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Snake Bight unplugged: is the new pole-and-troll zone worth the extra work? For this diehard sight-fisherman, it is.

SIGHTFISHING in Everglades National Park has infected us like a drug and we find ourselves constantly seeking opportunities to return there, even if it means neglecting all our responsibilities. We crave it and simply cannot get enough of it.

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For me, the most addictive corner of the Park is the newly implemented poll-and-troll zone (PTZ) in Snake Bight, that shallow, scalloped bay just east of Flamingo. If you rank good fishing waters, as I do, in terms of sighted fish per day, the Snake Bight PTZ has become the place. Some days it's visual overload: redfish tails and rippling, V-shaped wakes extending to the horizon.

Following implementation of the PTZ back in January 2011, this 9,400-acre (14.7 square miles) semi-circle requires boaters to shut down combustion engines and switch to drifting, poling, paddling and/or using electric trolling motors. You may idle under the power of an outboard within the confines of Jimmy's Lake, a deeper section found along the central-southern region of Snake Bight. (And of course there are many thousands of acres of general-access waters in the Park and Florida Bay). I rarely see more than a couple of skiffs working the PTZ in the summer and early fall, when it can be the most productive time of year for finding redfish, trout, snook and smaller tarpon.

Lack of pressure has coincided with an apparent redfish resurgence, and there are even higher numbers of snook out in the potholes of the Bight than I can remember since before the freeze and fishkills of 2010. Yes, the reds are golden nugget sized versions compared to the Fort Knox bars caught in Mosquito Lagoon. But you can really bank on hooking summer reds at Flamingo. Come fall and winter, slot-sized reds are more prevalent, but that sighted fish-per-day figure diminishes some.

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The park's main entrance is easily accessible from the Florida Turnpike, by continuing south to where it ends at US1 in Florida City. From there, signs for Everglades National Park are easy to follow. The current $15 Park entrance fee for vehicles with trailers allows entry for seven consecutive days into the park, but keep your receipt. More frequent visitors with trailered boats should purchase the $85 annual trailer pass.

Admission leads you into a captivating 38-mile two-lane road called Buttonwood Highway. In the summer months, misty morning air that smells like fresh rain and dank topsoil usually blankets the partially submerged sawgrass prairies and mangrove shrubs extending off to the horizon on either side.

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For me, the drive in is a decompression chamber where I can escape the chaos of everyday life. A word of caution, though: You may have to break the tranquil train of thought for an occasional turkey vulture or blackbird in the middle of the road. The blackbirds hop out of the way, but slow down for the leisurely vulture that might be less observant while making breakfast of roadside carrion. Also, for the unaware visitor: Vultures apparently eat the rubber molding along the window panels of cars. The park website warns you to cover vehicles to minimize possible damage.

Before opening the car doors at the Flamingo "outside " ramp, the first order of operations is to ignite the ThermaCELL mosquito repellent. I'm not sure who the guinea pig is who determines the "official mosquito level " of activity in the park, but that person must need a few transfusions per week when the level is set high. Bring a spray bottle of OFF or other DEET-heavy product for ex tra measure. If you forget yours, the Flamingo marina store carries all brands along with fuel, frozen bait, lures, groceries and other sundries. Once out on the water and away from the mainland, the mosquitoes should not bother you.

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A short run from the ramp at Flamingo, almost any boat can fish Snake Bight in some capacity. Along with canoes and kayaks fishing the shallowest depths, I've seen V-hull center consoles fishing the deeper main channels. If you want to take advantage of some of the best sight fishing the Bight has to offer, then a shallow draft skiff or johnboat is money for added mobility and access potential. Anyone going to fish the Park who is unfamiliar with the waters should buy Florida Fishing Chart Everglades #12 Florida Sportsman Flamingo to Lostmans River or use a GPS.

Immediately after coming out of the Flamingo Park canal into Florida Bay you will pass between a series of markers that veer south and east. Head east down the main channel that runs southeast of Joe Kemp Key, where the main channel splits into two clear-cut channels marked by a series of rickety pilings. If you turn left you'll be following Snake Bight Channel and the channel veering right is Tin Can Channel, which continues past Palm Key and Buoy Key into Rankin Bight.

The summer months usually bring light southeasterly breezes interrupted by the occasional storm cell for which stowed raingear will inevitably come in handy. If the water is too high over the Bight to sight tailing reds, then fish the fringes of the closest keys south of the Bight Palm, Cormorant and Curlew. Farther to the east, Umbrella, Otter and Rankin keys are also good options as you enter Rankin Bight.

Lee shorelines of these many small islands provide shelter from brisk winds associated with summer storm cells. Even on breezy days, the shallow grassflats around these Keys filter out sediments for clearwater fishing. With early morning low light conditions and clear water you might be able to discern the body-forms of seatrout, reds and snook against the many lighter colored potholes. These fish stage over potholes and a seductively presented soft plastic or jig combination will trigger strikes. A smaller Zara Puppy, Rapala SkitterWalk or similar topwater plug can also produce crushing strikes if the area is not cloaked with floating summer veg-etation. Throw at any moving wakes in casting range and don't hesitate to blind cast around the perimeter-motes of the Keys.

