Hooked: Fishing in Southwest Florida
Your ultimate guide on where to go, what to bring and, of course, what you'll find on the end of your line.
Whatever your passion, offshore, backwater, reel or fly, the Gulfshore has you covered.
It’s still dark as the little white fishing boat prepares to pull away from the dock. The crew members—a few longtime locals with sleepy 5 a.m. faces—are as quiet as the still waters around them. They pack the last of the tackle and a few more coolers of adult beverages in the waning moonlight. Slowly the outboard motor hums to life and the captain begins inching, then scooting, the boat forward.
“Everyone ready?” he says, more a statement than a question. He turns the throttle and the boat lunges, the momentum pushing the bow up and off the obsidian water. Moments later they’re hurtling in the direction of the rising sun.
If you’re an angler, you know the peace and promise of these early-morning moments. If you’re not, perhaps you should get to know them. Southwest Florida has some of the best inshore and offshore fishing on the planet. From catching redfish in the waters around 10,000 Islands National Wildlife Refuge to pulling in permit from a wreck offshore, our watery backyard offers one thrilling catch after another.
But you can’t just drop a line and hope for a bite. Lose whatever idyllic childhood notions you had of tying a worm onto a string and coming home with dinner; fishing here takes a little bit of know-how.
So if you felt a bit like, well, a fish out of water the last time someone handed you a line, here’s your primer on how to get a bite every time.
TAKING ITS MEASURE
I had a client who caught a 300-pound shark, a nurse shark. It was just huge and so I wanted to get a measurement on it. I reached out to put a rope around its tail, and it started spinning into a death roll and my hand got caught in the rope. It pulled me straight out of the boat, into the water and down to the bottom! I finally wrestled myself free and back up to the top, and the look on my client’s face when I popped out of the water was priceless! We wrestled it for another 20 minutes before we finally got a measurement on it.
—Chris Wittman, owner of Stillwater Charters
License to kill—or catch and release
Before you buy your bait, before you board that boat and certainly before you drop a line, you need to make sure you’ve got the right license for the fishing you plan to do. Here’s how to keep everything above board.
The basics: If you’re planning to fish on your own from a boat or the beach and you’re not eligible for government assistance or are under the age of 16, you’ll need a license. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) offers both freshwater and saltwater licenses as well as one that covers both. There’s even a Gold Sportsman license, which includes all hunting and fishing in the state. You can call (888) 486-8356 or (888) 347-4356 for all the particulars on these.
You won’t need a license, however, if you plan to fish from the Naples Pier or with some licensed charter boat captains. Many captains purchase special licenses that cover their guests, but it’s not required, so ask beforehand.
You can buy your license online at myfwc.com or at your local tax collector’s office.
Advanced: If you want to catch particular types of fish, like tarpon or snook, you’ll need another permit on top of your Florida Saltwater Fishing License. “It’s just like an additional license, and for snook it limits you to one harvest per day,” says Amanda Nally, public information specialist for FWC. “For snook, it’s an extra $10 for one year, or you can buy a five-year for $50.”
Even with the proper license, there are still restrictions on what you can catch and when. Most fish have minimum or maximum size requirements—sometimes called protected slot limits. These measurements are taken by measuring either from closed mouth to the tip of a pinched tail, or from closed mouth to “fork,” which is where the fish’s tail begins to split. The best way to know all of the restrictions is to pick up a copy of FWC’s Florida Saltwater Recreational Fishing Regulations. Available at most tackle stores, this free booklet lists the most current regulations and seasons for popular game fish.
Inshore and offshore
In many ways, being successful at fishing is all about successfully navigating a series of decisions: where to go and what time; what rod, lure and bait to use; when to cast and how far—the list goes on. But before any of those decisions can be made, you first need to decide what kind of angler you want to be.
Inshore fishing: Sometimes called backwater fishing, this term refers to fishing near shorelines or in shallow
backwaters. Because of the region’s vast estuary network, there is virtually no limit for places to inshore fish in the area.
“Southwest Florida is really kind of unique because of the amount of backcountry estuary habitat,” says Chris Wittman, inshore fishing guide and owner of Stillwater Charters. “We have a great deal of shallow grass flats that are just ideal for inshore fishing.”
Inshore fishing includes fishing from piers, the beach or from a boat in near-shore areas, shallow estuaries or inlets. Commonly caught inshore fish include redfish, sea trout, snook and Spanish mackerel.
