Winter Refuge: Naples, FL

Travel fishing trips, especially with limited or no experience in the area or with the native species, can be very tricky.  Expectations are high from YouTube and internet searches, and the "pressure" is high because the time is short.  I have mixed success with travel trips.  The first time I went to Ocracoke, NC (almost 10 years ago!) we only caught dog fish, but boy were we excited.  I've run around Long Island a bit and have had minimal success.  But in Florida at the Keys a couple years ago we did pretty well, and after two trips of striking out last year I finally landed some fish in the Pacific along the San Diego coast.

Our camera broke so all these pictures are taken with my GoPro.

With all this is in mind, I had tempered my expectations for our most recent trip to Naples, FL.  Despite the numerous forum posts I dug up from Google, and the videos I watched of guys on paddleboards slaying the snook, redfish, and various other species, I knew I had to be realistic.
And, it went about how I expected it to.  I caught a couple small fish, and lost a couple big ones.  And got REAL [too] close to a BIG momma Gator' and her babies.  More details below!

First things first: had I caught nothing, it would have been a fantastic trip.  80-85 degrees the whole time we were there, never ended up raining, and I spent 9 hours in a kayak and 3 hours on the beach fishing.  All with the fly rod.

The first day we took kayaks out near Marco Island.  We couldn't take them out until noon, but that was OK because we were feeling terrible after getting in at 3am.  Saw a ton of dolphins, including a baby one only a few feet long, and got to cruise along the mangroves.  The water is super brown/cloudy in most places, which is interesting and while I watched many videos in preparation to go and fish, I still found it a little surprising that the water was SO cloudy.  I didn’t have any flies with rattles, but I think they would have helped some.

The first day I did have a couple shots at fish, and hooked one red drum.  This all happened within about 30 minutes when I had got out of my kayak to wade a shallow sandbar.  The hooked fish will be a great memory.  I had casted my 1/0 clouser (if it ain’t chartreuse, it ain’t no use) out and had been jumping it along the bottom, when the fish came SCREAMING in from nowhere, took me completely by surprise, grabbed the fly and took off again into the channel.  I strip set and had him for a minute, but lost the fish after only a couple seconds.  Not sure how.  He wasn’t huge, maybe 20” or so, but it was exciting.  I then jumped a baby tarpon only minutes after!  I never even felt the weight on my line.  THAT was frustrating.  We decided to move and I found a small snook/redfish…something…tight to mangroves, and casted to it, had it follow my fly to within about 2ft of my bright orange kayak before it spooked and took off.

That would be it for the rest of that kayak session.  We had multiple big charter boats pull up near us, and they were throwing shrimp (EVERYONE is throwing shrimp down there) and catching nothing but catfish.

The next morning we casually walked a beach in the area, looking for bait fish.  We ended up on a rock pile, as I just can’t help myself, and I deep waded (nearly had to swim) to a rock at the end of the pile.  I casted for a long time- 90 minutes of blind cast after blind cast.  I didn’t have a single hit, but I did have a follow by a small fish of unknown type.  Looked like a sea mullet/croaker type body shape.  Lots of bait though!  Huge schools of what I assume were pilchards.  As the sun bathers grew thicker, I decided it was time to move on to something else for the rest of the day.

This isn’t a running blog, so I’ll keep it brief.  I am training for a couple ultramarathons (31 and 32 miles, in March and April, on single track trails not road) and I wanted to get in a moderate length run even while on vacation.  So we headed to the everglades and found a trail and just started running.  About two miles in, we found a pond with a very sketchy dock totally surrounded by alligators.  It was wild.  There were fish jumping EVERYWHERE and I was dying for my fly rod.  Some looked big!  I have no idea what they were or why there was so much activity.  Not long after this Carly turned around, and I kept going.  I ended up bush-whacking for a few miles and ran roughly 11.5 miles.  It was hot, and hard.  I did find some orange trees though, and saw a million turtles, lizards, and birds.  Then, I found a BIG alligator, well over 10 feet and…her babies!  Yikes…this Yankee is NOT used to dealing with dinosaurs, and I was a little nervous the whole time after that.  They would cross the trail every once in a while.  Never have I run in a place that felt like something was going to jump out and grab me like I did running in the everglades.  Not in the deep woods of Maine, or Alaska, or the deserts of California or anywhere in Appalachia.  It was a great, and an eye opening, experience.

The next morning we got up early- ouch- and headed to the beach again.  We fished open sandy beach and into an inlet and lagoon.  Had a crazy interaction with a couple dolphins, which came screaming up into the tiny, 20 foot wide inlet.  They were swimming faster than any dolphin I’ve ever seen, and then started smashing bait.  It was incredible.  Then just as fast as they appeared, they blew out of there and back into the ocean.  Wild!

That morning I had two hooks ups that I dropped- again, on a clouser- right at the beach lip.  One was another one of the unknown croaker/sea mullet shaped body fish.  Finally I landed a fish on the third hook-up- a lady fish.  Not exciting, but it’s something!  They’re actually pretty entertaining- especially after several months of no fishing.  This one jumped at least 3 feet into the air and straight at me.

I saw bait getting harassed by something, and my heart was beating pretty hard a couple times another fisherman came along throwing small rapalas.  Him and I casted almost side by side without speaking for nearly 20 minutes, before he moved on and I gave up.  I kinda like that.  You know the guy is hard core if he just doesn’t say anything.  He wants to keep his secrets, and I’m all about that.
Anyways I hooked another and lost another in the wash, but no landed fish.  It was good fun.  My arms were pretty sore at this point, and I was pretty tired from travel, fishing, and running, so we called it quits.  We ate some lunch, and did a little shopping.  Then we had our final kayak rental.
It was a fantastic afternoon.  It was similar to one of those situations that I’ve gotten into before with striper fishing (a few times).  Bait: everywhere.  Breaking fish: everywhere.  Biting fish: none to be found.  In the mangrove tunnels there were an insane amount of catfish, but also other game fish mixed in, chasing bait schools and making absolute mayhem from almost the moment we started paddling.  Carly didn’t want to fish anymore, so I tried to keep my time in one spot to a minimum, otherwise I think I could have landed a good number of fish.  I lost probably 10 fish, all small except for one that was solid- maybe a stupid catfish.  I did land a few lady fish though, and eventually was bitten off by something.  The last of the lady fish was big, at least I think so, and on the 8 weight it put up a valiant fight, jumping 6 times, each time over the height of my head in the kayak.  Video below.

That afternoon, we spent about 3.5 hours meandering through the “wilderness” near Lovers Key.  It was hot, and windy, and a mind fuck as it felt like July yet I had just been running in the snow.  The whole thing was strange, and it hit me how lucky I was to be able to do that.  And suddenly, I REALLY didn’t want to leave.  Like, wanted to throw a kicking and screaming tantrum like a toddler.  I get why people retire there.  I can definitely see myself doing the same.

Before long it was time to pack up and head to the airport.  After a very quick dinner, we made it to the airport on time only to find a much delayed flight.  Because of that, I didn’t get home and in bed until after 3am again, and had to be at work at 8am.  It was a long week.

And now, to put it in the terms of the Morning Tide guys…I’m frothing.  Yep, I’m ready for it to be fishing season.  Screw the running, and house projects, and sleep.  I’m ready.

Big ideas too.  I’ve got some BIG ideas.  And a big announcement coming soon.  Stay tuned.