Snake Bight's PTZ can be productive on any stage of moving tide when the water is not too high to sight fish, but be careful fishing there approaching low water, so as not to get stranded. That said, the first quarter of the incoming and the last half of the outgoing can be especially productive. If you decide to work your way westward from the eastern sector of Snake Bight's PTZ near Porpoise Point, be prepared to stay awhile. It takes a good 3 hours to pole or troll and sight fish the entire expanse of the Bight until you finally reach the main channel or smaller wheel-ditches that branch off it like a Christmas tree. Since the implementation of the PTZ I have no qualms about committing to a long session of poling or using the trolling motor. Nevertheless, I'm always judging the water level in fear of getting stranded and a trolling motor can be a lifesaver for covering ground on the occasional fast-falling, winddriven tide.

If sight fishing the ultra-shallow crown of Snake Bight with a pushpole is not within your physical capabilities or desire, then a trolling motor is also highly effective when used to patrol the channel edges of the PTZ or the narrower wheel ditches inside the PTZ. On the lower stages of moving tide, the fish disperse off the crown of the flat into these muddied up ruts. Jigheads in the 1/8-, 1/4-ounce variety in combination with soft-plastic or scented synthetic tails are often deadly. Last summer we had two outings where we exceeded the century mark in numbers of redfish caught, while sight casting 14-ounce jigs along the edges of the ditches.

On days of slick conditions coupled with clear water, the opportunity to sight cast with both ultralight spin and fly can be world-class. With periods of cloud cover or low light, you should still be able to discern waking schools and tails of feeding reds. Don't stray away too far from areas that show obvious signs of life with roaming rays, sharks or mullet, as gamefish are likely nearby. Also, between sight fishing, blind casting can be highly effective for camouflaged redfish and trout that like to burrow in the seagrass.

Using spinning or plug tackle, most swimbait or shrimp-style soft plastics work effectively. The Berkley Gulp! and Rapala Trigger-X variety of impregnated scent plastics in the 4-to 6-inch range have been scoring remarkably well. Rig these soft plastics weedless with no weight, or if it is breezy using 1/4-or 1/4-ounce belly weighted Gamakatsu wide-gap worm hooks, and you will get added casting range into the wind. The traditional 1/4-to 1/2-ounce Johnson Weedless Spoon is a standby with light 10-pound braided line in the windiest of conditions.

The healthy redfish stocks and their eagerness to eat in the PTZ can make for extraordinary catch numbers on fly, especially for the novice fly angler being introduced into the sport. SeaDucers, Clousers, Bendbacks and the new HPU fly are excellent patterns on a 7-or 8-weight outfit.

Whether you choose fly, spin or plug gear, fishing weedless over Snake Bight grassflats is a must, especially in the summertime when mats of vegetation float by with the tide. At times, Snake Bight redfish eat with abandon, but casting beyond or leading a fish with your offering can be more effective on days when fish seem somewhat spooky. Downsize your soft plastics and plugs or use lighter flies on calm days, as they land quieter and you can cast closer to fish without startling them.

On those inevitable days when all the fish appear spooky, try to calculate and intercept the track of a sighted fish well in advance. Cast ahead of the fish, let your bait settle and softly "dance" your bait when you see the fish is within a couple of feet to trigger bites from these wary fish.

It requires a bit more strategy getting into Snake Bight nowadays, but I for one am happy with trends I'm seeing in the fishery. The fish seem more relaxed, and at the end of that long drive from Miami, I am, too. Ft

If the water is too high to fish tailing reds, then fish the fringes of the ososest keys somth of the Bight.

The first episode of Reel Time With Florida Sportsman focused on Fla-mingo, in Everglades National Park. Host Capt. George Gozdz picked up on an exciting report from Miami angler Scott Brown, who'd been having excellent luck with snook and redfish during the winter of 2011-12. George met up with Scott and videographer Cavin Brothers. Following the episode (which may be viewed at www.floridasportsman.com/rtfs) Scott has kept at his regular fish-ing in the area, and here's what he had to say during the summer:

Since the Reel Time episode we filmed in January, weather conditions have done a complete 180 and the fishing patterns have followed suit. During winter, most gamefish seek refuge in deeper channels and passes that provide a more stable environment than the flats. As water temps rise, fish begin to station high on the shallow flats, where they ambush baitfish and schools of mullet. Areas like Snake Bight have become infamous for consistent summertime action from schooling redfish, trout and the elusive snook. My anglers have been using top-water plugs like Rapala Skitterwalks and weedless Berkely Gulp! swimbaits with a lot of success. I enjoy using these lures because a violent topwater explosion adds visual excitement to the catch.

Those frustrated with the challenge of sight fishing the skinny waters can find snook in their usual summer haunts along the Gulf beaches and passes around the Flamingo area. These fish have been extremely active and recently we caught and released over 25 snook in one day, the key to the bite being a strong tidal movement in an area that has an abundance of baitfish. Snook are on a strong comeback from the freeze of 2010, but need to be handled with extreme care during the spawning period.

Another often overlooked fishery in Everglades National Park is sharks. They are abundant during the summer due to the heavy presence of food sources such as tarpon, snook and redfish in the passes. Anglers targeting sharks should use a piece of cut ladyfish on bottom. Expect action from lemons, blacktips and the particularly aggressive bull sharks.

--Scott Brown
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Title Annotation:POLE-AND-TROLL ZONE
Author:Gray, Adrian
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Date:Aug 1, 2012
Words:2089
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