Early on a humid April morning, I find myself sleepily observing the creatures of the Wawa gas station, waiting for Jeff to pull in and fuel up. He and his wife Christina arrive at 5:00 AM on the dot, towing his guide green Hell’s Bay Professional. He fuels the boat up and loads Arizona Ice Tea into the cooler, with a casual familiarity unique to locals—he knows what aisle holds his tea, has a favorite pump—and starts the 30-minute drive to the boat ramp by 5:15.
As we drive south towards Everglades City, the houses get fewer and the moonlight exposes expansive Everglades marsh that borders US 41. Today is Jeff’s first “fun” fishing day in months, he’s pumped to cast at some tarpon himself.
Being Naples natives, we talk about the constant changes to our home. Development continues to swallow up marsh land East and South of our home town, making the river of grass smaller and smaller all the time. Over-development is not just shrinking the size of our fishery, but critically worsening water quality. Captains for Clean Water is fighting the good fight to restore and protect our precious water resources.
Thankfully, not much has changed in Everglades City over the years. There are no sprawling developments or high-rise condos, just fishing guides, commercial fishermen, and people trying to escape the ever-developing South Florida. As we cross over the bridge and enter downtown, it’s as if the stilted houses are stuck in time.
The mangrove crabs scurry off of the boat ramp at Glades Haven, as Jeff backs the trailer to the water’s edge, slowly pushing the skiff off of the trailer. It is here, among mangrove islands, and the flowing rivers of tannic water, where the houses stop, and the raw beauty of the Everglades begins.
In the Everglades, you can feel a good tarpon day when you get on the water. There’s a wet stillness in the air, no wind, 80 degrees at sunrise, and the no-see-ums are in full force. The conditions are a nightmare for some—but for a tarpon fisherman, it’s a dream.
Jeff idles into a slicked out cove and kills the motor. Like clockwork, two fish roll as we arrive at 12:00 noon. “Exactly where they should be on this tide,” Jeff says. I hop up on the poling platform, two cameras at my feet, and tell Jeff to take the bow. Within minutes, a tarpon slips up and gives itself away—we can see it elevate and lay up with both fins breaking the surface.
Jeff makes a smooth and quiet presentation one foot in front of her face. On the first strip, the fly vanishes and the 70-pound fish greyhounds away, clearing the fly line in a matter of seconds.
The fish jumps and cartwheels in the air, violently shaking it’s gills to ditch the fly. The battle is brief but intense—Jeff skillfully applies as much pressure as the class tippet can handle. Each jump is like a cannonball breaking the surface until the fish finally succeeds in spitting the fly.
Stepping down from the casting platform, Jeff grabs a new fly before making the move to the next spot. What was once a still and peaceful bay is now scattered with giant muds from spooked tarpon. As we idle out you can see the leftover bubbles on the surface from each jump the fish made heading towards open water.
With a higher sun, the greens of the water and mangroves start to pop, and the tarpon lay up to warm themselves in the afternoon light. Jeff poles slowly and methodically – creeping into the best part of the bay. There they are, two tarpon floating high and resting. Christina presented the fly perfectly, but both fish refused the fly and eventually spooked off. This is increasingly common, tarpon here are under growing fishing pressure. Time to move on.
The afternoon sea breeze turned on as we ripped south to the next spot. The wind was fighting the falling tide, and white caps moved in from the channel. We escaped from the turbulent pass into a basin with slightly dirty water. When the wind turns out of the South or West in the Everglades, the water starts to resemble chocolate milk. This can make it more difficult to see fish but they tend to eat a lot better in those water conditions. I continued to pole slowly and with purpose, suddenly spotting a laid up tarpon 30 feet at 11 o’clock. In this game, you must be fast, accurate, and stealthy at a moment’s notice and that is exactly what Jeff preaches. His fly landed softly and right in the zone, the tarpon felt it instantly – surging upwards at the fly and coming tight. This fish wasn’t as lucky as the first one and was hooked right on the button, the center of the upper jaw.
In true “Legutki Style” I kicked my feet up and let the man himself put on a tarpon fighting clinic. The fish would steer right and he would apply low directional rod pressure to the left stopping the fish in its tracks and quickly breaking it’s will. Jeff grabbed the leader and swung the fish over for the face grab—she was done.
While reviving the fish, it’s hard not to just be in awe of the tarpon—and just getting your hands on one fish makes the years of effort that goes into chasing these fish worth it. As the fish swims off strong into the current, we decide to end on a high note and make our way home.
