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Pine Island Sound, Fla.

Light years ago Rob Modys left his job as a technology manager for a Miami bank to become a full-time fishing guide on the state’s west coast. “My wife was surprised. I was comfortably employed, with a steady paycheck, and I was going to be self-employed with an uncertain financial future,” he says. “But today she thinks it was the best move I’ve ever made.”

They moved to Pine Island Sound in Lee County in southwest Florida. It was sort of like going home for Rob, 54, whose family took frequent vacations to Pine Island Sound when he was a kid. “I learned how to fish before I could ride a bike,” he says. (For more about his business, go to www.soulmatecharters.com.)

I got a chance to spend the day with Rob aboard his 2006 Skeeter bay boat, a 22-footer with plenty of power (a single 225-hp Yamaha 2-stroke) and a shallow draft. Our mission was to visit as many anchorages, fishing spots, wildlife refuges, on-the-water restaurants, and marinas as possible during a daylong clockwise circumnavigation of Pine Island. Along the way, with Rob’s help, I would soak up some of the history of this place.

But let’s start with the fishing. Pine Island Sound in 2003 was named one of the top 25 hottest fishing spots in America by Field & Stream magazine. It’s the variety of species amid undisturbed scenery that allows this tranquil stretch of skinny water to earn such an accolade.

Rob recalls the time he chauffeured a travel writer from Europe around the Sound. “He wanted to catch as many different species as possible in one day — that was his article,” says Rob. “I think we got 17 different species when it was all over.” They hooked spouted sea trout, bluefish, redfish, snook, grouper, shark, snapper, blowfish and ladyfish, to name a few.

How about tarpon, one of the most coveted sportfish in Florida waters? “It was winter,” he says. “The tarpon come through here in May and June.”

The famous Boca Grande Pass — known as the Tarpon Capital of the World — is on the northern end of Pine Island Sound, separating Cayo Costa and Gasparilla islands. Ever seen those fishing television programs that show a gaggle of boats jockeying for position to land a tarpon? Chances are they’re bobbing up and down in Boca Grande Pass.

Fishing obviously ranks at the top of this destination’s attractions for boaters, but don’t overlook the wildlife above the water, which includes more than 300 species of birds, from bald eagles to wood storks to roseate spoonbills (an unmistakable wading bird with pink feathers and a long, spatulate bill). In addition, you may spot raccoons, river otters or even feral pigs on the islands.

A little perspective

Pine Island Sound is situated between Pine Island and the barrier islands of Sanibel Island — Captiva, North Captiva and Cayo Costa — which separate it from the Gulf of Mexico. To the north, the sound joins Gasparilla Sound and Charlotte Harbor; to the south it leads to San Carlos Bay. The Caloosahatchee River, which snakes past downtown Fort Myers, connects to the sound on its southeastern section.

In 1970, Florida designated all of Pine Island Sound — 54,000 acres of submerged lands — as a state Aquatic Preserve. Mangroves, not condominiums, rim the many islands and keys, with salt marshes and oyster beds along shorelines. In addition to mangroves, you can see cabbage palms — Florida’s state tree — and gumbo-limbo trees on the elevated portions of the islands. Locals call the gumbo-limbos “tourist trees” because their bark is usually peeling and red, says Betsy Clayton, waterways coordinator for Lee County Parks & Recreation.

Lee County officials say Pine Island Sound and its extremities have fully recovered from Hurricane Charley, which struck in August 2004. Except for a few stretches of dead mangroves, Clayton says there’s no evidence of the hurricane’s effects. In fact, the area looks greener and cleaner than ever, she says. The hurricane didn’t cause beach erosion, but it did create a nice gunkholing spot on North Captiva Island.

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