Bowfishing for Tilapia in the Everglades

March 2, 2016 at 1:26 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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tilapiaBy Sue Cocking

scocking@guyharveyoutpost.com

Captain Jason Peters stands at the helm of his airboat, sweeping the clear, shallow slough with the beam of his headlamp as his friend captain Bill Lepree wields a longbow from the bow.  Suddenly, the light catches a small, brown torpedo-like shape just beneath the surface.

Lepree nocks an arrow, draws back and shoots, missing the target entirely.

“Aw, too high,” Peters coaches.  “Aim low — shoot way under them because of the refraction of the water.”

Peters and Lepree were hunting blue tilapia– a tasty, exotic freshwater fish found in lakes, rivers and marshes throughout Florida.  Archery and gigging are about the only effective methods of taking them because they eat mostly algae and other organisms that grow on water plants, and are not usually susceptible to hook-and-line fishing.

The hunting grounds this night were the open sloughs in the Everglades near Sawgrass Recreation Area in western Broward County.  From December through March when water levels are lower, tilapia assemble like herds of miniature cattle in the shallows.  Night hunting is preferred because the fish are much less wary than in daytime. But as Lepree discovered, nailing one is still a challenge– even under cover of darkness.

“If I had to do this for food, I’d be screwed,” Lepree said after failing to nail some 20 tilapia.

Peters got Lepree to within a couple of feet of his targets, but his shots either were too low or too high.  Still, the newbie fish hunter relished the challenge.

“It’s hard,” Lepree said.  “The hardest part is the depth perception– trying to shoot something underwater from the surface.  Plus the fish are moving and the boat is moving and that makes it challenging.”

“A crazy mind game,” Peters agreed.

The pair spotted lots of other aquatic creatures in the headlamp as they cruised the flats: a 10-foot alligator, several frogs, grass carp, bass, bluegill, catfish, and mudfish.

Finally, Lepree managed to shoot a mudfish, but it wriggled off the shaft and threw a sizeable wake as it porpoised away on the surface.

“Wow!  That made my night,” the veteran sportfishing captain said.

Peters took over the longbow and shot a handful of tilapia up to about five pounds. He also gigged a frog and a bullhead catfish.  The hunters could have harvested as many tilapia as they wanted because the species is not native to Florida, and therefore not subject to size or bag limits or fishing seasons.

Blue tilapia come from North Africa and the Middle East, brought here in the 1960s as an experiment in sport angling and to help control the spread of some aquatic plants.  But those plans went awry when some ‘bandit’ anglers took the fish from their inland enclosure and released them into the wild.  Now they are widespread in south and central Florida.  The state record is 9.38 pounds and was taken in the St. Lucie River in 2010.  Fish in the two- to four-pound range are common.

Peters, who operates JP Outfitters guide service in Hollywood, has developed a thriving business guiding customers on night-hunting expeditions for tilapia.  Even though Lepree wasn’t successful, he said he’d like to try again.

“That was really cool,” he said.  “I’d like to bring my son.”

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          Sue Cocking chronicles the Guy Harvey Outpost travel and adventure experience in regular blog posts on GuyHarveyOutpostNews.com/.  For 21 years, Cocking covered the full spectrum of outdoors adventure opportunities in South Florida and beyond for the Miami Herald, including fishing, diving, hunting, paddling camping, sailing and powerboat racing.  She is a certified scuba diver and holder of an IGFA women’s world fly fishing record for a 29-pound permit. 

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Share your photos, videos and experiences with Guy Harvey Outpost by hash tagging #OutpostAttitude to all of your social media posts.

 

A Paddle Trip Even Lewis & Clark Would Have Skipped

November 20, 2015 at 2:03 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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paddleBy Sue Cocking, Guy Harvey Outpost staff writer

Paddling the marshy interior of Everglades National Park makes you feel like you are the first one ever to explore the region.  You won’t see any humans other than your companions.  You won’t encounter much trash, save for a stray deflated Mylar balloon here and there.  The only mechanical sounds you’ll hear come from the occasional small airplane overhead.  You come to truly appreciate the exquisite natural beauty of this vast 1.5-million-acre wilderness known as the  “River of Grass”.  And you will really, really wish that it was more river and less grass–especially after 22 miles of slogging in a single day.

