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By Brenton Roberts
After decades of closure, anglers can now explore the Everglades’ newest No Motor Zone.
Closures, reduced limits, restricted access, all terms that the recreational angler has inevitably become familiar with over the past decade. But when was the last time you heard of thousands of acres, which have been closed for nearly four decades, reopen to the public? Everglades National Park did just that with the reopening of Joe Bay and neighboring Snag Bay.
Nestled along the northeast shoreline of Florida Bay, Joe Bay was unfished for 36 years, nine months and nine days, to be exact. But why?
Just a few years prior to the closure, the American crocodile was placed on the federal list of endangered species. The National Park Service opted to close the majority of the northeastern shoreline of ENP, including Little Madeira Bay, Taylor River, East Creek, Mud Creek, Joe Bay, Snag Bay, and all creeks inland from Long Sound, effective February 15, 1980. This region is one of the most active areas of crocodile breeding in the park. The species had taken a hard hit earlier in the 20th century, with “serious losses of habitat” and “extensive poaching for their hides,” according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In the late 1970s, studies showed that as much as 75 percent of the 300 to 400 crocodiles in South Florida inhabited the park. Only 18 to 20 of these crocs were breeding females. The Fish and Wildlife Service developed a recovery plan in following years, with criteria of 60 breeding females documented to change the crocodile’s status from endangered to threatened. Projections showed that this would take an estimated 20 to 30 years, given the conditions. Current park Superintendent Pedro Ramos stated, “Joe Bay’s decades-long closure was an important piece in our efforts to help the American crocodile recover from the brink of extinction.” The recovery plan was a success, with the crocodile coming off of the endangered species list in 2007. Studies had shown that the population had reached between 1,400 to 2,000 animals, with over 90 documented nesting sites in 2005. This played a major role in the evaluation of reopening the 3,935 acres of Joe and Snag bays.
Speaking with Fred Herling, the Supervisory Park Planner, I learned there were a few other, smaller, contributing factors in regards to the closure.
“It wasn’t just crocodiles, but manatees and many nesting bird species were taken into account as well,” he said. This area was very important for mother and calf manatees, as well as migrating and resident birds.
What to Know
Venturing into Joe and adjacent Snag Bay, there are a few rules to remember. First and foremost, this new “Backcountry Zone” as ENP refers to it as strictly a No Motor Zone. This means no other means of propulsion are allowed besides manpower. Kayaks, canoes and paddle boards are all great options to take back into this area. Technical poling skiffs work great as well, but the motor must be removed from the transom before entering Joe Bay.
This Backcountry Zone is a catch-and-release fishery only, which is a first for Everglades National Park. This rule was implemented with the mindset of keeping this fishery as it was before it reopened to the public. There is a mooring area located in Trout Lake, immediately south of Joe Bay, with capacity for six boats. If these are occupied, you must moor your vessel outside of Trout Creek, as mooring in Trout Lake is prohibited. Trout Lake was deemed a pole and troll zone, so if you plan on heading in on a skiff, be sure to abide by these rules. There are four creeks that dump into Joe Bay from the lake.
If you’re in the area and see a boat with “research” on the side, you’re most likely looking at the research team from Florida International University (FIU), headed by Dr. Jennifer Rehage. These folks are hard at work, with many projects throughout the park. They will be doing extensive research throughout Joe Bay and surrounding areas for the next three years.
Rehage and her team will be comparing the fisheries of Joe Bay, Little Madeira Bay and Long Sound, which all have different regulations. Little Madeira Bay is still part of the existing crocodile sanctuary (closed to public). Joe Bay is a No Motor Zone. Long Sound is completely open to the public. The FIU team plans to assess how much of an ecological impact the public makes on the areas.
Approaching the mooring area, you will notice a piling to the right with visitor and angler surveys. These surveys ask simple questions such as: What did you see? What did you catch? What size fish did you catch in Joe and Snag bays? In cooperation with the park, the team is using these to document what anglers are observing and how the fishery is doing. There will also be an app you can download to report your trip.
Keeping the Sheet Flow Moving South
With so much development to the east of the Everglades, and water being diverted to the east and west coast via man-made canals, Florida Bay and the Everglades lack adequate fresh water, a vital component to the ecosystem.
As explained by Rehage of FIU, aquifer levels within the park are higher than those in the cities to the east, due to excessive water usage there. The porous limestone allows much-needed fresh water to fall to the lowest point, to the east, starving Florida Bay. This has been a major issue within the park, contributing to hypersalinity in Florida Bay and major seagrass dieoffs.
