Early on a wet April morning, I find myself watching sleepy Wawa gas station creatures, waiting for Jeffy to step inside and refuel. He and his wife Christina arrive at the point at 5:00 a.m., pulling out his green Hell’s Bay Professional guide. He refuels the boat and loads the Arizona Ice Tea into the cooler, with a unique acquaintance unique to locals – he knows in what aisle he holds his tea, has a favorite pump – and begins the 30-minute drive to boat ramp at 5:15 p.m. .
As we travel south toward the city of Everglades, houses become fewer and the moonlight exposes the vast Everglades swamp bordering the US 41. Today is the first “fun” day of fishing for Jeff on the moon, he is pumped to throw the tarpon himself.
Being a native of Naples, we talk about the constant changes in our home. Development continues to swallow the swampy soil east and south of our hometown, making the grass river smaller and smaller all the time. Over-development is not only reducing the size of our fishery, but is also critically deteriorating water quality. Captains for clean water are 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 big developments or tall buildings, just fishing guides, commercial fishermen and people trying to escape the ever-evolving South Florida. As we cross the bridge and enter the city center, it is as if paved houses have stalled in time.
Mangrove crabs run from the boat platform at Glades Haven as Jeff supports the trailer to the water’s edge, slowly pushing the boat out of the trailer. It is here, between the mangrove islands and the rivers that flow with 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 climb on the water. There is a damp stillness in the air, odorless, 80 degrees at sunrise and the no-see-umet are in full force. Conditions are a nightmare for some – but for a tarpon fisherman, it’s a dream.
Jeff gets into the hollow in a bare harbor and kills the engine. Like the clock, two fish spin as we arrive at 12:00 noon. “Exactly where they need to be in this wave,” says Jeff. I climb on the Polish platform, two cameras at my feet and tell Jeff to take the bow. Within minutes, a tarpon slides and gives way – we can see it raised and outstretched with both feathers breaking the surface.
Jeff makes a smooth and calm presentation with one foot in front of her face. In the first strip, the fly disappears and the 70-pound fish leaves, clearing the fly line in seconds.
The fish jumps and spins in the air, forcefully shaking its gills to remove the fly. The battle is short but intense – Jeff skillfully exerts as much pressure as the class machine can withstand. Each jump is like a ball breaking the surface until the fish finally manages to spit out the fly.
Descending from the throwing platform, Jeff grabs a new fly before moving to the next location. What was once a quiet and peaceful bay is now strewn with giant mud from trembling tarpon. While we are idle outside, you can see the bubbles left on the surface from every jump of the fish heading towards the open water.
With a higher sun, the water greens and mangroves start to explode, and the tarpon stretches to warm itself in the afternoon light. Jeff poles slowly and methodically – crawling on the best part of the breast. Here they are, two tarpons floating up and resting. Christina presented the fly perfectly, but both fish rejected the fly and eventually got scared. This is becoming more common, tarpons here are under increasing fishing pressure. Time to move forward.
The afternoon sea breeze lit up as we headed south to the other place. The wind was fighting the falling wave and the white hats moved out of the canal. Salvation from turbulent passage in a basin of slightly polluted water. When the wind blows from the south or west into the Everglades, the water begins to resemble chocolate milk. This may make it harder for the fish to watch, but they tend to eat much better in those water conditions. I kept pushing slowly and deliberately, I suddenly spotted a tarpon set 30 meters at 11 o’clock. In this game, you have to be fast, accurate and secretive at one point and that’s exactly what Jeff preaches. His fly landed lightly and right in the area, the tarpon felt him instantly – climbing up on the fly and squeezing. This fish was not as lucky as the first and was fixed exactly to the button, in the center of the upper jaw.
In “True Legutki Style” I lifted my legs and let the man himself set up a tarpon combat clinic. The fish would turn to the right and he would exert low rod direction pressure to the left by stopping the fish in its tracks and quickly breaking its will. Jeff grabbed the leader and spun the fish to catch the face – it was over.
When reviving a fish, it’s hard not to be simply afraid of the tarpon – and simply holding a fish in your hand makes the years of pursuit of these fish worthwhile. As the fish swim hard in the stream, we decide to finish with a high grade and go home.
