Fishing Sanibel and Captiva Islands

The Fishiest Islands in Florida

Ducking out of a cool north wind, John Reilly motored his 19-foot skiff through a narrow cut in the mangroves.

Dense curtains of green, perhaps 15 feet tall, parted to reveal a sparkling backwater. This, I knew from the chart, was outermost in a series of small bayous within the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island.

My eyes were drawn to scattered, bone-white peripheral mangroves stripped by storm. It was easy to picture snook patrolling the shadows of tide-swept timber, ready to pounce on sardines, pinfish and other baits. Today, with water temps in the 60s, the linesiders proved tight-lipped. We saw a few of their long black forms sunlit tight against the trees, but they wouldn’t take.

The seatrout, on the other hand, flat wouldn’t leave us alone.

The water was two to four feet deep and here somewhat cloudier than similar depths on open Pine Island Sound. That’s typical of the Sanibel Bayous, fed as they are by a nutrient-rich pulse of mangrove litter. As John and I rounded a corner on the pushpole, we crossed a slight dropoff and lost sight of the grass bottom. Here we found the motherlode of trout, fish on every cast. They weren’t big, but if they kept it up they’d either get that way soon or else land in an ice chest. We did our best to educate the little guys, shaking them off de-barbed hooks at boatside.

Growing bored, my friend and I tried comparing results using three different soft jig tails, off-white with some glitter. They seemed equally irresistible, but then I found a ringer.

I tore off a 2-inch strip from one of the plastic bags of tails, clear with a bit of blue and white label. I stuck a circle hook in it, pinched a splitshot on the leader, and the trout went nuts. Even a little mangrove snapper chimed in. My cutting-edge lure looked exactly like a . . . plastic bag.

Not to be outdone, John began throwing a twin-treble-hook suspending plug—and, little surprise, immediately caught two trout on a cast.

It’s not always this easy, but in my travels around the Florida coasts over the years, I’ve not found a better angling confidence builder than Sanibel Island and her northern neighbor, Captiva.

Accessibility is terrific, for boaters or shore fishermen alike. The variety of species is impressive. And, if one thing’s not working, sure enough there’ll be another.

Whether you charter a captain, launch a trailerable skiff or kayak, or simply putt a rental pontoon boat out onto Tarpon Bay, you’re in textbook light-tackle fishing territory, quick.

You might take for granted those schoolie seatrout. Then again, you might exercise your imagination or try different tackle altogether. Saltwater fly fishing? It’s a lock, in a fishery this rich.

After a difficult morning chasing tailing redfish, Spencer Hobby, son of local guide Paul Hobby, worked over those trout using fly tackle.

Redfish was our main goal when the two picked me up at the ‘Tween Waters Inn on Captiva Island. We left the dock at sunrise, planning to catch a negative low tide on some flats not far from Blind Pass. The “pass” divides Sanibel and Captiva; then, as now, it was filled with sand.

Winter is ideal for sight-fishing this region. Water clarity improves immensely, as summer wet-season runoff dries to a trickle and plankton and seagrass production dip with water temp and photo-period. Another big plus for fishing, Paul explained, is a period of extreme low tides occurring during this time of year (negative tides, as explained in our January 2009 article, “The Tailing Trigger”.

“Instead of having a window of maybe an hour of water low enough to see tailing fish, as we do in summer, we now some days have 4, 5, even 6 hours when the tide is low enough to see fish feed on the bottom.”

Paul said this as he weaved his 18-foot skiff around emergent turtlegrass flats. I recognized the area. Like many of the best redfish flats, it shows on charts with green-shaded dry spots lots of little italic 1/2’s—meaning a half-foot of water at mean low tide. A nearby channel, in this case marked, is another good sign. They’ll roam shallow enough to expose their dorsals at times, but redfish generally stick to flats proximate to deeper-water retreat routes.

“All this, you can’t see when the tide’s in,” Paul said, emphasizing the need to familiarize oneself with the terrain—cautiously—at low tide.

Paul shut off the outboard and began poling. Spencer and I fan-cast with topwater walking plugs. The treble hooks rode safely over the tops of short-cropped turtlegrass. Topped out in summer, that stuff can be a drag to fish through.

“When we have these cold nights, it causes the grass to really thin out,” Paul continued, “but in a way that’s kind of good—the shrimp and crabs are still buried in there, and the fish can see your lure or fly better. In summer, even with a live shrimp a foot away, the grass is so thick, the fish don’t see it.”

The snook, apparently, had grown hungry after the previous day’s fasting. Some had moved from the mangroves to forage on surprisingly cold flats. We saw a few good busts and soon a fish inhaled my chartreuse Super Spook Jr. At 32 inches, the snook measured within the 28- to 33-inch total length slot limit for the Gulf Coast. It came to us halfway frozen but was freed by the calendar, February being last of the winter closed months for the Gulf Coast.

Spencer and I were plagued by more seatrout bites, but soon Paul had his eyes on a couple of square tails, well off in the distance. Long story short, Spencer and I played hide-and-seek with about a dozen cagey reds as the water covered the grass, closing the window.

Running back toward ‘Tween Waters, we stopped outside a big flat off Buck Key. Spencer threw an intermediate-sink flyline, using one of the same bushy brown EP flies his father favors for tailing reds. The trout obliged, and as we moved into the shallows, Spencer counted coup on a big redfish on spin; the fish struck a DOA CAL tail, glow-and-gold, rigged with a pinch weight on a weedless worm hook.

Paul said the winter/early spring trout bite is consistent throughout the sound, with a lot of action available right along the Intracoastal Waterway in 6 to 8 feet of water.

The shallow water redfish game is primarily the domain of anglers with local knowledge or a healthy dose of patience. While there aren’t many secret spots these days (having fished the area for years, I can personally vouch for the reliability of spots shown on Florida Sportsman No. 015), how you approach a redfish flat is perhaps more important than where.

