Southwest Florida September In The Salt

Southwest Florida September In The Salt

The late summer period offers a wide variety of options for inshore saltwater angling in this part of Florida. Here's a closer look at the action! (September 2010)

The Southwest coast of Florida is blessed with the best that Mother Nature has to offer with its sun-kissed shores, mangrove-lined islands and its seashell and driftwood-covered beaches. The area's inshore waters hold an assortment of fish that will make any angler happy.

Hopefully many snook like the 42-incher that Capt. Mike Smith is displaying made it through last winter's frigid weather.
Photo by Polly Dean.

An abundance of bait fish draw and nourish a fisherman's bounty of the larger species such as snook, speckled trout, redfish, grouper, snapper, and Spanish mackerel. Even the mighty silver tarpon can be sighted within yards of the shore of this rich coastal area.

Mother Nature also can be brutal at times and too often fishing guides and anglers are the first to feel her wrath. This past winter she blanketed the Sunshine State with frigid temperatures that chilled its waters to levels well below normal. The cold nights and days lasted for weeks on end, creating havoc and killing off a great number of fish, hitting hard at some of our popular inshore species.

Captain Mike Smith of North Fort Myers witnessed first-hand how the frigid temperatures affected his favorite fish, the snook. That species may have fared the worst, with thousands found floating belly-up, not able to survive the very cold temperatures. Smith said that snook do not tolerate water temperatures that fall below 54 degrees. During the recent cold spell, waters around Sanibel Island dipped to below 45 degrees! Along with the loss of many of the area's snook, the captain's popular guide service took a hit as well.

But as cruel as Mother Nature seems to be at times, she also has her way of healing and replenishing all that is damaged or lost. My fishing party and I quickly discovered this, very early into a recent fishing trip guided by Captains' Smith and Mark Westra.

We had nearly canceled our trip to Sanibel knowing how hard the fishery had been hit by the cold. But, we also knew that if there were big snook left to find in that area, our guides would know where to look

As it turned out we did hook into several very large snook and a number of other species as well!

As is often the case, the youngest and least experienced angler in our group had the most success. The first day out, 17-year-old Jessica Sinfelt landed the biggest and most snook of anyone in our party of five anglers. Throwing her live bait into the mangroves she hooked into a 25-inch snook and later that morning two bigger ones were to follow, both in the 36-inch range. Having never fished before, she was definitely spoiled by her introduction to saltwater action on the southwest coast.

All of us hooked into snook of 24 inches or longer. Most were brought to the gunnels, but a few bigger ones got away. Among those was a real monster! As Capt. Smith was slowing his boat near the mouth of a mangrove-lined creek, my fishing partner for the day, Florida Game & Fish editor Jimmy Jacobs, tossed his bait toward the bank. The live pilchard was immediately inhaled and whatever snatched the bait was headed up the shoreline soon had Jacobs' line screaming off the reel.

The captain quickly cranked the boat to pursue the big fish. A channel marker stood a few yards out from the bank and snagged the braided line stopping the big fish momentarily, causing it to thrash near the overhanging mangroves yards away from the boat. After several rolls, the fish was gone, but not before Capt. Smith got a good look at it. At first he suspected it was a big cobia, since several had been hooked in the area in recent days. As it turned out Capt. Smith identified the lost fish as a very big snook and close to 48 inches long!

Mike Smith has a great appreciation for the snook he pursues. A native of Sanibel Island, he has spent a lifetime developing a knack for finding the fish and tempting them to bite. In the course of our trip, we caught perhaps 30 of the fish, with the largest one stretching the tape to 42 inches.

All in all, the action made for a good trip, and the number of big, healthy snook we hooked was a relief for the captains. There definitely is still a base of breeding stock that survived the cold in these waters. Capt. Smith believes that if there is a silver lining to last winter's deep freeze, it may be that a stronger and healthier snook fishery will thrive as a result of Mother Nature's method of weeding out the weaker ones.

And, of course, the Southwest Coast from Naples up to Venice offers plenty of other targets besides snook.

On this same trip, we spent one day with Capt. Mark Westra concentrating on finding some hefty seatrout by fishing grassy flats and sandbars in the open waters of Pine Island Sound, just south of Boca Grande. The key was to locate a sandbar or grass-covered flat flooded by 3 to 4 feet of water at high tide. The seatrout and other predators often move into these shallows looking for baitfish.

One spot we tried was a small island with sandbars jutting both north and south of its shore. Deeper holes on the down current side of the bars were the key. It was a perfect example of a place bigger trout hold.

Another species that surprised us on these inshore grass flats was Spanish mackerel. These toothy fish can put up quite a fight and are just as much fun inshore as when they are out in the Gulf.

We caught both trout and the mackerel by free lining live baits in these waters in much the same as we had challenged the snook along the mangrove islands.

Another species we ran across in the same areas was mangrove snapper. But unlike the little bait thieves often encountered, the ones that took our live baitfish offerings were a bit heftier. We boated several that were well in excess of the 10-inch minimum size limit, and Capt. Smith pointed out that recently his clients had taken some that were measured in pounds rather than inches.

