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Chatham River Camping (11/27-12-3)

My fishing partner (Russ) and I decided to make our trip to the Everglades a tradition right after Thanksgiving.
Last year we camped amidst a brutal cold front on the outside islands of Pavilion and Rabbit Keys. We wanted to stay closer but other people had already obtained permits for those islands. We toughed it out in the ridiculous wind and eventually learned how to get lots of trout and a few reds off the outside bars and edges. We didn't see or catch a single snookie or tarpon :( We adventured into the mouths of the Huston and Chatham one day where we caught nice trout, snapper, flounder, and the usual jacks and ladyfish. What we liked most was fishing out of the wind!

This year we wanted to camp for 6 nights instead of 5 and learn from our mistakes last year. Due to the ENP rules regarding the number of nights you can stay on each particular campsite, we thought it was best to stay 3 nights at mormon key, 2 nights at Watson's place (I had just finished reading Shadow Country), and 1 night on the Sweetwater Chickee.

We had to transport a ton of supplies in a 14 ft boat so we decided to tow behind a dingy (Rated for 1000lbs+)to carry the heavy supplies, like the coolers, fuel, and water. For coolers we had one large Coleman ice chest with 3” thick walls, and two Gander Mountain coolers, with the yeti esc wall thickness and shape. The big cooler was loaded with two 25 lb blocks of dry ice at the bottom, completed covered and wrapped multiple times in cardboard paper. In between the blocks we kept our daily frozen meals. On top of those we had 5 grocery bags full of regular ice which the dry ice kept frozen. The dry ice kept everything frozen from Wednesday 25th to Thursday 3rd ; it stayed so cold it refroze the grocery bagged ice into blocks. They stayed rock solid for 8 DAYS! We kept it in the shade and only opened that cooler once a day to get out meals to dethaw and sometimes ice for the other coolers. The other two coolers were used for the boat and to store cold goods.

After many hours on google earth and researching I believed I had come up with a good game plan to catch fish and navigate safely. I would scan in sections of the TOP SPOT maps then enlarge them to map out the channels, holes, bars, etc. From all the maps of routes and places to fish, tide charts for various locations with sunrise/sunset, moonrises/phases, and lists for camping, food, boat, and tackle, I had a binder full of 50-60 pages with all the info for the trip. I powder coated probably 100 ¼ oz jig heads in various colors for the trip using red, white, green, copper, silver glitter, gold glitter combinations to match soft plastics I liked. The ones I ordered online actually ended up being about ¾ of a gram short of a true ¼ oz (7.01 g) even after painting, which I liked. Also learned that the football head style ¼ oz jigs are normally about a gram or more heavier than a true 7.01 g. Anyways.. Back to the report

Day 0, Thanksgiving: I drove over to Everglades City from Naples to get our backcountry permits. We had to launch really early the next day due to the early full moon low tide and wind so we didn’t have time to wait for the ENP to open at 8 and then HOPE no one had already picked out where we wanted to go.
Drove back to Naples for Thanksgiving with my girlfriend’s family and Russ drove down from Apopka later that night.

Day 1: Launched at Glades Haven before first light and slid out Sandfly Pass before the tide got nasty. On our way out to Mormon we saw lots of birds diving on bait offshore and dolphin crushing bait on the backside of the outside islands.

We set up camp on the far north point of Mormon key to stay in the wind and keep the bugs down. It seemed to be a better place to for overnight mooring.

After setting up camp and tarping up our supplies we ran up inside the Chatham and worked out with the wind just pushing us out faster than the tide pushed us in. The first corner we fished, probably the 5th or 6th cast of the entire trip, I was bouncing my ¼ oz home painted jig (pearl with silver holo glitter with a red tipped head with white DOA Cal) and got slammed by something that ripped off about 40 yds of line, then broke me off in about 10 seconds. I figured that was Mother Nature saying “Welcome to the Everglades little boy”. We kept fishing and caught usual jacks, ladyfish, and snapper. Eventually I landed a nice trout. We covered a lot of water pretty fast to get a feel for the fishies.
Ran back home to settle in for the night. Time to make a fire and cook some dinner.

Day 2: Woke up before sunrise, gathered our supplies for the day and ran into Chatham. First stop, got some small trout. Fished the tide out and get a ton more of the 14” trout, snapper, and jacks, then ended up with this pretty little gag grouper.

We eventually found our honey hole and piled up on some decent trout and even a small
Almost all fish I caught the trip were on one of those jig heads I painted.

