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Keys to Keewaydin

 Unlock the secrets to Naples' big-city backcountry.

















When anglers head for southwest Florida's maze of mangrove islands, estuarine waters and oceanside beaches, the usual remote fisheries come to mind—Chokoloskee, Everglades City and Lostmans River to name a few. But fishermen don't have to play the part of Les Stroud (of Discovery's Survivorman) to catch the gamut of inshore rod-benders. A trip farther north to Naples' Keewaydin Island and its surrounding fishery is just as productive.















The area is chock-full of islands composed of mangroves, ideal for exploring with the trolling motor and a rod ready for skipping baits. There are channels deep enough for resident grouper and tarpon, oysters to concentrate reds, and beachfronts unchanged from a fish eye's point of view. Plus, docks provide additional structure, a benefit of inescapable development across Florida.

My college bud, Jarrod Tuttle, and I met Capt. Pat Gould at Bayview Park in Naples at the not-so-fishy hour of 1 p.m. From the start, the snook were plentiful. A froth of domesticated linesiders is a mainstay around the docks and launch ramp at the park. The snook are waiting for fishermen to dump their unused baits from the morning's trip. It's an aquatic conveyor belt of easy-to-grab food. The pelicans had caught on, too. If you weren't attentive, pelicans would land rather awkwardly on the boat deck and waddle over to the livewell for a peek.

Jarrod threw a white Rapala X-rap into boils less than 10 feet from the launch ramp and caught enough snook to make us go searching for their larger brethren. At the very least, it was an easy way to kick any notions of skunk off the boat.

Posh homes line tarpon-rich canals and hunker over some of the beaches here, yet this area receives minimal fishing pressure from what I experienced. Naples may be a Mecca for mansions and private jets, but rental pontoon boats made up most of the boat traffic.















Additionally, areas such as Keewaydin Island and Rookery Bay will not soon be developed, because they encompass sections of the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (www.rookerybay.org). The Reserve boasts 110,000 acres of mangrove forests, salt water and uplands, the majority being waterways for fishermen to explore. Rookery Bay's learning and research center is open to the public. Explore the walking trails off Shell Island Road; kayak the Shell Point Canoe Trail; bird watch from Briggs' Boardwalk; or even camp in designated plots of the Rookery Bay Reserve.

Pat motored us throughout the Intracoastal Waterway in his 21-foot Release, touring the channels branching into Rookery Bay, and the waters inside and on the Gulf side of Keewaydin Island. Casting to a ramshackle dock on the west side of Keewaydin, I had a chance to pick Gould's brain about the nearshore Gulf fishery.

“On the beaches, beneath the mangroves and around the passes, expect snook all year long—except for the few chilly months,” explained Gould. “When it's cold, I switch to jigs tipped with shrimp to catch trout and sheepshead farther south, starting around Big Marco Pass.

“Tarpon start showing up in April and May and stay through the summer months. For lures, I throw Tsunami swimbaits and D.O.A. Baitbusters. Good concentrations of fish hang southwest of Hurricane Pass each year,” he says. “May is also a good month to target tripletail near shore.”

Gould uses basic spinning reel setups for most of his fishing trips—6-foot rods with appropriate spinning reels spooled with 20-pound polyethylene line. The short rods make flipping live baits and jerkbaits underneath mangroves easier for his clients, he says. At the terminal end, Gould ties a spider hitch to double the line, and then attaches 40-pound fluorocarbon with a double uni-knot. He ties a Homer Rhode knot to a 2/0 circle hook for snook and redfish, 3/0 for tarpon. For most spin fishermen he guides, he uses whitebait (aka greenbacks or pilchards) or threadfins to guarantee fish. If artificials are the preferred choice, he uses light-colored jerkbaits. He says the salt-and-pepper color works especially well for juvenile tarpon.

The second day of fishing, we hit the docklights before sunup for some aerial snook action. In such situations, Gould recommends basic, 8-weight fly tackle (which he likes to fish almost exclusively). He recommends flies tied in brown and white for murky water, and red-and-white flies for clear water. I stubbornly threw a plastic shrimp into the shadowlines and persuaded a few to bite. Dock snook can be especially finicky for spin fishermen. I hooked my fish sight fishing by skittering the shrimp on top and letting it drop, basically imitating the miniscule shrimp and baitfish present.















