Fakahatchee Island

Fakahatchee Island

Don Belzowski
8/12/2009
www.offthetrails.com

FAKAHATCHEE ISLAND TRIP

For those of you who are looking for a relatively easy overnight trip that offers great scenery, excellent fishing opportunities and some Old Florida history a paddle to Fakahatchee Island offers all of that with other interesting side trips.  Located about eight miles west of Everglades City, Fakahatchee Island is an old Calusa Indian shell mound that has been inhabited off and on for centuries.  Long after the Calusas disappeared settlers farmed the land and fished the waters sending their products to Everglades City.  The island itself has the remains of a rain cistern and parts of the old homestead constructed from a cement made with crushed oyster shells.  Today the island has an old cemetary with several tombstones and a variety of non-native plants brought out there by the various settlers and now growing wild.  Also, in the bay near the island are the posts remaining from an elevated ice house that once collected the fish from the local commercial fishermen and ferried them to Everglades City.  Later that ice house was leased as a fish camp and set up with a propane generator that powered a stove, electricity and a refrigerator.  It burned down in 1962, apparently struck by lightening.

Camping World

Today there are no inhabitants but it is interesting to explore the island and imagine life there in the first half of the Twentieth Century.  During the winter it must have been almost a paradise with wildlife everywhere, fresh fish for dinner and an abundant vegetable garden.  The stars at night must have been incredible!  The solitude and quiet would have been so peaceful.  But during the summer we imagine it could be pretty uncomfortable!  The mosquitoes would have been overwhelming and without air conditioning (or for that matter electricity) the heat and humidity would have been hard to withstand.  Add to that the tropical storm season without any easy way to get to shelter (staying on the island may have been the safest option) and life could have been rough.  We wonder what resourceful solutions they had to these discomforts and how we could maybe learn from them today.

We’ve made this trip several times and the paddle through Chokoloskee Bay, Lane Cove, West Pass Bay and Gate Bay is usually easy but if the wind is strong enough and from the wrong direction the paddle could get a bit difficult.  As you get closer to the mouth of the Ferguson River there are numerous small islands and bars that offer good protection.  The mouth of the Ferguson River is a great place to stop and fish and the river itself is an enjoyable side trip.  The pass from Gate Bay into Fakahatchee Bay can be a bit difficult to spot the first trip or two but with charts and a compass it isn’t too challenging.  Shortly after entering the bay bear southwest and you can’t miss Fakahatchee Island.


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We always camp up on the high ground on the north end of the island facing the bay.  Our camp is in a small cluster of gumbo limbo trees with good sun and a great view of the bay.  We’ve had other campers arrive while we were there and they usually camp on the lower shaded ground of the old homestead; however, we’ve found the bare dirt there damp and the deep shade much buggier than our higher, more open campsite.

After setting up camp take a walk around the island and explore the remains of the last permanent residents.  You’ll find the remains of their house, an old cistern used to collect fresh rainwater, rusted machinery and an interesting graveyard that traces the lives of those early settlers.  Also, if you enjoy plants there is an overgrown flower garden that has survived on its own after a fashion.  It was interesting trying to identify some of these non-native plants that had found a small niche in the island’s ecology.

After exploring the island it’s time to get back into the boat–kayak or canoe–and check out the area around the island.  Fakahatchee Pass runs along the west side of the island and will take you out to the Gulf of Mexico to explore the outer island beaches.  The sandbar in this article’s banner is right at the mouth of the pass looking out to the gulf.  Also, across the bay are the mouths of the Fakahatchee and East Rivers which beg to be explored.  The bay also offers some excellent fishing and provided us with several great fire-grilled fish dinners!   Right out in front of our campsite where Fakahatchee Pass enters the bay is an excellent place to fish.  One trip we hit a school of ladyfish that hit any lure we cast on almost every cast.  They are not considered gamefish by most fishermen and are not edible, but these relatives of the tarpon are fast, strong and acrobatic like there larger cousin and are a lot of fun on light tackle!   Also available are spotted weakfish or sea trout which became our fish dinners, mangrove snapper, snook, redfish, jacks and tarpon–all of your major gulfcoast gamefish.

Exploring around the island and the countless small mangrove and oyster bar islets and bars is a great way to test your orienteering skills.  If you have a GPS waypoint back to the island you can get yourself lost on purpose just to test your skills!  We did this ourselves and got hopelessly lost for a while just south of the island but we used the tide current direction to help us find Fakahatchee Pass and didn’t need the GPS.  Knowing the tide tables for your location can be an invaluable tool in navigation.  Just knowing the direction you need to go does not always get you back to where you want to be in the many dead-end little creeks and bays.  But usually the tide current will indicate a navigatable direction out of a maze of islands.

For those of you who read the Tiger Key article and looked closely at the map you may have noticed that this trip is very close to Tiger Key.  West Pass Bay which you’ll pass through to get to Fakahatchee Island can also take you out West Pass to the gulf and right past our Tiger Key campsite!   It would be very easy to combine these two trips into a longer trip with campsites at both locations on different nights.

The wildlife is always a big part of these adventures for us.  We never tire of watching porpoise chase schools of fish or ospreys grabbing their dinner off the surface of the water.   Every trip there are unique encounters that are unforgetable; whether it is hearing the wingbeats of a flock of small seabirds as they pass closely on either side of us while we wade-fished in Florida Bay at sunset, seeing a pilot whale cruising along only twenty feet from our kayak on the way out Rabbit Key Pass or coming upon a large flock of wild turkeys in the Big Cypress Preserve each moment is a memory that brings us back for more.  Keep checking back with us for more of our adventures ON THE WILD SIDE.