I've always liked to think of southwest Florida as my second home. So many of my angling travels relied on and reveled in Gulfside resort towns like Naples, Sanibel, and Sarasota. But there was one jewel missing in this "journey crown" that demanded installation — and that was the historic five-star Tarpon Lodge nestled on the green expanses of Pine Island, west of North Fort Myers. Before making reservations and enjoying a delightful stay at the Lodge, I embarked on the research about this destination, which in itself — for me — actually begins the journey.
One of my first goals was getting to Tarpon Lodge. Of significant note are the complete and detailed directions offered on their web site. No matter what point on the compass an angler was coming from, the Lodge had a specific directional paragraph for that quadrant or means of conveyance. You can contact the Lodge through their website www.tarponlodge.com or by phone at 239-283-3999.
Rooms. Tarpon Lodge has a very welcoming "no pets" and "no smoking" policy, which truly supports room freshness and hygiene. The Island House has 20 rooms, half of which have a stunning view of Pine Island Sound. Their wonderful historic Lodge has nine delightful and quaint rooms. On a more private note, Tarpon Lodge proudly offers their Boathouse and Cottage, both of which are more like fully-appointed residences. The interiors had pleasing notes of Olde Florida and Caribbean stylings. Each of the rooms had cable TV.
Amenities. If you must stay "connected", WiFi is available in their overnight accommodations, restaurant and lounge. The Lodge has a well-situated pool for those that want to relax during the day or have a refreshing dip after a half or full day of great fishing. There is dockage for overnight guests as well as those visiting for lunch or dinner. The Lodge has an excellent lounge where you can enjoy the music and your favorite libation with friends and/or while waiting for a sumptuous meal in their restaurant. Of real importance is Tarpon Lodges' fishing guide program: they will be happy to set you up with a guide when you make your reservations. There are a good number of excellent guides who are docked at and charter right out of the Lodge itself.
The main dining room sits inside the 1926 historic lodge building. There is a complimentary continental breakfast available for overnight guests in the main dining room from 7-10 a.m. The lunches and dinners features fine soups and salads, and entrees from "lighter fare" to gourmet Floribbean seafood and meat favorites and includes some sinful specialty desserts as well as the customarily refreshing key lime pie.
Old School Charters
The lodge suggested Captain Bryan Dollar and I was happy to charter him for two full days of fishing. Here is what I learned about him.
Captain Bryan has been fishing the Pine Island area for over twenty years. He is a full time year-round guide at the Lodge who offers half day and full day fishing trips which can also include shelling, eco-tours, and lunches at the Cabbage Key Resort. While his emphasis is on light tackle, he can accommodate fly fishermen. Captain Bryan can fish up to six people and he welcomes families and their children for "fun" and sport fishing. The range of his operation can be described as inshore and near shore. His policy for edible fish is a modified catch and release policy, emphasizing mackerel, sea trout, and grouper, but not "filling the cooler." Captain Bryan has always preferred releasing edible game fish like redfish, and certainly snook.
His vessel is a 25-foot Downeaster, which is a remarkably beamy and comfortable vessel, but still quite capable of getting into one foot of water. The engine is a 225 H.P. Yamaha mounted on a jackplate for shallow water operation. Captain Bryans' boat has a superbly fitted and removable Bimini top as well as an enormous livewell and a Power Pole for perfectly positioning his vessel while fishing.
Armed with the web site instructions and the car's onboard GPS, the drive from Miami was simple. Although I've driven Interstate 75 countless times, I'd never taken SR78 and passed through Matlacha. This time, I finally experienced it, but will need more time to stay in this interesting, campy, city to really get its feel. I arrived at Tarpon Lodge in time for a glass of wine at the lounge and then an excellent dinner of crab soup and grouper at the Lodge restaurant.
I turned in early so I could be fresh for my meet-up time with Captain Bryan at 8 a.m. the next morning. The room was spectacular, featuring an end position on the second floor of the Island House with two separate balconies. The view of Pine Island Sound was marvelous. The room was well-appointed: a king-size bed and air conditioning from two sources; sleep came quickly.
Before meeting Bryan, I had a satisfying breakfast in the dining room. Bryan called me on my cell phone just before eight to let me know that he was done catching live bait and would meet me at the dock right on time. After hopping aboard, we were soon underway.
Bryan told me that the livewell was loaded with pinfish, pigfish, and pilchards- all three species necessary parts of the live bait arsenal.
Our first stop was barely 10 minutes from the marina. Bryan slowed down and set up a drift alongside the edge of the channel. He took out two spinners featuring 17-pound braid and circle hooks tied to 40-pound fluorocarbon leader. He hooked a pigfish on each outfit and handed me one. Bryan was quite specific as to where to place the cast, since underneath the surface 10 feet below was a small wreck purportedly loaded with gag groupers. He told me to let out just enough line to get the bait close to the bottom and close the bail. I knew from prior experience that striking and hooking groupers should be followed immediately by a short-stroke, keep-it-coming fighting technique.
We both hooked up immediately and got our fish away from the wreck. Both groupers were nice gags of around 4 pounds. We photographed the fish and released them. In the next few hours, this honeyhole provided strike after strike as we averaged one caught fish amongst six cutoffs. Some of the grouper were plain unstoppable. After we caught around six gags, Bryan said that the incoming tide would be right for trout fishing on the grassflat expanses of Pine Island Sound.
We were at our next spot in another 10 minutes. Bryan gave me a spinning outfit with lighter braid, leader and topped off with a J-hook. I fished with a pilchard rigged "free', while Bryan used a live pinfish under a popping cork. The action built slowly, but quickly reached the pace of trout after trout — literally. We caught them all mid-day and afternoon. I lost one at the boatside that looked close to 5 pounds. Bryan and I stopped counting after 50 seatrout were released.
We spent the rest of the day prowling for redfish, but Bryan said the tide was not ideal. We wrapped up the day with Bryan stating he'd have another game plan the next day. I returned to the Lodge for a swim, shower, and then an encore dinner replicating the meals of the night before.
The next day, we started our morning looking for redfish and saw a few. After an hour, Bryan said he wanted to run a half hour north to Boca Grande to give me a shot at hooking a goliath grouper, some snook, and possibly even bigger grouper. On the way there, we stopped under some diving birds to get some jacks and ladyfish for the livewell. Each of these would become goliath and redfish bait respectively.
When we arrived, Bryan motored over to the famed phosphate docks. He took out his heaviest conventional outfit and hooked on a live jack. It did not take long before I felt the tap-tap strike of a goliath. I came tight and my rod bowed over at an extreme angle — kind of like hooking a motorcycle. The cutoff came quickly.
We decided to move over to some other docks for some smaller and more realistic adversaries. The tide was flowing in nicely. Bryan took out two very heavy spinners rigged with a sinker and baited them with grunting pigfish. Again, the strikes came quickly and the strength of the run and cutoff told Bryan they were big gags. In the next few hours, we released a dozen nice gags and lost three times that many. But it seemed the snook were not striking when we switched to pilchards and pinfish.
At the mid-day point, we headed back south to the grassflats in search of a gator trout for pictures. The action was more modest and resulted in another dozen trout. Bryan asked me if I wanted to spend the balance of the day trying to get a redfish...and, I did. Though it took three hours, Bryan finally caught a chunky red on a pinfish barely 10 minutes from the Lodge. After photographing the fish, I was ready to call it a day and head back to the Lodge for a cold libation.
As we headed back to the lodge, it was a pleasing sensation to realize that I was already planning my return visit.