Offshore fishing: With so much good fishing so close to home, why would someone go out to sea to fish? Well, because Southwest Florida has some of the best offshore fishing, too. With swaths of open, limestone-bottomed areas perfect for red grouper and plenty of shipwrecks, reefs and artificial reefs to attract goliath grouper, permit and cobia, a day spent offshore fishing is usually rewarding.
“It’s always changing out there. You never know what you’re going to come up with,” says Wes Bedell, offshore fishing captain. “The fish change with the seasons, so it’s always something new.”
While offshore fishing has the thrill of the unexpected and the allure of the open sea, it can be a real challenge for newbies to know where to go. Finding the rock piles and wrecks where fish tend to congregate takes a little bit of insider info.
“I was born and raised in Naples and I’ve been guiding for 13, going on 14, years,” Bedell says. “It takes years to figure out the best spots, and when you find a new spot it’s like Christmas.”
CATCHING FISH, ROD AND REEL
I’d taken this husband-and-wife team out fishing for kingfish. The wife wasn’t a real confident fisher and she gets a bite and the fish rips the rod right out of the rod holder. I watch as the rod shoots right by me. We shrug it off as just one of those things that happens. Well, a little while later, the guy hooks a fish and he’s pulling it in and we realize it has a fishing line attached to it. It was a different fish, but the fish had intercepted the fish with the line attached to it. We got both fish and the rod and the reel back!
—Wes Bedell, owner of On a Mission Fishing Charters
Where to fish
There may be many fish in the sea, but finding them is a whole different ballgame. Here are some of our favorite local haunts.
Naples Pier: Because the City of Naples purchases a bulk fishing license for its pier, this is the one place in Southwest Florida where you can fish license-free. “You can usually catch snook, sheepshead, Spanish mackerel and pompano off the pier,” Dan Haley says. He adds, “You catch a lot of junk fish, too, but recently the snook have been really good at the pier.”
Lighthouse Pier, Sanibel Island: You’ve probably picked perfect shells from Sanibel’s shores, but perfect fish await just yards from the idyllic island’s beaches. “I grew up on Sanibel, so we always used to fish from Lighthouse Pier when I was a kid,” Wittman says. “I still think it’s a fantastic fishing spot.”
Blind Pass: The straight that separates Sanibel Island from Captiva Island is a great sanctuary for snook, redfish and trout. It’s easily accessible and offers good fishing from the shore. Lee County recently completed a re-dredging of the pass, but as of this publishing, things are open and back to normal.
Lover’s Key State Park: Catch snook from the shore or head to the bridge to hunt for tarpon, particularly at night. This is also a popular destination for cast netting for mullet.
San Carlos Bay, mouth of the Caloosahatchee: “If there’s a good flow of water, there’s going to be good fish,” says Dan Haley, who recommends seeking out inlets or passes for good fishing.
Liz Smith, a longtime fishing captain, says her favorite spot with lots of moving water is the mouth of the Caloosahatchee. “I’m a river rat; the mouth of the river always has really good fishing,” she says.
10,000 Islands National Wildlife Refuge and Chokoloskee Island: This is backwater fishing at its finest. Rent a kayak, canoe or flat boat and head out into the mangroves for seemingly endless fishing opportunities. Catch snook and trout but watch out for your line getting tied up in the mangroves. While the mangroves make the fishing tricky, they help protect you from the wind, making this an ideal spot to check out on a windy day.
Boca Grande: Home to the famous Professional Tarpon Tournament Series, there may be no better place to catch giant tarpon than Boca Grande. Head into Charlotte Harbor and get ready for a wild ride—often, tarpon will leap out of the water to snap up bait. While that’s exciting, it’s nothing compared to the excitement of the sharks that are known to snap tarpon straight off fishermen’s lines. If you want adventure, start here.
FALLING FOR FISHING
The moment when I fell in love with fishing was one of my first fishing experiences. I was 5 and I was fishing from the Naples Pier. I wasn’t paying attention and I got a bite and it pulled me into the water. My father jumped in and pulled me to safety, and when we got to shore I realized I still had the rod in my hand and I’d landed a 6-pound redfish. I was in the Naples Daily News the next day—“Boy falls off pier, catches fish” —and that’s when I knew I wanted to fish for the rest of my life.
