This sound's grass flats and mangrove shores get little attention in an area of the state often overlooked by anglers. But the trout action should be turning heads! (August 2007)
Capt. Les Hill has been guiding anglers on Gasparilla Sound for more than a quarter century.
Photo by Polly Dean.
The Gulf Coast of the Sunshine State offers an abundance of saltwater species to please anglers of every persuasion. Of course, certain areas garner more attention and publicity than others, which in turn attracts anglers in greater numbers.
Gasparilla Sound lies about two-thirds of the way down our state's Gulf Coast, just north of the popular fishing destinations of Pine Island Sound and Sanibel Island, and nearly within casting distance of the world-famous "tarpon capital" of Boca Grande Pass. This mangrove-lined sound and its shallow waters do not reap the amount of attention of their neighbors, but they most certainly don't lack in the quality of fishing that they offer. The grass and sand bottom of this often-overlooked oasis is prime habitat for numerous species. But hooking multiple speckled trout can be a year-round occurrence here.
The vast shallow flats of Gasparilla Sound are dotted with mangrove islands. With its numerous creeks and channels, the area is ideal for targeting trout with light tackle or fly-fishing gear. Gasparilla lies just to the west of the tiny town of Placida in Charlotte County. Gasparilla and Little Gasparilla islands create its western shore, separating the sound from the Gulf of Mexico. The Island Bay National Wildlife Refuge and Gallagher Keys form its eastern-most border towards the sounds mouth on Charlotte Harbor.
Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda to the east were ravished by Hurricane Charley three years ago this month, but those towns have recovered nicely. The area's fishing was not as affected by the storm and is as good as ever.
Capt. Les Hill, a native Floridian, is familiar with Gasparilla Sound and guides anglers on its skinny waters in the traditional way of "poling and stalking" the quarry. I was fortunate to spend a recent morning with Capt. Hill, targeting seatrout on the waters of Gasparilla Sound.
Initially, I was disappointed that my tight schedule allowed for only a few short hours with the captain. But any disappointment quickly vanished when in only a few minutes of leaving Eldred's Marina in Placida, we were hooking into seatrout!
It was a relief to not have a long boat ride and to have our lines in the water in less than 10 minutes. In a short period of time, Capt. Hill provided my fishing partner and me with a productive day of saltwater angling.
As we headed out, the tide was so low that even Capt. Hill's Maverick flats boat had to skirt by the extremely shallow areas.
As is true for most inshore species, trout like moving water. Hill pointed out that since the tide was moving very little at this point, he preferred to stick with the shallower areas. Any water movement at all is more pronounced in the skinniest of water.
We headed southeast from Eldred's and were fishing in and around the mouth of Whidden Creek.
Hill stealthily poled the boat over the grassy bottom, keeping an eye out for "potholes" -- his word for the sandy, concave areas that can be clearly seen in the grass. Trout like to hang out along the grassy edges of those sandy holes.
The mullet jumped around us like miniature missiles shooting out of the water. My adrenaline began to flow as it always does when the flats teem with activity. Capt. Hill directed our attention to a pothole beyond the bow of the boat. He told us to throw our jigs beyond the far side of the sandy hole and work them toward the boat, with the hope of drawing a strike from a trout waiting in the pothole's grassy. We weren't disappointed. My partner hooked up immediately.
This was too easy! Soon we both had success in boating some more trout as Capt. Hill slowly and quietly, moved us around to various grassy areas, paying particular attention to the potholes.
Using lightweight spinning gear and 6-pound-test line, we were throwing 1/4-ounce white jigheads with a root-beer-colored grub.
Hill usually stays with the white jighead year 'round, under any weather and water conditions. During these warmer summer months when the water can be stained from tannic runoff, he favors gold or lighter colors for the soft-plastic grubs.
When working the potholes, keep in mind that where there is grass, the water is shallower. You should work the jig a bit faster to keep it from hanging up. The retrieve then can be slowed a bit as it crosses into the pothole, where there's more depth.
