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March 30, 2012

10,000 Redfish

The mangrove country around southwest Florida's Ten Thousand Islands holds surprising promise.

When you gotta go, you gotta go, and Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands proved the ideal location for a midwinter getaway. Photographer and SWS contributor Richard Gibson and I had been juggling our schedules and myriad other complications for months, but finally we just set a date and held to it. Never mind the weather, which did keep us off the water briefly, though a window opened up that gave us a good look at the bounty and resilience of the mangrove country down in the Islands.

We met Capt. Ken Chambers at dawn at the Calusa Island Marina, near Goodland, Florida, just a short drive down Highway 41 from Naples. Chambers grew up fishing these waters and, a dozen years ago, ditched a suit-and-tie job to make a living doing it. As we idled out of the marina, he laid out the game plan. We’d slip around inside Cape Romano and prospect in the holes along a deep channel while the tide was low, then start moving south as the tide came in.

The Games Begin
Rigged with light spinning tackle, we started off casting jigs and Berkley Gulp! lures along the shoreline of a narrow mangrove-lined channel, moving with the tide and the trolling motor. It didn’t take long to get the skunk off the boat, and the Islands began giving up its usual variety: jack crevalle, trout and a couple of redfish. Strangely absent were the snook for which the area is famous. Part of that was the 67-degree water temperature, but Chambers told us the bigger story.

In January 2010, southwest Florida experienced one of the most severe cold snaps anyone could remember. As water temperatures dropped into the 50s and stayed there, thousands of fish went belly up, and foremost among them were the temperature-sensitive snook. The event devastated the snook population. The state shut down snook fishing on the Gulf side of Florida, a closure that is still in effect, and this fishing, along with the guiding that depends on it, hit the skids.

Cloud with Copper Lining
“I was depressed,” said Chambers. “I thought I’d have to quit guiding.” Then from the devastation emerged an unexpected opportunity. As area guides began to look for surviving snook in the spring and summer, they started catching more redfish. “That fall, we were all catching foot-long redfish, which was unusual,” said Chambers. A year later, in the spring of 2011, all the reds were legal size, around 18 inches. (Florida’s slot limit on redfish allows one fish 18 to 27 inches long per angler per day.) Last fall, redfish of 21 and 22 inches were abundant.

Speculation is that the snook preyed heavily on redfish, and once the predation eased, a strong year class of reds survived and grew. “Now, on a good day, it’s not unusual to catch 30 or 40 reds, all the same size,” Chambers said. “The redfish have been really good for local fishermen. Now more people going out on their own are coming in with fish, whereas before, when we were fishing for snook, people fishing on their own often didn’t have the skill or experience to catch them. I’m seeing a lot more people at the cleaning tables, and they all have redfish.”

No Road Maps
As the tide bottomed out, we edged our way out of Cape Romano and headed south toward Everglades City.

Negotiating the coast on the inside, down through the maze of mangrove islands and channels, is a game for experts. Three main channels lead into the Ten Thousand Islands from the Gulf of Mexico, Chambers explained, and those are the routes easiest to discern and travel safely. But those channels are connected laterally by smaller passes and cuts passable if you know your way around. Even then, it can get dicey.

As if the map of the area isn’t complicated enough, the water is seldom clear, and it’s beset with oyster bars. Some are big and dramatic, and others are little stealth bars “the size of a kitchen table,” said Chambers, but nonetheless hard and unforgiving on a fiberglass boat that hits them at speed. At best you’ll get stuck until the tide comes in to float you off — and there’s always the risk of below-the-waterline damage. Over the years Chambers has navigated this labyrinth, he’s gotten help from the old hands (and shared information with other guides). It’s the only way to learn to safely navigate theses waters. Getting around absolutely requires detailed local knowledge.
 
Work the Rise
Chambers threaded us deep into the mangroves, where scarcely enough water to float the boat covered a broad, hidden bay. We sat and watched as redfish cruised the shallow water, looking for a meal as the tide began to come in, eager takers for a live shrimp cast in their path.

As water flooded the mangrove islands and fish moved deeper into the roots to feed, clouds cut down on visibility. Chambers moved toward the Gulf of Mexico and the outside shorelines of the islands. “Tides are everything here,” he said as we moved down a shoreline, this time with live shrimp rigged 18 inches below a popping cork. “You can fish a shoreline like this one at the wrong tide and see nothing, but come back three hours later, and it will be covered up with fish.”

As a rule of thumb, Chambers explained, the higher stages of the tide pull reds up into the mangroves. On the lower stages, they haunt the flats edges, channels and holes, waiting for the rising water to allow them passage up into the mangroves, where they forage for crustaceans. We used this theory to maintain steady action through the low tide, fishing the deeper sides of bars and channels with the popping cork and shrimp.