Fisheating Creek

Paddling down Fisheating Creek is an adventure worth taking

 

If you go

The Fisheating Creek Outpost, 7555 U.S. 27 in Palmdale, is the paddling and camping headquarters for the region. For more information, visit www.FisheatingCreekOutpost.com or call 863-675-5999.


scocking@MiamiHerald.com

I probably should have waited until the weather cooled to paddle and camp along south-central Florida’s Fisheating Creek. But when I saw that water levels measured by the USGS gauge near U.S. 27 in Palmdale were running around 5 feet last month, I just had to go right then.

You see, Fisheating Creek, unlike most of our freshwater bodies in southeast Florida, is not manipulated by pumps or gates for flood control. Whatever rain falls into it, that’s how deep it is. And if the rain stops, the creek level drops about a 10th of a foot every day. When the gauge reads lower than 1.5 feet, Alan and Patty Register — operators of the Fisheating Creek Outpost concession — will not offer kayak and canoe shuttles. That’s because paddlers can get stuck doing long portages through the mud, which slows them down and can cause safety issues.

And don’t even think about conducting your own shuttle upstream because you can’t. While the state controls the creek bed and shoreline, the uplands are owned by the Lykes Bros. agribusiness giant, which has enclosed its holdings behind locked gates. The only keys belong to Lykes, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Registers. You will, as they say, just have to go with the flow if you want to explore the upper reaches of this scenic water course.

And scenic doesn’t begin to describe Fisheating Creek — especially now that the bald cypress glimmers brushy green and dappled sunlight forms a halo around the crooked boughs of swamp laurel oaks draped with Spanish moss. Paddling through these woodlands swivels your head constantly; you can’t figure out what not to photograph.

The only drawbacks are summertime heat and bugs. I just chose to put up with them.

Fisheating Creek originates at the southern end of the Lake Wales Ridge in rural Highlands County and winds south and east for about 50 miles to Lake Okeechobee. Best paddling is from Ingram’s Crossing, located about 16 miles upstream from the Outpost, or from Burnt Bridge — an easy day paddle about eight miles upstream. The Outpost will rent you a canoe or kayak or transport yours to both put-in sites. You also can paddle downstream from the Outpost for several miles to the head of Cowbone Marsh, but the Outpost doesn’t do shuttles there, so you’ll have to paddle back upstream. Cowbone Marsh, the subject of a lawsuit (more on that later), is choked with vegetation and deadfalls and is pretty much impassable by any paddlecraft unless water levels are super high.

My plan was to put in at Ingram’s, float downstream, camp overnight at Bonnet Lake adjacent to Burnt Bridge, then continue south to the Outpost. But someone had tampered with the gate lock at Ingram’s, blocking Outpost workers from transporting my kayak and me to the put-in. So I settled for embarking at Burnt Bridge.

Despite the midday heat, I decided to paddle upstream for a few miles until I got tired of it, then make my way down to Bonnet Lake. The current was running full-tilt, but I ignored it, gazing open-mouthed at the beauty of the shimmering forest enhanced with a birdsong soundtrack and devoid of people.

I found myself shaded by the towering cypress through some of the narrower reaches and then back in full sunlight where the creek widens. The banks are dotted with cypress knees at kayak level like little soldiers guarding the shoreline.

These creek banks have been settled for thousands of years, but you can’t really tell from your kayak. The serenity and absence of humans and their accoutrements make you feel like you are the first one here. The only signs of life were swallow-tailed kites, herons and ibis flying by, a few small gators and a herd of wild piglets.

After a couple hours of paddling against the current in 90-plus-degree heat, I had only gone about three miles. So I pointed my kayak downstream and mostly floated back down to Bonnet Lake.

I set up my tent at the campsite, which held a fire ring and a rickety wooden table. I longed for a cooling dip in the creek, but — one after another — about a half-dozen gators up to 10 feet long swam by and paused to gaze at me. So I had to settle for a Baby Wipes bath.

If you expect quiet in the deep woods at night, forget it. From dusk on, the bass croaking of frogs and the calls of night birds filled the air. But after a while, I got used to the noises and fell asleep with my ThermaCell posted just outside the tent to ward off mosquitoes and no-see-ums. It worked, sort of.

The next morning, it seemed weird to hear the roar of a motorboat on the creek: probably an FWC officer because they usually launch from Burnt Bridge.

But I never saw him or her because the boat headed north away from Bonnet Lake.

I broke camp, loaded the kayak, and continued downstream, planning to disembark at the Outpost but wishing I had time to explore as far down as Cowbone Marsh, which is about eight miles north of Lake Okeechobee.

Decades ago, paddlers were able to travel the entire creek from Highlands County to the Big O, but at some point the vegetation clogging Cowbone Marsh blocked their path. After the state purchased the creek corridor from Lykes Bros. in 1999 and created the Fisheating Creek Wildlife Management Area, FWC employees worked to open up the stream to navigation. The FWC’s efforts were challenged by Lykes and state and federal agencies, so the FWC proposed building a temporary road through the marsh and filling in a portion of the creek with sand.

In response, the Sierra Club’s legal arm, Earthjustice, filed suit, and an administrative law judge ruled last week in favor of the Sierra Club. That means Cowbone Marsh might someday be navigable, allowing paddlers to explore it unimpeded.

I made it from Bonnet Lake eight miles to the Outpost without much effort, owing to the rapid current.

Along the way, I spied more soaring swallowtails and a huge gray paper hornet’s nest.

Here’s hoping for cool weather and continued high water this fall to make for a much more comfortable journey.

Read more Outdoors stories from the Miami Herald

  •  
File Photo: Captain Bouncer Smith catches a mackerel near Bug Light on December 15, 1997.

    FISHING

    Popular artificial reef and live bait spot Bug Light demolished

    Bug Light was demolished and removed, which means anglers and charter captains have to look elsewhere for live bait.

  •  
 <span class="cutline_leadin">Good to go:</span> Ryan Bancroft of Weston measures one of the lobsters he caught in the waters of Biscayne Bay near Fishermen’s Channel in July 2013.

    Lobster fishing | Annual two-day miniseason (Wed.-Thu.)

    Claw and order expected for Florida’s annual two-day lobster miniseason

    Florida’s largest undeclared state holiday — the annual two-day lobster miniseason — arrives Wednesday and Thursday. Thousands of hopeful scuba divers, snorkelers and bully netters will crowd the state’s waterways, vying for neighborhood barbecue supremacy.

  •  
 <span class="cutline_leadin">Saving the day:</span> John Long releases a tarpon caught on fly rod by Sue Cocking off the Marquesas Keys.

    In My Opinion

    Tarpon make for nice backup plan

    Captain John Long and I zipped west in his skiff from Key West to the Marquesas Keys on Wednesday, filled with anticipation of permit. A few days earlier, anglers competing in the three-day Del Brown Invitational Permit Tournament had released 15 on fly and the winner, Nathaniel Linville, had five releases. That might not sound like much to a non-fly angler, but it’s huge. And on the previous day, Long and a friend had no less than 40 shots at permit on the flats west of Key West. They hooked two and lost them.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category