It has become a tradition for some Ohioans to head south for the winter, or at least for a couple of weeks. However, this year the snowbirds were flying in coveys and flocks. Unremitting cold, almost constant snow and generally miserable days made the south look unusually good. But actually, there’s a better time to go or to make a second trip — especially if you’re a fisherman. That time is just weeks away.
One reason is the weather down there should be close to perfect then. No. 2, you’ll probably get offseason rates because winter is prime time and, No. 3, that aforementioned fishing can be very good. As a veteran guide once told me, “The two worst months of the year are January and February. March is better. April action is good, and May and June — when the tarpon and snook really start to hit — are excellent. July and August when the days and water are hot just might be best of all.”
I remember a trip I made a few years ago around the end of March to enjoy that weather and do some flats fishing — a sport I always wanted to try. I’ve made 12 to 15 trips to Florida throughout the years and fished it from top to bottom, but I’ve come to like the west side best for saltwater action because I’ve had some excellent fishing there. This time, my wife and I flew from Columbus to Fort Myers in a little more than two hours, picked up a rental car, drove north to Sarasota, and unloaded our gear in a cozy little cottage on Siesta Key. The next morning, I was saying hello to my guide for the day at C.B.’s Saltwater Outfitters near the Key.
“It’s going to be tough,” he said, as we launched his flats boat. “We’ve had some rough weather recently, but we’ll find something.” We headed out into Little Sarasota Bay, a vast expanse of channels, mud flats just two or three feet deep and oyster and sand bars. Fish cruise these flats and sea grass areas looking for shrimp, crabs and other morsels, and the guide thought they just might like a sparkle jig bounced back slowly. At our first stop, the jigs produced nothing.
We moved a little deeper, working the edge of a channel, and suddenly I had a strike that literally straightened my arms. A beautiful, silvery ladyfish went airborne, dancing on its tail, then proceeded to put on a spectacular fight that was out of the water as often as in. They call them “Poor man’s tarpon” down there for their aerial tactics, and they deserve the title. Along that one flat, we caught ladyfish one after the other until finally my partner said, “That’s enough. Let’s go see if we can find a trout.”
The sea trout were a little deeper and came a little slower, but they came and in good sizes. Between strikes my veteran guide pointed out points of interest. The shore was lined with homes and condos, one of which belonged to Oprah Winfrey, another to Stephen King and a third had once been owned by Mafia kingpin John Gotti. We watched two dolphin playing catch with a ladyfish, too, tossing it back and forth with never a miss. Then one ate the fish and they continued jumping with pure animal spirits. They’re happy creatures.
My second stop was at Charlotte Harbor further south, and this time I barely had time to unpack at a Punta Gorda motel before I was due to meet another guide based at Fisherman’s Village Marina. I could have rented a boat and gone out alone but, when you’re fishing strange waters, it’s smarter to have a guide for at least half a day, learn the local water and tactics, and then go it alone. In fact, I’d never have found fish without one.
My guide used different tactics to get his catch, preferring live shrimp fished below a small splitshot. We found some nice sea trout in a cove surrounded by several expensive homes. Then he went looking for redfish, and finally located some between two little mangrove islands. They were hiding back in deep shadow in a little pocket scoured out by the tide, and I caught them as large as five pounds.
A third stop saw me basing on lovely little Pine Island, southwest of Fort Myers, and fishing with a guide for snook and mangrove snappers — again with live shrimp and good success. Hard to go wrong with Florida fishing at this time of year. But because you’re likely to be driving down or flying with a wife and maybe a couple of kids, it’s important to note there’s a lot more to do in this mid-west coastal area than fish.
Sarasota calls itself “Florida’s Cultural Coast,” and offers everything from a museum of art to the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens Check with the Sarasota Convention & Visitors Bureau. Charlotte Harbor had its own fun activities including a tour of 61,000-acre Babcock’s Wilderness Adventure, with wildlife buggy tours and some good bird watching.
The Lee Island Coast had some almost unique sports, among them first class shelling. Visitors along any coast love to hunt for sea shells, and such will find good hunting on the public beaches at Sanibel Island and great shelling at more isolated beaches.
Again, March or April is a fine time to visit Florida, and if you’re looking for a good place to go, check with one or more of the above.