We ran back to the camp to grab some lunch and soak up some shade for a little bit.
Next, we made a run to explore a few more spots and creeks for the next day.

Day 3: We got up and gathered supplies; headed off to find bait. We were pretty pleased with ourselves being able to locate and catch a good amount of fish on artificials the day before, we thought we would have a go at catching and using live bait for some bigger badder fish.
Slide up to the spot where we saw lots of whitebait and finger mullet the day before and sure enough, they were there this morning. Loaded up on about a dozen finger mullet and 4 dozen nice sized pilchards.
Ran up river and fished out with the wind and tide pitching baits along the shorelines and drop-offs. We ended up getting picked apart by the snapper and the jacks using the pilchards. Tried them freelined and with a 1/8th oz jig head, didn’t get much action at all. Any advice for that? We used them in some of the exact same areas as the day before and others very similar and couldn’t get a decent fish on live pilchards.
After disposing of the remaining pilchards, we took our finger mullet to a creek we scouted the day before. We set up, ate lunch, and waited on the tide to get right. It turned on like a switch and we ended up going 1/3 on snook.

After the bite shut off, we slid back out a few miles to the nice bend that I got wrecked on Day 1. We tie up to a tree and free line mullet back with the tide. It doesn’t take long before something buries me in the rocks. Next bait out stayed on the surface and behaved nicely. Wait for a few minutes then turn the click on and put the rod in the holder. As soon as the rod leaves my hand a 4 ft tarpon comes flying out of the water with my mullet, ripping drag then breaks me off in about 30 seconds.

Out of mullet, running out of day light, we head back home to set up the shark line. Set up the bait (head of a large jack) fixed a breakaway rock about 250 yds from the point of Mormon towards the Chatham mouth. All was quiet for about 3 hrs until some freight train (bullshark?) picked up the bait and never stopped. Set the hook and hold on to the beast peeling drag for about 20 seconds on the Penn Senator then get broke off (AGAIN) about halfway between me and the shark. Line showed heavy damage from oyster or rocks.
Bummed out over the shark, we prepare for our move the next day.

Day 4: Woke up before sunrise to fish before me moved camp. Stayed close near the mouths of the Huston and Chatham. We caught some nice trout, big jacks, and a keeper gag grouper; all in the rain. *Technically we were in Monroe County and had to abide by the 24” minimum. Am I interpreting that right?

We ran back to Mormon key to gather the dingy and supplies.
After towing everything up river, we arrived at the infamous Watson Place. Trust me, the spirit of Ed Watson lives on in that mosquito tundra.

Russ climbed the tree so we could run a line off the tree to a battery on the ground in order to support the mosquito net as our second line of defense.
After setting up camp and using a toilet for the first time in 4 days (even if it was a mosquito and large spider filled porto-potty; it was still nice) we ran inside towards the mouth of Chevalier Bay to fish some cuts I had found on google earth.
The holes worked out and we caught endless fat trout, snapper, and ladyfish. After we had our fun, the sun was sinking down and it was time for our grouper dinner.
Since living outside a tent at Watson wasn’t feasible, we snagged the skillet, hashbrowns, grouper, and cooktop to go cook dinner on a fast moving bend.

Mother Nature provided us with a very memorable sunset and evening. Large snook popping baits in the flat water, tarpon skying out of the water to get mullet, and even a fat bullshark came almost out of the water after some bait. It was some awesome sights and unforgettable evening with fantastic food. You bet we planned on coming back the next night with baits of our own.

Day 5: Got up before sunrise to fish the Huston Bay channel. Caught all of the usual big trout and ladyfish, with jacks and snapper mixed in. Ran farther inside and fished the Deer Island Creek loop with the same results. We ate some lunch then ran to get bait for the evening. Located some perfect finger mullet and 1 hog leg mullet in our bait spot. Afterwards we grabbed the cooking supplies and large tackle for our future tarpon endeavors
We anchor up with the line being easily unhooked and attached to an orange buoy. First things first, we send down the ole hog leg. It doesn’t take long before I am engaged in a battle of tug of war with some presumably large jewfish on the Penn Senator. Felt like I was pumping up a pallet of bricks off the bottom. Fish comes up and runs along the shoreline then out pops the circle hook L
Next bait up, Russ slides his mullet into the danger zone then gets drilled. Drag starts screaming then out pops this 130 lb+ tarpon. Thing was an absolute beast, largest tarpon I had ever seen in person. The tarpon does all sorts of aerobatic tricks and flips for us before breaking off after about 10 minutes. Good thing too, Russ’s rod wasn’t equipped for that large of tarpon and we would have killed the fish getting it in.

