Sanibel and Captiva Island the epicenter of arts, conservation, history and wild places for our county. For over 2,000 years the Calusa have inhabited Sanibel island for its abundance of wildlife and accessibility to freshwater (Sanibel River) which can be extremely scarce along the marine coast once you leave the abundance of springs of North Florida. The interesting shape Sanibel has taken on is the result of constant shifting sands from the creation of the Caloosahatchee river as it washed and deposited silt and sand over thousands of years. Bordered by hefty tidal movements on either side of its extremities Sanibel is a true oasis, providing ample room to both land and sea creatures that call its shores home.
As with some areas of Florida in the old days Sanibel was at risk of losing its native areas due to wide spread development taking place in south florida in those days. With the help of many and the talents of some infamous characters like Jay Norwood Darling a prominent cartoonist and conservationist of his time helped set the path forward for conserving important wild areas not just for the sake of the wildlife but to ensure the survival of humanity and wild places for our future friends and relatives. After his death in 1962, the JN “Ding”Darling foundation was created to continue his work in conservation. A few years later in 1965 the refuge as we know today on the eastern portion of Sanibel island was created as a safe haven to protect the native inhabitants of Sanibel and Captiva island.
The Ding Darling refuge covers just over six thousand acres and boasts almost three thousand acres of designated wilderness! 950 acres of submerged habitat provide key habitat for species that very well may have perished if it were not for the conservation work. In addition to the wild areas protected the refuge serves a hugely important task of educating visitors that visit the island and refuge with the numbers reaching and sometimes exceeding 800,000 visitors annually! The biggest attractions that Sanibel has to offer is by far the beaches, birding, shelling and fishing. Visitors will find this island to be a true portal back in time and also a key model in how to coexist with nature in the 21st century.
Throughout the decades Sanibel and Captiva islands have been the gatekeeper to old natural Florida and the habitats we as outdoor folks dream of, for the birders the impressive amount of species that visit and reside the island is 238+ species which take advantage of the multitude of habitats found on the island such as beach front, mud flats, mangrove islands interior freshwater habitats with open water ponds and cordgrass marshes that are surrounded by west Indian hardwood hammocks cater to the necessary requirements of such a diverse fauna.
Sanibel island, covering some 33 miles, has some of SWFL most revered fisheries, the gulf to our west although shallow in depth for some ways has a healthy population of groupers and snappers with amberjack and kingfish patrolling the wrecks and reefs. On the eastern side a mixture of deep water protected beach and extensive backcountry that makes up tarpon bay and ding darling national wildlife refuge providing days worth of exploration into the labyrinth maze of mangrove islands and beautiful grass flats and lagoons. There is still adequate freshwater discharge coming from inside the island from rain fall that supports its own set of life like mosquito fish and large amounts of shrimp that in turn attracts predators from the saltwater.
Captiva island that was once apart of Sanibel was separated from its big island brother in the 30’s due to a hurricane creating a pass across the island west to east that is called Blind pass. Captiva is generally narrow in diameter and longer in length has some of the most attractive beaches the SW has to offer as well as marinas and resort. The two largest sections of wild area on Captiva island will be found along the beachfront dunes and the backside (Eastern side) in which is mangrove coastline. The pass on the northern end of Captiva that separates it from North Captiva is known as Redfish pass. Redfish pass is a very neat naturally phenomenon when strong currents and tides over the years have washed out the sand in the bedrock to created a deep depression hole that at time is 35 feet deep which for out coast is very deep! This pass is a great angling destination having lots of snook, redfish and tarpon inhabiting it. The biggest accommodation on either island will be South Seas Island Resort which is the entirety of the northern tip of the island. South seas has a wonderful layout to accommodate any families need or single adventurous persons need with a wonderful well-staffed marina that I operate out of often.
Sanibel is extremely near and dear to the captain as I grew up in Iona, Florida (right before the toll booth to get on Sanibel causeway) so the atmosphere of the island helped shape my character in many aspects from the importance of conservation to the meeting and mentoring of great outdoorsman and naturalist I have been blessed to meet along life’s journey.
Ding Darling NWR was and still is the apple of my eye having grown up venturing into the mangrove backcountry by wading and paddle craft from the young age of 5 with my father and uncle. I was extremely lucky to have spent hundreds of days inside the refuge perfecting my craft as a naturalists and angler chasing redfish, snook, trout and tarpon in and near the refuge for decades. What I have learned has been result of being submersed into a ecosystem that is wise and resilient. There are few places in the world that you will find the establishment of old world growth and abundance of diversity.
The island has been home to many angling legends but the one most folks are most familiar with is Norm Zeigler of Norm Zeigler’s fly shop located on Periwinkle near the middle of the island. Norm was monumental in the foundation of snook fishing with a fly rod walking the beach and his kind and wise words as well as patience humble approach have nourished the growth of anglers and naturalist alike.
