Skip to main content

Charlotte Harbor: Everything But the Reds

Snook, trout, shark, tarpon and more are flourishing. Why not redfish?

Charlotte Harbor: Everything But the Reds
The sprawling estuary in Southwest Florida looks like a redfish angler’s paradise—and it was, at one time.

With 42,000 acres of water and 70 miles of shoreline, Charlotte Harbor, the state’s second largest estuary after Tampa Bay, was legendary for its redfish. Its unique geography, according to the Charlotte Harbor Aquatic Preserve, with tidal flow streaming up the east wall, and freshwater from the Myakka and Peace rivers flushing to the Gulf along the west wall, sustained salt marshes, oyster and tidal flats, seagrass, and mangroves, providing ideal habitat for the popular, delectable, and formidable gamefish.

Longtime FS contributor and charter captain of the Kingfisher Fleet in Punta Gorda, Ralph Allen spoke to the abundance: “In the glory years in the 1990s…it was easy to catch 50 or 100 reds a day in the 12- to 15-inch size…and schools of oversize fish…50 or 100 humping water on flats or bar edges.”

Another captain, who competed in Charlotte Harbor redfish tournaments, added that catching 50 fish, many slot-sized, was not uncommon as recently as 2005. In 2023, however, that same captain issued a different assessment, saying that the redfish population in Charlotte Harbor is in bad shape. He asked that I report the truth without using his name, since that would only hurt his business.

large snook
Charlotte Harbor snook numbers (and sizes) are healthy, according to guides like Scotty Roe, holding this fish.

It is a fact that in 2018, Southwest Florida had been devastated by the worst red tide outbreak in memory. Massive fish kills led the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to close the season for reds, snook and trout for the next three years. In the spring of 2022, trout and redfish reopened year-round. Snook reopened for four months, from October through November, and March through April.

Field Test

In an experiment to test the guide’s hypothesis, I left the dock on a clear autumn morning on a redfish quest. My first stop was the El Jobean Bridge at the northwest corner of Charlotte Harbor, where anglers often catch them near the bridge pilings on a rising tide.

Deploying my 24-volt Rhodan GPS trolling motor, I held position 20 yards upriver of the bridge and commenced casting a ¼-ounce jig with a 4-inch chartreuse Gulp! Mullet to the base of the pilings. Allowing the bait to swim and tumble in the current back to the boat in 8 to 11 feet of water, I reeled just enough to keep the lure off the bottom. No other boats. No fish. No bites.

I headed south to the next honeyhole, cruising roughly two miles to Cattle Dock Point, which punctuates Charlotte Harbor’s west wall. The tops of several dock posts where Florida cattle used to be loaded onto ships for export to Cuba in the 19th century were visible. Between the posts and the shore, a pale white swimbait, retrieved over the sand, would be irresistible to a hungry red.

But again, nobody home, so I proceeded farther south past Trout Creek. At high tide, I like using a 4-inch white Gulp! Mullet rigged Texas style on a weighted hook, for penetrating the mangrove root structure. At the start of the outgoing tide, I set the Rhodan on autopilot at medium speed and made frequent casts of the same Gulp!, but hooked to an 1⁄8-ounce jig.

The west wall of Charlotte Harbor is a dream to fish because of the church-like solitude along its wild and undeveloped shore. It was just myself, a tagalong dolphin, and horseshoe crabs scuttling in the clear water. The trolling motor running silent, I heard the chirps and whistles of shorebirds, mostly white ibises. A vigilant osprey glared from the top of the tree, as did another half a mile farther. And a wild hog concealed behind a thick tangle of mangroves grunted crankily to protest my intrusion. As for redfish, still no sign. It’s conceivable I was losing my touch. Or maybe, just maybe, the guide had it right and redfish were scarce.

On the way home, I made the proverbial “last cast” near a stand of mangroves whose roots were halfway submerged. When a fish finally picked up my bait, the battle was on. I was elated when I saw it was a redfish.

Still, after pictures and release, and on the way back to my home dock, I worried that the guide might be on to something, after all. That’s because Interceptor Lagoon, where I caught the fish, is connected to Charlotte Harbor through a lock opened only by a tender when a boater wants to get through. My lone redfish, a resident of the lagoon, was likely not a member of the population in the harbor that had yet to recover from the killer red tides, as the guide alleged, and which my experiment did not dispute.

angler with red drum
Famed redfish flats that once produced double-digit catches on a regular basis now produce far fewer fish.

Expert Testimony

I sought corroboration, therefore, from another experienced guide, and Capt. Scotty Roe was happy to oblige.

Recommended


Roe has been making his living as a backcountry guide on Charlotte Harbor for nearly 30 years. His family moved from Ohio when he was 7 years old to a home on Spring Lake. He got the bug from his father who started him on bass and panfish, after which he graduated to salt, eventually excelling in local inshore tournaments until 1996, when he started his charter business. He’s an enthusiastic advocate for Charlotte Harbor, but a realist with regard to redfish.

