Flamingo backwaters offer tasty dining options

(Sue Cocking/Miami Herald/MCT)
Captain Jimmy Rhodes holds up a gag grouper caught in December by one of...
Story by Susan Cocking
Miami Herald
February 12, 2012
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MIAMI — Captain Jimmy Rhodes has been fishing the backcountry rivers, creeks and bays of Everglades National Park since the 1950s. And Rhodes has been guiding anglers to quality fish in those waters since earning his U.S. Coast Guard captain’s license in the mid-1980s. But he’s not really that keen on catch-and-release gamefishing.

“I like to have a mission,” the former U.S. Army combat helicopter pilot said. “I like to catch fish to eat.”

And apparently so do his long-time customers, friends and grandchildren.

Sure, he’ll hunt for snook and tarpon if somebody really wants to. But snook season has been closed in the Everglades and Gulf coast since the deep freeze of 2010, and nobody eats tarpon. So Rhodes prefers to look for grouper, snapper, tripletail, sheepshead, pompano and other tasty edibles.

Fishing out of a 20-foot Scout runabout with a 200-horsepower outboard and a small kicker motor, the Homestead, Fla. native is intimately familiar with the delicate nuances of tide and wind in the tricky backwaters of Flamingo.

“Most people wouldn’t think this is a Flamingo boat,” he said with a laugh.

Indeed, most anglers — wary of the park’s hidden mud flats, shifting sandbars and howling winds that can blow all the water out of a shallow bay when it’s supposed to be high tide — prefer to fish out of small, skinny-water skiffs.

But Rhodes and his customers like to be able to move about the boat without bumping into each other, and there’s plenty of space for seating, coolers and extra rods and reels.

On a windy morning in December, Rhodes and a guest set out from Flamingo’s backcountry ramp on Buttonwood Canal and headed north through Whitewater Bay into Oyster Bay.

Anchored near a mangrove shoreline on the outgoing tide, they caught and released numerous mangrove snapper using jig heads tipped with shrimp. Eight of the snapper were large enough to keep, and Rhodes put them in the ice chest.

When the snapper bite slowed, he relocated to Shark River, anchoring smack in the middle of the rapidly flowing watercourse.

“There’s a trench here,” he explained.

Rhodes cut up a few ladyfish into chunks and put them on a circle hook on a heavy conventional bottom rod.

Sitting in a holder in the gunwales, the rod bounced and then the tip bent over. Rhodes grabbed it and began to reel, but whatever had eaten the bait had lodged itself in the bottom, refusing to budge.

Eventually, Rhodes broke the line and re-rigged the rod with fresh ladyfish pieces.

This time, when the rod bent, his companion was able to reel up a legal-sized gag grouper. Both were elated, especially because grouper season wasn’t yet closed.

Rhodes re-baited the rod and handed it to his companion. No sooner had she grasped it when it jerked sharply and bent over. When she turned the reel handle, the line wouldn’t move; she was “rocked up” once again.

The captain took the rod and opened the lever on the reel so that slack line paid out. He waited a few seconds, then quickly reeled up the slack. Miraculously, the fish came away from the bottom, and Rhodes’ angler was able to wrestle it up to the boat — a 12-pound gag — much larger than the first.

Both knew some excellent dining options were in the near future. With a limit of gags, Rhodes pulled up the anchor to look for some more snapper or some other food fish.

Anchoring in a nearby creek, they caught a small permit and two keeper-sized sheepshead on shrimp-tipped jigs.

“All these places we fished today have been fished for a long time,” Rhodes said. “They go and come. You’ll go and tear them up, but the next time that won’t be the case.”

The best part about fishing Flamingo, he said, is that there is always something to catch, some lee to get out of the wind, and — except on weekends — little human interaction.

“If it gets crowded, you can move over somewhere by yourself,” he said. “There’s a world of things for people to do in the park with any kind of boat. You could spend a lifetime in the creeks and the cuts and never see it all.”

Spoken by a fisherman who really knows.

Susan Cocking

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OGDEN NATURE CENTER

The Ogden Nature Center is located at 966 W. 12th St. in Ogden. For more information, visit www.ogdennaturecenter.org or call 801-621-7595.

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