The Sanibel Fly Fishers is a group of fly fisherman started on his coffee table that now are many members strong and are still at the front of the clean water fight with expanding knowledge and supporting the community through endeavors like a student grant for the water school at Florida Gulf Coast University our hometown university. These classes and directives are the best chance to the future of our ecosystems and longevity of the “wild places”. I am very humbled to have been a witness to the greatness this island helps nourish.
Seasonal variance in the fish species we catch will be at its greatest diversity in and around Sanibel and Captiva island due to the close proximity to the gulf stream and being the first or “last” island in the most traveled section of our waterway both by man and animal. That pathway is known as pine island sound and it starts just off Woodring point a brief mile north of the Sanibel causeway C-span of the bridge. Here were to our east the southern portion of Pine Island known as Saint James City help funnel the water flow between the barrier islands and pine island as the currents come and go into pine island sound, the largest grass flat south of the nature coast.
Spring The spring (March-May) warm up along Sanibel and Captiva is one that revolves around the warming water temperatures and beautiful seafoam teal water that comes in from the gulf. Fishing along the eastern side of Sanibel along San Carlos bay can yield the big three snook redfish and tarpon as well as bottom dwelling species like red grouper and black sea bass. The inshore fishing picks up and sight fishing can be fantastic poling the grass flats around the southern portion of pine island sound.
Captiva island back country fishing is fantastic for redfish and trout until the latter spring when water temperatures increase and strings of tarpon can be encountered with spinning tackle and fly fishing equipment. Snook are just beginning to congregate in large numbers along the beach waiting for their spawning movements that usually start in the passes. In our nearshore wrecks and reefs off of the Sanibel and Captiva beaches will have schools of Permit that react best to live crabs. This is a splendid time of year with unmatched diversity.
The beginning of summertime (June-September) is highlighted and illuminated by the great tarpon migration that had just begun at the end of spring time. Sanibel will be ground zero for tarpon fishing both on the beachside and sound side depending on weather conditions and lunar phases. It is at this time of year we are fishing tarpon schools that are north bound or south bound heading to or from Boca Grande Pass. Tarpon can be found working the bait schools along the beachfront and daisy chaining in the grass flats just off the Sanibel Captiva inshore line. Snook fishing at this time of year is exciting whether drifting the pass or sight fishing along the beach.
Evening trips into the backcountry can yield quality snook on lures and fly tackle, along with the chances to target tailing redfish on the grass flats that is the captains specialty! Being the warmest time of year, daily thunderstorms occur so the frequency in dawn and dusk trips are utilized for safety and productivity for the best fishing opportunities. If there are any requests or the interest in kids fishing camps while school is out I offer “fishing camps” for the family this time of year that school is out!
Come fall (October-first cold front in December) Sanibel will be host to one of the greatest fishery migrations from the spawning of red drum that are encountered in schools of sometimes hundred both inshore and nearshore as some schools will be making their way up and down the gulf coast and also the large gatherings of resident fish makes this time a year a great time to visit the “pumpkin patch”. Schooling redfish are a delight and welcomed experience. Good snook fishing can be found in some of the passes and especially the back country that the eastern portion of Sanibel has to offer. Tarpon by this time are almost entirely spread out on the beach side, they are seen busting bait ball schools of blood minnow and threadfin herring that are all at their peak size and highest oil retention.
Fish oil is one of the biggest reasons super predators like tarpon feed on the smaller bait fish “for”. The oils provide a high carbohydrate fulfilling meal that helps them survive post spawn and the soon to be colder weather conditions which are hard on cold blooded species.
Triple tail can be prevalent along the deeper reaches of both sides of the island. Sanibel being centrally located has heavy tidal movements that create beautiful tide lines that pelagic species frequent for the increased feeding opportunities. In addition to the triple tail found here, king fish mackerel as well as large Spanish mackerel can be targeted.
Cobia on the right day with good visibility can be sighted near the surface over reefs and rock piles as well as the tidal lines themselves. As the we near colder weather we usually have a strong movement of groupers that move closer inshore to take advantage of the food opportunities so catching a keeper grouper in season is still a likely chance.
During the winter months (First cold front in December-February) defined by cold fronts we spend a lot of time fishing “deeper” water along the inshore flats and bays. During the winter tides there is lower than normal water levels that can be affected by the frequent cold fronts that blow in. Utilizing deeper water situations nearby inshore flats and bays we can target a greater density of fish as they are all forced to retreat from a large area.
On the high tides sight fishing speckled sea trout into the high 20” range is quite common along with targeting Redfish utilizing tactics of your preference whether that be using live shrimp free lining, throwing artificial lures on spin tackle or fly fishing the clarity of the water this time of year from lack of precipitation makes it a great time to do so. Many species of fish that inhabit the local waters switch appetites in the colder months so this is the time of year lures and flies are selected to resemble crabs, shrimp and bottom dwelling species like gobies are chosen and utilized. For those that are seeking the sure thing free lining shrimp is a very successful method.
