but all that tough work throughout the day and some impending storms cut the walk a bit short. Gotta love Florida! 



Trip 2: Bike Hickory Island

Written by Ryan S on Monday, 15 July 2013 14:08.

Damn you, conventional wisdom. They say, "If you fail to plan, plan to fail." Well, they weren't there helping with the haphazard initial preparations for this seemingly easy bike trip. In an instance of eerie foreshadowing that this was a cursed trip, the first thing I saw upon opening my front door to leave the house was a 3ft black racer. If you stay in Florida long enough, snakes are an inevitability. However, that does not make it any more unnerving when when is sunning itself on your front lanai.

After riding my bike to the store the other day, I discovered that the bicycle foot pump that we've had for 5 years developed a tear in the rubber hose. I spent 20 minutes wrapping layers of liquid and regular electrical tape around it, but I suppose neither of those are rated for the 40psi necessary to inflate a tire. Especially if they aren't dry. So I loaded up the bikes, cameras, and wife and headed towards the beach with nearly flat tires. Along the way, we stopped at the Sunshine Ace on the corner of US 41 and Bonita Beach Rd. and bought a nearly identical no frills old fashioned red foot pump for $10 and we continued on to the beach.

Upon reaching the beach starting point, we unloaded the bikes and Hilary went off to take a few pictures of the parking and picnic areas. I started to inflate the tires. I succeeded in accidentally emptying all of the air out of one tire with the new pump, but for some reason was unable force air back in. I struggled with it for a few minutes before I called in the brains of the operation. Hilary traipsed over to me, examined the hose of the "brand new" foot pump (although the packaging clearly indicated mid 1980s. Where is Ace getting their merchandise? Garage sales?), and pointed out the obvious tear in THIS hose as well. Doh. 

All is not lost! We thought. We can get some pictures of a few beaches along Hickory Island, show off the fishing jetty, Doc's Beach House restaurant, and we can come back and do the biking portion later. Well no sooner did Hilary hand me the camera then the camera shuts off with a low battery warning. Cell phone cameras? Meh, we're trying to do it (Florida) right! On the way home, I exchanged the pump for a fancy pants new shiny black one for only a few dollars more, and got the camera battery charging. Hopefully the clouds clear out for this evening and we can get in a quick ride and a killer sunset!


Trip 1: Canoe the Imperial River

Written by Ryan S on Sunday, 14 July 2013 19:47.

It turns out there's only so much you can do to a travel website without actually going places. We had to start somewhere, and fast. We had just paddled an amazing trail down the upper stretches of the Imperial River in Bonita Springs just to explore the area. A few days later, I planned to revisit with a different goal in mind: capture video and pictures that highlight the beauty of the river. A GoPro was acquired through a buddy, we planned to use our cell phone cameras for stills (in the meantime), and I chose a Saturday morning for the short trip. 

The only problem with Saturday morning trips is that they are preceded by Friday nights. Friday nights aren't typically a huge setback, but the Friday night in question also happened to be the night of the Naples Hammerhead Rugby Club banquet. Having recently capped off another successful season with a run to the National Rugby Sweet 16, both Ryans were in attendance until well after the clock looped back around into single digits. Saturday morning turned in to Saturday afternoon, and Saturday afternoon turned in to Saturday evening. It's important at this juncture to point out that this happened in the summer, and if you wait until 5pm to try any outdoor activity any day during the summer, there is an overwhelming likelihood of that activity getting rained out (unless the activity is playing in the rain, then you're good). True to form, as soon as we loaded the canoe into the truck, it started raining. We studied the radar harder than ABC 7 Meteorologist Allison Rae, and concluded that we would be able to ride out the light rain with some fishing at the dam. This critical moment was also the official start of The Two Ryans.

In the drizzle, we stopped at the Imperial River Boat Ramp to net some bait. Procuring a dozen mollies (can you even use mollies as bait?), we headed east to the Bonita Grand Dam. Upon arriving at the dam, we drove directly past it. It wasn't because we couldn't see it because it was raining so hard (it was), but rather because we needed to go to Publix to buy notebooks. We bought notebooks, Gatorade, and returned in the driving rain to the dam to ride it out. The notebooks were put to good use and we started planning, brainstorming, itemizing, and jazzercising while we waited for the rain to stop.

Finally, the rain did stop. We got out our fishing poles knowing that we shouldn't start our paddle yet because there may be some more light rain coming. A well placed bolt of lightning and clap of thunder chased us back into the truck rather quickly. This was followed by another 20 minutes of torrential rains. Realizing that Trip 1: Canoeing the Imperial River would have to be postponed, we drove back to my house to do some more nerdy web and nature stuff. We planned to give it another go Sunday morning bright and early. 

Sunday morning at 7:30 came, and surely we would be able to avoid getting wet this early in the morning. Enter: tropical storm/depression/disturbance/pain in the ass "Chantal" (when did we start giving storms stripper names?). This messy system threw rain at us ALL DAY Sunday. Ryan Y had to return to work Monday morning, and it was starting to feel like we would never get this project started. With the rain messing up Day 1 production, Ryan Y returned home to actually be productive in other aspects of his life. 

Just when the day seemed like a certain bust, a single ray of sunshine pierced the clouds, entered the room where we were cooped up all day casting a spotlight directly over the GoPro camera. Angels sang and played harps (at least that's how I remember it), and I scooped up my phone. I was too excited for complete sentences. The message "Sunshine, go time" traveled the unnecessarily far 500 miles to chime Ryan Y's phone a mere 10 miles away, and the mission was back on. Ryan was en route and at the house by 6pm, the canoe was already loaded up, the cameras charged, all with at least 2 hours of daylight left. Trip #1: Canoe Imperial River was officially underway.

We dropped off one car down river (off Murat Drive, article forthcoming) and took the truck up to the Bonita Springs Weir. The water was higher than the previous day, which is nearly 8ft higher than it is during the dry season. Taking the necessary pictures at the Bonita Dam. We launched into the rapidly moving current with it necessary to dodge a few fishing lines of local anglers also capitalizing on the break in the weather. After the first bridge, we were on our way. Ryan Y took the paddle for the first leg while I filmed in front. A continuous 10 minute video of the ride to the Bonita River Place dock will soon be available at the Imperial River page. 

Stopping at the nature place to swap places and snap some stills, I took over the paddle for the middle section of the ride. This part featured submerged bald cypress trees impossible placed in the middle of the river, water oaks, pond apples, and more unbelievable scenery than most people will see in years of living in Florida. Check out the amazing pictures and video from this section on the Imperial River. The river opened up and from there it was less than a mile to the rendezvous point. Ryan Y took over the paddling again, while I focused on ridiculous B-roll.  We also produced several excellent tag lines for the site. Look for them on DFR media near you!

As I write, I'm thinking about the hours I'll soon spend poring over video footage and pics, editing, and writing content for the Imperial River page. I only hope that in doing so I can capture and communicate one tenth of the beauty of this paddling trail. 

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