Florida's Charlotte Harbor Saltwater Fishing

Florida's Charlotte Harbor Saltwater Fishing

This southwest Florida destination offers a varied fishery with something for virtually every angling taste. Join the author as he explores the Charlotte Harbor action in May.

Capt. Rob McCue often guides his clients to giant tarpon on Pine Island Sound, near the mouth of Charlotte Harbor. Photo by Frank Sargeant.

If you can make only one visit to Florida's coastal waters annually, the time to go is May and the place is Charlotte Harbor. There's nowhere else in the state where you can enjoy such endless action from so many species. And it helps too that May usually offers 30 days of calm seas and cloudless skies, warm enough to wade-fish, but without the brain-frying heat that sets in by June nor the thunderstorms of July. In short, you find angling perfection.

Charlotte Harbor is a giant bay about 80 miles south of Tampa, created by the inflow of the Peace and the Myakka rivers. It's shaped in a fat dogleg, with the north-south leg about 10 miles long, the east-west section of about 8 miles. Side bays such as Gasparilla Sound, Bull Bay, Turtle Bay and Pine Island Sound interconnect, creating protected waters where you can fish no matter what the weather.

Also it helps that the outflow of the bay, between Gasparilla Island and Cayo Costa, is Boca Grande Pass, the world's most famous tarpon hole from May through early July.

TARPON EVERYWHERE

Let's start with the tarpon fishery. The annual mating migration of backcountry crabs (known locally as "pass crabs") flows through this pass starting on the full and new moons of May and continues into mid-July. As the tens of thousands of crabs drift through the pass, acres of tarpon gather to feed on them.

The pass, about a mile wide and up to 72 feet deep, becomes tarpon soup. State biologists have estimated that as many as 10,000 fish are crammed into these waters during peak periods! The fish are all adults from 80 pounds up to more than 150. It's an amazing collection of giant fish.

Catching a tarpon here is best accomplished with a guide. With up to 100 boats jamming the pass at times, drifting over the fish without tangling with a dozen other anglers has to be carefully choreographed. You can find a list of guides at www.bocagrandefishing.com or at www.florida-guides.com.

It's also possible for experienced sight-fishermen to catch tarpon on their own outside the passes. The fish spread out for miles along the beaches, usually traveling anywhere from 100 yards to 1 mile out. If you ease along the beach on a trolling motor, you soon spot tarpon rolling and heading your way.

The best bet is to toss a live threadfin on a 6/0 extra strong hook in front of the school and let them swim up to it. You can cast net the baitfish from the many schools along the beach.

Most anglers these days use heavy spinning gear, 8-foot rods and 80-pound-test microfiber lines with 3 to 6 feet of 80-pound-test fluorocarbon as leader. Live crabs, pinfish and scaled sardines are also effective.

Catching the fish on artificial lures is more challenging, but do-able. A DOA shrimp or a Baitbuster plastic mullet will do the job if you put the cast in the right spot ahead of the fish and swim it slightly away from them. Never pull an artificial towards the fish or they spook. Fly rod streamers delivered on 12-weight gear also do the job, but this is specialty angling best done with an experienced guide.

Battling a tarpon is a whole new world for most freshwater and inshore anglers. You can expect a blazing run exceeding 100 yards on the hookup, repeated jumps that may take the fish 10 feet into the air, and power that will literally pull you to your knees. The big trick in whipping these giant fish is to keep the pressure on steadily, keeping the rod tip low and always pull in the direction opposite the way they're swimming. With good technique, you can have a 100-pounder at the boat in 30 to 40 minutes -- but don't be surprised if a tough one takes more than an hour.

The quicker the fight ends the better, not only for your sake, but also for the fish's. A tarpon fought too long is an easy target for the many bull and hammerhead sharks that roam these same waters. You may be unlucky enough to see the stunning spectacle of a 15-foot hammerhead gulping down a 6-foot-long tarpon right beside the boat. It happens almost every day during the prime fishing months.

