The Tamiami Trail: The Fishing Spectrum of the Everglades
By David Graham - July 11, 2021
'The Everglades' - one of the most iconic wetlands on the face of the earth where a 'river of grass' protects some 2 million acres of pristine subtropical wilderness in Southern Florida. One of North America's true wildlife treasures - where fresh and saltwater ecosystems merge and provide critical habitat for a wide array of endangered plants and animals.
In the early 1920's construction for U.S. Highway 41 went underway to provide a commerce route from Tampa to Miami. The Southern most 275 miles of which were aptly named 'The Tamiami Trail'. This was to be the first road to cross the swamps of the Everglades.
The lower 90 some odd miles of The Trail extend East to West from Naples to Miami. It extends along the Northern edge of the Everglades National Park where - free from man made intervention - much of the area would be submerged under marshy water much of the year. Because of this - the route would need to be elevated, and was done so with dynamite. Explosives were set to carve out fill dirt that could be used to elevate the area which the road would be built upon... and those carvings are now filled with water in the form of manmade canals that run the length paralleling the highway.
For some today, the trail is just a coast to coast corridor across Florida... a means of getting from point A to B... But to an angler - the 90 some miles across the bottom portion of the Tamiami Trail is a trek across various ecosystems with 'miles' of chance encounters with a wide array of different species. Where proper preparation meets the opportunity at a fish, success is inevitable.
The trek across The Trail is unique in its diversity of ecosystem... the West side of the Tamiami Trail (from State Road 29 west) is a brackish environment dominated by saltwater species of fish. While the everglades as a whole looks like one giant marsh - there is a slow moving source of water below that flows South. This southbound flow of freshwater is filtered through the areas of natural preserves outlining the length of The Trail where the unique mix of fresh and salt water combine to one of the most awesome fishing ecosystems on the planet.
The West side of The Trail's 'saltier' environment is identifiable through its abundance of red mangroves... where angler's stopping along the water's edge may catch the fleeting glimpse of a tarpon rolling, or a hungry school of snook or jacks crashing on unsuspecting schools of baitfish. The trail is punctuated along its entirety by numerous bridges - many of which are host to predatory fish lying in the shadows below. Along the salty side of The Trail, snook and tarpon lay up under the bridges as an ambush point - or to shelter in place out of the sun. Often times, groups of juvenile snook and tarpon can be heard popping and crashing unwary baitfish that haplessly wonder beneath the shadows of the bridges.
The saltier area of the glades along the Tamiami Trail are the ideal nursery grounds for species like tarpon and snook - where, for the most part, they can grow and develop inshore far enough away from competitors or predators while they mature enough to a sufficient size before moving out into the ocean.
Anglers keen on fishing in this environment need to be gear ready. A trek across the Tamiami Trail is some of the funnest 'jump out' fishing you can do... as the length of the Trail has enough 'shoulder room' for the most part to pull off immediately at the site of promising water. Still, situational awareness is critical as the entire length of the Tamiami Trail is one lane highway... where cars and trucks fly by with little room to get out of the way, and a careless back-cast could mean getting spooled by a passing motorist. Fly anglers need especially beware!
The Tamiami Trail has several designated access points for small watercraft or boat - but for the most part... something like a canoe or kayak can be launched from virtually everywhere... and as good as the bank fishing is, access with small watercraft opens seemingly endless opportunity to fish... and provides a greater advantage in finding more fish.
In my experience, the best action along the West side of the Tamiami Trail occurs when the water is moving. The canals along the Western side of The Trail are tide affected - and when water is really churning - it seems to really turn on the fishing. The general consensus among locals is that early morning, and late evening is the best time to target the popular species like tarpon and snook - when they leave the tucked away pockets of the deep mangroves or bridges, and can be caught out and about in more open water.
As far as The Trail extends from East to West - there is abundant wildlife to be encountered. Beyond the great fishing is great scenery, and a chance encounter with an alligator, different snakes, or even a manatee. The Everglades is also a major migration hub for hundreds of species of migratory birds. The Trail doesn't just bring thousands of anglers each year, but 'birders' from all over the country and world come to the Tamiami Trail to set up and observe mass gatherings of different migratory bird species like the Roseate Spoonbill, white pelicans, herons etc.
I would caution anglers on foot - that I have observed the alligators along the Tamiami Trail to be particularly interested in fisherman... and are well-accustomed to taking a catch. I have been around Alligators most of my life - but it was at the edge of a Tamiami Trail canal that I had one steal a catch from me for the first time. In this instance, its best to just count your losses and move on.
The transition of scenery across the length of the trail is indicative of the change in salinity in the water. The ecosystems change and evolve as each leg of the trail progresses. The transitional points of The Trail are unique in areas in which tarpon, snook, and bass rub shoulders and fisherman can enjoy catching fresh and saltwater species on subsequent casts. Where mangrove shoreline transitions to bald cypress and the water's surface is dotted with lily pads, the freshwater species flourish.
Here, anglers can enjoy some of the best bass fishing in the state - particularly in areas like the infamous 'C Canal', properly named the L-67C. But, for a multi-species enthusiast like me, the elevated banks and clear water conditions of the canal bring about the unique opportunity to sight fish for species like gar and bowfin.
The Bowfin is a staple character of the Everglades... and potentially its longest living freshwater resident. In some areas of the Trail - the rare opportunity to target these fish visually is available. The approach is as simple as walking the length of the canal along its edge... but bowfin are particularly difficult to see in the water. When bowfin lie in wait, totally still they are very easy to miss as they blend in exceptionally well with the tannin stained water and weeds. It is when bowfin are in motion that the rhythmic undulation of their long dorsal fin may give them up. Here - anglers should be able to pitch any variety of natural or artificial lures or baits to the opportunistic bowfin.
A major obstacle (or opportunity depending on how you look at it) is the ever present population of Florida gar. These gar are absolutely everywhere from one end of the Trail to the other - in every area in-between. Understand that sometimes getting a bait down to the bowfin's level means getting it past a cadre of gar eager to take whatever you throw... turning the game of targeting casts at whatever you pursue into the proverbial threading of a needle.
East along the Trail there is also the ever popular presence of one exotic fish - the Peacock Bass. I personally caught my first peacock from the Tamiami Trail. I have found that peacock bass are not particularly hard to coax a bite out of... and that merely finding them is the biggest task when pursuing them. Florida's peacock bass are extremely aggressive predators that will take most anything thrown in their path - especially when bedding. If all else fails, a shiner or live cichlid in their face will generally get them to commit... but other exotic species like oscars, mayan cichlids, and jaguar guapotes are very common as well. South Florida's subtropical climate remains stable enough throughout the year that these exotic invaders native to areas like South America have adapted and flourished 'out of control' but confined within climate areas they can tolerate... a side-affect of mindless aquarium releases some few decades ago, but beyond repair or reverse.
Despite all of the angling opportunity provided by the entire state of Florida - the Tamiami Trail consistently calls me back. Where one long, straight continuous drive on a commute from one side of the state to the other offers some of the best road side fishing in the country. Angler's travelling to Florida for some of its more renown fisheries should not skip the opportunity to fish the Tamiami Trail, where opportunity to experience some of the Everglades finest fishing and wildlife viewing is as simple as pumping the breaks and pulling over.