A bit of local history, great Florida seafood, a haven for artists and phenomenal fishing: That is Matlacha (pronounced MATT-LA-SHAY); both the waterway, which separates Pine Island from mainland Southwest Florida, and the quirky village clustered near the bridge from Cape Coral to Little Pine Island.
For those of us addicted to pursuing finny creatures, there is no doubt about which aspect of Matlacha is paramount.
Cape Coral Capt. Greg Bowdish, his friend Skip Laney and I met one summer morning at The Sun and the Moon Bed and Breakfast and Fishing Resort for a day of exploring what Bowdish and others term “a phenomenal fishery.”
“It’s very dynamic,” Bowdish says, speaking of the area’s varied geography and hydrography. Interacting influences include the Gulf of Mexico, the Caloosahatchee River, Pine Island Sound and Charlotte Harbor. The pass is dotted with islands and bordered by bayous, bays and coves. Numerous tidal creeks drain in from both sides. Within the waterway, channels, potholes, oyster bars, grassflats, sandbars and mangrove shorelines provide myriad angling environments.
The major factor in the pass’s dynamism is dual tidal flow, both from the north and the south. “I think it has a reputation as a backwater, when in actuality it has more current and more moving water than anywhere else in the area,” Bowdish says. That current is responsible for the huge popularity and stellar angling reputation of the Matlacha Bridge, called “the fishingest bridge in the world.” It was the construction of the bridge in 1927 that soon caused fish shacks and cottages to spring up on West Island and grow into the village of Matlacha.
There are few days or nights of the year when anglers cannot be found at the railing drifting a shrimp or other natural bait in the current. Gear used by some anglers may seem ludicrously heavy (i.e. offshore trolling reels with 100-pound-test line), but it enables anglers to haul good-size snook and reds up over the bridge balustrade without breakoffs. During the peak of tarpon season it can be a wild and crazy place.
One of the first things a first-time visitor notices about Matlacha Pass is its size. For many of us the word “pass” denotes a relatively small sluiceway. But Matlacha—more than 10 miles long and in places nearly two miles wide—is no mere canal or cut. It is a huge expanse of water.
The day Bowdish, Laney and I picked was typical for summer in Southwest Florida: swelteringly hot and humid with thunderstorms threatening. Unfortunately, it also followed closely on the heels of weeks of unconscionably massive water releases from Lake Okeechobee down the Caloosahatchee River by the South Florida Water Management District. Bowdish had warned me about the deleterious effects of the “bad, dark water” on the pass but said we would find fish anyway. “That’ll show you just how good it is,” he said.
One of the things that makes Matlacha so challenging, Bowdish finds, is the tides coming and going from two directions: from Charlotte Harbor around the northern tip of Pine Island and south from Pine Island Sound. He says it sometimes confuses people.
Generally, tides to the south are earlier than to the north. Frequently Bowdish will fish the incoming tide in the southern pass, then move north to get it coming from the opposite direction.
“My best days I’m riding the tide line,” he says. Especially for reds, he likes the early hours of a strong incoming tide.
In addition to the bad water problem, the day we picked did not have a strong midday tide. Generally Bowdish prefers fishing the southern pass, but because water quality improved with distance from the Caloosahatchee, we first headed for the flats and keys to the north.
Cruising along the shoreline of West Island, we had great views of the village’s piebald, kaleidoscopic color scheme: pink, red, chartreuse, purple and a painter’s palette of other hues that give it a cheerful, distinctive look. The houses and other buildings in more muted tones stand out like Plain Janes at a beauty contest.
One of the most appealing things about Matlacha is that it is not—at least not yet—just another Florida waterfront gem wasting away into a malignant Yuppie Condoville. Fishermen, artists, tradesmen and vacation homeowners rub elbows and share the same love for its unpretentious atmosphere. Bowdish hopes that spirit will prevail, but fears encroaching development pressure from nearby Burnt Store Road and Veterans Parkway in Cape Coral.
South of Lanier Key, Bowdish shut off the motor and, while Laney poled, began working a mangrove shoreline with his favorite Matlacha spinning lure: a Zoom Horny Toad, light gray with black spots. He skipped it up under the mangrove branches, skittering it back across the surface with twitches of the rod, or slowing it down and letting it swim underwater.
At first this bass soft bait, just over four inches long, with twin tails on a 1/0 hook, seemed an unlikely saltwater lure. How often do we encounter frogs in mangrove estuaries? But within a few minutes Bowdish was battling and boating a 24-inch linesider that slammed it near an overhang.