When using a jig in grassy areas, hooking the grass can be a pesky problem. In these extremely shallow grassy spots, Capt. Hill suggested using a soft-plastic jerkbait since it can be fished virtually weedless. For the soft-plastic lure, the DOA Golden Shiner is his color of choice.
When casting the lightweight jerkbaits, the captain favors a longer 7 1/2-foot Loomis spinning rod for greater distance and uses 8-pound-test line. When the cast hits the water, Hill keeps the rod tip high, working the jerkbait across the surface in a "splishy-splashy" motion to imitate a frantic baitfish skipping across the water to escape a predator.
Then dropping the rod tip low, he continues to retrieve the soft bait in a sub-surface motion, as if the bait has tired or is injured.
Varying the speed of the retrieve increases the chances of a strike.
Since the trout were being especially cooperative, I next elected to test them on a fly. Unlike most anglers' comfort level, mine is a bit higher with a fly rod than with spinning gear. On the water, I fly-fish 90 percent of my time, and my casts are generally more accurate. But with a spinning rod, I'm all over the place!
After explaining the situation to our guide -- and following his suggestion -- I tied on a tan Clouser Minnow to see if the trout would accept.
Having claimed some measure of expertise with the long rod, that morning I naturally managed to lose my ability to cast the fly rod, and attaining a respectable distance seemed out of the question.
But it didn't seem to make any difference to the trout. The fish were taking my Clouser within 10 to 20 feet of the boat. I began outfishing my partner,
who was still casting jigs!
Fortunately for me, Capt. Hill is an expert with the fly rod, and nearly 50 percent of his customers fly-fish. Hill has over 30 years of experience with a fly rod and has been guiding anglers since 1990. His patience and knowledge of fishing techniques comes in handy, especially if he's guiding beginning anglers or novices.
Hill was quick to offer me tips for getting my fly out farther, and I appreciated that he accepts favorably those who prefer the long rod.
Since we had landed a number of trout successfully, our guide suggested that with our remaining time, we go after some redfish.
Again with only a short ride heading northwest from Whidden Creek, we headed towards Catfish Creek. Approximately halfway there, we saw a "tailing" redfish.
Since my skills in casting a fly were questionable that morning, my partner got the first shot at the red with several long casts. The fish was busy feeding on the bottom for what seemed like quite a while.
Even though the fish never really spooked and reappeared to let us make several more attempts to get a fly to him, we weren't successful in hooking him. But the opportunity to sight-cast to a redfish was still a thrill.
Gasparilla Sound is also an ideal location for anglers who combine kayaking and wade-fishing. The firm sandy bottom is easy to walk on. Kayakers can launch from Eldred's Marina.
Another option is off State Route 771 just before reaching Eldred's. Public access is where the viaducts of the old rail line that carried phosphates out to Boca Grande have been turned into fishing piers.
A 2006 assessment by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission indicates that spotted seatrout are thriving, even exceeding the management numbers that biologists have set for the state.
The FWCC compares egg production in populations of seatrout pressured by anglers, versus those populations that have no fishing pressure at all. Data show that egg production currently falls above the proposed standards and that the management goal is being met.
However, the numbers of anglers targeting seatrout is rising statewide, so the FWCC will continue to carefully monitor fishing pressure on the trout and determine whether changes in management are warranted at this time. Another assessment is scheduled for 2009.
The state has two management regions for the recreational harvesting of spotted seatrout. Gasparilla Sound falls within the South Region, where the daily bag limit for seatrout is four per angler. The trout can be no shorter than 15 inches and no longer than 20 inches. One fish per day may exceed that 20-inch maximum.
In this region, all harvesting of seatrout is prohibited during November and December. This protects the species during cold spells, when they are bunched up and particularly susceptible to anglers.
SUMMING IT UP
Gasparilla Sound offers anglers a tranquil retreat, compared to the hustle and bustle of some nearby fishing destinations. On the other hand, the fishing can't be described as tranquil by any means. The trout action will satisfy the hungriest of appetites. With fewer anglers to contend with, there's simply more to go around.