Turning in the direction of the city of Everglades, through the winding canals of mangroves and around the oyster beds, civilization returns to the eye. Cars move along highways as we cross Chokoloskee Bay and I get back to reality. Thinking about that day, fishing with Jeff Legutki – a guide I have seen for years – was an emotion 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 target species are always changing, Jeff’s passion for those fish stays true and shines every day of the year.
Where did you grow up and how long have you been running?
Jeff: I grew up in Naples Florida all my life and have been leading this area now since the end of the century in 2000.
What makes the Everglades and the 10K Islands so special?
Jeff: There are endless opportunities all year round for many types of fish. The 10 thousand islands allow you to hide from the elements and provide you with protection from the winds.
What rod weights do you usually use?
Jeff: For tarpon, I like to use a 9-pound rod in smaller fish and 10 and 11-weight configurations for larger fish. For goldfish and snook, I like a subtle presentation with a 7 and 8 weight configuration.
How does Everglades fishing differ between the winter and summer months?
Jeff: I live to see fish, so winter is so much better giving us our lowest tides of the year making sightseeing fishing at its best. North winds draw water from mangroves by filtering and purifying the water. Summers with rain and high tides turn the water very tan and dark making it very difficult to see the fish. This makes plugs and artificial lures much more productive than casting fly rods.
What makes an ideal customer? How would you recommend a client to prepare for a guided trip?
Jeff: An experienced fisherman makes a starry day with a guide. I would say do some research in the area where you are fishing and make sure you can double down and shoot the line accurately in any direction. And as always listen to your guide!
What are some qualities that make a great guide?
Jeff: Experience and hard work are a wonderful guide. Through trial and error learning as we go to deal with every different personality every day. As well as finding time to teach each client the right techniques, what to look for and where to throw. When an option does not work, I find time to explain why it did not work and how it could have been better for that particular scenario.
Who are you looking for in the fly fishing game?
Jeff: With all sincerity, I ask so many different things to mention many things. I even have respect for some of the new teams coming in, who have been around doing this with respect themselves, finding their way without breaking the fingers of their peers. These are the guides I look at.
What is your favorite memory from fishing with your friend Jose Wejebe?
Jeff: The sound of his laughter echoes through the manholes as we would be out there becoming like kids just following the fish and having a good time. Swearing in Spanish whenever he was caught in the tree. I miss him so much.
I heard you ran without GPS. Is it true? How do you navigate the canal maze and mangrove islands?
Jeff: Yes, I still do not have a GPS on my boat and I’m proud that I do not have 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 details. The key to navigation is the repetition of day and day, high tide, year-round tide, reading of islands, recognizing water movement, and using reference points as aids from one point to another. The knowledge of a waterway comes with endless time in the water and paying attention to every little detail.
What is your favorite fish to target and why?
Jeff: Tarpon takes the lead for every reason, eating, power, jumps! And, it is the only real migratory fish we follow with a certain season and timeline. Overall, anything, I can look at fish, targeting and throwing for which are always my favorites. I like how shallow goldfish go and how they are fully exposed and usually ready to take the fly. Like the snook, he is the perfect host predator that is so hard to see. They are so filthy hiding deep under mangroves and constantly testing the ability of any fly fisherman.
Beyond fishing, can you briefly explain 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 like tribalism with all your local friends laughing and having a good time. Not much happened in Naples, but when I did it was a special moment and some of the best periods of my life! Plus seeing the girls in bikinis on the beach, you definitely see your friend with bags on the front of the boat between the mangrove islands. Lol
What changes have you seen in the Everglades and Gulf over the years of your leadership?
Jeff: In the most unfortunate way in my life, I have seen all the grass disappear and the number of fish fade. The amount of pressure and pollution in the water today is excessive to cope with the area. It’s hard to remember how it used to be and how different it is today. Fishing has turned into a very difficult fishery, requiring its fishermen to be patient and be able to execute accurately when the moment comes. Finding ready-made fish nowadays is hard, they no longer come just to eat the fly.
How long do you plan to instruct? What legacy do you hope to leave behind?
Jeff: I like to drive to the point where it doesn’t seem like work to me. I hope I can do it as long as my body allows and the fishing is ready. As for the heritage, I do not know, I think I am known as a very hardworking, passionate guide who liked to be there every day doing what he likes to do.
Thanks Jeff for the time! Be sure to check out Jeff online HERE and on his Instagram at @captjefflegutki.
Photos and article by Oliver Rogers, check out more of Oliver’s work on his website HERE and on Instagram at @oliverrogers.
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