Riding back towards Everglades City, through winding mangrove channels and around oyster beds, civilization comes back into sight. Cars whiz down the highways as we cross Chokoloskee Bay, and I snap back to reality. Thinking back on the day, fishing with Jeff Legutki–a guide that I have looked up to for years–was a thrill that far exceeded expectations. And my expectations were high. Jeff is universally accepted as a legend in this game, for good reason. His knowledge of this fishery is boundless. And although the seasons and the target species are always changing, Jeff’s passion for those fish stays true and shines through, every day of the year.
Where did you grow up and how long have you been guiding?
Jeff: I grew up in Naples Florida my whole life and I have been guiding this area now since the turn of the century in 2000.
What makes the Everglades and the 10K Islands so special?
Jeff: There’re endless opportunities year-round for multiple species of fish. The 10k islands allows you to hide from the elements and gives protection from the winds.
What rod weights do you typically use?
Jeff: For tarpon, I like to use a 9-weight rod on smaller fish and 10 and 11-weight setups for larger fish. For redfish and snook, I like a delicate presentation with a 7 and 8 weight set up.
How does the Everglades fishery differ between the winter and summer months?
Jeff: I live to sight fish, so the wintertime is much better giving us our lowest low tides of the year making sight fishing at its best. The northerly winds blow the water out from the mangroves filtering and cleaning the water. Summertime with the rains and the higher high tides turn the water very tannin and dark making it very tough to sight fish. This makes plug rods and artificial lures much more productive than the fly rods blind-casting.
What makes an ideal client? How would you recommend a client prepare for a guided trip?
Jeff: An experienced angler makes for a stellar day with a guide. I would say do some research of the area you’re fishing and make sure you can double haul and shoot line accurately in every direction. And as always listen to your guide!
What are some qualities that make a great guide?
Jeff: Experience and hard work make a great guide. Through trial and error learning as we go to deal with each different personality every day. As well as taking the time to teach each client proper techniques, what to look for and where to cast. When an opportunity does not work out, I take the time to explain why it didn’t and how it could have been better for that particular scenario.
Who do you look up to in the fly fishing game?
Jeff: In all honesty, I look up to so many for so many different things too many to name. I even have respect for some of the young crew coming up who’ve been around doing it respectfully on their own finding their own way without stepping on the toes of their peers. Those are the guides I look up to.
What is your favorite memory of fishing with your friend Jose Wejebe?
Jeff: The sound of his laughter echoing through the mangroves as we’d be out there acting like kids just chasing fish and having a good time. Cussing in Spanish every time he got snagged in the trees. I miss him dearly.
Heard you run around without a GPS. Is that true? How do you navigate through the maze of mangrove channel and islands?
Jeff: Yes, still to this day I do not have a GPS on my boat and I’m proud of not having to rely on electronics. Growing up in the 80s, we had no GPS, all we had was a green and yellow NOAA chart that had horrible detail. The key to navigation is repetition day in & day out, high tide, low tide throughout the year reading the islands, recognizing how the water moves, and using landmarks as aids from one point to the next. Knowledge of a waterway comes with endless time on the water and paying attention to all the little details.
What is your favorite fish to target and why?
Jeff: Tarpon takes the lead for every reason, the eat, the power, the jumps! And, it’s the only real migratory fish we chase with a particular season and time limit. In general anything, I can sight fish, target, and cast to are always my favorites. I love how shallow redfish go and how they completely expose themselves and are usually willing to take the fly. As well as the snook, he’s the perfect ambush predator that is so hard to see. They are so sneaky hiding deep underneath the mangroves and constantly testing the ability of every fly fisherman.
Beyond fishing can you briefly expound on your passion for surfing?
Jeff: I love surfing as much as I love fishing! It’s a way of self-expression and it’s different every time you do it so it took a lot to become very good. I love the tribalism with all your local friends laughing and having a good time. In Naples it didn’t happen a lot but when I did it was a special moment and some of the best times of my life! Plus looking at girls in bikinis on the beach sure beat looking at your buddy in baggies on the front of the boat in the middle of the mangrove islands. Lol
What changes have you seen in the Everglades and Gulf over your years of guiding?
Jeff: In the most unfortunate way in my lifetime I’ve watched all the grass disappear and the numbers of fish thin out. The amount of pressure and pollution on the water today is too much for the area to handle. It’s tough to remember how it used to be and how different it is today. The fishery has turned into a very difficult one, requiring its anglers to be patient and be able to execute with precision when the moment arises. Finding willing fish nowadays is tough, they don’t just come over to eat the fly anymore.
How long do you plan on guiding? What legacy do you hope to leave behind?
Jeff: I love guiding to the point where it does not feel like a job to me. I hope I can do it as long as my body allows and the fishery is willing. As far as a legacy, I don’t know, I guess to be known as a very hard-working, passionate guide who loved being out there every day doing what he loves to do.
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