THE BIG THREE

Snook, redfish and seatrout are the big three of south Florida's flats fishing, but this year snook are off the menu. The massive cold-kill in the winter of 2009-2010 caused the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to close the West Coast snook harvest until at least September of 2011. Catch-and-release fishing remains legal for the linesiders, but for the time being it's probably best to avoid catching these fish to help assure they have a highly successful summer spawn.

Reds and trout can take up the slack, in any case. Neither appears to have been harmed by the cold, and both species are benefiting from many years of tight harvest regulations.

To locate redfish, pole, drift or use your trolling motor to prowl the grass flats in depths of 1 to 3 feet. Bull Bay and Turtle Bay on the north side of the lower harbor are famed redfish areas. Work the many cuts and mangrove islands here and you soon find action. A weedless spoon like the venerable Johnson Silver Minnow is a good lure for finding reds. Add a strip of white pork rind or a curly-tail plastic jig body for extra action.

Soft plastic jerkbaits in pearl or chartreuse also do the job, and you can catch the fish on noisy topwater lures, though it's best to debarb the hooks to allow for easy release. You're only allowed to take one home per day and it must be between 18 to 27 inches long. In May, you find a good many fish are oversized. They are great fun to catch, but you have to let them go.

Trout are everywhere around Charlotte Harbor. Find water 2 to 5 feet deep with grassy bottom and good current and you find the fish. The waters on both sides of Devilfish Key, due east of the village of Boca Grande, are a good place to start. Jug Creek Shoal on the south side near Pine Island is a famed trout area, and the entry channels to Bull and Turtle bays can be stiff with fish on falling tides. I also like Rocky Channel, in Pine Island Sound on an outgoing tide. A jig or Tsunami 4-inch swimbait can murder these fish.

Trout are not difficult to fool once you find them. Throwing a 1/4-ounce jig with a 3-inch paddle tail trailer can wear them out. However, some ot

her offerings seem to do well on larger fish. The MirrOdine from MirrOlure is absolutely a killer bait here. It should be worked in a series of short jerks that make it turn and flash. The smaller DOA plastic shrimp is also effective, as are most topwaters.

Local anglers cast net scaled sardines on the grass flats, and then use them as live chum, as well as free-lined baits. This type fishing is so easy it's almost not fair. Trout, snook or reds can't seem to turn down this offering. But, a small hook is key. Size 1 short shank versions allow the bait best action. Hook them through the clear spot on their noses.

MACKEREL & BLUES

Though May is towards the tail end of the offshore baitfish migrations here, you still find plenty of Spanish mackerel and bluefish hanging around the larger passes. They are also in the deep, open waters of lower Charlotte Harbor. The easy way to connect with these toothy predators is to look for frantic baitfish fleeing on the surface. That kind of action also usually is marked by a bird "tornado" swirling above.

Pull up to one of these scenes and all you have to do is whip a small jig or a 2-inch spoon into the fracas and start cranking it back as fast as you can turn the reel handle. You usually get an instant bite, and if one fish gets off another immediately gets on.

The macks and blues average around a pound, but if you want to concentrate on catching some larger ones, round up some live scaled sardines. Then anchor in Little Gasparilla Pass, on the long bar outside Boca Grande Pass or around the ship channel makers, and toss out wounded baits as chum. At the same time free-line a live sardine on a short piece of No. 6 wire and a size 1 hook. You not only catch Spanish mackerel of up to 5 pounds, but you may be surprised by a king mackerel of 20 pounds or more. Those bigger mackerel are headed for the northern Gulf at this time of year, but there are always a few stragglers.

MANGROVE SNAPPER

Mangrove snapper, known locally as "mangos", are also abundant in Charlotte Harbor in May. Find a sunken shrimp boat, rock outcropping, or a deep, oyster and mangrove shoreline, and you find them swarming like bees.

These snapper are most often found around some sort of hard structure, so catching them sometimes takes a bit of searching to find this sort of cove. Local anglers are rather close-mouthed about their snapper spots, as you might expect. Best bets to locate them is to check under bridges and along Intracoastal Waterway shorelines where the current has cut into shell banks, with water depths of 3 feet and more.

