Sanibel Island, adjacent to Fort Myers in Southwest Florida, uses its natural attractions that include a wide variety of fish species, an incredible amount of bird life, and marine wildlife that includes dolphins and manatees to draw you closer to nature.
It is a destination that first put us under its spell in 2011.
This area is an outdoor playground for anyone who enjoys fishing, birding, biking, hiking, kayaking, boating, canoeing, paddleboarding – you name it and it’s probably here. As we drove over the Sanibel Causeway that spans San Carlos Bay, my wife Sandy and I became excited. It was great to be back, watching the sun slowly set for our opening-day welcome for the week.
It had been seven years since we stayed on Sanibel and this time we based our operations at the Sundial Beach Resort and Spa. In addition to having prime beach access, plenty of dining options and activities, the Sundial is home to the Sanibel Sea School. This unique learning center teaches guests about the local marine ecosystems, including the bird life and the shells you find along the 50 or so miles of public beaches in Lee County. What a great idea as you expand your knowledge of the area to understand how this all interacts.
Our first day was a fishing adventure with Capt. Ryan Kane of Southern Instinct Fishing Charters. The initial plan was a 50-mile off-shore run to the Fantastico, a 200-foot Honduran freighter that sank in the Gulf of Mexico off Fort Myers during the “No Name” storm of 1993. The Gulf of Mexico doesn’t have a lot of structure. Throw in a sunken ship or a radio tower and they become fish magnets. This time of year should have been good for gag grouper around the wreckage. Yellow snapper, king fish, cobia, amberjack – you never know what you’re going to catch.
Bad news greeted us that first morning, though. A cold front was coming through and with it came strong winds. There was no off-shore running in Kane’s 36-foot Contender, outfitted with three 250-horse Yamaha outboards. We had to stay close to home out of Port Sanibel Marina. Before we even pulled out of the slip, we managed to hook into some very nice snook on live shrimp. When it was time to depart, we slowly started to back out of the slip when the boat suddenly stopped and veered left back to the dock. The bow line was still attached. Could this be an omen of things to come?
We headed out into the main channel and under the Causeway. Along the way, a dolphin swam alongside our boat and made an appearance. A manatee also made a surprise visit. Using Sanibel Island to shield us a bit from the wind, Kane chose to explore around an artificial reef made from the spoils of the old Sanibel Causeway, built the beginning of this century. Helping on the trip was Kane’s new partner-in-slime, Capt. Matt Hetrick of Fort Myers. I’m not saying who was driving the boat when we left.
We noticed some birds diving on baitfish near the reef. If there’s baitfish, there’s usually predator fish. We worked the area back and forth a few times as we marked spots on the GPS to identify reef piles holding fish, for now and for future reference.
“We’re very dependent upon water temperatures,” said Hetrick. “Water temperature now is 73 degrees. Last year at this time it was 80 degrees for better. We were catching tarpon and red fish in here last year. Tarpon like the threadfin herring. When they’re in, the tarpon and other fish show up.”
“It’s a Catch-22 situation,” Kane said. “When it’s unseasonably warm, the fishing is usually good. However, when it’s hot like that, some people will stay away and won’t take their vacations.”
After several hours of trying and, with the wind kicking up a notch, we decided to anchor at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River. Using live shrimp for bait, we worked the water for better than an hour, managing to catch one snook and losing a couple of other unidentified fish.
As we stood there looking around, an osprey made a grab for a fish in the water and was successful. We were surrounded by bird life. A group of four American white pelicans soared overhead and, as I followed their flight path, a bright pink color caught my eye. It was a Roseate spoonbill cruising the wind currents.
It reminded me that I soon will be touring the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island. It’s a bird lover’s dream and the spot I saw my first Roseate spoonbill and wood stork many years ago. If you are in the area, the NWR is a must see. Go early when they open at 7 a.m.
“December can be amazing when you hit it right,” Kane said. “This time of year we try and hit those days between cold fronts. If you are planning a trip to the area, don’t lock down one specific date. Be flexible to get your best fishing experience. We’ve had a heck of a year this year and we have actually sent more fish to the taxidermist than ever before.”
Ryan was excited by what prospects hold for the future. He was having a new 42-foot Prowler Catamaran built, something that will handle the rough water better than anything he owns. Fishing off-shore waters in a vessel that can truly handle the difficult conditions will be a much better experience for the customers and the captains.
Kane briefly talked about was red tide, a harmful algal bloom that takes place near the coast. This bloom is caused by microscopic algae that produce toxins that kill fish and make shellfish dangerous to eat, according to the National Ocean Service. The toxins also may make the surrounding air difficult to breathe. As the name suggests, the bloom of algae often turns the water red. It was first documented in the Gulf Coast in the 1840s. Fishing off shore takes red-tide concerns out of the equation for Ryan and Matt.
Experts feel that red tide could be influenced and fueled by agriculture through fertilizer run off and from urbanized areas, but it’s not the cause. Daily monitoring takes place through the Florida Wildlife Commission at http://myfwc.com/redtidestatus.
Red tide didn’t impact our itinerary and I don't think it should scare you away from this outdoor paradise.