Secret Sanctuaries

Secret Sanctuaries
Amid the tangle of mangrove swamps, small creeks often lead to secluded inner lagoons. (David A. Brown photo)

Angling opportunity springs fertile in hidden wonderlands

Seek and ye shall find. That's a good piece of advice for those intrigued bythose tiny, tucked-away sanctuaries scattered throughout West Central Florida'smangrove swamps.

From Tampa Bay to Charlotte Harbor, those willing to invest the time andeffort may find angling nirvana in one of the hidden spots. From small creeksdead-ending in small pools to bona fide saltwater lagoons, opportunities forsecluded fishing exist off the beaten path, yet often surprisingly close towell-traveled fishing lanes. 

Capt. Geoff Page of Venice, Fla., has spent a lot of time exploring thesehidden sanctuaries. For initial scouting, he suggests reviewing aerialperspectives. "There are a lot of those little spots that are landlocked exceptfor little tidal creeks," he said. "That's where a satellite map comes inhandy.

"You can tell the depth in most of them by the tint of color on the map -darker blue is deeper water rather than the lighter color of sand in shallowspots."

Lacking an overhead perception, anglers can still spot the telltale signs ofa potential inner sanctum. Some are natural, some manmade. All may point tosomething really special.

"Sometimes you just see a little notch in the mangroves - maybe a littlepruned path where someone has gone through with hedge clippers to clear theoverhanging branches a little to make it easier to pass through," Page said."Also, on an outgoing tide, you might see a bar built up about 20 yards from theshoreline. It won't be like a (typical) piece of the shoreline, it'll be all byitself out in the open.

"Look around and you'll usually find a little creek that dumps out throughthe mangroves. Then you have to do the dirty work, put on your wading bootiesand go crash through the bushes to see what's in there."

Be sure to protect yourself during the expedition. Warm clothing and chestwaders help during winter, but warmer months bring hordes of mosquitoes thatdelight in ambushing adventurous types who forget their insect repellant. 

All access

Because it's difficult to foretell the size of a creek's inner pool - orpredict fish location in familiar spots - you may need to fish farther or deeperthan you'd care to wade. Given the limited entry space, your best bet is akayak. Light, sturdy and easy to transport, a sit-on-top model allows for quickmounting and dismounting as needs arise.

"The advantage of taking a kayak is that you can get around in case the spothas soft, mucky bottom," Page observed. "You and a buddy can take a 2-seater andthen, if you know the spot is wadable, you can both bail out and walk it. Or oneof you can wade, while the other paddles around to find fish."

Often a creek's confines close in so tightly that you'll have to lay yourkayak paddle lengthwise along the bow and pull yourself through by gripping themuddy mangrove roots. Some may prefer walking and dragging the kayak behindthem, but when the canopy dips low, sitting atop the skinny vessel creates amore compact profile for easier clearance.

Sometimes you'll be heading to a backwater creek that's farther than you'dcare to paddle - and certainly farther than you'll want to wade. You'll reduceyour trip time by loading your kayak onto the deck of a flats or bay boat,running to your spot and offloading the stealth device for a short approach.

"Kayaks are great for scouting, especially when you run a long way in a bayboat, and the opportunity presents itself to get into a (creek)," Page said."You may not be able to get in there in a bay boat, but you can strap a kayakright onto your deck and when you get to the spot, you just slide it off andgo."

When it's right

Timing matters in creek exploration, but just how much depends on what youwant to accomplish.

Page explains: "For your first exploration, you don't want to go on a reallylow tide because there may not be any fish in there. But if you do go on lowtide, that will show you what the bottom is like. If there is water in there ona low tide, you may find fish in there."

Summer sees big water flow that allows fish round-the-clock access to all butthe most meager of creek holes. Conversely, winter's extreme lows often push theplace bone dry. Deep lagoons will maintain a certain number of fish through thelow periods.

High tides don't necessarily close off the creeks; you can still pass. Butfrom an operational standpoint, flood stages decrease your access to the fish byallowing them to push far back under the safety of overhanging foliage.  

A high outgoing tide presents the ideal scenario as the ponds still hold alot of water, but the fish will be moving away from shoreline structure and intoeasily reached areas. Top baits include light lead head jigs with shad tails orsoft jerkbaits, gold spoons, synthetic shrimp and topwaters.

The thing about these secret sanctuaries is that their seclusion tends toobscure the passage of time. That may be a pleasant thought from a relaxationperspective, but be sure to file a float plan with someone back home. It's noteasy to find these spots when you're looking for them, so just imagine how hardit would be for someone to locate you if you were late returning home.

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