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Glade runner: Guide searches for trophy fish in Florida backwaters

By: By Brent Frazee, McClatchy Newspapers

CHOKOLOSKEE, Fla. (MCT) - Rodney Raffield was taking the scenic route to some of Florida's best back-country fishing.

As he motored across a bay off the Gulf of Mexico, he guided his flats boat into a small opening in the mangroves that many fishermen wouldn't have even noticed.

Seconds later, he was weaving his way through a mangrove tunnel - a narrow creek that was covered overhead by a canopy of tree limbs.

The saltwater creek was no more than 10 feet wide, but the water was five to six feet deep. That was plenty deep enough to get a boat through and to hold fish.

"Most people either don't know about this creek or wouldn't want to come back in here," Raffield said as he ducked tree limbs and spider webs. "It's a little intimidating if you don't know much about it. It goes back a long ways.

"But I've lived here my whole life and I've been poking around this back country since I was a kid.

"I know that this little creek can hold some big fish. And once you get to the end of it, it empties into a big flat that also holds fish.

"It takes a good half-hour to get back here, but it's worth it."

So Raffield, a charter captain who runs the Captain Rodney's Back Country Experience guide service, pressed on, skillfully weaving his boat through the maze of overhanging tree limbs so that he hardly ever got slapped in the face.

Once he reached a deeper stretch of water, he put his motor in neutral and got out his fishing rods.

"When we have a cold front come through like this, the fish will sit in these holes," he said. "Let's try it."

With that, he baited hooks with cut bait and instructed his guide clients - Dave Perkins of Eden Prairie, Minn., and me - to toss the lines to the edge of a dropoff.

Not long after, Perkins felt a tap and set the hook. Then he watched as a large redfish splashed to the surface. The fish dug hard for the bottom, then strained to reach the mangrove roots at the edge of the water.

But seconds later, the fish was in the net and Raffield was admiring another Everglades trophy.

"That redfish could go close to 10 pounds," he said as he released the fish. "That's what we're looking for."

There were others where that one came from - other redfish that were landed and big snook that hit with a fury and zipped into the mangrove roots, breaking the line.

No, the action wasn't fast and furious. But in the midst of a cold front, it still gave an idea of why the Chokoloskee area in southwest Florida has always been famous for its back-country fishing.

"We'll find snook, redfish and trout back in here," said Raffield, 42. "Sometimes we'll even hook some small tarpon, but they're hard to get in. They'll just tear these mangroves up."

Raffield laughed and paused to soak in the scenery.

Birds flitted from branch to branch in the mangroves, breaking the silence with their loud squawks. A manatee slowly swam under the boat. And the water roiled with fish chasing minnows.

This is Raffield's world. He speaks with pride when he says that four generations of his family have lived in the Chokoloskee area.

"My granddaddy was a guide out of the Rod and Gun Club in the 1940s," Raffield said, referring to a famous resort in Everglades City. "Back then, it was an exclusive fishing spot. You couldn't drive in, you had to boat in.

"And the fishing was unbelievable. They'd troll and catch 50 to 100 snook a day, lot of them 10 pounds or bigger."

It isn't that way anymore. But the fishing still can be eye-opening at times. Big snook, redfish, trout, tarpon, goliath groupers and snappers still roam these waters, which are part of Everglades National Park.

And Raffield carries on the family tradition, going out weekly in search of them.

"My family has always been in the stone crab business," he said. "My dad has caught more stone crabs than anyone else down here. Newspapers have done articles on him and they call him 'the King of the Stone Crabbers.'

"We run crab traps and sell the crabs commercially. That's how I started out down here.

"But we'd also take our crab boat and go fishing once the work was done, and my family showed me a lot of hidden spots where the fish would be."

Raffield is reminded of Florida's rich past almost daily. Much the same as in the past, the stone crab industry is still alive and well in this part of the state and Raffield's family is still involved.

The Everglades City Rod and Gun Club is still in operation, proudly boasting about a guest list that included President Harry S. Truman, actors John Wayne, Burt Reynolds, Sally Field and Sean Connery, rock and roll legend Mick Jagger, and novelist Ernest Hemmingway.

And fishermen still flock to the area to cast for abundant fish.

"The fish are in this back country year-round," Raffield said. "You have to pay attention to the tides, and you have to know where to go. And cold fronts in the winter can really hurt the fishing.

"But when conditions are right, you can usually catch something. There are just a lot of fish living in this area."

© 2009, The Kansas City Star.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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