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September 17, 2007

Disappearing Act

Try Pine Island Sound for inshore kayak fishing on the wild side

Pothole Patrol
After a welcome shower, we joined Bowdish for dinner at one of many seafood eateries around Matlacha (pronounced "Mat-la-SHAY") and discussed the next day's options.
That very discussion has much to do with the reason the whole Charlotte Harbor area is to a kayak fisherman what Disney World is to a toddler: There are so many different areas, habitats and species to target. 
"Our kayak business has just boomed here," Bowdish says. That business involves both guiding and selling/outfitting kayaks. Bowdish started eight years ago guiding with a flats skiff, which he still uses much of the time. However, increasing interest in yak fishing has translated into a 3-to-1 ratio of calls to book kayak-fishing trips versus traditional skiff fishing.
"The whole thing started when I began using kayaks just to scout new, ultra-shallow areas. I started finding fish I'd never have gotten to in a boat," Bowdish recalls.
Besides guiding, Bowdish runs the Angler's Outlet, which bills itself as "Florida's premier kayak-fishing pro shop," in nearby Cape Coral.
On our second day (which, like the first, dawned hazy and calm), Bowdish led us to a decidedly different fishery, this time working lush grass flats in 1 to 4 feet of clear water along the eastern side of Pine Island Sound.
He had hoped to emulate recent (and typical) winter activity here, with reds - sometimes dozens, Bowdish had told us enthusiastically - piling into the sandy crater-like depressions in the grass known as potholes. These might be only 2 or 3 yards across or the size of a small house. Then, as the tide falls, the idea is to work the grass flats between potholes, where reds should start    feeding tails-up.
With the sun shining, we could spot the potholes from some distance. Bowdish had said that by paddling up to them quietly and anchoring off nearby, sometimes wading in a low crouch to a pothole's edge, anglers were getting easy shots into a guaranteed strike.
That, says Bowdish, is as it should be in the fall. "Redfish action here is good year-round but really excellent in September, October and November."
But on that day the mercurial reds seemed uninterested in potholes. We did spot a few moving over the grass, with   limited tailing activity, and collectively   managed to catch a number of good reds. We also missed some, including one startled big fish that darted into, rather than away from, my kayak with a resounding thud.
More than once, while watching for telltale redfish sign, I was fooled by mullet. Having noted the mullet in   Pine Island Sound reach Jurassic proportions, I felt little shame. 
That's not to say the potholes held no game fish: Trout had ganged up in some of them, so crankbaits or soft plastic brought action on many casts. No gators, but with my tiny ultralight and 6-pound braid, I had a ball.
The afternoon on our second day only grew more ideal, with the light wind dropping off completely, the temperature cool and pleasant and the bay mirror flat. By the time we reluctantly returned to the launch site, straggling in one by one, darkness had fallen.

Rolling Tarpon and Mini Snook 

The guide had advised us in advance that our first destination would be a considerable paddle with no close access point, and so it was. But we were fresh, a slightly cool and cloudless day was dawning and life was good. Some 45 minutes later we'd entered a series of perfectly still and shallow small bays, where swarms of mullet seemed to also be finding life to their liking. The group paddled right past some roseate spoonbills - the spectacular birds again surprisingly oblivious. 
We followed Bowdish into a corner of one bay that appeared a dead end; in fact, its brown waters opened into a fairly deep, narrow canal that, a half mile or so down, made a sharp right turn where a couple of homes sat along seawalls. Beyond them, the 20-foot-wide canal continued, thick trees lining both sides with lots of dead brush and snags to contend with.
We knew we'd arrived where Bowdish wanted to fish because, true to his word, small tarpon were rolling intermittently up and down the canal. We began casting, but initially the fish seemed lockjawed. It didn't take long for the lads from up north to hook up, however, both discovering that wild things come in small packages, with the 5- to 10-pound tarpon leaping repeatedly on the light tackle after going for the Yo-Zuri Pin Minnows.
 Bowdish says that's a fairly typical size in the winter though he hooks some fish of 20 pounds or more in his canal honey hole. I could imagine how a 20-pounder would be a real handful in such tight quarters. (He's seen hooked tarpon here jump right over kayaks, pointing out that among the many exciting aspects of kayak fishing is being at the same level as - or below - jumping fish.)
Many of Bowdish's kayak anglers are fly-fishers. All the game fish that frequent the Charlotte Harbor area make good fly targets, and small tarpon are among the best, the guide says. But whatever an angler is throwing, his best hope for hookup is to watch for rollers, then "drop your lure or fly right in front of the fish's face" or at least into the center of the   concentric rings the tarpon just left since another often follows right behind.
His "hidden" canal proved not only a winter feeding ground for small tarpon, but a large nursery for snook. For a while, I amused myself hooking leaping, gill-rattling snook on nearly every cast with a small minnow plug. But then I'm easily amused (we won't discuss the size of these fish).
Also, in my own defense, just about any fish caught by an angler fishing on his own from a kayak seems somehow all the more rewarding. And as that awareness spreads, more and more bright plastic hulls will be disappearing into the quiet backwaters of Charlotte Harbor and Pine Island Sound. 
"The use of kayaks has changed our fishing," Bowdish says. "But even I haven't yet explored a lot of the backwaters for their kayak-fishing opportunities. It's crazy just how much backcountry we have here!"