A group of about 20 men and women whose names will be withheld to protect the uncertain status of their mental health embarked on Halloween on what was supposed to be a day-long exploration of Taylor Slough extending from the park’s Homestead entrance southwest to Nine Mile Pond near Flamingo.  The trip was the brainchild of a veteran local Everglades explorer we’ll call “Tom” who leads these out-of-the-way paddling adventures annually, dubbed “Invitationals”.  “Tom” never follows the trails on park brochures, instead mapping out his routes using Google Maps and GPS.

Setting out before dawn in canoes and kayaks from an airboat trail that used to be the Ingraham Highway pre-dating the park’s 1947 establishment, the group pushed, pulled, poled and paddled for hours through thickets of spikerush, sawgrass and periphyton — a spongy algae variously described as elephant snot or monkey puke. It actually smells pretty good, kind of like PineSol.  But it is no fun to navigate, especially when your paddle blades catapult thick wads of it onto you and your boat.  Unseasonably warm temperatures and very little breeze added to the discomfort.

The going was so slow through the shallow water and dense grass that the group hadn’t covered even half the distance by the time we stopped for lunch in a small patch of shade beside a tree island.

While everyone was breaking out their water bottles and lunchboxes, one paddler suddenly flipped upside down in his kayak.  At first, I thought he’d been startled by a snake or something. But when he didn’t crawl out from under the kayak right away, several people nearby leapt from their boats, pulled him out of the water and righted his

boat. He was conscious, but pale and dazed.

One of his rescuers, fortunately, was a physician who checked him out, pronounced a touch of heat exhaustion, and said he would be fine after taking in electrolyte fluids.  But he was too run down to paddle much, so he took my spot in the bow of Tom’s canoe and I took over the kayak.

I would like to say the trip became easier, but only in small increments.  Water levels rose a bit higher as we neared Craighead’s Pond– site of a raised platform and defunct science experiment.  But after a couple more miles, I was growing tired from the drag of the grass and the constant shipping of slimy algae into the kayak.

To no one’s surprise, the sun set and the sky grew dark well before we entered the mangrove labyrinth of Nine Mile Pond.  Nearly everyone had headlamps or flashlights and GPS units that tracked true, so there was little chance of getting lost.  But of course, hordes of mosquitoes and gnats appeared as soon as the light faded, making an uncomfortable journey even worse.  At least the air cooled off.

But with about five miles yet to go, I was pretty exhausted.  At our next rest stop in the dark, I traded the kayak to a young woman triathlete in exchange for her seat in her uncle’s canoe. Paddling in the bow with him in the stern felt like a spa day compared to mushing in the kayak.

With no further misadventures, the entire group somehow arrived safely at the Nine Mile Pond parking lot about 8:45 p.m.–  a distance of 22 miles in 13 1/2 hours.

As we made landfall, my canoe partner began whistling the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s “Messiah”– wrong holiday, but an entirely appropriate anthem under the circumstances.

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Sue Cocking chronicles the Guy Harvey Outpost travel and adventure experience in regular blog posts on GuyHarveyOutpostNews.com/.  For 21 years, Cocking covered the full spectrum of outdoors adventure opportunities in South Florida and beyond for the Miami Herald, including fishing, diving, hunting, paddling camping, sailing and powerboat racing.  She is a certified scuba diver and holder of an IGFA women’s world fly fishing record for a 29-pound permit. 

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Share your photos, videos and experiences with Guy Harvey Outpost by hash tagging #OutpostAttitude to all of your social media posts.

Wayne Nelson: An Everglades Warrior Lays Down His Shield

May 11, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Posted in Conservation, Florida, Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation | Leave a comment
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The following editorial about Everglades activist Wayne Nelson was posted to the blog “Eye on Miami” after Nelson’s death last week. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that memorial contributions may be made to the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, 10408 West SR 84, Suite 104, Davie, FL 33324.

By gimleteye:

When Wayne Nelson, 88, died this week, the liquid heart of Florida – Lake Okeechobeee – lost a fierce and knowledgeable advocate. Wayne was of a generation of modern-day Everglades activists; including, recently, the late Johnie Jones and his wife, Mariana, who were young in the 1940’s and 1950’s and experienced the Everglades firing on all cylinders.

Wayne was Korea War veteran and a retired air conditioning contractor whose advocacy for Lake Okeechobee led all the way to the US Supreme Court. He began fishing in West Palm Beach and Lake Okeechobee in the 1960’s. He organized one of the first bass fishing clubs in Florida and was the organizer of the small group, Fishermen Against the Destruction of the Environment (FADE) that was a co-plaintiff in federal Clean Water Act litigation challenging the South Florida Water Management District and Big Sugar. Wayne was at the first meeting of the Everglades Coalition at Port of the Islands in 1984 and was once a member of the board of Friends of the Everglades <> (of which I am now president).

