My first experience with Charlotte Harbor showed me what truly immense Florida marine habitat looks like — I simply was not used to losing sight of two opposite enclosing shorelines while I sat midway in the "bay" as mackerel struck with abandon and skyrocketed into groups of minnows and whitebait. I was out on Captain Ralph Allen's 18-foot Hewes Redfisher, which is one vessel out of his nine-vessel cruise and charter King Fisher Fleet (941-639-0969).
As the mackerel "footballed" — a Captain Allenism — we caught half a dozen fish for pictures and moved down (way down!) to Cape Haze Point. This was for the purposes of acquiring the four kinds of bait that was to make this a banner day with multiple slams of snook, redfish and trout.
Captain Ralph used a jack mackerel, bread and seawater combination chum to net small whitebaits, large whitebaits and small pinfish. We moved closer to the Cape Haze Bar to jig up some ladyfish to use as chunk baits.
After the bait catching was done, we fished about 5 miles of the straight Cape Haze shoreline. Captain Ralph would motor his skiff to 100 yards off each of his hotspots, then pole his skiff the rest of the way. His next step was to chum the shoreline where snook would be holding on "structure" — this very same shoreline would provide the travel contours for cruising "high water" redfish.
The specific chum baits were bits of ladyfish and small whitebait. While we kept the live pinfish as back-up baits, it was never necessary to use them as the large live whitebaits caught numerous snook, trout, and small redfish, while the ladyfish chunks resulted in some big redfish that fought like junkyard dogs.
We ended our day live-chumming a dock a few miles from Fishermen's Village and had the snook at a constant boil. We had many strikes, loads of cutoffs, and one released snook before a thunderstorm drove us back to our homeport at the Village.
Charlotte Harbor's One-stop Resort
My base of operations was Fishermen's Village Resort (1-800-639-0020) in Punta Gorda. I loved this destination, which truly is one-stop shopping for anglers arriving with or without boats. It boasts a huge marina, launching ramp, full boat services, the entire King Fisher charter fleet, tennis court, pool, well-appointed and beautiful waterfront rooms, multiple boutique shops, and five restaurants. There was simply no need for me to leave this facility in five days! There were also many non-anglers and their families I met at Fishermen's Village who were thoroughly enjoying their stay. The day I left, this resort facility filled up with tournament redfishermen who were headquartered there.
Into the Wilderness
The next day, we traveled inland to catch the Swamp Buggy Eco-Tour at Babcock Wilderness Adventures (1-800-500-5583).
This tour took about 90 minutes and featured environs, flora and fauna that were stunning, educational and downright enjoyable. The tour is set in the heart of inland Florida inside the 74,000-acre Crescent B Ranch.
The Swamp Buggy took us through four types of eco-systems: open prairie, pine flat-woods, cypress swamp and fresh water marsh. We spotted anhingas, cormorants, alligators, historic cracker cattle, deer, wild pigs and wild turkeys in our tour through the bush.
Of some note is that the Sean Connery movie "Just Cause" was filmed at the Crescent B Ranch. I found that this destination was just perfect as a place where a fishing family could spend a novel day "off". It's also a great place for non-angling friends and family while the fishing guys or girls are busy catching gamesters in Charlotte Harbor.
Olde Florida Experience on the Harbor
After our inland eco-experience, we traveled northeast to the city of Placida, which fronts a coastal stretch of Cape Haze. Conveniently located on the shores of Gasparilla Sound, the Fishery Restaurant (941-697-245) welcomes "drive-ins, walk-ins, swim-ins and float-ins."
The Albritton family of Placida — north of Charlotte Harbor — has done far more than simply construct a landmark Olde Florida eatery. They also offer visitors and locals family-built arts and crafts, collectibles and Florida memories through their Placida Cove Gifts and Crafts, Margaret Albritton Gallery, and the Placida Museum. The Albritton's also own the adjacent Placida Fish Market where fresh shrimp, and seasonally available scallops, oysters, crabmeat and stone crabs are sold to patrons desiring to create their own mouth-watering meals.
The meal was memorable and began with fried Gator Bites served with key lime mustard. The balance of our repast consisted of the Famous Fishery Gumbo, sauteed scallops, mahi-mahi sandwiches, and key lime pie-all the dishes were well-presented, subtly cooked and delicious.
This entire complex is perfect for land and water-based anglers and their families to drive right up — as we left, I saw anglers tying off three bay boats at the dock and then enter the Fishery. In addition, there's a funky Floribbean bar at the entrance for adults to enjoy a libation before their meal.
Paddling into the Mangroves
I was thoroughly excited at the prospect of kayaking the afternoon away through the mangrove creeks of Gasparilla Sound and Coral Creek. The expert(s) who would provide us and guide us were Captain Marian Schneider's Grande Tours in Placida (941-697-8825).
While Grande Tours offers five other experiences — Captain Marian's Choice, Don Pedro State Park, Sunset Tour, Watchable Wildlife and Kid's Fishing — it was the last tour I was really interested in, which was the fishing excursion. The time and timing of our arrival would make the fishing tour less successful, so the afternoon was devoted to the exploration of the Coral Creek complex.
In a perfectly executed example of "never say never", our trip through Coral Creek yielded sightings, blowouts and boils of loads of redfish and snook. And there I was without tackle or lures! Though it was frustrating, it was primarily enticing and gives me yet another reason to return as soon as I could to this vast, fruitful and pristine area.
I was also glad to see that my recollections of Hurricane Charley were merely that. I saw no substantial evidence of its passing. To the contrary, the entire Charlotte Harbor/Gulf Island area of southwest Florida is thriving and growing, while at the same time preserving the untouched wilderness that makes this area such a paradise for fishing families.