At midmorning, we nudged the trolling motor up to a mangrove shoreline that looked similar to miles and miles of other shoreline. Gould informed us that this area was a great spot for snook and redfish when the tide was descending. It was bottomed out and rising, but the linesides and spottails still cooperated.

“Why this area?” Jarrod wondered aloud, unfamiliar with the region. “It all looks the same.”

“You just have to fish it all and find the holes,” Gould said. The general question got a general answer—he deserved that—but I got him to extrapolate a bit. Gould targets mangroves that protrude farther out than the rest on the shoreline. That usually allows at least two feet of water underneath for tarpon, reds and innumerable snook to stage in. But he warned—if it's a flood tide, all bets are off. If there is no area between limb and liquid, anglers can't cast to fish far underneath the overhangs.

If oysters are adjacent to deep water and structure, it's worthwhile to anchor. That's prime real estate for snook, redfish and tarpon. Bigger tarpon hang in deeper water at creek bends and areas where creeks diverge.

The passes can be exceptional for brood snook, including Gordon, Little Marco, Big Marco, Doctors and Wiggins. “July and August are really the start of the prime months,” says Gould. “That's also when permit and kingfish will be on the wrecks.” I was there a bit early for the snook spawn, but redfish obliged at Gordon Pass, and I think the tarpon were waving at us as they rolled by. The tarpon also laughed at us in a series of Port Royal canals Gould called “Tarpon City.” Jarrod and I threw soft-plastic swimbaits with no results, but we idled by a resident dock fisherman who was catching ladyfish on jigs and then throwing them back out on conventional tackle. He had the right idea.

Common practice in summer is to beach your boat on the ICW side of Keewaydin Island and walk across to the Gulf side to catch the sunrise snook bite. Watch for turtle tracks and nests. Expect to see plenty of birds in and around Rookery Bay (who woulda thunk it?), especially a surprising number of bald eagles.

If that's not enough fish to target, mangrove snapper and gag and goliath groupers are common almost anywhere there is deep water and structure, especially around docks. We caught plenty on baits and artificials.

The Ten Thousand Islands can have its isolation. I'll take short runs, fast-paced trips and a beer with a view when those afternoon thunderstorms roll in.















Naples, Gateway to Keewaydin Island

I scheduled my trips with Capt. Pat Gould (239-572-2347; www.naplesfloridafishing.com). He specializes in fly and spin-tackle fishing around Keewaydin Island and farther south. Captain John Preeg (239-597-8553) fishes mostly the northern Naples area, and is also a monthly contributor to Florida Sportsman. Captains Todd Geroy (239-793-7141) and Bill Faulkner (www.gulfcoastguideservices.com; 239-994-8600) also guide in this region.

There are two ideal ramps to launch from. Bayview Park is closest to Gordon Pass, located near the south end of Naples Bay. From Bayshore Drive heading south, make a right on Thomasson Drive, and follow until it dead-ends at Bayview Park on Danford Street. Naples Landing is located at the north end of Naples Bay. This ramp is city-owned and situated in downtown Naples on 9th Street South.

Places to stay in Naples with additional boat space:

Bayfront Inn, 5th Ave.

www.bayfrontinnnaples.com

1221 Fifth Avenue South

Naples, FL 34102

(800) 382-7941

Cove Inn

www.coveinnnaples.com

900 Broad Avenue South

Naples, Florida 34102

(800) 255-4365

La Quinta Inn--Downtown Naples

www.lq.com

1555 5th Ave S

Naples, FL 34102

(800) 531-5900

Protected Fishing Holes Across Florida

Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve

(239) 417-6310

www.rookerybay.org

Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve

(850) 670-4783

www.nerrs.noaa.gov/Apalachicola

Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve

(904) 823-4500

www.gtmnerr.org

Three wildlife refuges WORTH A TRIP

J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge

(239) 472-1100

www.fws.gov/dingdarling

St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge

(850) 653-8808

www.fws.gov/saintvincent

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

(321) 861-0667

www.fws.gov/merrittisland

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