A live shrimp or small live sardine is the top bait for mangrove snapper, which typically average a pound or two inshore. They also readily take plastic shrimp drifted with the current along mangrove shorelines and over rock outcroppings on the outer edge of grass flats. These fish are perhaps the best tasting on the Gulf Coast, so it's well worth pursuing them to get some delicious fillets. The minimum size is 10 inches, with a bag limit five per day per angler.

OTHER TARGETS

Cobia are always a possibility in spring here, with the big structures on the north side of Boca Grande Pass a good place to start looking for them. They also show up around marker buoys and tripod markers throughout the harbor area.

A live pinfish or a large threadfin is a good offering for cobia. They also grab the DOA Baitbuster readily. You often can see them around the markers -- big brown shadows that look almost shark-like. But even where you don't spot a fish, it's wise to soak a bait for 15 minutes to see if anything shows. Put one bait near the surface under a float, and drop another down near the bottom.

Cobia commonly run 20 pounds here, but giants over 40 pounds also grab the baits now and then. Cobia are tough sluggers and you need stout gear to get them away from buoy cables and pilings. They're absolutely great steaked and grilled.

BEST ALL-AROUND TACKLE

It's hard to beat a 2500-sized spinning reel loaded with 10- to 15-pound-test microfiber line and attached to a 7-foot, fast-tip spinning rod. Add 18 inches of 20-pound-test fluoro if you're after trout, and up that to 25 or 30 if you're chasing reds or snook. This rig is good for pitching anything from unweighted jerkbaits and live sardines, on up to substantial hard baits, jigs and spoons.

If you lean more to live bait fishing, a slightly longer and softer spinning rod serves you well. If you're a topwater addict, it's hard to beat a baitcasting rig and 15- to 20-pound test monofilament line.

For tarpon you require heavier gear, of course, but a good angler with a really stiff rod and a 6000-Ambassadeur reel loaded with 25-pound-test can whip a 100-pound fish fairly quickly, if the hookup is on inside waters where the fish can't get too deep.

For fishing the pass itself, really stout stuff is in order. You need 80-pound gear or heavier to horse the fish away from other boats.

WHERE TO LAUNCH

Getting a boat in the water can be somewhat of a challenge here. There's only one good public ramp reasonably close to the prime fishing, and that's at the entrance to Gasparilla Island at Placida. Take State Route 775 (Placida Road) south from Englewood until you see the sign for the ramp. Get there really early on weekends -- there's limited parking space and the sheriff will ticket you if you park your rig along the highway.

Gasparilla Marina is also within sight and has a good ramp, plus a lot more parking. You may, however, have to walk a ways after parking your truck. The marina is just south of the turn-off road to Boca Grande.

Eldred's Marina is another spot where you can get in the water. This is a rough ramp, but fine for launching smaller boats including flats rigs. There's also a fair amount of parking.

All of these boat launches are on the north end of the prime fishing. You have a run of 10 to 15 minutes to get to most of the areas mentioned earlier, though you can go to Little Gasparilla Pass almost immediately to hook up with macks on most mornings.

NAVIGATION

There's lots of really shallow water all over the Charlotte Harbor area. Buy a chart and study it carefully before you go. Otherwise, you can wind up stuck on a mud flat, or damaging the habitat by buzzing through a grass flat. Flats, bay or bass boats and kayaks all do the job here. Deeper draft vessels can fish the pass and the main harbor, but not the backcountry.

WHERE TO STAY

Boca Grande Island is the most convenient spot to overnight, but also the most expensive. You have to pay every time you cross the toll bridge, and accommodations range from expensive to very expensive.

The Innlet, at about $135 for a double plus $35 for a boat slip at your door, is my favorite spot to stay when I can afford it. Check it out at www.theinnlet.com.

I also like Burnt Store Resort, on the southeast end of the harbor, which rents condos. They are good options for three or four guys or a couple of families. You can launch and keep your boat in the water there for as long as you're a guest. Their Web site is at www.burntstoreresort.com.

More often I stay on the mainland in one of the many chain hotels in Englewood and trailer down to one of the ramps each morning.

The same advice applies to restaurants. All the usual chain eateries, including the familiar Golden Arches are available in Englewood, but once you cross the bridge to Boca Grande, expect to pay $8 or more for a hamburger.

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