March 07, 2022
By Larry Larsen
Southwest Florida is a compelling destination that offers big challenges for expert anglers and a variety of fishing opportunities for anglers of all skill levels. The inshore waters, coastline passes, back bay country and shallow Gulf of Mexico flats between Ft. Myers and Sarasota are particularly productive for saltwater anglers chasing a diverse array of fish species. These include speckled trout, redfish, snook, tarpon and other abundant marine species such as Spanish mackerel, ladyfish, pompano, jacks and even cobia.
The moderate weather in the spring along the coast seldom affects fishing in this region from Sarasota Bay southward along the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) through Charlotte Harbor and Pine Island Sound.
Anglers in Sarasota, Charlotte and Lee counties have a variety of good fishing spots in the form of islands, beaches, bays, creeks and in the meandering ICW. Throughout southwest Florida, there are many beautiful and expansive flats with lush grass and sand potholes spread across thousands of acres.
In the Sarasota Bay area, there are 50 miles of shoreline and numerous shallow oyster bars around which to locate activity. Great fishing exists all around Longboat Key and Anna Maria Island, which are surrounded by fishing flats. Farther south along the ICW are Lido, Siesta and Casey Keys, which are often targeted by inshore and backwater guides for a good reason. They produce fish!
COLOSSAL CHARLOTTE HARBOR
Further south, the massive Charlotte Harbor area includes more than 830 miles of shoreline, and more than 84 percent of it is designated as a nature preserve. It also includes Boca Grande, known to many as the "tarpon capital of the world," Gasparilla Island, Bocilla Pass, Punta Gorda and Manasota Key. There are more than 100 square miles of uninhabited estuary and prime backcountry habitat in the mangroves along huge grass flats.
Charlotte Harbor has plenty of seagrass patches, sandy bottoms, oyster bars, mud flats and young mangrove islands in its shallower estuaries, along with lots of wildlife. Close by are the passes, Gulf beach-side areas and cuts between the interior islands, which almost always harbor fish. I’ve frequently located large concentrations of trout that average 16 to 24 inches in length and redfish up to 30 inches on the flats off Cape Haze.
Many passes, like Boca Grande, are renown for tarpon in the spring months. It is a "stack-up" point for giant concentrations of tarpon because the pass there is deeper and wider than most of the others along the Southwest coast. Tarpon migrate between freshwater and saltwater. In Boca Grande, the fresh waters of the Myakka and Peace Rivers flow around Cape Haze into the northern end of Charlotte Harbor, and the Caloosahatchee River adds a little flow through Pine Island Sound. Most of the Caloosahatchee dumps water into the Gulf around Sanibel Island.
Giant tarpon may be on boat channel humps, edges or ledges in the 40- to 70-feet deep passes between islands. They may also be in 8 to 15 feet of water off the nearby Gulf beaches or in the shallow 4- to 6-feet-deep flats for about 100 to 130 days. Many of these silver kings exceed 100 pounds, and some may top out at more than 150.
PICTURESQUE PINE ISLAND SOUND
According to one of the area’s top guides, Capt. Pete Greenan, Pine Island Sound is the longest continuous grass flat in the state. It lies south of the harbor behind Cayo Costa, the Captiva Islands and Pine Island. Capt. Pete, a longtime friend of mine, has often proven to me that he can find fish throughout the 50 square miles of uninterrupted mangroves and shallow bars. In fact, he has successfully guided anglers on waters all along the southwest Florida coast for about 40 years.
"The weed beds and docks centered around the flats off the islands of North Captiva and Cayo Costa offer some of the better trout fishing in the area," notes the captain. "My favorite spots are where trout regularly move into deeper stretches of the grass flats and then out into shallower weed beds to feed.
"A great area for larger trout and redfish in the southern end of Pine Island Sound are the grass beds off Sanibel Pier," he continues. "During low tide levels, trout move into the finger channels that are formed by tidal flows over the flats. Those channels usually cut through large grass beds and around barrier mangrove islands in the Sound."
