When winter winds blow, this protected system can deliver the hottest bites in Southwest Florida.
The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island is world renowned for its myriad and colorful bird species. Each year nearly a million visitors drive, hike or bike its access road and trails or maneuver kayaks, canoes and other craft through its waters hoping for glimpses of roseate spoonbills, ibises, herons, egrets, wood storks and other species.
But for many of us Ding’s fame as an exotic, open-air aviary is a secondary attraction. First is that the 7,000-acre refuge is one of Florida’s great shallow-water fisheries.
The key to Ding’s superb angling is its rich variety of environments. An intricate maze of creeks, bayous, impoundments, grassflats, oyster bars and mangrove thickets provides niches for virtually every species of salt- and brackish-water fish found in South Florida’s inshore waters. The thing about Ding is that it is full of fish.
Whether you are hooked on cast-netting mullet, jumping monster tarpon or dunking a shrimp for sheepshead, Ding has something for you. Like many of Florida’s hotspots, you never know what will swim by. All of Ding’s waters, large and small, hold fish. It is the numbers and species that make some more productive than others for anglers.
Rob Jess, refuge manager, is one person who knows just how good Ding is. Jess, who fishes often and all over the refuge with his son, Ryan, calls it “bar none, one of the best areas in Southwest Florida.” But his judgment comes with an important qualification: “if somebody is willing to kayak or canoe in.”
Heading the refuge’s list of anglers’ favorite species are snook, redfish and spotted seatrout. But according to Jess, reds are by far the best bet. The reason is that redfish numbers have jumped dramatically in recent years. “I don’t know if you’ve ever seen 100 redfish tailing,” he comments, “but I have.”
Jess’s caveat about kayaks and canoes refers to the fact that large portions of the refuge are off-limits to motorized craft. This is one reason, he says, for the excellent fishing. In the no-motor area, it’s paddle, pole or drift only. If you have an engine on your boat (combustion or electric), it must be trimmed up out of the water and not used until you’ve returned to the general waters of the refuge.
Hurricane season had little or no effect on Ding and its great fishing.
The stealth factor contributes to some great days on the water. Just outside Ding, in the waters of Pine Island Sound, on some days the ubiquitous whine of high-powered outboards can make the fish, especially redfish, as skittish as a long-tailed cat in a roomful of rocking chairs. In Ding’s no-wake and no-motor zones the fish are far from easy pickings but they are more approachable by wading and careful poling.
Another advantage, Jess says, is that strict usage regulations preserve the area’s fragile ecology. “The protection that the refuge is under provides ample grasses and that is the key. That and the mangrove habitat.” Both environments are rich nurseries for invertebrates and juvenile fish, providing the basis for a healthy marine ecosystem.
Though Jess and others prefer the quiet and solitude of the no-motor zones, large sections of Ding’s northern perimeter, bordering Pine Island Sound, are open to motorized craft operated at idle speed. Among the most popular and productive areas are Tarpon Bay, MacIntyre Creek, Hard Working Bayou and Duffy Creek. If action is slow on snook and reds, a sure bet to break a skunk streak is the “trout hole,” a large depression about a half mile up MacIntyre Creek. If you have a depthfinder, look for depths of four feet or more.
Two notes of caution:
One, much of the refuge is very shallow and boats with a minimal draft are the best bets for not running aground. Light boats such as johnboats are most easily pushed off a sand flat. Getting caught on a fast falling tide in your 20-foot V-hull could leave you sitting high and dry for hours. Even in a canoe or kayak advance planning is prudent. If fishing an outgoing tide, be sure to factor in getting back to your launch site before dead low. Otherwise you may have a long, hard slog across exposed flats, not a fun pastime when dragging a boat.
Also, Ding’s waters comprise a complex and confusing network—comparable to a mini-Ten Thousand Islands—and it is easy to get turned around. If you are not careful the tidal creek that you are sure leads back to your canoe launch may dead-end in a mangrove thicket. Fishing in the waning light of late afternoon or evening can further complicate matters.
When the Gulf and Pine Island Sound are frothy with whitecaps, Ding can be especially inviting. For whatever the wind direction, the refuge’s mangrove tangles and mazelike waterways provide protected pockets in all but the fiercest blows.
But boat fishing is just one option in Ding. There are many good shore fishing areas along Wildlife Drive, the 4-mile-long refuge access road. The road is also a dike separating wading-bird impoundments on the south side (left) from areas of freer tidal flow on the north side (right). Fishing from shore is permitted all along Wildlife Drive. But boating and wading are prohibited on the left side.
Some of the most popular roadside fishing spots are near the culverts that pass under the access road. Working the current seams and edges of the rip-rap often produces fish. Success rates are highest when there is a good tidal flow.
