Gulf Coast fishing opportunities make for a great winter road trip 

As we grow older, more and more people I know have opted to head south in their “golden years.” Of course, most of them are fishermen and the Sunshine State does offer some excellent opportunities to get a line wet – inland, near shore and offshore in the great Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean, depending on what side of the state you are on. My personal experiences keep taking me to the western side of the state and one of my bucket list items was to take a cruise for some fun-in-the-sun fishing in the Gulf – a long-distance adventure. It finally happened and this resource didn’t disappoint!

Our captain was Ryan Kane of Fort Myers, owner and operator of Southern Instinct Fishing Charters (239-896-2341). On this particular day he was going to be bringing along a fellow area captain, Kacey Szegeski with Bee Cause Charters (239-314-6422). The rest of the crew included outdoor writer Dave Barus of East Aurora (one of those people spending a few months in Florida) and his wife Rose, as well as my better half Sandy. Kane had picked up a new boat since our last visit to the area and he was excited to show it off to us. The boat was a fishing machine – a 36-foot Open Contender outfitted with three 250-horsepower Yamaha outboards. We pulled out of the Port Sanibel Marina at 8:15 a.m. An hour and a half later, we were getting ready to fish the R Tower 60 miles off shore – an Army Corps radio structure that has become a fish magnet. There’s not a lot of structure in the Gulf so a wide variety of fish will adapt to this, both big and small fish alike.

After an explanation of what we were going to be doing, we started some trolling as the two captains planned for the next tactic. Trolling large body baits didn’t work this time, but the next plan of attack – using shrimp on a 1/16-ounce Hooked Up jighead – got the fish going almost immediately. They did help things along by providing a little pre-mixed “chum” to the water. Our boat was anchored in 70 feet of water.

Once we started catching, getting them to the boat as quickly as possible was emphasized by the two captains right away and it didn’t take long to see why. As I reeled in a nice yellow fin snapper, all of a sudden something much bigger grabbed the fish – thinking it was bait. It was on for 10 minutes before it wrapped around the tower and was gone. There were much bigger fish around.

In another instance, the same process occurred. First, a smaller 4- or 5-pound fish battled the rod some 5 minutes before a bigger fish consumed the smaller fish. Barus commented that it seemed strange that a fish as big as some of the trophy bass we catch back home were actually serving as bait, like some of the blue runners we caught while seeking out the yellowfins. The next fish was much bigger and it stripped out line effortlessly. Some 25 minutes later, as it tired, Captain Kacey readied the gaff. Just when it seemed like we were winning the battle, a MUCH larger fish (estimated at 60-70 pounds) grabbed ahold of the fish we were fighting  and exploded in the opposite direction until it was history – a broken line. We stared at each other in amazement. What just happened? My arms were tired and all I had to show for it was a fleeting memory.

Captains Kacey and Ryan immediately pulled out a shorter, heavier rod with 200-pound test braid line on the reel. They wanted to bring in a bigger fish. The rod was rigged with a 5-pound blue runner and tossed out to excite the bigger fish. It didn’t take long before we had a hit. Rose Barus was the first one to the rod. Twenty minutes later she was hauling in a 60-pound amberjack! What a thrill for Rose … and Dave! There’s no question that this will be an outdoor memory that will last the rest of her life. Rose was a real trooper and, for a 60-something fisherwoman, this was the catch of a lifetime!

Not everyone can reel in a 60-pound “AJ” or motor out into the Gulf 60 miles. If you have the opportunity to fill a bucket list item like this, take advantage of it. Go with family or friends (or both) and give it a try. You just might enjoy it!

When we hit the docks, Ryan and Kacey cut up the fish to get it ready for transport. If you wanted one of the local restaurants to cook it up for you, they recommended several – including the Lighthouse Restaurant where Ryan’s boat was tied up behind in the marina. We plan on taking advantage of that in the future if we ever do something like this again. Yellowfin snapper is the bomb!

Southwest Florida offers a wealth of outdoor options, from fishing and kayaking to hiking and shelling. Sanibel Island and the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge is always a must-stop for us when we are in the area. It never disappoints, with some outstanding birding opportunities around every corner. The beaches are amazing no matter where you go. Part of the fun is locating spots that are not as crowded, not as expensive or boasting plenty of shells. If you score all three you hit the jackpot.

For example, Lovers Key State Park, located along Fort Myers Beach to the south, charges a nominal fee ($8) into the park. This is good from 8 a.m. to sunset and you can go in and out throughout the day. This is great, as opposed to beach parking on Sanibel Island for $4 an hour. If you do go to Sanibel, have lunch at the Mucky Duck. You’ll have free beach access after your meal (or before). Take a walk to work off some of those fine vittles (or for working up an appetite). Have dessert in the Bubble Room right around the corner. For more information on Southwest Florida check out www.fortmyers-sanibel.com.

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