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September 17, 2007

Disappearing Act

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

I felt like a muggle in some magical world.

Thanks to a bit of dilly-dallying, I lagged behind my companions, their brightly colored kayaks now well up the channel ahead of me. That's when "Platform 9 3/4" in the Harry Potter novels came to mind. That of course marks the spot where young wizards pushing their luggage disappear through an enchanted brick wall in London's Kings Cross railway station to catch the Hogwarts Express. But the eyes of muggles - those of non-magical persuasion - can't see any sign, let alone walk through the wall.
I watched as one, two, three, and then four Ocean Kayak Prowlers disappeared 100 yards up ahead. I paddled to catch up, assuming I'd soon spot the channel on the right into which the four anglers had vanished. But the closer I got, the more I saw nothing but an impenetrable barrier of mangrove trees. 
Just as I was thinking of trying the old chest-slap and hollering, "Beam me up, Scotty!" I caught sight of a swath of bright yellow plastic peeking through the dark green leaves and heard my friend Paul Michele, another Florida-based kayak-fishing enthusiast, chide me for making him wait. 
But good thing he did; otherwise, I'd have surely paddled past the almost nonexistent opening into one of hundreds of ecological "capillaries" that sinuate through the vast estuarine ecosystem of southwest Florida's Pine Island Sound and adjacent waters.
In fact, nothing surprised me more than the extent of this mangrove wilderness just a stone's throw from the busy urban populace of Fort Myers; its  bays with clear grass flats, channels, backwaters and tiny creeks are perfect for fly-fishing. We had originally planned to drive to the heart of the Everglades, well to the south, for our kayak-fishing outing. But those plans fell through - luckily, because we discovered that kayakers can fish in the middle of nowhere without driving to the middle of nowhere. They need only visit the wild world of Pine Island Sound.

Tiny Creeks and Winding Channels
I pointed my kayak toward Michele and, pushing branches aside, entered the tannic-stained tea water of an intertidal creek so narrow that one couldn't make a full paddle stroke. We glided on, single file, to the sounds of dipping paddles and the chatter and calling of birds we couldn't see. 
Some 100 yards down the passage, we slowed where the creek had opened up to perhaps 20 feet across and 4 or 5 feet deep with a surprising current running through it. Just ahead, guide Greg Bowdish and the other two kayak anglers - Andy Mezirow and Steve Zernia, both charter skippers from Alaska - were busily confirming Bowdish's earlier prediction of lots of small snook. 
Having dropped lightweight anchors to keep their kayaks more or less midstream, the boys either hooked up or missed strikes on most casts, fishing soft plastics or small shallow-running minnow plugs. Despite being diminutive, the snook fought gamely on the light spinning and levelwind outfits, jumping repeatedly.
During the course of that late-November day, we ended up following Bowdish - who's been guiding anglers here both on his flats skiff and in kayaks for many years - through several miles of narrow, winding channels, sometimes stopping to cast in quarters so tight we had to choke up on the rod to make a toss in water clear enough to spot snook, redfish, snapper, sheepshead and more. 
Where the creeks broadened into wider channels, we occasionally stopped, pulling kayaks up onto hard sandbars or shores and wading, tossing lures across, up and down the channel (and yes, sometimes, into the mangrove trees), adding jacks, seatrout and small reds to our list. 
We followed Bowdish, happily stopping to fish, then paddling on to see what opportunities (and wildlife) lurked around each turn. The variety and numbers of birds that inhabit the region, especially in the winter months, is spectacular. I was struck at the roseate spoonbills' lack of concern as we paddled just beneath them. We saw manatees, porpoise, otters and raccoons over the course of the day.
Given the sort of skinny canals we'd spent the morning squeezing through, one advantage of fishing the area from kayaks was pretty clear.

Into the Mangrove Maze
Anglers realize yet another advantage of these light, go-anywhere craft for fishing deep backcountry: When the tide is ebbing, as it was that morning, and the flow through channels in wide, shallow stretches of creeks dwindles to mere inches of water, one merely walks the 30 feet or 30 yards or whatever, pulling along his kayak, into water deep enough to float his boat (and that doesn't require much).
That's also a good option since tides can be hard to predict deep in the estuary, often varying by hours from the tide charts, Bowdish says. "Best to just go and see what the tide is doing and fish accordingly," he says. As far as finding fish feeding, what counts most is that the tide is, in fact, moving - in either direction. 
Bowdish's confidence about just where we were at all times was encouraging: The rest of us agreed we had absolutely no clue where we were in relation to anything else. Had it been up to the four of us to find our way back to civilization, without a GPS, we might still be somewhere deep in the recesses of Pine Island Sound.
By afternoon, the channels had opened into small, hidden bays. Many proved shallow, muddy and popular with mullet. But some offered pockets of deeper water with grass where redfish and trout lurked. Snook - larger than the juvies we'd caught earlier - also prowled the edges of these bays, revealed by loud "boofs" (as the Australians refer to the noise such fish make when attacking prey at the surface). 
Michele and Bowdish showed off their expertise in the fine art of lure skipping well back into the maze of mangrove roots where snook wait in ambush to start in-their-face retrieves.
We ended up at the eastern edge of Charlotte Harbor's broad expanse, more or less looking (many miles) west toward famed Boca Grande Pass. Bowdish surprised us by catching a dandy flounder. But shadows were soon growing long, and a paddle of a few miles awaited us, so we headed back, reaching the canal at the end of a sandy road where we'd put in just about dark.