You can go shelling on Sanibel or gunkholing on Captiva,
but the region is best known for its variety and abundance of game fish
You can go shelling on Sanibel or gunkholing on Captiva,
but the region is best known for its variety and abundance of game fish
Eight 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 LeeCounty 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 PineIsland. 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 BocaGrandePass — 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 PineIsland 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 CharlotteHarbor; to the south it leads to San CarlosBay. The CaloosahatcheeRiver, 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.
LeeCounty 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 NorthCaptivaIsland.
“Hurricane Charley blew threw through and caused a breach that the locals now call ‘CharleyPass,’ ” says Clayton. “It’s a great spot to for boaters to pull up and have a picnic.” Exit the Sound via RedfishPass to the south and travel north on the Gulf of Mexico to CharleyPass. Trying to get there through the skinny waters of the sound is asking for trouble, she says.
Clayton says many boaters are now using kayaks to explore the sound. Kayakers can meander the Great Calusa Blueway, a paddling trail that winds through the mangroves. It’s named for the Calusas, the seafaring natives who thrived for centuries in southwest Florida before the arrival of the Spaniards. If you don’t have a kayak, rent one at the public docks in CayoCostaState Park. Visit www.greatcalusablueway.com for more information.
Getting under way
My guide, Rob, had launched the boat and was waiting for me dockside when I pulled into the parking lot of the Punta Rassa boat ramp at 7:30 a.m. This county facility — just north of the Sanibel Causeway and Bridge’s east side — has two double ramps, a good staging area, a fish station and restrooms. It’s $5 to park for 24 hours, with a maximum of 72 hours. The ramp recently was renovated, and its parking lot now holds up to 81 vehicle-trailer rigs and has 34 parking places.
Rob was dressed appropriately for the day: water-resistant pants, all-terrain Crocs, long-sleeve fishing shirt, and baseball cap. He issued a quick handshake and asked if I had brought a jacket. I hadn’t, so he scampered to the foredeck and grabbed two from a locker. He cranked over the engine, we untied the lines, and we were on our way, motoring slowly north a few hundred feet. He pointed out the Sanibel Harbor Resort & Spa
(www.sanibel-resort.com ), which sits on the mainland and faces west toward Pine Island Sound.
There are 10 transient slips here that can handle boats to 50 feet, according to Evelyn Stewart, manager of Adventures in Paradise, the company that manages the resort’s docking area and the Port Sanibel Marina (www.portsanibelmarina.com ). The marina is a mile north of the bridge and adjacent to green marker No. 11. There’s plenty of dockage, as well as fuel, showers, restrooms and the Lighthouse Restaurant.
Both the resort and the marina are good stopping points for cruisers, but the dockage at the resort — $4 a foot per night, with a 30-foot minimum — isn’t as protected as the marina, because it’s open to the sound. “You’ll be rockin’ and rolling,” says Stewart. The marina’s transient slips are $1.85 a foot per night. For more information about either location, call Adventures in Paradise at (239) 472-8443.
Rob gave me a quick history lesson about the land upon which the Sanibel Harbor Resort & Spa sits. In the 1800s it was the point where cattlemen would drive their herds for shipment to Cuba. It also was the location of the telegraph office that was first to hear of the sinking of the USS Maine in Cuba.
Class was dismissed, and Rob punched the throttle. We took a quick run south and out of the sound to MatanzasPass. “That’s a very good anchorage for boaters, right off Fort MyersBeach,” he says.
To the west, we could see Sanibel Lighthouse, first lit in 1884 and still a functioning beacon. Sanibel Island differs from most barrier islands on Florida’s west coast in that it’s mostly situated east/west. Prevailing winds and currents from the south push shells onto the beach, where shelling is a popular leisure activity, says Rob. In fact, he says he is hired by shellers about two dozen times a year.
“From here to Boca Grande is just awesome,” says Rob. “There are no buildings or development. … All you see is the mangroves and trees and the water.”
