Never figured I’d find much use for a kayak. The vessels are popular with skinny-water anglers and eco-tourists in the state, but I don’t fish the flats much anymore, and I’ve smelled enough cormorant and pelican poop in my day to kill my desire to rise early in the morning and paddle through secluded mangrove islands to ooh and ahh at manatees and shorebirds. So I was surprised by my excitement when I procured a kayak for my first duck hunting adventure this year. Let me explain.
Over the last couple years, my buddies and I have been hunting the STA’s in
South Florida. Properly, they are
Stormwater Treatment Areas, large, shallow impounds of water south of Lake
Okeechobee filled with flotillas of invasive hydrilla, pods of hyacinth, and
cattail islands designed to filter nutrient runoff from
the surrounding sugar cane fields before it reaches the Everglades and pollutes
the River of Grass. With over 52,000 acres – and more being planned - of
man-made, vegetation-choked wetlands, they are premier waterfowl destinations
for those lucky enough to draw a permit.
The thing is,
South Florida is an
alien locale. The ground pulsates with biting insects. Bizarre, foreign fish,
with nightmarish names like snakeheads and clown knifefish, crowd the waters. Snakes
that have no place in modern epochs are spreading throughout the region to the
point the Good Ol’ Alligator can’t even control them. Oh yeah, the alligators,
some the size that they could easily leap out of the water and take down a
great blue heron like a river trout snatches a mayfly. Then there’s Miami.
South of Lake O is a weird, wild place which makes hunting here an adventure.
My first trip two years ago was a complete off-the-cuff, why-the-hell-not journey. Knowing the water wasn’t too deep, we brazenly decided to wade into this miasma clad with waders. In the heat and humidity of a September morning, there had been talk of slipping in without the oppressive Neoprene, but these are essentially retention ponds; no telling the flesh-eating bacterium that lurks in the weeds. And though there have been no reported cases thus far, I’d be worried about a Candiru attack. Just saying. We shot a couple of teal, but to retrieve them meant slogging through thousands of pounds of hydrilla that would curtain around your waist until movement wasn’t even a thought anymore and you'd want to give up, much like a poor soul dying of thirst in the desert. I’m quite certain that even if you trekked more than 100 yards in this stuff, a tentacle of ‘drill would eventually reach up around your neck to pull you down for keeps. And I suppose it isn’t too late to announce that motorized crafts were/are prohibited. Not like it’d matter to the sheets of man-eating hydrilla; that gunk would tear the unit off, drag it a half-mile across the bottom before spitting it back out like that swamp whale regurgitated R2-D2 in Empire Strikes Back. You get the point - it's tough stuff to navigate.
We toyed with a john boat on a subsequent hunt – too heavy – and inflatable rafts – too light and flimsy – before toting down kayaks which proved to be the proper conveyance for this work. In large thanks to this craft, we were able to reach a distant cattail island and fill a three-man limit of ducks on STA 3/4 last December. It proved to be my most memorable moment with a kayak since I told my wife at the Homosassa River a few years ago, “No, I don’t want to kayak down the Homosassa River.”
So duck hunting the STA’s fueled my torrid tolerance-affair with the kayak and sparked the search for one of my own or to borrow, “borrow” being the key thought. The wonderful thing about kayaks is they are easy to find. You can go to just about any sporting goods store and crank out a few hundred dollars for one. But, if you play your cards right and nose around, you can probably locate someone who’ll let you take one off their hands for a reasonable amount. Or for free. Kayaks are about like treadmills; everyone thinks they are a great idea at first, but then the will to use them vanishes. So they sit around hoarding space in the garage, breeding spiders and contempt for wasting money on personal fitness.
The neighbor had been storing a pair under the deck of my in-laws home in Homosassa for the length of my relationship with Carolyn and prior. In those years, I don't ever recall them ever seeing daylight. Had I not drummed up the courage to ask if I could use one, I'm quite certain they wouldn't have floated in anything other than floodwater for years to come. It didn’t take any serious pleading to gain permission for its use. “Paint the thing for all I care,” he told me. I didn’t go that far, though I may one day if it stays too long in my possession. But since it was silver, some form of camo was needed. A 15-ft bolt of camo burlap from Wal-Mart was plenty sufficient for concealment purposes. After hosing off the years of negligence and insect dwellings, I just had to wait for the calendar.
So the time came last Sunday. I had drawn an afternoon tag for STA 5 – my first trip to this particular string of ponds. It was the early September season which is notoriously spotty for duck action in the afternoons. Furthermore, in order for them to honor our permits we had to check in between and or risk placement in a lottery for walk-ins…which didn’t matter since there were two other trucks there, and no one came in behind us. It felt like we had the place to ourselves, though one hillbilly smart mouth at the check-in station was forced to comment on Drew’s bright orange kayak. “Boy, you ain’t gonna kill ducks out of that, der, der, der, dah der.” Ignoring Cletus and his clear assessment that we were slackjaw rookies ourselves, we blindly picked a couple spots off the map, and set out for the hunt.
We surveyed our locale, picking out teal amongst the moorhen and coots stationed in the impoundment. After deciding on a patch of cover that would conceal the four of us, we unloaded the kayaks and packed them with the essentials. I’d like to tell you I slipped on in there in the slick, Navy Seal style. The truth is, I’m not in peak physical condition. The “essentials” felt a lot less so after 75 yards. With the thick aquatic vegetation, it was like paddling through cold oatmeal though still a far better deal than poling a heavy-bottom aluminum boat. But that was just me. The other guys about had their kayaks on a plane. The slow, fat kid in the bunch, I arrived as they were pitching dekes in calf-deep water.
Assuming the depth was the same where I stopped to set up, I hopped out of the kayak and plunged to my chin whiskers in a death portal, that noxious water flooding into my waders. Luckily my boots hit hard bottom – or the back of a very large, very patient gator – and clamored into shallower water before the hydrilla sensed my struggle and enveloped over my head to commence sucking out bodily fluids.
I had a very real problem at this point. I could stay in the soaked waders and let my body heat excite the parasites and bacteria into a feeding frenzy or strip to my board shorts to wade to the island where we were to hole up. Oh, that slimy bottom was disgusting, even to my horse-hoof feet. My legs itch as I write this, and what I can only guess was dysentery subsided yesterday.
The kayak became a life raft. No way was I standing bare-skinned in that water for the next four hours that we’d wait for sundown or our limit. I slid the ‘yak into the grasses and sat with my feet propped in the cattails until I learned fire ants thrive in semi-submerged vegetation far from dry land. To relieve this pain, I soaked them in the water until noticing small minnows picking at my skin - South Florida. After this I elected to keep all body parts inside the ride, sitting Indian style in the raft, which made shots at passing birds rather awkward. But at least I felt safe.
It turned out to be a banner hunt. We shot one bird shy of our limit of blue-wing teal, many sweeping right past my bare, welted legs and into the walls of steel fired by the crew. I retrieved my decoys and fallen birds from the dry embrace of the kayak and stroked it back towards the truck. With a successful outing under our belt, I barely remember the paddle back.
According to the game warden, we did better than the others hunting that afternoon, certainly better than Cletus and whatever plywood and palm frond contraption he surely captained. So if you ever find yourself hunting an STA or any number of places in
Florida that forbids motorized vessels, consider using a kayak. Can't say they are for comfort or style, but they'll get you where you need to go.