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Sanibel Fly Fishing Sampler

Fly fishers give Pine Island Sound high marks.

Wading fly fishers cast at Sanibel Rocks, beachfront travertine formations that attract a variety of gamefish.

Chris Coile stripped, stripped, and then yanked up his rodtip. “There,” he said. The rod doubled over and began bouncing in his hands.

“Big fish?” I asked.

“Two fish, I think,” he answered. Coile, who was fishing a tandem fly rig—a green-and-white Clouser Minnow with a Norm's Schminnow as a trailer—had his hands full.

He fought the fish to the boat, and then the line tore off the reel again.

“The one below is the big fish,” he said, as he led in an 18-inch seatrout and a fat gafftopsail catfish. It was his fifth or sixth double hookup of the afternoon.

In three hours of fishing Pine Island Sound on the backside of Sanibel Island, we had boated the one catfish and many other trout, plus snook, Spanish mackerel, jack crevalle, pinfish and ladyfish. It was not an unusual day for the waters around Sanibel.

The Keys are more famous and glamorous. The Everglades more mysterious. But when it comes to flyfishing, Sanibel Island does not take a back seat to any other destination. This southwest Florida barrier island offers an amazing range of fly fishing options both from shore and boat.

Dave Schwerdt, who has been fly fishing around Sanibel for more than 30 years, is clear about why he chooses to live on the island. Schwerdt has fly-fished all over the United States, as well as the Bahamas, the Caribbean and many places in Central and South America.

“The reason I live here is because I love to fly fish here.” Schwerdt says. “I'd live in Costa Rica if I thought the fly fishing was gonna be better there.”

Perhaps the best expression of Sanibel's opportunities is the old saw that variety is the spice of life. The big three on Sanibel—snook, redfish and seatrout—whet the angling appetites of visitors from around the country and the world. Add to these a multiplicity of other first-rate fly quarry and you get a fly angler's smorgasbord that, once tasted, is hard to resist returning to.

After the dominant triumvirate, the list of other fish common to Sanibel waters reads like a Who's Who of warmwater, saltwater fly quarry. In addition to the fish we caught that afternoon, other common species are pompano, tripletail, bluefish, mangrove snapper, sheepshead and grouper.

Surf snook take the spotlight in summer.

Permit are common on Sanibel's offshore reefs in the spring and summer. Tarpon are also a big part of the mix, from the 2- to 20-pound babies to the big boys (and girls) upwards of 100. There are resident tarpon around Sanibel all year but the peak tarpon fishing happens in the spring and summer with the arrival of migrating fish.

Schwerdt moved to the island full-time in 1979, specifically to target redfish, snook, trout and tarpon. When asked his favorite, he does not hesitate. “My absolute favorite? It's just gotta be snook,” he says.

Sanibel fly fishing is basically a two-sided coin—beach and back bay. Both categories can be divided into sub-classifications.

Along the island's 12 miles of Gulf shoreline are three main benthic environments: shell and sand, hard bottom and structure. Boat anglers have one more option that does not fit any of the other types but could be considered temporary structure—the crab pot buoys that attract tripletail.

Most of Sanibel's Gulf shoreline fishing is classic beach angling in shallow water over shell-and-sand substrate. The bottom contour along the Gulf beaches is mainly flat or gently sloping, but in some areas a channel runs close to shore. Outside these inshore troughs are flats that vary widely in size and location because they can shift dramatically with wind and wave action.

Sanibel is blessed to have one of the most productive areas of inshore hard bottom in Southwest Florida. It is difficult to overestimate the productivity of the Sanibel Rocks, travertine formations located close to the beach about a mile west of the island's midpoint. The Rocks were buried in 1997 by a disastrous beach renourishment, which ruined the area for fishing for three years, until they were finally uncovered again.

Sheepshead--long-shot, but doable on fly.

Because the Rocks are so close to shore, many of the formations are well within fly casting range. This is blind casting. Anglers should look for dark areas in the water. These dark areas mark the seaweed beds that cling to the rocks and serve as havens for baitfish and invertebrates.

The Rocks attract virtually every species of inshore gamefish that inhabits the Gulf. Among the most common varieties caught are seatrout, redfish, ladyfish, Spanish mackerel, jack crevalle and bluefish. But the biggest draw is snook, which frequent the area in huge numbers from April through October. October and November can offer fast and furious action for huge migrating schools of seatrout and ladyfish. The best action for both species is from first light to an hour after sunrise and the last two hours before dark.