“Go slow to learn the areas,” Paul advised. “Spend a few days there, to find how fish are coming onto a flat, and how they’re leaving. Pay attention to the tides.”

Many of my own most memorable days on these islands have occured beachside, the simplest fishing of all. Starting in late April, snook begin traveling the surf, close enough to brush the ankles of shell-hunting tourists. Some days their willingness to eat a streamer fly rivals the enthusiasm of jig-slamming seatrout in Ding Darling.

February, however, is a month when bluefish, whiting and other coldwater species rule the Gulf side of Sanibel and Captiva. Both ends of the Sanibel-Captiva complex, the Sanibel Pier and Redfish Pass, will fire up in a matter of weeks as water temps reach the 70-degree mark, heralding the arrival of migratory mackerel, and not long after that, big tarpon rolling and flashing in the sunlight of lengthening days.

Sanibel-Captiva Vitals

Boat Ramps: At either end of the Sanibel Causeway. The county ramp at Punta Rassa, on the mainland side, is where to launch if you aren’t staying on the island(s); it costs $5, but saves you the $9 Sanibel Causeway toll fee for truck-plus-single axle trailer.

Boat Rentals: For family fun, nothing beats a pontoon boat. You’ll find a fleet of shaded 20-footers available for rent on 950-acre Tarpon Bay. Bring your light spin or fly rod, and bring the whole gang. Full day/half day rates are $260/$180. Call 239-472-8900 or visit www.tarponbayexplorers.com

Bait and Tackle: The Bait Box, on the main drag on Sanibel Island, Periwinkle Way. 239-472-1618; www.thebaitbox.com

Guides: There are lots of fishing guides here; too many, in fact to list them all. Typical rates for small boats (poling skiff or larger bay boat) are $350-450 for half-day, $500 to $700 full day. You might check with the Lee County Guides’ Association, www.fishsanibel.com, or ask at The Bait Box. Paul Hobby, a lifelong resident of nearby Fort Myers, specializes in fly and light tackle fishing in Pine Island Sound; 239-433-1007; www.fishinghobby.com

Accommodations: There are countless home rentals and small inns on these islands, but thankfully no high-rises. Local building codes were designed around ecological studies published back in the 1970s, unlike much of the state where it’s the other way around.

Tween Waters Inn, on Captiva Island, is a great place for boating families. As the name implies, the property basically straddles the Gulf of Mexico and Pine Island Sound. There’s a boat ramp, fuel dock, supply shop and wet slips visible from your room. Phone 800-223-5865; www.tween-waters.com.

A quick web search turns up lots of other options. Royal Shell Vacations (239-472-9111; www.royalshell.com, can locate rental homes and condos on both islands. With the slow economy, finding a place to stay on short notice shouldn’t be a problem.

Eats: You won’t go hungry. My picks: upscale, Thistle Lodge at Casa Ybel on Sanibel; island-style, RC Otters on Captiva.

Spot Check: RECON

Nowhere in the state—if not the world—will you find better access to on-water conditions than Sanibel and Captiva Islands.

The Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF) has installed seven biochemical sensors around the area, with an eighth in reserve for remote usage. The RECON (River Estuary Coastal Observing Network) system provides continuous current and archival data of a wide variety of conditions—all of which are of keen interest to savvy anglers. The 100-pound sensing units, $60,000 apiece, were purchased from Canadian firm Satlantic with funding through private donations. Most in this case are mounted on channel markers; one is on a private dock, another on a multi-agency platform off Fort Myers.

Moving over the icons on the RECON website, www.recon.sccf.org, you can see water temperature, salinity, turbidity, dissolved organic matter, dissolved oxygen, nitrate levels and chlorophyll.

What’s really cool is, you can look at graphs showing trends—surely a snooker would want to know about that dip in water temperature late in November following a big cold front. Sight-fishing? Eric Milbrandt, a research scientist at SCCF, says to look at a mix of chlorophyll (greenish), turbidity (mud-type) and CDOM (tea-colored tannin, organic matter); he added that a general “clarity” index may be forthcoming.

Anglers who are serious about keeping logs will no doubt enjoy looking at the RECON details after a day of fishing. Anglers who are really serious might click in via wireless connection on a Blackberry or other device. Want to know what the salinity is in the Caloosahatchee River
? The water temp up near Redfish Pass? You might find out in the 30 seconds it takes your buddy to tie on a new jig.

The RECON network has been in place since January 2008. Among interesting revelations so far: A clear increase in Tarpon Bay salinity during evaporative (hot, sunny) conditions in spring; the salinity regime changes with the tide, with incoming water actually decreasing the level. Also, the same station demonstrated an increase in colored carbon moving out of inshore areas, due to tannins produced by seagrasses; this, too, swings with the tides.

An obvious question: Will RECON be able to predict red tide events, the occasional blooms of toxic dinoflagellates which kill fish and cause respiratory problems for beach-goers? The last 12 months have been relatively free of red tides, but SCCF is collaborating with Mote Marine Lab in Sarasota and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to study the prospects. The RECON is also set to evaluate how conditions are impacted by releases of Lake Okeechobee water down the Caloosahatchee—which everyone locally knows have terrible impacts on oyster colonies, seagrass beds and a cascading swath of marine life, from sardines to pelicans.

Florida Sportsman Show in Town

For tons of intel about fishing Sanibel and Captiva Islands, plus lots of gear and goodies to go, mark your calendar for the Florida Sportsman Fishing Show at the Lee County Civic Center, Feb. 7-8. Look in this issue for a $3 discount coupon, off the $8 adult regular admission price. Subscribers should also find an additional $4 discount sent with this issue.