Redfish are also commonly hooked in these waters, and even an occasional gag grouper is pulled from beneath the mangroves limbs.

USING BAIT
A successful day in saltwater almost always begins with a livewell full of bait. Captains Smith and Westra head out hours before the fishing begins in search of pilchards, which are scaled sardines, but more commonly referred to as shiners and whitebait locally. These small baitfish run about 3 to 5 inches in length. Pinfish and threadfin herring are other good

choices of bait for fishing these waters.

To catch plenty of baitfish to last a full day of fishing, Capt. Smith said it helps to use a bigger cast net for snagging the bait. He recommends a 12-foot net instead of smaller sizes. He believes the larger cast net makes a big difference in the number of baits caught, because the 12-foot net sinks faster allowing fewer baits to escape.

Pilchards are a hardy baitfish and last all day in the bait well. The larger threadfin herring are equally good baits, but die quicker in a crowded bait well. In fact, they've earned the nickname "deadfin" herring.

Smith loads up with the baitfish when targeting snook. That's because he needs plenty of extras to throw up into the mangroves for chum. It's a simply way of finding the snook.

Before casting our baits up towards the overhanging mangroves in hopes of hooking into a snook, Capt. Smith tossed handfuls of pilchards towards the bank. If the snook are there we would hear loud "pops," the sound they make when grabbing a bait on the water's surface. Capt. Smith also uses this method to coax the snook out from under the tangle of the mangroves toward our baited lines.

The captain places the hook between the lips and eyes of the pilchards in most instances. But, he recommended changing the hook placement if fish aren't taking it.

For example some snook were flashing beneath the surface around us one afternoon, but not popping the baits on the top. They also weren't biting on our conventional offerings. Smith changed his tactic and hooked a whitebait behind its pectoral fin. As a result, it "helicoptered" spirally toward the bottom. A snook immediately went for the spinning movement of the bait.

Another way to hook bait is at the tail. Sometimes when the bait just wants to swim back to the boat in open water, hooking it in the tail can help to keep it directed towards the mangroves. Instinct causes them to swim away from the direction of the slight tension of the line.

FINDING FISH
Snook are far more active and likely to take a bait when the water is moving. During a good incoming or outgoing tide is the best time to look for these fish.

Snook can be found in the brackish water of backcountry creeks and estuaries, out in open water and along the beaches. The freshwater inflow of the Caloosahatchee River into Pine Island Sound and San Carlos Bay in the Fort Myers and Sanibel area provides ideal habitat for snook.

Similar situations are found at the Shokett Creek/Dona Bay complex in Venice, the Peace River at Charlotte Harbor, in the Estero Bay area at Fort Myers, at Naples Bay and Big Marco Pass or Caxambas Pass at Marco Island.

Mangrove snapper, speckled trout and redfish also commonly inhabit these same backcountry areas.

On a high tide snook can get so far back into the mangroves that it can be impossible to get to them. Free-swimming a pilchard along the edge of the mangroves is a good technique for drawing the snook out. Keep a sharp eye on your bait. It will provide the best clue to where the fish are. If the bait gets real "jittery," starts skipping on the surface or even running like a scalded dog, you can be pretty sure it is afraid it's about to be eaten!

Allow enough slack for the bait to swim freely, opening the bail when needed. It can be a balancing act keeping the baitfish free to swim, but also the line tight enough to feel when the bait gets nervous. Also, too much slack is a problem when setting the hook. That can be an even greater challenge with a stiff wind causing some "belly" in your line.

It's easy to react too soon when a snook grabs the bait, especially when you can see the fish attacking your bait. If there is slack in your line, first point your rod towards the bait and reel in the slack before setting the hook hard.

When fighting the fish, keep the rod low and to the side to allow the bend in the rod to put pressure on the fish and the rod, rather than pointing the rod at the fish and putting all the pressure on your fishing line.

When fighting a bigger fish that wants to head for cover in the mangrove tangles, Capt. Smith pointed out that keeping the rod low to the side and in the water can force it away from the mangroves. Then there is less chance of breaking off the fish in a tangle of mangrove roots.

ON A FLY
All of the species of fish mentioned also can be caught on fly-fishing gear. Both Capt. Mike Smith and Capt. Mark Westra are fly casters and know how to handle a boat when long rods are being used.

Capt. Smith's favorite fly in the backcountry is a Polar Fizz, a variation of a Puglisi style fly. The ones we threw had dark green and chartreuse colored backs with a white belly and looked very much like a pinfish. Clouser minnows in chartreuse and white work well too.

Though big snook are generally the target of most fly casters, Smith has some sure-fire places out of the wind where he can pick up smaller snook. We had a great time and in under an hour had hooked a dozen snook apiece on our 8-weight rods. These fish ran from 14 to 18 inches.

What was even better than catching those fish on a fly was learning that not only the stronger and bigger snook had survived the late winter deep freeze, but that there were plenty of these young ones as well.

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