Some folks believe that paddling into these areas of the mangrove fringe of the Everglades is somewhat dangerous. Well, they probably are correct, but I believe their general reasoning is wrong, and that misunderstanding, I’m afraid, makes it actually more dangerous - for them - if they were to give it a try.
There are many different perceived threats in the mangrove environment that tend to dissuade the timid, or uneducated, from venturing out. Getting lost is likely the major deterrent. Next, gators and sharks probably lead the list, but snakes and bugs score high points too. In my opinion none of the above are legitimate concerns, well maybe the bugs, but they are only an instigator, not a primary threat. Becoming disoriented is now a lost art with the advent of the newer electronics. Its just not as much fun as it used to be.
Lets do away with the sharks first. Yes, there are sharks, and actually I have been seeing more lately than ever before. The vast majority of the ones in the backcountry are juvenile Lemon sharks and Blacktips. They are usually four feet in length, or less, and neither species is known to be particularly harmful to man. It is true that Bullsharks also inhabit these waters and they are known man-eaters, but again, in the back, they are usually juveniles. It is not uncommon, however, to come across monster sized Bullsharks outside on the flats, and I have no doubt they travel up the rivers into the brackish environments. It is exactly this habit that, worldwide, has them ranked as the species that annually attacks humans the most. If you want to see one that will make your small hairs stand just go outside and chum. They are actually quite common. If you don’t want to encounter them, don’t go outside and don’t chum. And most important of all, simply stay in the canoe.
Nor is there any doubt that alligators are common throughout the Everglades. In the mangrove fringe you will find them too, especially during the summer, our upcoming wet season. Gators don’t really like salty water, although they can stand it for a short duration, so they are far less common during the dry season, at least in the mangroves. It’s a completely different story up in the freshwater environment where they get concentrated into an incredible density as the waters evaporate. The thing is: a truly wild gator wants nothing to do with a paddler in a canoe and will flee at the very first hint of the angler approaching. This does cause some paddlers concern, as a gator will always head for the water to escape. If you are paddling along and catch one on shore by surprise, it will quickly dive for the water, even if the paddler blocks its path. Many tourists are sure it is attacking, and panic. So, not unlike angling in bear country, the safe way to travel is to make noise to let them know you are coming. It doesn’t take much to warn them, they are usually very alert. Also, like bears, treat gators like the large apex predators they are, with substantial physical ability to harm. In other words give them respect and wide berth and chances are you will be fine. I take comfort in the fact that there are thousands of gator/human interactions in the Everglades every year and very few make the news. The ones that do are almost always when somebody does something stupid like try to approach, feed, or train a gator that has had previous similar human interaction. In the wilderness areas the gators are almost 100% wild, with the exception of those near the designated campsites, where tourists and stupidity are found. In those areas you need to be extra careful.
While gators are by far more popular, in the mangroves the more populous big water lizard is the American Crocodile. These guys get larger and are much more scary in appearance. Luckily, unlike their cousins in Australia or along the Nile, this species has little history of attacking humans. If anything, they are even more sensitive and flee with such haste that it is shocking. While a small gator can be a nuisance when flyfishing with a popper, a young croc seemingly will not even hurt a fly.
Snakes and swamps seem to go together, so since most people think the Everglades is a big swamp there must be a lot of snakes. It is true that up in the freshwater areas there are plenty of water snakes, including the venomous Water Moccasin, but in the mangroves, snakes are actually quite rare. Or at least, in my experience, they always have been. That is not to say snakes were never seen. I’ve come across a few beautiful but dangerous Diamondback Rattlesnakes swimming/floating across the water. I also once found one where I was about to launch my canoe. Since then I never begin to launch before dawn without checking first. So, there are some snakes but in my experience to encounter one, of any species, is very rare. And, as long as I am in my canoe on the water, I do not believe they pose any threat.
At least that is how it used to be. We now have a new invasive species of snake that has created quite a stir: the Burmese Python. These very large constrictors may number in the thousands now and no legitimate cure for their invasion has been found. At first they were thought to be primarily located in the upper freshwater Everglades but as their numbers increase they have begun to show up down in the mangrove areas. I’ve yet to see one when on the water but I have run across a few on the roads not far from the mangrove fringe, and as the photo shows, they are now being found in the saltwater zone of Everglades National Park. No attacks on humans have been noted, unless you count the ones where the human initiated the interaction. Considering their size and the number of recurved teeth in their jaw I have no plans on initiating contact unless it is with the tires on my van.
That leaves us with bugs. And boy do we have bugs! The Everglades is famous for mosquitoes, but they are not the only biting insects. We also have deerflies and sandflies, the latter also know as no-see-ums. We wont bother to talk about chiggers, which are completely land based.
The Tabinid Deerfly is the largest of the bunch. Slow, stupid and relentless, their bite does not hurt that much, at first, but given time it will lead to much itching and swelling, and both symptoms can last for days. If allowed to dine for a few seconds your blood will flow freely from the bite. They are attracted to movement, so swatting at them is counterproductive – and of course they are particularly attracted to the moving hand of a fly caster, where if not deterred their bites will cause enough swelling to make the fingers of the hand incapable of holding a rod.
Sandflies, actually a biting midge, are most numerous near the salty mouths of the estuaries. Almost small enough to be invisible on the skin, they swarm in numbers that can be perceived as clouds of dust. They are most active at dawn and dusk when the calm winds allow them to fly. Their bite is not unlike being scalded by hot water. They have a penchant for small places where they can dine somewhat protected, like in the eyes behind your sunglasses or under collars, but any unprotected patch of skin will do.
Then of course we have the Saltmarsh Mosquito. Famous for their tenacity, while other species of mosquito may swarm about before biting, this one attacks like a thrown dart. Their bite is actually less painful than the previous two buggers mentioned, at least to me, but their numbers can be hard to imagine, and therefor their onslaught can be relentless. Their wings produce an audible whine that individually can be annoying near your ears, and cumulatively can be horrifying when they are getting warmed up in the evening. During daylight hours they mostly stay in the shade or hide under leaves, but when night falls they are let loose by the billions like miniature hounds of hell. During the day, fishing in open water they can be tolerable, its getting to that open water through the shady mangrove creeks that will test your bug tech. Luckily they are very seasonal, and significantly reduced when during the cooler months. Once the wet summer season begins it is unimaginable to be out after dark.
And while my description of the biting insects may sound austere, they actually are not a health concern to the extent that they are dangerous. Now, they may induce you to do something stupid, which may be dangerous, the bugs by themselves are not.
The true dangers of paddling into the mangroves are very real, but a lot less obvious, and will be addressed appropriately in a future front page. For today, enjoy the photos of the things not to worry about.