We zipped over the clear water, and I could see patches of sea grass on the bottom of the 8-foot-deep channel as I held on to the rail that rims the boat’s center console. I learned that the average depth of Pine Island Sound is 4 feet outside the channel, so skippers of deep-draft vessels take heed. The Skeeter draws only 9 inches, so wandering out of the channel wasn’t a problem, and given Rob’s local knowledge, I had no worries when he did. The Skeeter is an open boat with shin-high sides, so I was grateful Rob had a foul weather jacket for me, as we did take on some spray.
Our next stop would be The Horseshoe, a beautiful anchorage on the inside of Sanibel Island, north of TarponBay. It’s not labeled on the chart, but it’s quite simple to find: head south at red marker No. 14. There’s good water here — 5 feet at low tide. Before we hit The Horseshoe, Rob gave me the lowdown on St.JamesCity, on the southern tip of PineIsland. The Waterfront Restaurant and Marina — (239) 283-0592 — was once the PineIsland schoolhouse. Only the dinner bell rings here now. The Waterfront is known for its fresh, local grouper prepared to your liking.
We passed the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, which protects one of the country’s largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystems. The 6,354-acre parcel of land is known for its variety of migratory birds and has been a wildlife refuge since 1945. In 1967 it was named after “Ding” Darling, a cartoonist, conservationist and former head of what is now the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, who created the federal duck stamp. Sales of the stamp helped to purchase the land for protection in the National Wildlife Refuge System.
On our way to CaptivaIsland, my guide pointed out ChinoIsland, northwest of red marker No. 24. Rob says the island was “wiped out” in the 1940s by a hurricane, effectively displacing its residents, and no one has lived there since. Heading northeast from red 24 you’ll find a nice anchorage on the southwest side of Chino, with 7 feet of water.
On Captiva, there are two popular spots for boaters: ’Tween Waters Inn, a resort and marina (www.tween-waters.com), and The Green Flash, a restaurant and 18-slip marina (www.greenflashcaptiva.com ). The Green Flash serves lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. — and no later, says manager Lydia Murphie. “A lot of boaters come in after 3:30, and we have to turn them down,” she says. “We need to start setup for dinner at 5:30.” What’s good? “Any kind of fish,” she says. “We cook a perfect piece of fish.” The lunchtime favorite is the crunchy grouper sandwich.
The Green Flash’s marina is basically for patrons, and has no power or water and no overnight dockage. Boaters with deep drafts must watch the tides. The channel to the restaurant is about 4 feet at low tide.
From red marker No. 38, head southwest and pick up red marker No. 2 to get to the ’Tween Waters Inn, whose marina has water, power and overnight slips. Transients can use the pool, tennis courts and walk the beach, says Tony Lapi, president and CEO. (It’s called ’Tween Waters because it’s sandwiched by the Gulf and the Sound.) You can also take a shuttle for a couple bucks to downtown Captiva.
Farther north on Captiva is the South Seas Island Resort, accessible by boat from the Intracoastal as well as the Gulf. Check out its Web site for details, including its marina and yacht harbor (www.southseas.com ). Captiva Cruises (www.captivacruises.com) keeps day-cruise boats at McCarthy’s Marina (www.mcarthysmarina.com ) that travel to Cabbage Key and exclusive UseppaIsland. Useppa is closed to the public unless you’re visiting aboard the cruise boat. Only those who own residences or are members of the Useppa Island Club — and their guests — are allowed on the island.
Cruisers can contact McCarthy’s for transient slip availability if they want to take the tour boat to Useppa. Captiva Cruises also offers cruises to CayoCostaBeach for shelling, another for sunset cruises and a cruise to Boca Grande.
A Buffett connection
From Captiva, Rob and I traveled north to SafetyHarbor on the tip of NorthCaptivaIsland. The name says it all: This is a great place to hide from inclement weather. A rickety-looking house on stilts marks the entrance to the harbor. The house was once a “fish shack,” used by commercial fishermen as a resting place. Boats would shuttle the fishermen to and from the shacks — there are several others on the east side of the Sound — which are now privately owned.
