From San Carlos to Estero
By Captain Mike Smith
I’ve always looked forward to every minute of fishing, starting when I was young, all through my long career as an inshore charter captain. Those that know me and fished with me understand not only my passion for the gamesters of Florida’s West Coast, but also my lifelong devotion to snook fishing. Yet even when customers want tarpon, redfish or seatrout, I love pursuing those species, too, and like nothing better than watch the excitement of my clients as their rods heel over and their drag screams out.
Whether I’m involved in a scouting trip- a rare occasion these times- or more regularly, getting ready to produce action for a client I’ll be meeting within hours, my day generally starts in the wee hours. With regularity, I’m amongst the first skiffs out to ply the waters of San Carlos Bay or around Sanibel Island to set up for cast netting a day’s supply of white bait. This process involves searching, anchoring, estimating current, gauging the baits’ response to the chum, and if they are “pluming up”, throwing the net a few or many more times, filling the livewell, and squaring away the cockpit. All this, even before I’m back at the dock at Punta Rassa waiting for my customer. During the coldest months, the finfish baits may be scarce, in which case the bait ritual means a “shrimp run” trip to the tackle shop to fill my livewell with these succulent crustaceans.
Though the hours are long, I would not have it any other way. The last few years saw a dip in the snook population due to the severe winter of two years ago. But the good news is that the snook fishing is pretty good in certain sections of the range I fish. Other sections- like the “Ding”- were hit hard and may take years to come back. If I can get my customers to come to Sanibel on a “moon”- meaning the full or new moon- and the water temperature is warm enough, I can give my customers some snook action. And, fingers crossed, if our current winter is not too cold, the snook populations may continue to grow and rebound.
A Phone Call
I received a call from Jan Maizler on the status of the snook just this last August. When I informed him of the recent trends, he said he was anxious to come over from Miami and give it a try. I was happy to fish with him, but I wanted three conditions to be operating: namely, fishing on weekdays with less boat traffic pressure, fishing under a “moon”, and a date early enough in the Fall to have warmer water temperatures. We were able to reserve two fishing days in the August to September axis, when the heat of Indian Summer was giving way to the first cooling hints of Fall. Jan made reservations at the West Wind Inn as his base of operations and we made plans for him to meet me each morning around 7:30 a.m. at the Punta Rassa boat ramp- barely a ten-minute drive from the Inn.
I decided to fish the San Carlos Bay/Matlacha area on our first day. Though there were some sporadic showers and thunderstorms brewing over the area as we started, I was able to keep us both safe as well as dry. Most of the weather simply evaporated in the heat of the rising sun. I was glad that we had a bit of breeze that would make us more comfortable as well as put a slight scuff to the surface of the water. This would make the fish hopefully a bit less spooky.
Our first run to our starting point took less than twenty minutes. I cut my big Yamaha and came into our spot on my electric trolling motor. The tide was still coming in and I chose a fast-moving funnel-like narrow channel between two mangrove islands. When I felt our position between each mangrove canopy and the middle channel was perfect, I dropped the Power Pole and then positioned the bow with my Wang anchor.
I gave Jan one of the spinning rods and put on a white bait. I told Jan to keep the bait in the water and only cast if something busted up under my live chum. I netted some bait, stunned them, and then threw three handfuls to the three areas noted above. Everything was still for about twenty seconds, then a pop “went off” here, and then there. Jan quickly cast to an explosion along the right mangrove wall and hooked up with a snook immediately. He had the five-pound linesider boatside within a minute.
The blowups grew with each handful of chum, which was thrown at sixty second intervals. I got a kick out of Jan’s reaction of not knowing where to cast first. I picked up a rod and cast it to a blowup in the center of the channel. I hooked up immediately and could tell from the fight it was a redfish. Two minutes later, I was posing a nice six-pound specimen for Jan. The action slowly tapered off over the next hour and our approximate release numbers were about ten snook and six redfish released. We also missed a lot of strikes by smaller snook under the mangrove canopy.
Jan asked if we could spend the rest of the day looking for really big snook. He mentioned he knew this would be more of a challenge as well as a waiting game. I ran to five different spots, including a fairly long run up the “River.” Jan succeeded in hooking three really good fish- of which two fish cut him off on the mangrove roots and one cut him on the dock pilings. Both of us knew that big snook get that way and stay that way by their ability to cut you off.
Since our second day was a Friday and possibly more crowded on the water, I chose to run across the Gulf to Estero Bay. As soon as we entered the estuary, we scanned whatever the vista afforded us for fishing vessels and we saw none.
I ran my Lake and Bay to a spot ten minutes “inside”. As I slow motored to a shoreline, I noticed my bait was starting to get “funky.” Clearly, something in this stretch of water- heat, fresh water, or who knew- was adversely affecting them. I told Jan we’d have to head back to the channel to more bait-friendly water. As I headed back into the open, it was amazing to watch the white bait perk up so quickly.
I chose my next spot close to the channel. I positioned my vessel close to an island with good current and began chumming. The blowups were immediate and I picked up a rod, bait it up and cast. Jan and I were both hooked up to snook of five or six pounds. During the melee which went on for two hours, Jan also caught, photographed and released a nice jack close to ten pounds as well as a flounder around three pounds, which was big for that area. As the second hour unfolded, a large thunderhead was growing right on top of us. It was a self-contained “cell”, but we watched it closely as we fought our fish. When we heard the first rumble of thunder, we knew it was time to go. There was no wind, rain, temperature changes, but it was better to be prudent. As I idled towards the entrance back to the Gulf and into blue skies- Jan said he’d counted twenty snook released, and loads lost.
Jan asked if we could spend the rest of our day looking for mackerel and bonito schools. In the next two hours, we ran into some small mackerel schools but they were skittish. We did find and catch a few nice macks back towards the Sanibel Lighthouse. As I idled towards the boat ramp, I was satisfied to have given Jan two days of good action as well as the satisfaction of knowing exactly where I’d take tomorrows’ customer.
West Wind Inn
Jan told me he had some full-bodied action on sea trout, ladyfish, and a few snook directly behind the West Wind Inn (before and after) each day that we had fished together. He’d mix up the dawn and dusk angling with some shelling and walks along our famous Sanibel beach. As a return customer there, Jan had his evening drill “down” with a libation at the Upper Deck poolside bar, and then dinner at the Inn’s Normandie Seaside Pub.
Recap About Myself
I run a sleek 20 foot Lake and Bay skiff. It is powered by a 250 H.P. Yamaha and outfitted with a Power Pole, electric trolling motor and Wang bow anchoring system. I generally launch at Punta Rassa ramp and my range is from Boca Grande down to Estero Bay.
Captain Mike Smith
Mangrove Island Charters
Web Site: www.mangroveislandcharters.com
West Wind Inn
3345 West Gulf Drive
Sanibel Island, Florida 33957
Toll-Free Phone: 800-824-0476
Web Site: www.westwindinn.com
The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel
Web Site: www.FortMyersSanibel.com