“We still have an excellent fishery,” he said, not at all hesitant about disclosing locations. “Go down the east side, south of Punta Gorda, and you can catch one redfish off of every island. You just have to move more than you used to.

“Last summer, we got beautiful over-the-slot reds, 30 and 32 inches, on the west wall using pinfish and cut ladyfish. When we have whitebait, I absolutely use that. It’s ‘fish crack.’ Last winter, we were catching them with shrimp, no problem. We have also been running into some good fish on Hog Island. Twenty-five years ago, everywhere you went on Hog, you caught redfish. Now you have to work a bit more than before. This winter we were getting reds in deeper canals in Port Charlotte and deep holes up in the Peace River.”

Roe is more bullish about snook—which brings up an important point: Despite the apparent decline in redfish, Charlotte Harbor in general still offers spectacular fishing for a wide variety of species.

“Snook fishing in Charlotte Harbor is phenomenal, since it has one of the greatest snook populations in Florida,” said Roe. “Millions of snook. More are caught that are oversized than slot size, which is why I disagree with the 28- to 33- inch range. Don’t get me wrong: the 5-inch window is good, but we should move the slot down and harvest fish between 24 to 30, since most over 30 are breeding females which should not be harvested at all.”

Roe meets his clients in the morning at the Punta Gorda public ramps at Ponce de Leon or Laishley Park for half or full-day trips in his Hewes 18 Bayfisher around 8 a.m., after he’s already gotten bait with his castnet.

On warmer days when fish are active and artificials more effective, Roe’s lures of choice are 4-inch Bass Assassin paddletails, or the Fishbites Fight Club series of lures. He also spoke of heart-stopping strikes on summer mornings on the flats in two feet of water at high tide using Heddon’s Spit ‘N Image topwater walking bait. Roe equips his customers with spinning tackle and 20-pound Sufix braid, which he maintains develops fewer wind knots than other brands. Thirty inches of 25-pound fluorocarbon is tied to the main line, and finished off for live bait fishing with an Owner octopus hook.

angler with sea trout
Spotted seatrout remain dependable, bringing smiles to the faces of anglers like this young lady, a client of Capt. Scotty Roe.

Concerns for the Fishery

Roe remains an enthusiastic ambassador for Charlotte Harbor, while also expressing concern about redfish: “Prior to 2018, we caught so many reds that we called them red catfish,” said Roe. “But I don’t think reds here have recovered from the red tide in 2018. We still average two or three a day, and I’m ecstatic if it’s seven or eight. But it used to be that 10 to 12 a day was common. Twenty years ago, you could catch 20, no problem!

“When they opened the season back up in 2022, all the guides—we were scratching our heads. Often FWC biologists do brilliant things, but I definitely think redfish should be closed. The population in Charlotte Harbor is poor.”

Whether it’s snook, redfish, or trout, Roe conscientiously tries to balance the best interests of the fish, the angler, and Charlotte Harbor. He can be reached at captscottyroe@hotmail.com, or captscottyroefishingcharters.com.

Science’s Last Word

Although both guides agree that the redfish season should not have been reopened, or, at the very least, not for the entire year, the FWC has the last word. According to FWC Public Information Specialist Emily Abellera, redfish in Charlotte Harbor are not regulated separately: “Stock assessments for redfish are produced on a larger geographic scale than Charlotte Harbor because the fish in Charlotte Harbor are genetically connected to a larger population,” wrote Abellera in an email. “The status of redfish in Charlotte Harbor is assessed along with all redfish in waters of Pinellas through Monroe counties.

“The 2020 redfish stock assessment results suggest that the catch-and-release measures that took effect in Southwest Florida beginning in 2018 led to increased escapement (survival to adulthood), which helped the fishery exceed the management goal in the Southwest Region. These population-level trends informed FWC’s decision to reopen the fishery in 2022.”

But what about the many anglers and guides reporting a significantly reduced catch in Charlotte Harbor? “FWC has also heard concerns from anglers about their local fishing experience despite recent stock assessments indicating that redfish are exceeding management targets at the stock level,” responded Abellera. “For many, these concerns are driven by local environmental issues (e.g., habitat loss, degrading water quality, and red tide) and increased fishing effort within the estuarine systems where they fish.”

She did confirm that FWC managers found a redfish population reduction in 2022, but not sufficient enough to warrant closure for the entire region “at this time.”

Resolution Hopeful

Abellera’s analysis suggests that while redfish generally recovered in Southwest Florida, they may be less present in Charlotte Harbor because of its 23 percent reduction in seagrass habitat between 2018 and 2021 (according to Florida Sea Grant). Seagrass diminishes due to increased nutrient pollution, which likely spiked with 4 percent human population growth around Charlotte Harbor in just the past year.