I could see Barnacle Phil’s Restaurant — (239) 472-1200 — across the harbor. The restaurant has plenty of slips, so you can pull up for lunch (get the black beans and yellow rice) or dinner. There’s a bait and tackle shop above the restaurant. Word around the docks is that otters are known to sneak aboard boats and steal any food they can find, so keep your coolers and bait wells closed and locked.
The restaurant walls are covered with $1 bills. Patrons sign and write their home ports on them. After the attacks of Sept. 11, local firefighters took down all the George Washingtons and sent them to the relief efforts in New York. “We ended up with just under $10,000,” says manager Ryan Doty. “It only took about six months before the walls had new bills hanging from them.”
Dollar bills also adorn the restaurant at the Cabbage Key Inn (www.cabbagekey.com ). One bill, framed and hanging on the wall, gets particular attention. It’s signed by singer Jimmy Buffett. Lore has it that Cabbage Key Restaurant was one of the four hangouts where Buffett wrote “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” Yes, the restaurant’s specialty is the cheeseburger, although it was too early for lunch when we toured the eatery and grounds with owner Rob Wells, who says his marina welcomes transients. “We just had a 74-foot Viking in here,” he says.
The inn includes seven cottages, each with a private dock, and six rooms in the main building. We climbed the steps of the 60-foot water tower for a spectacular view of the Sound and Gulf. The 100-acre Cabbage Key is just north of the Captiva islands and west of Useppa Island.
After taking a quick look at Useppa — from the water, of course — we shot over to Pine Island to check out the Pineland Marina (www.pinelandmarina.com ) and the Tarpon Lodge (www.tarponlodge.com ). Hurricane Charley pretty much wiped out both places, but they’ve been rebuilt. Photos of two destroyed dock houses at Tarpon Lodge are on the wall of one of the new dock houses, which are now guest cottages. The lodge features four buildings with a total of 23 units: the Island House, Historic Lodge, the Boat House and the Cottage. There are 26 slips, and boat size is determined by draft. The narrow channel is just 3 feet deep at mean low water. The four-star restaurant also deserves mention.
We were getting hungry, so after a quick trip to the northeast side of Cayo Costa to check out the public docks and the large anchorages of Pelican Bay, we headed back to Pine Island’s Jug Creek, which Rob says received its moniker after becoming a port for smuggling alcohol during Prohibition. We pulled into the Lazy Flamingo, which is part of the Four Winds Marina and Condominiums facility (www.fourwindsmarina.com ). I had a grilled Cobia sandwich — one of the specials for the day — while Rob, eating like a landlubber, opted for a salad with grilled chicken.
After lunch we loosened our belts, or at least I did, and headed for the eastern end of Jug Creek, which spills out into Matlacha (MAT-la-SHAY) Pass. Rob stopped at the Matlacha Bridge. “They call it the ‘Fishingist Bridge in the World,’ ” he says. “You can get snook, redfish, anything here.”
Matlacha once was a thriving fishing community with mullet, crab and shrimp boats. There still are some fishing boats tied to the docks, but the village is now known for its bright-colored art galleries. On the southeast side of the bridge is another colorful landmark: Bert’s Bar and Grill (www.bertsbar.us). The building’s orange-and-blue exterior matches the colors of the sky when the sun sets. And when it does, look out. It’s time to party. Bert’s rocks the house with live music most nights.
The rest of the trip south through Matlacha Pass was peaceful and scenic, with mangroves sandwiching the channel. We were almost back where we started. Rob wanted to show me one last spot before wrapping up the tour. We motored to Picnic Island, a popular gunkhole for boaters. Unlike many of the other islands in Pine Island Sound, you are allowed to go ashore here. “It’s barbecue heaven on weekends,” says Rob.
We ended the day by wetting a line just south of the Sanibel Bridge. In about 20 minutes I hooked up with a spotted sea trout, bluefish and a handful of ladyfish. “You put us right on the fish,” I told Rob.
“That’s pretty easy around here,” he says.