Old croc habitat open to fishing, with restrictions

Big fish likely within Everglades no-motor zone

When the crocodiles of Joe Bay and Snag Bay decamped for Cape Sable, Everglades National Park had a good reason to open part of the crocs’ old private nesting habitat to fishing-doers. It happened, fittingly, on Thanksgiving Day.

Their kind is out. Our kind is in. Did someone shout, “There goes the neighborhood!”?

Don’t worry about the habitat being spoiled by propeller scars. Joe and Snag Bays are designated no-motor zones. We’ll have to haul canoes and kayaks on our power skiffs, tie up to pilings where Trout Creek enters Trout Lake at the southeast end of Joe Bay and slide the paddle craft overboard.

It’s either that or pole your skiff across the bays with your outboard and trolling motors dismounted and lying on the deck. The rule is meant to prevent cheating. How big an engine can you manhandle without dropping it on your foot or overboard?

There’s space to moor six powerboats. If you find it full, you can’t anchor in Trout Lake. Motor back out to Trout Cove and anchor there. Another option is to stick to Trout Lake, a pole and troll zone.

You can keep the motors mounted, trim the outboard up and use your trolling motor, but you can’t go into Joe or Snag Bay like that.

More restrictions: Joe Bay and Snag Bay are designated for catch-and-release fishing only. It’s the first such zone in the park.

All the other crocodile protection zones in that area remain off limits. They spread along a linear stretch of about 15 miles from U.S. 1 to the west end of Little Madeira Bay.

In 1980, the park’s then-sparse population of crocs won exclusive rights to the two bays off the northeastern corner of big Florida Bay. Ever since, Joe Bay and Snag Bay have been redlined not only to exclude fishing but also to prohibit all human activity except authorized scientific research.

The shift of nesting crocs to Cape Sable, 33 miles from Joe Bay as the gull flies, isn’t new. Neither is their great growth in number — a sum exactly unknown but visibly substantial. In 1980, croc sightings were unusual but in recent years we’ve seen them lolling all around. You’re likely even to see one sunbathing on a boat ramp at Flamingo.

Theoretically, Joe and Snag Bays could have been reopened to fishing much sooner, but the National Park Service moves slowly, its wonders to perform. The open ing was made to wait until the park’s new general management plan was enacted last year — and then wait some more for orderly scheduling.

We don’t have any fishing reports yet, but we reckon the long wait will prove worthwhile. Any Everglades no-motor zone is likely to hold plenty of fish and plenty of big ones, if only because of the access difficulty.

If you could travel in a straight line from Flamingo to Joe Bay, which you can’t, you would cover about 25 miles, one way. Loaded with a canoe, or a kayak or two, you would spend a lot of time getting there and back.

Fishing-doers launching from Key Largo can cover the distance in 10 miles or less, provided they have access to boat ramps. Driving down from the mainland, you might have to go as far as Founders Park in Islamorada — about 15 miles from the Joe Bay entrance.

Denese Canedo, spokeswoman at Everglades, suggests one way to deal with this would be to plan a multi-day camping trip. There’s a platform campsite on the west shore of North Nest Key, about 6 miles from Key Largo. Joe Bay is about 4 miles from there.

“In 2017, the park will explore with other agencies an access point on the 18-mile stretch of U.S. 1,” Canedo said. “That would be about 6 miles from the Joe Bay area. It could allow for small [power] boats as well as canoes and kayaks. No decisions can be made pending further discussions and analysis on this issue.”

The area she spoke of is mapped now as a paddle access site at the eastern end of Long Sound, an easy route with an outlet (Snail Creek) at its western end. From there to channel-markered Trout Creek — the Joe Bay entry — it’s about 4 more miles.

In an earlier version of the plans, Long Sound was designated a paddling-only spot. In its present form it’s open to motorboats. Planing speed is permitted down the middle, but the shorelines are designated idle speed/no wake.

That future launching area is close to Pelican Cay Harbor, a private marina whose website says you can use the ramp for $10. Pelican Cay is on the eastern side of the highway, with a channel that goes through to Long Sound.

A National Park Service ramp at Key Largo is a future possibility, but don’t hang by the neck until that happens. It looks doable at the Florida Bay Interagency Science Center and ranger station, where there is a ramp and docks not now available for public use.

Everglades owns another site, on Tarpon Basin, but that one has no ramp. Canedo said park staff will explore options in 2017 for other use of both sites.

An FAQ page with a lot more info on this is being prepared for the park website, nps.gov/ever. Watch for it to be posted. You can see all the details of the general management plan there now, particularly the map of many pole and troll zones being implemented in Florida Bay.