As I crossed the causeway entering Sanibel Island in Florida, the sun was just peeking over the horizon illuminating the sky with a brilliant glow of orange. Soon thereafter, I was hopping on board a saltwater flats boat for a morning of fishing on the very northern tip of Captiva Island. I was there on business, but there was no way I was coming here without getting a line wet.
I had the chance to spend a few days at the beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel in Southwest Florida with a handful of other outdoor writers. We started out fishing the flats of the Pine Island Sound, casting jigs using spinning reels with 12-pound mono. The water was like glass, and after a few casts, I hooked my first ladyfish. I’m mostly a freshwater fisherman, so at best I can compare ladyfish to a small northern pike — long, thin and slimy— but great little fighters. I was fishing with my buddy Jim Zaleski, a tournament bass fisherman from Kansas. Once he got on a roll, he was banging a ladyfish on every other cast, making it look almost too easy. We then moved into a little deeper water and caught sea trout using the same technique. After we caught and released close to 40 ladyfish and sea trout, the water had warmed up enough to get the redfish moving. The water at only 60 degrees, so the redfish were not super-aggressive. We were moving around the flats sight-fishing, trying to spot schools and sneak up on them. We used a simple rig— hook and egg sinker, with live pinfish as bait. We flipped the baits in the openings between the seedbeds targeting the reds that were moving and feeding. As the sun got higher, we moved in a little closer to the mangroves and flipped the baits up close to them. When I saw my line take off, I set the hook. After a frantic tail splash 30 feet from the boat, my rod bent in half as a giant red took off peeling the line from the spool. I wore him
down. But when he got close he exploded with a final burst and went right under the boat. I stuck my rod in the water as he wrapped it under the boat. When the battle subsided, we netted him, took a few quick pics, and put him back in the bay. “Prime time for redfish is when the water gets up over 65 degrees, which can be as early as the end of February, but usually the bite gets hot starting in March,” explained Captain Tim Hickey of Makin’ Waves Charter Services. But the redfish bite is one of those that’s pretty good no matter what time of year you go. Redfish are in the drum family, but they are excellent tablefare and absolutely a blast to catch. They are a powerful fish and put up a great fight, as most saltwater fish do.
On day two, we were blessed with another gorgeous day- sunny, clear and 70 degrees. The tide was out making the water too shallow for us to get the boat up in the bay where the reds were so we went after more sea trout and ladyfish. Sea trout are great to eat, but they need to be over 15 inches to keep. We caught a variety of other fish including flounder, Jack Crevalle and Spanish mackerel. The diversity of species is arguably one of the coolest aspects of saltwater fishing— you never know what you might hook into at any given moment. Joined by a handful of other outdoor writers, I finished off the trip at the Captiva Island Inn for a dinner that was incredible and a key lime pie that was hands-down the best I have ever eaten.
I stayed at the South Seas Island Resort and the accommodations were absolutely outstanding. Luxurious rooms, excellent service by all of the staff, world-class dining, and just about every activity under the sun including swimming in the ocean or pools, tennis, dolphin watching, shelling, even sailing lessons. In addition to being a fisherman’s paradise, The beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel are a great place to bring the entire family. There are plenty of fantastic accommodations varying from house rentals to resort condos. The area is also rich in history with tours of the estates of Edison and Ford, as well as one of the most photographed sites on the islands — a lighthouse built in 1884.
Before heading home, I had to pick a few shells for my kids. And the beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel are loaded with them in soft, powdery white sand. Check tide tables and at low tide you will have the opportunity to find a variety of thousands of cool shells along miles and miles of public access beaches.
The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is an estuary that is a must-visit. I met my good friends Ray and Faith Turvey to drive the 4-mile road winding through a 6,400-acre sanctuary that is one of the largest mangrove wildernesses in the country and home to some amazing birds and reptiles. There are viewing stations that provide amazing
photo opportunities, a visitors center, as well as a guided tram tour. And if you are a waterfowl hunter, the name "Ding" Darling should ring a bell — he was a staunch conservationist and founder of the Federal Duck Stamp Program. Darling was a renowned editorial cartoonist who advocated conservation of our nation's natural resources. As founder of the National Wildlife Federation and creator of the Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit Program, "Ding" Darling laid the groundwork for the system of today's National Wildlife Refuges. Get more information at www.fws.gov/dingdarling or the Ding Darling Foundation website www.dingdarling.org.
For more information to help you plan the ultimate vacation, visit the Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel website at www.fortmyers-sanibel.com.
The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel are a great place to target another prized saltwater gamefish, the silver tarpon. They migrate up the coast beginning in March and April. I’m definitely going back to try and catch one of those. But for now, it’s back to the snow and ice. Enjoy the photo gallery!