An intriguing sidelight for boaters is grouper, which in the winter move in from offshore and can be caught occasionally on flies over the Rocks. The curved arc of shoreline between the Rocks and Bowman's Beach forms a large cove that, during the warm months, often holds large schools of Spanish mackerel. They can often be found by searching for diving terns and pelicans focusing on huge schools of baitfish driven to the surface by the voracious macks.

In general, areas of structure are scarce along Sanibel's Gulf shore. But one of the first stops for area guides with snook-hungry clients is Sanibel's best-known area of underwater structure, the stumps and blowdowns along Bowman's Beach, near the island's west end.

The author scored a prize pompano.

“The Stumps,” as they are called, are most renowned as a snook magnet, and can produce huge fish, upwards of 30 inches. But their nature means that many fish will be lost. Fly anglers should use tippets and bite tippets that are at least 30-pound test. Trout, jacks and ladyfish are also common. The best way to fish the stumps is from a boat, casting toward the shore. The shoreline tangle of branches, trunks and roots makes beach fishing very difficult.

The other side of the Sanibel coin, the backwater areas of Pine Island Sound, is the reason for the island's remarkably abundant fishery. Grassflats, creeks, oyster bars, bays and bayous serve as nurseries and abundant food sources for fish. According to Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation biologist Steve Bortone, the huge expanses of grassflats in particular make the Sanibel backwaters the most productive spotted seatrout area in the world.

The central choice for backwater anglers, as Shakespeare might have phrased it, is this: To boat or wade, that is the question.

There is a common and persistent misconception among many people that the Sanibel backwaters are only fishable from a boat. But anyone who takes the time to explore the area will find myriad wade- and shore-fishing possibilities.

In general, the backside shoreline shows a progressive change in character from east to west. It begins with the sandy beach at the Sanibel Lighthouse, gaining grass and mangroves for about three miles, up to the mouth of Tarpon Bay. From Tarpon Bay west, the shoreline is classic mangrove and grass habitat all the way to Blind Pass and continuing up along the back side of Captiva Island.

Poor man's double: trout and sea cat.

Good wade fishing access points between the lighthouse and Tarpon Bay include the public parking lot at the Sanibel Fish Pier, the Sanibel Boat Ramp, Bailey Road and Dixie Beach Road. After Tarpon Bay, the Pine Island Sound shoreline is accessible only by boat, with one exception: the power line path that starts near the four-mile marker in the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

Other excellent wade fishing spots not on the island but nearby include the causeway islands (especially the one with the restrooms) and the large flat just east of the Sanibel toll booths.

The best and most convenient shore fly fishing on Sanibel is along 5-mile-long Wildlife Drive, which winds through the 7,000-acre refuge. Fly anglers need not ever wet their feet. In fact, it is illegal to enter the water on the left (west) side of the road. And although wading is permitted on the right side, no one who is familiar with the area would recommend it due to aggressive alligators.

For boaters, the flyfishing opportunities on Sanibel's back side are limitless. A few of the best spots close to the island are all of Tarpon Bay (but especially the shoreline) Horseshoe Bay (just west of Tarpon Bay), McIntyre Creek, Hardworking Bayou, Blind Pass, Buck Key channel and any of the cuts coming out of “Ding” Darling.

Other first-rate spots farther out in Pine Island Sound include Chino Island, Regla Island, Panther Key and numberless oyster bars, potholes and small mangrove keys.

When fishing the lower end of the tide on grassflats, look for sandy potholes. An extra foot or 18 inches of water can draw large numbers of fish to these bottom depressions.

Sight fishing shines at midday, but snook oblige at dusk, too.

Though some anglers wield 8- and 9-weight rods, my all-purpose outfit of choice for fly fishing around Sanibel (except for big tarpon) is a 7-weight rod with a weight-forward floating line. If the fish are down a bit in the water column a weighted fly will usually do the job of achieving the necessary depth. However, I do keep an extra spool filled with intermediate-weight sinking line for deep holes and passes.

My top flies include: Chartreuse-and-white Deceivers, chartreuse-and-white Clouser Minnows, Norm's Schminnows (white crystal chenille), Glass Minnows, brown Clouser Minnows, green Gurglers, brown-and-purple deer hair Sliders and red-and-white or green-and-white poppers.

Visitors looking for after-fishing action should keep in mind that Sanibel is not exactly renowned for its wild and crazy lifestyle. Unlike the Keys, which abound in hot nightspots, the island rolls up the sidewalks after dark. Many Sanibelers' idea of exciting nightlife is sharing a drink on the beach at sunset. FS

Author Norm Zeigler is proprietor of Norm's Zeigler's Fly Shop, on Periwinkle Way, Sanibel Island.

First Published Florida Sportsman February 2006

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