—Dan Haley, owner of Day Dreamer Fishing Charters
CASE OF THE ROD OVERBOARD
I took out a client who is a very good fisherman and a doctor—a real smart guy. We were fishing with a brand new G. Loomis rod, one that I’d helped design. Those rods are more than $1,000 and the reel is another $800. The fishing wasn’t too great, we were kind of stuck in the doldrums, and then we see a Spanish mackerel, which isn’t even a target species. My client makes a back cast to the fish and the fish goes for it. He starts fighting the fish, and it was a real fight; there’s blood and teeth going everywhere, the fish is going crazy. In all of it, he kind of forgets himself and lays the rod down in the bottom of the boat. He turns around to go get his pliers, and the fish flips back from the deck into the water and yanks my brand new rod and reel with him. I said, “Doc, that’s a $2,000 rod and reel. You’re going to go get it,” and he didn’t even think about it, he just jumped in. He got the rod back, but he’s still really embarrassed—he knows he messed up!
—William Faulkner, owner of Gulf Coast Guide Services
ONE FISH, TWO FISH, REDFISH, DELICIOUS FISH
What’s that dangling from your line? here are the most common fish you’ll be angling for in Florida.
Snook: The favorite of almost all sport fishermen and women in Southwest Florida, snook fishing has been off-limits for the past three years. Recently, however, the rules relaxed. As a result, many fishermen are reporting bigger-than-usual snook schools. Best of all, there’s really no better place to hook a snook than Southwest Florida—the largest snook ever caught (44 pounds, 3 ounces) came from the Fort Myers Beach area.
“You don’t just catch a snook; you really have to work to catch one. It’s a challenge,” says longtime angler Liz Smith, adding, “They’re finicky; you can do everything right and still not get one.”
Regulations: Requires special snook harvesting permit, with limit of one harvest per day. In the Gulf, snook may be no less than 28 inches and no more than 33 inches. Open season is from Sept. 1 through Nov. 30.
Redfish: Technically, the correct name for redfish is red drum, but locally these beauties are almost always referred to as redfish. The “drum” name comes from a sound the fish make during the spawning season, when they rub special muscles against their air bladders. Copper in color and sporting one or more liver spots at the base of the tail, redfish are popular with both onshore and fly-fishing enthusiasts.
Regulations: May not be harvested in federal waters, and limit of two harvests per day. Must be between 18 inches and 27 inches long, but season is open all year.
Tripletail: Named for its three posterior fins, these fish are often found near underwater structures like piers or rock piles. They also love to hang out near crab traps during stone crab season. “They lay right on top of the traps, and they taste just delicious,” says fishing captain Wes Bedell. He adds, “They’re very meaty; you can compare them to grouper. I think it’s better than grouper but some people might debate that.”
Tripletail will nibble on both live and dead bait, including small fish and shrimp, and while they’ll put up a decent fight, it’s usually not like the fight of some of the other, tougher game fish.
Regulations: Must be larger than 15 inches. Limit of two harvests per day. Season runs all year long.
Tarpon: These giants are a thrill for any fisherman. While tarpon are not eaten and a special permit is required to harvest them, just catching and releasing one is a prize unto itself.
Regulations: Tarpon may no longer be caught with gear rigged with bottom weights (called snagging) and may be fished with hook and line only. A $50 Tarpon Tag is required for harvesting and there’s a two-per-boat possession limit. Fishing in Boca Grande is seasonal, though in other places it is not.
Permit: A favorite of offshore anglers, permit can reach upward of 50 pounds—although 25 pounds is about average. Even though they’re not the biggest fish in the sea, they’re one of the hardest-fighting fish. “They’re beautiful, they’re unique and they pull hard,” Bedell says. “Some people like to eat them, but I tell my clients a picture lasts a lot longer than dinner.”
Regulations: Must be between 11 inches and 22 inches from mouth to fork. There are special-permit permit areas where regulations are relaxed, but in most areas fishermen may harvest only one per day.
Ladyfish: These smaller fish aren’t much to eat, but they’re a blast to catch. Known for putting up a good fight and leaping out of the water when hooked, ladyfish put on quite the show. They’re also not picky about bait—some fisherman joke that you can hook them on a shoelace.
Regulations: Currently, there’s no limit or size regulation for these fish.
Snapper: Florida has several different kinds of snapper. “I think snapper is one of the best for eating; it’s right up there,” says longtime fishing guide Dan Haley. “People come to Florida thinking about grouper, but snapper is really delicious, too.”
Regulations: Because there are several types of snapper, there’s a wide variety of regulations governing them. Making matters more complicated is that FWC occasionally changes bag limits (how many you can take home) throughout the season. FWC therefore recommends checking its website before heading out.
