Chokoloskee: A Year After Irma…

Just over a year ago, all of us in South Florida experienced Hurricane Irma on some level. Fortunately, those of us in Broward and Miami Dade Counties, escaped with minimal damage. We all know that the Lower Keys were devastated. However, a small community just an hour and a half from both Fort Lauderdale and Miami was hit just as hard. Chokoloskee, Everglades City and Plantation Island make up this small fishing village and just like the Florida Keys, they depend on tourism to drive their economy.

After the storm had passed, we pressed on and published an October issue while thinking of ways we could help the folks in the Lower Keys. Once the publishing deadline had passed, we put a plan in motion to bring whatever kind of aid we could to the folks in the Keys. Then I saw a video on facebook about how badly the folks of Chokoloskee, Everglades City and Plantation Island were doing. We shifted gears and decided that our help was needed more there.

Upon arrival, it was clear that we made the right choice. Many of the homes were destroyed by the storm surge. Those that were not destroyed, were left with two to three feet of toxic mud inside of them. The streets were lined with now useless furniture and appliances and debris of all kinds. We passed out supplies and had the opportunity to meet some very proud people that were hesitant to receive a hand out. It was humbling to say the least as it could have very well been us in Fort Lauderdale or Miami that bore the brunt of Irma.

Through our aid trips, I was able to meet an old customer that I had only ever spoken with on the phone. Capt. Skip Strong lives on Plantation Island and owns Mr. Wiffelure which manufactures soft plastic baits. Though the circumstances were not ideal, Skip and I met face to face for the first time and he educated me on the area and promised to invite us back for a fishing trip when things got back to normal.

A few weeks ago, that fishing trip came to fruition on a half day trip with sixth generation native and guide, Capt. Rodney Raffield of Everglades Backcountry Experience. We left the dock just before sunrise and headed towards the Gulf of Mexico. On the way out, we saw lots of pelicans and then came across a majestic blue heron. Skip asked Rodney if he had seen any roseate spoonbills and Rodney took us right to them. There had to be fifty of them nesting on an isolated mangrove island. We took a few pictures and decided it was time to go fishing.

Capt. Rodney took us to a spot that he knew was holding trout and handed me a light spinning outfit with a quarter ounce jig head rigged with a pearl colored, shad body Mr. Wiffelure. After just a few casts it was on. In short order, we had a total of 15 seatrout and 4 of them were on ice in the fishbox. As the tide was beginning to change, we went looking for some snook. Once again, Rodney positioned the boat and told us where to cast. This time, I was throwing a root beer colored Mr. Wiffelure on an eighth ounce jig head. On my second cast, I was tight with a small snook. I brought him to the boat and quickly released him. I threw my third cast in the same spot and hooked up with the first snook’s twin.

As we slowly motored to another spot, I asked Rodney how Irma had affected fishing. He said, “Our area was devastated by Irma and it took quite some time for things to resume something close to normal. From a fishing standpoint it started looking good by November, with a lot of mackerel, bluefish, and trout showing up in our area. Snook and redfish were not all that plentiful until the spring of this year. As of this month fishing looks great with high numbers of reds and snook being caught on good high tides. The area as a whole has made progress, but with only one restaurant open through this summer and only one of our 2 convenience stores open, the effects of Irma are still apparent. All in all, we are survivors and we will make a full comeback. Again from a fishing standpoint it is as good as I have seen in a long time and I am looking forward to a productive season. Come visit the Everglades City and Chokoloskee area and you will not be disappointed.”

On the day, we ended up with 15 seatrout, 6 snook, 2 sailcats, 1 redfish and 1 baby goliath grouper. We had nonstop action and fished nothing but Mr. Wiffelures on eighth and quarter ounce jig heads. It’s clear that the fishing is good and the community is recovering. The best thing we can do to help the local economy is to book fishing trips and motel rooms as the season begins this month. If you would like to experience the Chokoloskee area and learn from one of the most knowledgeable guides in the area, Capt. Rodney Raffield is your man. Call him at 239-695-4626 to book your trip and let him know that Coastal Angler sent you.

~ GENE DYER

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