Bowdish has a sentimental tie to the Zoom Frog—it is manufactured in his hometown of Athens, Georgia—but he fishes it for practical reasons. Its versatility means “you’ve got your topwater and you’ve got your subsurface,” he says. He uses it to imitate a swimming crab, a baitfish, even a mangrove crab dropping into the water. Many soft-plastic jerkbaits could be used to similar effect in this area.
After the mangrove shoreline, Bowdish
anchored the boat on a sand ridge between keys where he had had success with tailing reds in recent days. We got out to wade the grass, sand and shell bottom, stalking wakes and tailers. Here the choice of weapons was a fly rod. But, as Bowdish had warned, with high midday light and water flow at the upper end of a rising tide, conditions were less than ideal. He finally landed a small red on his Baboon fly, a crab pattern.
Soon we were headed south of the bridge to what is usually some of Bowdish’s favorite water, the Rock Creek and Pine Island Creek systems south of Little Pine Island near Channel Marker 32. The day had turned blisteringly hot as we chased a school of busting fish, probably jacks, then headed up into the tight quarters of a tidal creek. In one bayou we spotted several rolling baby tarpon, but were unable to entice a take. Even the jerkbait struck out.
After finding no fish all the way up to a headwaters lake, Bowdish was justifiably angry about the black, toxic-looking water in one of his favorite areas. Visibility was less than a foot.
“You wouldn’t believe how many fish there are up in here when the water is clear,” he said, calling it a “wonderful” tarpon nursery.
After a quick cruising run back to Bert’s Bar and Grill, one of the village’s legendary eateries and watering holes, we ate a first-rate meal and relaxed in air conditioning while gazing out at the water. Bowdish continued his paean to Matlacha.
Last year south of the bridge he landed “the biggest bluefish I ever caught.” He has caught jacks that were “just huge.” Spanish mackerel, tripletail and cobia are common and he has even sighted sawfish. Recently, he said, he had targeted a massive school of tailing black drum that were so big “they looked like manatees on the surface.”
Unlike some topnotch fishing destinations, the intriguing thing about Matlacha is its plethora of attractions for non-anglers: galleries, shops, restaurants, landmarks and visual curiosities. Among the most popular, besides Bert’s, are the Matlacha Art Gallery and Moretti’s restaurant. Fishermen can relax on their excursions in the knowledge that family members ashore will not be bored or grouchy because of nothing to do.
The best fishing month, Bowdish says, is April, but “it has to be qualified. You’re gonna see 50 times more fish than you catch.” September and October are also high on his list. During the summer, he says, he prefers to fish in afternoons and evenings because the best fishing is during low-light conditions.
“Sometimes we can pound the water all day,” he says, “and we get all the fish in the last hour.”
Bowdish acknowledges that some anglers have success chumming the mangroves, but he does not bait-fish and says it is not necessary. Prospecting is easier and more successful with lures and flies. Among his favorite spinning lures, besides the jerkbait, he includes topwater walking lures, plastic shrimp, and, well, “any kind of soft plastic.”
The best method for fishing the pass, he says, is fly fishing. Some of his top flies are Pink Seaducers and Rattle Mullet as well as his own hot pink Rattlesnake, Baboon and Mangrove Crab flies. The whole area, he says, is “an absolute paradise for kayakers, or kay-fishers.”
Cape Coral resident Bill Higgins, who fishes mainly the Pine Island side of the pass from a kayak and wading, says, “I’ve seen more [redfish] tails there than anywhere else I’ve ever fished.” In the winter, Higgins also targets trout.
Fortified with iced drinks, grouper and chicken wings from Bert’s, we headed back out north of the bridge with the intense sun finally angling down toward the mangroves. Bowdish motored up a medium-size cut—about 80 feet wide—along the east shore of the pass, then shut down the motor for drifting and poling.
“We should see some tails,” Bowdish said. But with the water more than a foot deep over the flat, this was not to be a stellar redfish evening. Pink sky reflected on the calm water turned to silver, then gray while we landed a handful of small snook. I even caught a stingray on a fly. But redfish tails were scarcer than kindly pacifists at an al Qaeda training camp.
When we headed back to the dock after dark, a strong current was sweeping out of the canal that emptied out in front of The Sun and the Moon. Beneath the resort’s dock light, snook were stacked up and popping.
Laney and Bowdish landed a handful of small to medium-size fish before we finally gave up on the day, too tired to continue.