This is probably over 50 yrds away and using a fish eye go pro lenses for size reference, any good guesses?

After the adrenaline and high fives were taken care of, we reset on the anchor. I slide another bait back and hook up within minutes. Connect and land with this smaller guy. Any guess on weight? For reference I am 6’ 3”

After we released that **** we tried our luck with the big grouper and continued to get broken off like childsplay. We proceeded to cook some dinner then return to our mosquito ridden camp.
Day 6: In the morning moved to Sweetwater Chickee then fished the surrounding area catching more of the same yellow trout, mangos, jacks, and ladyfish. We decided to go all out since it was our last day of fishing and the tide was right. We collected some finger mullet and slid into our favorite creek to wait for the tide. Went ½ on snookies and 1/1 on Redfish.

Afterwards we ran out into the middle of the Last Huston bay to avoid the bugs and cook some dinner. Avoiding the bugs didn’t work out but dinner was good!
It felt good that night to sleep without the rainfly on the tent due to the covered chickee. It was very nice.
Day 7: Slept in until about 8 am then begin our journey home along the Wilderness Waterway. What is that red building in Huston Bay? Loaded up on the truck by 1:00 and headed for Naples.

Already excited for next year!

Thanks for reading everyone. Also, big thanks to Capt. LeMay and other forum members for their insight on the questions I asked earlier in the other forum section.

Tight lines,


  • CyclistCyclist Posts: 23,340 AG
    Nice trip and photos! I did pretty much the same trip a few years ago. We took canoes and renegade camped as all the designated island camping was full of people. Thanks for posting.
  • southerntidesoutherntide Posts: 51 Greenhorn
    Thanks! Still trying to figure out how to upload most of my pics. The file sizes are too big
  • CyclistCyclist Posts: 23,340 AG
    Your post is great. How was the old Watson place? I read the books as well, we did not quite get that far on our trip. Tides and wind played havoc with our canoes! Even resorted to trying tent fly's as sails!

    Our fishing was not as good as yours, nice to see all the action you had! We did a lot of wade fishing, biggest memory was a 6 foot shark tearing up our crab bait between us and land in 3 foot of water.
  • southerntidesoutherntide Posts: 51 Greenhorn
    Watson place was a mosquito tundra hell when we stayed there. The bugs were insane so we stayed off land as much as possible. The neatest part of Watson's Place was an alligator sunning itself along the old cistern one day when we came back to grab supplies.
  • nightflynightfly Posts: 506 Officer
    Excellent report. That was a great read
  • lemaymiamilemaymiami Posts: 4,905 Captain
    Great read... great trip.... The "old red house" in Huston Bay is supposed to be the last privately owned place in the 'Glades (and from what I've heard they've beaten the Park time and time again as the Park attempted to shut them down.....).

    Enjoyed reading about your lures - for me (and I've been making jigs for some years - all I use is white, red, fl. yellow, and occasionally brown heads on the ones I make....). Lastly all you ever need for bait to target really big fish in the 'Glades is ladyfish live, or as cut bait (make sure it's caught that day - don't try to keep ladies on ice for the following day -they turn to mush....). Finger mullet are always a good idea but considering how many ladies you'll encounter each day tossing jigs -they really work on everything that swims (and a few un-stoppables as well....).
    Tight Lines
    Bob LeMay
    (954) 435-5666
  • NSB PhotogNSB Photog Posts: 548 Officer
    Excellent report!

    Definitely has me inspired to get out and camp/fish for a few days.
  • StryderStryder Posts: 172 Deckhand
    Great job with the report, you tell a great story and sounds like you had an awesome trip. Congrats.

    You miss 100% of the shots you don't take. Wayne Gretzky

  • NewberryJeffNewberryJeff Posts: 7,447 Admiral
    What a great report and fine prose (soak up some shade :)).

    You mention a gopro, any chance you have a Christmas present for us - video of that tarpon?
  • southerntidesoutherntide Posts: 51 Greenhorn
    Thanks for the kind words, everyone!
    Unfortunately no, Jeff. One of us (we each say it was the other) left the GoPro on videoing the bottom of the boat for about 2 hrs the day before, so we only took burst shots after that to conserve power and data memory. :(
    Hopefully this time next year I will have a tarpon video present for you all
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