When water levels drop due to the outgoing tide, the surrounding grass beds will usually be exposed, pushing large schools of trout into the channels. With depths of 7 to 8 feet lying adjacent to the better flats, the "speckled bottom" is usually good for both trout and redfish, according to the captain.
The sandy potholes surrounded by grass in 1 to 3 feet of water are then ideal for sight fishing the reds. When the falling tide practically dries up the speckled bottom, the redfish will move into the deeper waters nearby. The grass flats off Bokeelia Point on the north end of Pine Island can be productive for trout on both the incoming and outgoing tides. Be on the lookout for eddies and finger channels where the fish might move along.
PRIME INSHORE FORAGING FACTORS
The red-hot action could heat up in southwest Florida during the late winter/spring season anytime from mid-February through April, depending on when the waters get warmer. Keep an eye on the warm “fronts” and repeated days of southerly winds along the coast. The areas farther south near Ft. Myers Beach and Sanibel normally warm up first and a week or two later, Sarasota Bay temperatures will heat up.
Baitfish show up with the rise in water temperature, and when they come in, they quickly move into the weed beds. The inshore species then become very active. The larger scaled sardines, menhaden and threadfin herring are usually found in the deeper cuts, along the beaches and ICW passes separating the islands in March and April. Other areas to locate baitfish include the grassy rips and markers lining the ICW.
Later in spring, the most productive sand shoals to fish are those that are covered with grass beds close to deeper water offering small cuts and channels. The forage fish will spawn as waters warm on the flats that vary from 3 to 10 feet down. The larger baitfish usually start leaving the area around the first of June.
Once water temps are moving up, be sure to keep an eye out for little herds of baitfish that may move by the boat on an incoming tide. Small schools of snook might be following them in the relatively clear waters. While the snook bust baitfish on the surface, birds exploit the baitfish that pile up near shorelines.
“Tarpon also may move to the beaches or into the backcountry where Springtime redfish angling is excellent when you can find them schooling,” says Pete. “Big snook may also be hungry, but these inshore fish may be difficult to locate. Often docks and seawalls will offer the better fishing in cooler weather because they are the more protected places then.”
Tarpon move in and out of the passes and run the adjacent beaches. Some of my favorite battles were with 80- to 100-pound tarpon in about 8 feet of water just off the beaches on either side of one of the area’s passes. Tossing live crabs early in the morning often is productive, but the fish can get skittish when the sun moves higher in the sky. With fish on, you might have 15 to 25 minutes to enjoy a tremendous battle, particularly if they drag you and your boat into a pass a couple of miles away!
The fishing is generally best when the tides are strongest and bait movement is greatest, during the full and new moons. In fact, the crabs and shrimp move through the passes all along the southwest Gulf coast on those moons. The better months for chasing tarpon may begin as early as late March or early April and last a few months.
Some tarpon might be in the region year around. They reportedly winter in the Boca Grande area as long as the water temperature doesn’t drop below 65 degrees. Several days of cold temperatures drives them out of the passes, and they move south. When the Gulf water gets hot (near 90 degrees), the majority of tarpon will migrate north to cooler waters, usually by the end of June.
WATER CHARACTERISTICS AND LOCATIONS
In mid-March or April, snook and redfish move out of their wintering spots in the rivers, canals and deeper parts of the bays and cuts. As the backcountry waters along the southwest coast warm further in the spring and winds subside, the clear grass flats are normally the most productive spots for trout, snook and redfish.
Prime fishing locations to check out in each of the inshore areas along the coastline and ICW are grass edges, mangrove roots or any oyster bars that have formed at the edge of the mangroves, as well as potholes in the sandbars.
Snook love glass minnows. On a recent trip to Sarasota Bay, we found snook busting little herds of tiny glass minnows that were bunched up right on the shoreline. We caught about a dozen, mostly small snook that were feeding on the little baitfish. Our successful day was complete with a couple of 24-inch reds and several nice trout from sandy pothole areas.
When the springtime waters are low after an outgoing tide, redfish can often be found on grass flats that drop off to deeper water. When the tide turns and starts pushing back, the fish will work their way into the clear water tide holes. On brighter, sunny days, both redfish and snook can often be found hiding underneath the bushes. As the incoming tide continues, the fish may be up underneath the roots of the mangroves and it will be difficult to get at them.