Both incoming and outgoing tides can be productive. Strong outgoing tides often sweep schools of bait out of the impoundments, bringing jack crevalle, ladyfish, snook and reds slashing to the surface near the outflows. At such times, small lures and flies can bring nonstop action.
On spinning and baitcasting rods try soft-plastic shrimp, gold spoons, rattling crankbaits and minnow plugs. Fly fishers favor Clousers, Schminnows, Deceivers and shrimp or crab patterns. Red-and-white or green-and-white poppers are effective as both spinning plugs and flies.
Shrimp under a popping cork and free-swimming pinfish are among the most popular live baits. Suspend the shrimp at least two feet below the cork. During the winter months, when there are a lot of sheepshead and mangrove snapper, frozen shrimp cut in pieces and either dead drifted or lightly weighted work great. But as with bottom fishing in many areas, you will usually have to deal with catfish. Grouper also move into Ding during the winter months, though most are undersize.
During the winter tourist season upwards of 2,000 people pass through the refuge every day, most in vehicles. Anglers, especially fly fishermen, must exercise care not to hook a car, biker or hiker.
Most Florida anglers are used to dealing with insects. The period from December through March, especially during cool spells, presents few problems in Ding. Mosquitoes are virtually non-existent and the few no-see-ums are only occasionally a minor irritant. Still, it is good practice to take protective clothing—long pants and long-sleeve shirts—and repellent.
What is a practical suggestion for the winter months becomes de rigeur in the summer. Especially early and late in the day, and when there is no breeze, Ding is infested with massive, endless swarms of biting pests. Most vicious are the no-see-ums, which get up inside shirts and into ears, eyes and nose. During the worst insect times some anglers resort to protective netting.
The various creams, ointments and sprays vary in effectiveness but my preference is Skin So Soft, which acts more as a barrier than a repellent. Grease yourself up like a bodybuilder before a competition and the no-see-ums find it hard to penetrate through the protective oil layer. Other friends swear by Off or Florida Swamp Insect Repellent, sold locally on Sanibel.
Along with the swarms of bugs, summer also brings out good numbers of baby tarpon. They can often be spotted porpoising and busting schools of bait early in the morning and at dusk.
Summer 2004’s active hurricane season had little or no adverse effect on Ding and its great fishing. Sanibel and its rich mangrove estuaries have weathered many tropical storms in the 5,000 years since the island was formed.
In general, whatever the season, the best fishing days in Ding are those with two high tides and two or more feet of tide change. Days with minimum tide changes or those with the Gulf Coast’s bane—only one high tide—tend to be less productive. If you have some flexibility in planning a trip, check the daily tide charts before booking.
In the winter months, especially December through February, blustery cold fronts can quickly chill Ding’s shallow waters and turn off the fish. On such days it is easy to get skunked. A day or two after the front has passed usually brings calmer winds and warmer temperatures that get the action going again.
Use the down time to visit one of Sanibel’s other attractions, such as the Bailey Matthews Shell Museum (the only one in North America dedicated exclusively to the study of mollusks), the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation or the Sanibel Historic Village. The Refuge Visitors Center, with dioramas and interactive info stations, is a must for everyone. These facilities also provide alternative activities for the non-angling members of the family.
A final note of caution: Ding’s very healthy wildlife population includes impressive numbers of alligators (as does Sanibel’s). Anglers should exercise a healthy respect for this fact, especially when wading or walking shorelines. These primitive creatures are both stealthy and amazingly fast (in the water and on land) over short distances. Last summer, a 9-footer that wanted a small snook I had hooked chased me up onto Wildlife Drive. In the past three years there have been three alligator attacks on Sanibel, two of them fatal.
The easiest way to get a taste of Ding’s angling possibilities is to do so by road access. Visitors entering via Wildlife Drive pay entrance fees of $1 per person or $5 per motor vehicle. Frequent visitors should purchase a $15 Federal Duck Stamp, which allows unlimited access to all national wildlife refuges for a year, July 1-June 30. Seniors are eligible for Golden Age passes. The refuge gate opens at 7:30 a.m. and closing time varies by season. Traffic on Wildlife Drive (including bikes) is one way only.
For more information contact: J.N. “Ding” Darling NWR, 1 Wildlife Drive, Sanibel, FL 33957, (239) 472-1100, www. dingdarlingsociety.org, www.dingdarling .fws.gov, or the Sanibel-Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce, 1159 Causeway Road, Sanibel, FL 33957, (239) 472-1080, www.sanibel-captiva.org. FS
First Published Florida Sportsman Jan. 2005