The park has made some progress within its boundaries to retain the water and stop allowing it to drain to the east, one of these being the 2.6-mile bridge along the Tamiami Trail.
“The completion of the 2.6-mile bridging project is essential in establishing the natural flow of water to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay,” said Superintendent Pedro Ramos.
The C-111 Canal project and others are designed to work simultaneously to restore the natural southbound flow.
With Joe Bay being nestled along the northern shore of Florida Bay, there is no way to access this backcountry zone from the mainland. Anglers are able to launch in Flamingo and run to Joe Bay. To the east, launching in Key Largo is your best bet.
I prefer using the ramp located on Jewfish Creek in Blackwater Sound (there is a $20 ramp usage fee). This is almost a straight shot to the northwest once in the sound. You will idle through a channel known as the “Boggies,” dumping you into the bay. You will continue northwest until you arrive into Trout Cove. No real worries about shallow spots, as Blackwater Sound and this region of Florida Bay are deep enough for safe navigation. Stay attentive to your GPS, though.
The Park Service is working on putting in a small ramp along U.S. 1, north of Key Largo, that would put anglers into Long Sound, to the east of Joe Bay. This ramp would strictly cater to paddle craft and small skiffs. This will be the closest access point to Joe Bay, putting the trip right around seven miles.
The Stealth Approach
Joe and Snag bays being a No Motor Zone, paddle boards, kayaks, canoes and small poling skiffs (with motor removed from the transom) are the only vessels to enter. These excel in shallow water, due to the minimal draft, quietness and allaround stealth. With a large part of the NMZ being three feet or less, these boats are ideal for this fishery.
On my first trip down to the area, Damian Fernandez of Rubio & Jigalode Paddle Boards (rubiojigalode.com) and I opted to experience it via paddle board, as fly fishing was our main objective. Strapped with 8-weights, a box of flies and an imagination full of what we were going to encounter, off we paddled into the unknown.
When thinking of these backwater estuaries in the Glades with large quantities of freshwater influx, most imagine tannic water; this was not this case here. The water was plenty clear, making it ideal for sight-fishing. With a stiff north wind in our face once we entered the bay, we planned to fish the lee shoreline. Expecting snook and redfish to be our predominant targets for the day, we were pleasantly surprised to find tarpon scattered throughout the bay.
With the clear water working to our advantage we were able to spot these fish from a distance and the stealth of the paddle board allowed us to get well into casting range. We were able to hook multiple tarpon to 30 pounds and even got our hands on a couple. Having fished for tarpon throughout the state and tropics, I could tell these fish were different. Their demeanor was unlike any tarpon I have seen. They were happy, hungry and willing to eat anything you put on their plate. I had on an all-black fly I tied, comprised of craft fur and EP Brush. This weightless presentation landed softly and had a good presence in the water. A quick “tick tick” retrieve seemed to drive these fish nuts. I had one that nearly ran into my paddle board that decided to eat while my leader was in the guides, after tracking my fly for 40 feet.
The perimeter of the bay is lined with mangroves and downed timber, all in a foot or so of water. This translates into prime snook and redfish habitat. Weightless jerkbaits and baitfish flies are perfect for fishing these shorelines as they both don’t make a lot of noise when hitting the water. When I was fishing, there were multiple schools of 4- to 6-inch mullet mingling in this same area, occasionally getting ambushed by these predators that were cruising the bank.
If you’re looking for an adventure, not just a fishing trip, and would like to fish one of Florida’s most pristine areas, give Joe Bay a shot.
Park Expanding “Pole & Troll”
Everglades National Park has begun implementing a new General Management Plan with the opening of Joe and Snag bays. But this is just the first of many projects that the park plans on completing in the near future.
One of these that will affect boaters and fishermen is the new pole/troll/idle zones throughout Florida Bay, totaling 127,426 acres. The selection of these areas, according to the Park Service, is based on protecting seagrasses found in shallow water. There will also be a new access corridors network, allowing boaters to navigate the bay easier. A mandatory boater education permit system will be put into effect as well, providing boaters not only with knowledge on safe boating throughout the park, but also the key elements of the Management Plan related to the marine areas. The park is working on a new 120-mile paddling trail as well, that in peak season will have no motor and idle zones. FS