Living Sanibel: Fisheating Creek Wildlife Management Area
The most attractive feature of Fisheating Creek is the complete absence of houses, cabins, or any substantial development along its 52 miles of navigable waterway. Aside from a few private roads leading down to the water and the train trestle next to the Highway 27 overpass near the town of Palmdale, Fisheating Creek is a true wilderness waterway.
Ancient bald cypress trees tower over this free-flowing stream, while immense alligators bask on small patches of sandy shoreline. The creek teems with bream, bass, and crappie. On the higher ridges massive live oak branches reach out over the water, their limbs covered with resurrection fern and bromeliads. Deer, wild boar, and wild turkeys can often be spotted along the shoreline, and swallowtail kites and crested caracaras hover overhead. Cypress knees appear to spring up everywhere, sometimes catching the keel of the canoe and making for some unexpected bumps and spins for the inexperienced paddler. The water is stained almost black by the tannic acid coming off the roots of the cypress and oak forests, and it runs deep and steady through these untouched remnants of what much of Florida must have looked like 500 years ago.
The headquarters for much of the activity on the creek is the Fisheating Creek Outpost, which is located on the west side of U.S. Highway 27 about a mile north of where State Road 29 enters the highway. The campground, renovated in 2010, is operated by Patty and Allen Register, who also run the nearby roadside attraction, Gatorama. It has 120 campsites, ranging from primitive tent sites right along the creek to 52 RV sites, most with hook-ups for water, electricity, and sewer. Several of the primitive tent sites sit along the shoreline of Depot Lake, which is kept free of alligators and a popular swimming hole during the warmer months of the year. Every campsite has a picnic table and a fire pit, and the communal bathhouses offer hot showers and restrooms. Firewood is available at the nearby camp store.
The history of the creek is a fascinating study in riparian rights and the power of a community committed to preserving a beautiful piece of wilderness. Almost all of the land abutting the creek was owned by the Lykes Brothers, who were, and in many ways still are, the local land barons for much of this section of Glades County. The land, some 300,000 acres, was purchased by Dr. Howell Tyson Lykes in the 1880s and inherited by his seven sons. At one point the family owned 76 percent of Glades County. The Lykes Brothers Company became the largest cattle producer and biggest meatpacking firm in Florida.
In 1989 the family decided to close the campground and canoe concession located in Palmdale (the same location where the Outpost is today) and seal off the entire creek to the general public. The citizens of Glades County were outraged by the sudden and unexpected closure of one of the most popular fishing and outdoor destinations in their county. Under U.S. law, any navigable body of water is open to use by the public. The question was this: Was Fisheating Creek a navigable body of water?
Within months paddlers, campers, fishermen, and hunters, as well as the local Sierra Club and the Calusa Group came together to form a nonprofit organization called Save Our Creeks. The group was a unique combination of environmentalists, hunters, and fishermen who felt they were about to lose access to this pristine stretch of water. The lawsuit over these riparian rights continued for 10 years until, on Feb. 19, 1998, Judge Charles Carlton ruled that Fisheating Creek was navigable, and by the laws and statutes pertaining to these rights, it belonged not to Lykes Brothers, but to the people. Lykes Brothers immediately appealed the judge’s decision. To put an end to the court battle, the parties agreed to a settlement calling for the state of Florida to purchase a corridor along the creek under the auspices of CARL (Conservation and Recreation Lands Program) and using funds from the Florida Forever Act. The state purchased 18,272 acres, which became known as the Fisheating Creek Wildlife Management Area. The settlement came with stipulations that prohibit the use of motorized vehicles, airboats, and personal watercraft, along with some specific hunting regulations, which are posted on the website.
Today Save Our Creeks is embroiled in a battle to connect Fisheating Creek to Lake Okeechobee. Although it comes within nine miles of the lake, the creek eventually widens out into a massive swamp known as Cowbone Marsh. Thick floating vegetation and a newly built weir prevent paddlers from making it all the way to the Big “O.” Although most of Fisheating Creek itself is protected, there is always more work to be done to preserve and protect these wild waterways.
This is an excerpt from The Living Gulf Coast – A Nature Guide to Southwest Florida by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.