A trip to the 10,000 Islands, where the tales are tall and the fish are hardy
The self-proclaimed fishing and stone crab capital of southwest Florida, Everglades City is a hidden enclave where a man can escape the hustle of city life and isolate himself on the Florida waters. The gateway to the 10,000 Islands hasn’t grown much in its nearly 150-year existence, and the locals would just as well let it stay that way.
“This is a quiet fishing village with a ton of history,” says local historian Timothy England.” But they don’t see it as history. They don’t see it that way because that’s their lives.”
Some call it island mentality while others call it southern rebel pride and stubbornness. Stuck between Fort Myers and Miami, the town is overlooked yet literally right in the middle of it all. But even after years of isolation, it’s these locals that keep Everglades City the true old Florida gem that it still is today.
Old Florida Style
Everglades City is located 200 miles south of Tampa and was founded in 1875 by white settlers who set up at the mouth of the 10,000 Islands to trade furs with Chokoloskee Indians. George T. Storter is considered the first homeowner in the city. The Storter family lived in the building that is now the Rod and Gun Club and owned much of Everglades City before Baron Collier came to town in 1923. That’s when the town truly got its start.
An advertising guru and entrepreneur, Collier declared Everglades City as the base for the ambitious statewide road: the Tamiami Trail. Much like Henry Flager, Collier was renowned buying and developing giant parcels of land throughout Florida. Everglades City, however, was one of his largest projects. In the 1920s, his goal was to make it into a “model U.S. town,” says England.
Up until 1928, when the trail was officially opened, Collier brought a trolley, electricity, a library and hospital, movie theatres and a three-story department store to the city known for being merely a swamp. Thousands called Everglades City home by 1931. But the Great Depression soon hit and the town went into regression. The modern frills petered out and the population thinned.
Not much has changed since then, and that’s how the town likes it. During the 70s, a drug bust swept away several hundred locals to prison and netted nearly 500,000 pounds of marijuana. Two hurricanes nearly wiped the town clear. And the movie producers don’t come knocking on doors as often.
During peak season (Christmas to Easter), the population spikes at around 3,000, some locals say. Tourists come from all over the world to ride the airboats and see the parks. After the surge, the locals are the ones who hunker down and fight off the mosquitoes. That’s when they truly rely on their biggest attraction these days: fishing.
Tarpon, snook, mullet, stone crab, spiny lobster; Everglades City is synonymous with the greatest fishing in the state. And if you’re going to come fishing in the ‘Glades, you’d better stay at the historic Rod and Gun Club.
The Rod and Gun
The Rod and Gun Club is undoubtedly the center of this small town known for big fishing. A genuine southern home on the Barron River turned premier fishing club, it was first built in 1864 by George Storter. The hotel has seen several owners and a few makeovers throughout the years—including Collier, who took it over in 1922—but has never changed its status as an upscale watering hole for the rich and famous.
“A few miles from where the emerald green water of the Gulf lap the wooded shores of the Everglades, there’s a mighty fireplace where a man’s man can join the symphony of red-blooded sport—the bark of a rifle, the hum of a reel and the swish of a paddle.” – Collier County News advertisement, circa 1927.
The pecky cypress wood, milled right from the Everglades, still lines the walls of the rustic hotel. Much of the furniture is original and displayed prominently with mounted grouper and tarpon trophies, as well as deer and alligator skins. Though the floors creak and there’s no air conditioning, it hasn’t stopped past presidents and some of the country’s most famous actors from staying at the Rod and Gun.
John Wayne, Ernest Hemingway, Burt Reynolds, Sally Fields, Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Theodore Roosevelt are just a few of the names that have stayed here. Even though the resort has lost its luster over the years, it’s still respected as a premier hotel of the south. The hospitality is unmatched and the historic preservation alone is reason to admire this establishment.
Odds are if you’re staying at the Rod and Gun Club, you’re in town for one reason: to fish. The main attraction in Everglades City has, and always will be, the fishing. Decades ago, men would venture into the swamp for adventure and today, they still come for the same reason: to hire a guide and roam the unknown.
One of those men is Tom Wisdo, who lives in Tampa Bay but travels to Everglades City several times a year with his friends to fish the 10,000 Islands. The trout and reds are what attract Wisdo to the area, but it’s also the history of the city and the local legends that keep him coming back.
“The locals are friendly and the natural terrain around the community has not changed in hundreds of years,” he says. “It’s great to fish all day and catch all kinds of fish, come in late in the afternoon and sit on our porch overlooking the Everglades while enjoying a good bourbon and a fine cigar.”
After a long day of fishing, Wisdo likes to take his catch to the Seafood Depot, a local “hook it and cook it” restaurant owned by lifelong Everglades City resident Bill Potter. It’s common to hear airboats rumble by along the river as guests dine at the former train stop turned waterfront restaurant.
Bill says his business was hit hard by the Gulf oil spill and even though he did have a good season in 2011, the area is far different than it was more than a decade ago. That’s a sentiment that local fisherman Buddy Grimm echoes. Octopus, goliath grouper and federal regulations have made it much harder for him to fish in the 10,000 Islands.
Despite all the hardships and despite living in a small town unknown to most people, Potter’s son Nick says he can’t imagine living somewhere other than Everglades City.
“It’s such a small town and at times I hate it but I’d never live anywhere else,” he says.
Where to Stay
The Rod and Gun Club, 200 Riverside Dr., Everglades City, FL 34139
Everglades Isle Motorcoach Retreat, 803 N. Collier Ave., Everglades City, Florida 34139
Where to Eat
Seafood Depot, 102 Collier Ave., Everglades City, FL 34139
The Rod and Gun Club, 200 Riverside Dr., Everglades City, FL 34139
Who to Hire
Captain Brian Richardson
Captain Brandon Acosta