Redfish and Captiva passes are a snooker’s dream in spring–and a good bet for action year-round.
The motor wouldn’t start, and that was that. We had towed the boat almost 200 miles, spent $200 on a room and now we were being left at the dock by the sunrise across Pine Island Sound. It was one of those times when you wonder if maybe you wouldn’t really like golf better than fishing. But about then, a guide who was on his way out of South Seas Plantation’s neat harbor took mercy on us and our sick outboard.
“If you want snook, just walk over to the pass and cast,” he advised us. “That’s where we’re headed.”
Redfish Pass was about 200 yards around the corner from the boat basin. By the time we grabbed rods and a box of plugs and got over there, the guide was making his first drift. One of his anglers already had a rod bent just about double as he tangled with a fat linesider, and we saw fishermen in other boats hooked up, too.
We bounced 1/2-ounce bucktails tipped with shrimp along the bottom, casting them far upcurrent and letting the might of the outgoing tide sweep them just off bottom. On about the 10th cast, my drag went off like a fire alarm.
The snook was over a yard long and full of roe, and fighting her in the heavy current was like battling a salmon in a fast-moving river. I ran down the beach, trying to keep line on the spool as the fish roared around the corner with the full force of the flow behind her.
The fish stuck her head out, sloshed and showed off her yellow fins, then headed seaward again. More beach-jogging, reel-screaming, toe-stubbing excitement. I wound up landing her on the outside of the pass, about two football fields from where I hooked her. I had no more than released the snook when my buddy caught up to me, hauling a 10-pounder that he just had to show off before letting it go due to the closed season. Not bad for a blown trip.
Redfish and Captiva passes drain the broad expanse of Pine Island Sound. They’re unusual for west coast passes because both run clear–there’s no major freshwater river feeding into the sound to add tannin stain like that seen at Boca Grande to the north and San Carlos to the south.
Redfish is an unusual pass in that it has no deep water on the inside; it simply falls off from flats about four feet deep into the 33-foot hole between Captiva and North Captiva islands. There may be good reason for the unusual hydrology. Legend is that the pass was dug in the 1800s by island boys who didn’t want to row their skiff all the way around the north end of the island to get into the Gulf. The narrow channel they shoveled out turned overnight into a full-grown pass, according to the story, when powerful moon tides cut the sand away like a squad of bulldozers. Nobody, including the state’s hydrology experts, are sure if the story is true, but they say it could have happened just that way.
If so, the snook anglers of the state owe those boys and their shovels a memorial. Redfish is famed for its spring and summer snook fishing, particularly on falling tides. The flow hurries into the pass mostly from the southeast, guided by a long bar that juts far out into the sound. On spring tides, there’s a boiling river of current foaming past the newly installed riprap on the South Seas Plantation shore, sucking bait and boats into the funnel of the narrow pass, only about 100 yards across the narrowest portion.
The snook stack up along the south shore for the most part, and on the peak of the tide so do the boats, drifting only a few feet apart. The fishing pattern here is as structured as the tarpon fishing at Boca Grande, and you’ve got to get with the program if you want to fish in peace.
The trick is in keeping the line as near vertical as possible by adjusting the drift and the weight so that the bait stays just inches from bottom. Live pinfish are the favorite offering, though sardines also do the job. Most anglers use hooks between size 1 and 2/0, and weights vary from as little as 1/2 ounce to as much as three ounces, depending on the tide. Everybody keeps drifting, maintaining their distance from the other boats with trolling motors. At the end of the drift, they power up and run back to the inside of the pass to make the float once more.
There’s also a good fishery along the north shore, often right up against the beach, where the tide is much less vigorous. Here it’s possible to anchor and cast close to the shore, slowly working the bait back out near bottom. A tongue of deep water hooks around the point and along the mangroves on the inside of the island–plug this area on high tides, particularly at dawn and dusk, for some bruisers.
On high falling water, the flats just south of the South Seas Plantation channel are famed spots to wade, and you can also do well by working inside the marina on a trolling motor at dawn. It’s completely legal, though the guard may fuss at you. Just don’t get out on the docks, which are private property.