The best snook fishing whilst it is cold certainly will be found in the back country mangroves. They have a easier time to find adequate tempered water to withstand the cold nights as snook can’t tolerate much chillier than low 60’s for water temperature. In the mornings we look for snook in shallow water that are there to warm up quickly and find an easy meal, something we can surely provide!
Winter fishing for kingfish and mackerel is still very productive this time of year on the days the weather allows us to access the nearshore avenue. Trolling plugs is a very productive way to produce some trophy size “smokers” a affectionate nickname given to the behemoth mackerel that “smoke your drag” and are best put on the smoker grille! Triple tail can be found along crab pots this time of year along with encountering large schools of small Spanish mackerels and blue fish.
Albies will show if the water conditions are adequate and the bait migration takes place. Grouper fishing is very good in the winter both nearshore and at some inshore locations. After December gag grouper season does close but we often catch black sea bass in the keeper size range along with large mangrove snapper and the occasional large red grouper. Your captain is a well versed angler and will happily instruct and provide the best opportunity of his ability to put you on fish!
During the winter period, with the prevalence of low tides the wading bird activity is phenomenal. For the birders or photographers specialized trips can be arranged to offer you unmatched positioning and access to prime locations upon request! As well as shelling along the lee island coast.
When it comes to public access for departure locations for Sanibel based charters the first and most widely used boating access by far is Punta Rassa boat ramp located at the foot of the Sanibel causeway toll booth on the Fort Myers mainland side a 10 minute car drive from Fort Myers beach and Matanzas pass that you can visually see across San Carlos Bay. Punta Rassa boat ramp has paid parking for and restroom facilities on sight, this is the busiest ramp in lee county and where the majority of charters in the county are departing from.
For those guests that wish to skip the crowds the next point of departure is located at the Tarpon Bay Explorers facility off of Tarpon bay road on the island. This facility can only accept small boats and this helps keep the exclusivity of entry. There is a 15 minute idle out of the “marina” through Tarpon bay, but many will find this to be a wonderful experience and the beauty is serene. Fantastic inshore fishing options are located nearby and accommodate all fishing styles from family trips to fly fishing outings. These two options are the safest and most convenient for the access to our fishery.
Captiva Island departures can be arranged per your needs to accommodate your residence or lodging resort. I frequently pickup at choice locations like South Seas Island Resort marina at the northern end of Captiva as well as The Green Flash Restaurant on Captiva island. Both locations require a nominal pickup fee that is charged to the captain by the entity.
The number one must visit place on my list for every visitor to SWFL is to visit the Ding Darling NWR! The visitor center is a must see for all ages, it is lovely to walk the visitor center and hiking trails inside of the refuge. There is a main road that travels through the heart of the refuge that gets amazing access to see the wildlife and also providing opportunities to view unique coastal habitats that are endemic to our coast. A whole day can be spent walking the trails and beautiful boardwalk observatories along the refuge drive.
For those that love the sea shells, the Baileys shell museum is the place for you to see a wide variety of what our beach has to offer with beautiful washed up gems! There are some insight into the history of shelling on the island and a unique experience.
Located on Periwinkle, sits the infamous Norm Zeiglers Fly shop. Norm made beach snook fishing with a fly rod famous. A visit to the wonderful fly shop is always worth the time for up to date fishing reports to the newest techniques in fly fishing the man and shop is a great opportunity to learn.
A local restaurant named after a local author Randy Wayne White’s main character “Doc Ford” is a well witted and traveled man that is always exploring unique destinations, full of fishing, adventure and mystery this wonderful series always found the main character ending up back at home on Sanibel, so it is only fitting a restaurant with such appeal was created in honor of that character. The food and atmosphere is so wonderful here from the fish tacos and ceviche to my favorite the Cuban sandwich doc fords should be on your restaurant list!
A superb spot elevated on pilings gives visitors a unmatched view of open expanse of pine island sound. Right on the water, the food and drinks are wonderful and a great place unwind after a great day of fishing.
Towering 98ft above the near sea level gulf coast stands one of the first lighthouses north of Key west and the dry tortugas. The skeleton is made iron with a central iron stair case still stands in glory to this day. Located at the very southern end of Sanibel island, Point Ybel light is a must see and also boast a beautiful beach, with Fort Myers Beach in the foreground. The lighthouse was built in 1884 and stands in beauty as one of our eldest structures on the island. The lighthouse was automated in 1949 and after that time frame the first Federal fish and wildlife officer on the island took up residence at the lightkeepers old quarters.
Sanibel island and Captiva are home to some of the best restaurants and attractions with the nicest of residents. No matter where you venture on the island you will find happiness and beautiful natural areas. The residents of the islands are proud of its natural state and take pride in protecting it and keeping it clean. These islands have been so influential to me in my life I am very privileged to be able to make a living in the greatest office on the planet and share paradise with my guests. No matter your needs or accommodations please do not hesitate to ask while booking a charter. This is still a small town in many ways and normally we know someone who can help if we cant!