A summertime soiree of seafood options and Gulf Coast adventures made my second trip to Southwest Florida remarkable. Mercury readers may recall my October 2009 sojourn to Pine Island and inshore fishing out of the Tarpon Lodge in Lee County. This trip focused on nearshore fishing for goliath grouper in Boca Grande Pass and tours of Gasparilla, Placida, Cape Haze and Manasota Key.
The greater Charlotte Harbor area is anchored by the city of Punta Gorda. This niche along Florida’s Southwest Gulf Coast is about an hour north of Fort Myers and an hour south of Tampa Bay. The Peace River and the Myakka River make up most of the Charlotte Harbor flow and each are massive in width, making this the second largest harbor in Florida. It’s no wonder that Sail Magazine lists them in their “Top Ten” sailing destinations and Yachting Magazine has them listed in the “Top 50 Best Towns.”
Fishing guide Leroy Bennett holds the goliath grouper reeled in by the author. Image by Ken Cook.
Charleston is no stranger to “Best Of” accolades, but the Gulf Islands earn points for being somewhat farther off the beaten path. There are many hotel rooms and rental homes offered in Southwest Florida, but for an exclusive stay take a clear look at Cape Haze and the Palm Island Resort. Only accessible by ferry, this private island offers villas that overlook pristine Gulf beaches with white sands and colorful seashells. There are sea turtle nests galore here in summer and the hatching season had just begun in July.
The ferry can carry your auto across the Intracoastal Waterway, but it must be left in the resort parking lot since they utilize golf carts for access. Staff will help transfer your supplies to your villa and guests may choose between standard, deluxe or superior grade accommodations. Guest relations specialist Lisa Halpin is always glad to help visitors navigate their amenities, including a marina, tennis courts and the Rum Bay Restaurant where I dined on fresh pompano.
Our fishing trip was based out of Gasparilla Marina and included two fishing guides. Both Chris O’Neill of Tail Chaser Charters and Leroy Bennett of Tap Out Charters worked hard to get four anglers into position to catch and release their first ever goliath groupers. The area is known for great goliath grouper fishing, but that doesn’t change the fact that these fish are federally protected from harvest since 1990, so there are no keepers and it is illegal to pull them out of the water.
I was with Captain Bennett in his 22-foot AquaSport boat with an Evinrude 150 E-TEC engine as we idled up to a small island covered in mangroves. “We’ll stop here to catch some live mullet and I’ll be throwing a 10-foot cast net,” said Bennett. A net full of big mullet looked good to me, but Bennett emptied it back into Charlotte Harbor and declared that they weren’t big enough. “We are going for grouper that will likely be 100-pounds or larger, so only a horse-sized mullet is going to interest them as bait.”
After successfully securing enough bait for both boats, we moved to the old phosphate mine dock at the Boca Grande Pass. A menagerie of pilings about 200 yards from shore provide the structure and habitat the goliath grouper seek out to take up residence. Since there is no chance to fight these fish inside the pilings, the best tactic is to yank them away from their lair; we used a Penn 50 wide reel spooled with 600-pound test line and attached to a 20/0 Mustad hook.
While sitting on a cooler holding a stout rod and heavy tackle, Capt. Bennett pushed the bow of the boat into the pilings so that my bait could tempt a goliath grouper to bite. It did not take long for a grouper to latch onto my offering: For a moment it is simply angler-versus-fish while the captain puts the boat in reverse to get into open water. If you have ever had a rod bent over and the reel would not turn due to the force the fish is exerting on the other end of the line, then you know what it is like to fight a goliath grouper. Yet once alongside the boat, they become a gentle giant and are seemingly willing to pose for photos, perhaps knowing that they will soon be released.
This lifelong saltwater angler had to pause and give thanks for the natural resources of the Gulf that can produce such a grand gamefish. Needing a rest break, we ate lunch while running to a backwater slough that would soon be flowing with inshore fish on the incoming tide. We picked at the small snook, caught a decent spotted trout and just missed the inshore slam since the redfish stayed in the shade of the mangroves. The early afternoon offers hot weather, but routine thunderstorms during the rainy season of July serve to cool Southwest Florida down before dinner, drinks and other endeavors associated with island time.
Jeff Dennis is a longtime outdoorsman. Read his blog at LowcountryOutdoors.com.