Grouper: Southwest Florida’s most famous fish (made so popular by the fried grouper sandwich) can often be found congregating around offshore wrecks and reefs. According to charter captain Haley, each type of grouper is slightly different in its behavior, so plan accordingly. “Red grouper hide in the holes; they wait for their prey to come to them. Black grouper, they go out and find their prey,” he says. “And they’re very territorial; you may catch a good one but move 10 feet and there’s another one.”
Regulations: There are many types of grouper, each with its own set of regulations. Generally, fish must be at least 20 inches and no more than four can be caught in Gulf waters per day.
SO YOU THINK YOU CAN FISH?
For most anglers, the battle of man versus fish is challenge enough. But when that gets too easy, many take to tournaments, where it’s man versus fish versus man versus fish. If you followed that last sentence, you’re probably also ready to follow the complex rules that many tournaments use to discourage cheating— which is a real (reel?) problem and is often done in surprisingly creative ways. If you want to try your hand at competitive fishing, here’s a list of tournaments to try.
LCEC United Way Fishing Tournament challenges anglers to catch the largest redfish, snapper and trout—and to compete for the Grand Slam, which is the highest weight of all three species combined. Proceeds for the competition benefit the United Way, and entry is only $60 per fisherman. For more info, visit uw.lcec.net/fish.html.
The 21st Annual Fingers O’Bannon Memorial Snook Invitational is an invite-only tournament that happens each April on Cabbage Key. If you want to get in the mix this year, contact Robert A. Well at email@example.com.
The Gene Doyle Backcountry Release Fishing Tournament has been raising money for the Gene Doyle Adventure Scholarship for more than 16 years. Species targeted are snook, redfish and trout, and points are awarded
for each inch of fish caught. The tournament usually happens in mid-May. For more info, visit genedoyle.org.
The Red Gator Challenge is an Everglades City-based competition run by the Southern Backwater Tournament Series. Teams of four may bring in up to two redfish (alive, for this catch-and-release tournament) for weighing. Usually held in early May. For more info, visit backwaterseries.com.
The Fort Myers Beach Saltwater Classic offers something for almost every angler, with different categories for different types of fish. Since there is no western boundary on the fishing area, this is a great tournament for those who love the open ocean. For more info, visit bluewaterpromo.com.
The Redfish Rundown is part of the Southern Backwater Tournament Series. Held each year at Moss Marine on Fort Myers Beach, this is a catch-and-release tournament for redfish. For more info, visit backwaterseries.com.
Tropic Bay Kayak Fishing Classic hits the waters of Pine Island Sound each July. Participants must fish from a kayak, and snook, redfish, tarpon and trout are all targeted. For more info, visit kayakfishingclassics.com.
The Friendly Flamingo Fishing Tournament hits the waters of Everglades National Park every year in July. Leaving from Flamingo, this event pits teams of two against each other as they race to catch tarpon, redfish, snook and trout. fftseries.com.
The Redfish Duel pits teams of four anglers against each other in an effort to bring in the two largest redfish. This is a catch-and-release tournament leaving from Everglades City. For more info, visit backwaterseries.com.
Hope Hospice’s Fillet and Release fishing tournament is the largest inshore tournament in Southwest Florida. The competition usually happens mid-September at Matanzas Inn, and funds raised benefit Hope Hospice. For more info, visit filletandrelease4hospice.com.
Take a Soldier Fishing Tournament benefits the Wounded Warrior Project. The event pairs local fishing teams with soldiers and their families. Usually held each September, the location has changed over the past few years. For more info, visit naplestakeasoldierfishing.com.
Heels and Reels Girls Fishing Tournament is an all-female competition benefitting the PACE Center for Girls in
Immokalee. Participants compete while paired with girls from the PACE Center. Usually the event takes place in early October and it begins at The Naples Boat Club. For more info, visit facebook.com/HeelsReels-GirlsFishingTournament.
The Inshore Shootout is part of the Southern Backwater Tournament Series. Teams of four compete in this catch-and-release-style event. Leaves from Fort Myers Beach and usually happens in mid-October. For more info, visit backwaterseries.com.
The Conservancy of Southwest Florida’s annual RedSnook Catch and Release tournament has been running for nearly 20 years. Usually happening the first weekend of November, the event raises money for the Conservancy while promoting sustainable fishing practices. For more info, visit conservancy.org/redsnook.
Miracle Limb Courage in Motion All Species Fishing Tournament raises money to help local amputees. As an all-species tournament, the event awards each team points for the types of fish they catch—the team that catches all of the fish required wins. The tournament is usually held in mid-November and leaves from the Hamilton Harbor Yacht Club. For more info, visit miraclelimbs.org.