Friends of the Everglades, Nelson’s FADE, and other conservation groups brought citizen suits under the Clean Water Act against the US Environmental Protection Agency to require the South Florida Water Management District to obtain permits in order to discharge polluted canal water into Lake Okeechobee. (FADE and Friends of the Everglades have been involved in several federal CWA lawsuits, with important implications for the nation’s water policies, not just the Everglades.)

This practice is known as “back-pumping” and its purpose is to make sure that the 700,000 acres of the Everglades Agricultural Area — dominated by Big Sugar– are never too wet in rainy season. Back-pumping controls water levels on sugar land and through the extensive canal system, forcing water uphill as it were, against gravity, into Lake Okeechobee.

At the same time, the water management practices that deliver immense benefits and profits to sugar barons like the billionaire Fanjuls also deprive the natural system of the rainfall cycle that nourished the Everglades and Florida Bay with clean, fresh water at the right time of year.

He launched his boat in Belle Glade and would fish through the weekend. “To get to the Lake,” Nelson testified in a Friends’ affidavit filed with federal court in 2011, “you have to cross the rim canal and enter the Lake through one of the cuts. I would typically see the pumping while I was going out to fish or coming back in from fishing and was traveling in the rim canal to the boat ramp. You can see the turbulence and tinged color of pumped water all the way across the rim canal and into the Lake.”

Wayne Nelson was a fierce supporter of grass roots environmentalism. His friend, Jim Harvey, says, “If people were classified like naval ships, Wayne Nelson would be the Warrior Class. He never faltered to say it like he saw it. He believed in watching the ass not the lips to ascertain where things were going. You didn’t go fishing with Wayne. He went, listening to him. He loved Lake Okeechobee and held no quarter or gave no quarter when it came to saving the Lake.”

Wayne didn’t seek out the spotlight. He could be cantankerous and prickly. But anyone who loved the Everglades, fought battles against industry pressure, endured endless delays by government, obfuscation, and false declarations of progress while the liquid heart of Florida turned into a sewer would be spewing comets and fury at the misdirection.

“Water transfers of polluted, nutrient-rich water to Lake Okeechobee results in increased nutrient pollution in the Everglades system,”
Nelson said in his affidavit. “Nutrient pollution is one of the biggest threats to the Everglades today. Nitrogen and phosphorous from the canal waters feeds algae growth that chokes out sea grasses and other native plants. Algae also depletes oxygen, resulting in “dead zones” below the the surface where few native Everglades species survive. Invasive flora and fauna are increasingly taking over the niches created by the degredation of the water quality in the Everglades.”

It has been nearly forty years since the historic agreement between the federal government and state of Florida to end the pollution of the Everglades, and its results keep a permanent incumbency in place; from local county commissions, to the state legislature — that still refuses to hold Big Sugar accountable for the costs of its pollution and won’t even impose the most rudimentary system to honestly account for polluting farming practices — to Congress and the White House.

“We don`t need any more studies of Lake Okeechobee or the Everglades,”
Nelson told the Sun Sentinel in 1988. “We know what the problems are and we know what the solutions are. We need action. The farmers are hiding behind (government agencies they control).” (“Lake Okeechobee Scientific Group Back In Business”, Orlando Sentinel, July 14, 1988)

Wayne knew that the environmental warriors were badly outmatched by the Great Destroyers, and he understood the clock was ticking. He didn’t stand for niceties; he wanted environmentalists to do more and he had no tolerance for waving banners. He strongly believed that grass roots organizations were the key. Jim Harvey says, “He was pure passion and “old school” on freedom of speech. He hated equivocation and figured political correctness was being accurate. Period. He was in the truest sense, an egalitarian warrior with little regard for large national environmental groups that danced around to keep the Everglades ball in play.”

Wayne Nelson just wanted to go fishing, and it made him angry that pollution deprived him, Florida and the nation of that opportunity.
Nelson told the Sun Sentinel in 1990: “Reagan missed the boat when he called Russia the Evil Empire”. Thrusting a finger toward the sugar cane farms ringing Lake Okeechobee, he said, “I’ll tell you where the goddamn Evil Empire is… it’s out there!” (A Sweet Deal Has Become The Source Of A Bitter Poison, The Sugar Dynasty, Sept. 16, 1990) And it still is.

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