Nature, however, is resilient, and bountiful seagrass restoration is possible with measures that limit the harbor’s intake of nitrogen, similar to those that have been successful in estuaries like Hog Island Bay, Va., or our own Tampa Bay. In the meantime, anglers can do their part for redfish recovery in Charlotte Harbor by practicing voluntary catch and release.

Area Boat Ramps

El Jobean
  • 4224 El Jobean Rd., Port Charlotte, FL
  • (941) 681-3742; Single-lane paved ramp open 24 hours.
  • Parking: $.75 per hour/pay with smartphone and Park Mobile App.
  • Next to Gulf Coast Marine dispensing fuel, bait, and boat/motor parts.
Laishley Park Marina
  • 100 Nesbit St., Punta Gorda, FL
  • (941) 575-0142; Paved double ramp open 24 hours.
  • Parking: Free
  • Adjacent marina has fuel, bait, boating and fishing supplies.
Ponce de Leon Park
  • 3400 Ponce de Leon Pkwy, Punta Gorda, FL
  • (941) 575-5041; Paved 25-foot-wide lane
  • Parking: Free
  • Restrooms, picnic tables, pavilion, beach, boardwalk, nature trail.

Bait and Tackle

Fishin’ Franks, Inc.
  • 4200 Tamiami Trail Unit P, Port Charlotte, FL
  • (941) 625-3888
  • Live bait, tackle, information, guides, rod and reel repair.
Downtown Bait and Tackle
  • 120 Laishley Ct., Punta Gorda, FL
  • (941) 621-4190; 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.
  • Shrimp, crabs, pinfish and frozen bait; snacks and drinks. Steps from Laishley Park Boat Ramp

  • This article was featured in the May 2-24 issue of Florida Sportsman magazine. Click to subscribe.



GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

Recent Videos

Kayak Fishing Fun Senior Editor Thomas Allen is joined by Old Town's Brand Evangelist Ryan Lilly to work some magic in b...
Videos

How to Buy and Rig a River Fishing Kayak

Kayak Fishing Fun Senior Editor Thomas Allen is joined by Old Town's Brand Evangelist Ryan Lilly to work some magic in b...
Videos

Power or Paddle? Bonafide PWR129

Kayak Fishing Fun Senior Editor Thomas Allen is joined by Old Town's Brand Evangelist Ryan Lilly to work some magic in b...
Videos

It's a Skiff, It's a Kayak: Bonafide SKF117

Kayak Fishing Fun Senior Editor Thomas Allen is joined by Old Town's Brand Evangelist Ryan Lilly to work some magic in b...
Videos

Hobie Mirage Lynx to the Next Level

Kayak Fishing Fun Senior Editor Thomas Allen is joined by Old Town's Brand Evangelist Ryan Lilly to work some magic in b...
Videos

Hobie Mirage iTrek 9 Ultralight Packed with Features

Kayak Fishing Fun Senior Editor Thomas Allen is joined by Old Town's Brand Evangelist Ryan Lilly to work some magic in b...
Videos

Extend Your Range in the Salt Marsh

Kayak Fishing Fun Senior Editor Thomas Allen is joined by Old Town's Brand Evangelist Ryan Lilly to work some magic in b...
Videos

Florida's Capital Fishing

Kayak Fishing Fun Senior Editor Thomas Allen is joined by Old Town's Brand Evangelist Ryan Lilly to work some magic in b...
Videos

Old Town Sportsman AutoPilot 120 FULLY RIGGED Fishing Machine

Kayak Fishing Fun Senior Editor Thomas Allen is joined by Old Town's Brand Evangelist Ryan Lilly to work some magic in b...
Videos

Mounting Forward-Facing Sonar on A Kayak: Mounts, Scanning Applications and More!

Kayak Fishing Fun Senior Editor Thomas Allen is joined by Old Town's Brand Evangelist Ryan Lilly to work some magic in b...
Videos

On The Water with Old Town: Bass Fishing at PRIVATE GEORGIA LAKE

Kayak Fishing Fun Senior Editor Thomas Allen is joined by Old Town's Brand Evangelist Ryan Lilly to work some magic in b...
Videos

DECKED-OUT Old Town Sportsman BigWater ePDL+ 132 Complete WALK-THROUGH

Kayak Fishing Fun Senior Editor Thomas Allen is joined by Old Town's Brand Evangelist Ryan Lilly to work some magic in b...
Videos

Dreambuild: Old Town ePDL Gets Rigged to the Hilt

Florida Sportsman Magazine Covers Print and Tablet Versions

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

Preview This Month's Issue

Buy Digital Single Issues

Magazine App Logo

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Florida Sportsman App

Other Magazines

See All Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Florida Sportsman stories delivered right to your inbox.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Florida Sportsman subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Enjoying What You're Reading?

Get a Full Year
of Guns & Ammo
& Digital Access.

Offer only for new subscribers.

Subscribe Now

Never Miss a Thing.

Get the Newsletter

Get the top Florida Sportsman stories delivered right to your inbox.

By signing up, I acknowledge that my email address is valid, and have read and accept the Terms of Use