Tarpon often relocate if the water gets very muddy from predominate southwest winds lasting several days. They don’t like silt in the water and will leave the passes, backcountry and near-shore beach areas for cleaner offshore water. Rainwater typically flows into the bays and sound from the east. It may have a lot of tannic acid in it, which can affect the fish. Tarpon will leave their locations until the water clears again. That might last for a week or two depending on how much rainwater has flowed into the flats and passes.
ACCESS TO THE FISHERIES
Several nearby southwest Florida airports make the fishing very accessible from anywhere in the U.S. The Punta Gorda Airport, Sarasota/Bradenton International Airport and Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers are close by. About 60 miles north of Sarasota lies the St. Pete/Clearwater International Airport and the Tampa International Airport.
The southwest Florida area has tremendous facilities for visiting anglers, good boat rental places, kayak rentals and great boat ramps. Due to the vast variety of topography and habitat along the coast, hiring a guide who knows the area is a wise investment. An experienced guide will know where to go and can cut down the “hunting” time. They also know the extensive and sometimes confusing fishing and boating regulations and restrictions that are in place.
For more information on the inshore fishing in the region, contact two, long-time guide friends of mine, Capt. Pete Greenan at Gypsy Guide Service (Sarasota and Boca Grande) at 941-232-2960 or Capt. Van Hubbard (Venice to Pine Island Sound) at 941-468-4017.
Southwest Florida Sights
Attractions and activities both on and off the water.
Florida’s scenic southwest Gulf coast has an abundance of both active and peaceful waterways, but most are seldom crowded. From Sarasota to Charlotte Harbor and Naples to the south, there are plenty of outdoor recreation opportunities in addition to the great inshore fishing. Aquatic offerings include swimming, paddleboarding, snorkeling, kayaking, boating, sailing, surfing, water skiing, jet skiing, nature cruises, offshore trolling, party-boat charters and beach fishing.
There is always plenty to do when off the water. Check out the remote barrier islands, harbor shoreline walks, surrey bike rentals, Gulf sunsets and great dining in the numerous coastal communities located in this 100-mile stretch of bays, harbors, passes, creeks and rivers.
In the Sarasota area, the Ringling Museum (ringling.org) celebrates the history of the circus at the complex spread over 66 acres of beautiful gardens and footpaths. There are plenty of other attractions, parks and activities to do in Sarasota, including the Mote Marine Laboratory (mote.org), a non-profit marine science center, aquarium, shark research site and marine hospital. Other great attractions are the Myakka River State Park and the Mary Selby Botanical Gardens at Historic Spanish Point.
In the Punta Gorda/Englewood Beach area, much of the land attractions and activities are on the wide Gulf Island coast beaches. The area’s beautiful powder-white sand beaches are renowned and considered the very best in the country for beach combing for shells and shark’s teeth. The Don Pedro Island State Park and the Stump Pass Beach State Park at the end of Manasota Key are fun spots to visit and take a short hike. You may even see a mother osprey tending to her chicks in her huge nest.
In the Charlotte Harbor/Ft. Myers area, check out the Babcock Wilderness Adventures and Nature Park at the Shell Factory. For a natural unspoiled beach, head to Sanibel Island’s 3 public beaches or to Bowman’s beach.
There are also great places to stay and dine all along the southwest coast. In the Charlotte Harbor area, one of my favorite restaurants is the Lock ‘N Key in Englewood (lockandkeyrestaurant.com), which is located across the road from a beach and features a large indoor dining room, bar area and an outdoor dining area where you can hear the waves tumbling on the Gulf sand. I’m a fan of the place’s huge scallops.
Several great accommodations exist, but I have a couple of favorites. The beautiful Lido Beach Resort (lidobeachresort.com) on Lido Key near Sarasota has roomy suites with kitchenettes, a great restaurant and two heated pools, and lies just a mile from the best boat ramp in Longboat Key. The Westin Cape Coral at Marina Village is a beautiful and quiet resort just off the fish-laden Pine Island Sound.