There are also snook along the beach, particularly among the blowdowns usually lodged everywhere on North Captiva. The fish may be smack up on the beach at high tide, but pull out into the slough on low. It’s a sight-fishing deal for the most part–look for the grayish green mass that indicates a school, or on calm days watch for individual fish.
Captiva Pass is about 3.5 miles north of Redfish, separating North Captiva Island from Cayo Costa. At Captiva, you’re faced with a lot more water, and finding the fish may not be easy. However, the north side, just inside the pass where the first grassflats meet the deeper channel is a noted spot for finding schools of snook May through July. It’s an area where you can anchor easily because the current is not so strong as on the south shore, and freeline sardines. The semi-tamed porpoises here will eat a lot of the fish you release, but most get away.
On the south side, the docks of the condos beckon, holding some very large fish at times. You can anchor and fish them with heavily weighted pinfish, or you can drift past, wing a few casts at each, and then come around again. It all works best after dark.
Captiva is also a noted spot for tarpon throughout the summer. The fish might show up anywhere from just off the first flat on the inside to well around the corner along the bar, which doglegs more than a mile to the south. The deeper water is often best, with depths to 27 feet just off the beach. Best bets are live crabs, squirrelfish, jumbo shrimp or pins close to bottom on the drift. The outside of the bar is a good place for fly rodders to stake out on calm mornings, and don’t overlook the relief channel close in along the beach on the north side, which cuts a passage through the sandbar and is a favorite shortcut for tarpon and snook prowling from pass to beach.
Tarpon also show up very frequently between Captiva and Redfish, and are superabundant off the beach from Captiva north to Johnson Shoal, at the south edge of Boca Grande. The water is clear enough that you can readily sight fish the moving schools. The fish get spooky after the first weeks of the season, and the best tactic is to get your boat into their line of travel, shut down both outboard and troller, and let the fish come to you.
The first grassflat inside Captiva, slightly south of the inlet, is a well-known location for catching sardines, and is also a good spot for flounder during temperate weather. It’s basically due west of Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) markers 48 and 49, and has deep water on three sides. The edges are pretty good plugging on falling water for trout sometimes, and you’ll also catch pompano there on nylon jigs or sand fleas throughout the cooler months.
But the real trout bonanza lies on the east side of the ICW, in the broad grassy basin reaching toward Captiva Rocks. This is absolute Trout City, where in spring and early summer it’s possible to release a hundred fish on jigs and sometimes on topwaters. (Don’t forget to debarb the hooks.)
Get out and wade the shallow bars in this area on high water and toss No. 3 Reflecto spoons and you’ll catch some nice snook and reds, too. (Forget catching them from a boat–the water is too clear.)
On the outside, you’ll find all the Spanish mackerel you want March through April and again in late October through December most years. The fish also work well inside both passes at times–best bet is often a Carl Hansen mackerel fly, a tiny glass minnow imitation, which can be fished on spinning gear under a float as well as on fly tackle. Live sardines are also murder, of course.
In winter, there are often tripletail under the crab-trap floats along the beach. Toss them an unweighted shrimp or a small killifish, or a slow-sinking fly, from as far back as you can manage. They get very cagy, particularly after being tossed at for a few weeks.
Public ramps are scarce in the area, but there’s a good one by the Sanibel Island Causeway, on the south side just after you cross the toll bridge from Fort Myers to Sanibel. You can then run north up the sound to Redfish or Captiva, which can be faster than trailering your boat up the island due to the two-lane roads and low speed limits ashore. There are also ramps at the larger resorts on the island.
South Seas Plantation, (866) 565-5089, is without doubt the premier place to stay in the area, and one of the finest resorts in the world. However, the prices are also world-class, perhaps a bit much for those of us who dine regularly on Vienna sausages.
‘Tween Waters Resort, (239) 472-5161, directly on the beach and with a boat basin opening into the sound, is also very handy. There are numerous other hotels on the island.
To rent a condo on Captiva, try North Captiva Realty in Fort Myers, (239) 395-1001.
Cabbage Key, (239) 283-2278, is a classic Old Florida island resort, not particularly comfortable but a unique place to stay, and very private until the tour boats start to arrive around lunchtime.
Pineland Marina, (239) 283-3593, provides the nearest ramp access from the mainland–it’s located on the northwest side of Pine Island.