Fort Myers Beach Gets Back to Fishing

Some 17 months after Hurricane Ian made landfall, life is slowly returning to normal. And the fishing? It’s as good as it ever was.
Capt. Chris Argiro with cobia
Yes, there is life after Hurricane Ian. Capt. Chris Argiro of Sea Reaper Charters (center) guided customers to quality cobia on the Gulf of Mexico this week. Courtesy Capt. Chris Argiro

For charter captain Jon Fetter, the nightmare caused by Hurricane Ian is finally fading. When the tropical storm roared ashore on Fort Myers Beach in Florida and destroyed everything in its path, the future looked bleak. But today, after 17 months of cleanup and rebuilding, there is a glimmer of hope for Fetter and other charter captains.

“I remember when I went by boat to look at the damage” said Fetter, who runs the Catching the Cure charter business. “It looked like something out of a war zone. I just started to cry. I thought to myself, ‘How will we ever recover from this?’”

When Hurricane Ian hit Sept. 28, 2022, it changed the island forever. Mom and pop resorts were destroyed. Multi-floor condos were hit hard and many have still to reopen, and marinas and the boats moored there were swamped. But recovery has come, ever so slowly. A few marinas and boat ramps are now open, some resorts are back in business, and fishing charter boats are again heading out onto the Gulf and backwaters.

A Season of Healing

damage from Hurricane Ian
Hurricane Ian left devastation in its wake when it hit Fort Myers Beach in September of 2022. Courtesy Capt. Jon Fetter

After weeks of helping with disaster relief, charter captains were surprised at what they found when they started fishing again. “One day we came across a floating dock and someone’s front door 5 to 10 miles off-shore in the Gulf,” said Capt. Chris Argiro, who runs Sea Reaper Charters. “They were holding a big school of tripletails, and we caught them like crazy. We’re seeing fish show up in some places where we’ve never seen them before. But the fishing has been good. I think the fish are rebounding faster than the humans are.”

“Nature has a way of healing itself,” said Fetter, who has found a similar situation in the backwaters, where redfish, pompano and trout are biting. “I’m sure it was as big a shock to the fish as it was to us. But once things calmed down, they were feeding.”

They’re still feeding. Fetter and his clients have enjoyed excellent fishing for redfish, pompano and sea trout lately. Fetter has a theory on why it’s been so good. “A lot of it is because the boat traffic is way down,” he said. “there’s no one running across the oyster beds and the grass flats where the fish like to hang out, and that makes a difference.”

Recovering from Tragedy

Capt. Alex Dolinski
Capt. Alex Dolinski is back at the helm of his Spot On Charters fishing boat. Courtesy Capt. Alex Dolinski

Capt. Alex Dolinski, who runs Spot On Charters, has been a charter captain for 38 years and he thought he had seen everything. But Hurricane Ian marked a low point. He lost his wife to cancer two months before Ian hit. Then the massive storm took away his livelihood.

“Nobody fished for a good six months,” Dolinski said. “I was helping people recover boats, vehicles, everything that was washed into the water by the storm surge (estimated at up to 14 feet on parts of Fort Myers Beach). No one was thinking about going fishing.”

But Dolinski never considered going out of business. He relied on payment from a boat-concierge business that he also operates to keep him going. Everything is coming together this year. He is seeing more marine life activity in Estero Bay than he has for some time—everything from roseate spoonbill birds to manatees to fish. And the fishing? It’s been better than it has been in a long time.

Dolinski used a half-day charter trip he guided as an example. In four hours, a family of four reeled in 20 redfish. He later took another family of four and they caught and released 20 large trout, 8 sheepshead, 6 redfish and 2 snook.

A Memorable Day

boat damaged in Hurricane Ian
Charter boat captain Jon Fetter’s boat was totaled after Hurricane Ian hit the marina on Fort Myers Beach where he had it on a lift. Courtesy Capt. Jon Fetter

Fetter has come as long way since that dark day in September, 2022. Weather forecasts predicted that Hurricane Ian would hit the Tampa area, but he had a nagging feeling that the storm could take an unexpected turn. So he put his boat on a lift seven feet off the ground, just be sure. The next day, he determined that wasn’t enough. The wall of water slammed the marina where his boat sat and left it in a twisted pile of boats, debris and metal.

“When I could finally get to it, it had kegs, clothes, liquor bottles, all kinds of things in it,” Fetter said. “It had holes in it the size of bowling balls. I knew right away that there was no way it could be repaired.”
Fetter had to wait three months for a new boat to arrive, and he spent his time helping others in the recovery. Now that he has a new boat, he is taking up where he left off.

“It put quite a few of the younger charter captains out of business,” he said. “But I wasn’t going to walk away. This is my life. I’ve been doing this for 20 years. This is all I know how to do.”

The Road Back

So, life goes on for charter captains. Even now, there are many challenges. It’s more difficult to find places to launch, though access points such as Lovers Key are now open.

And many of the captains have seen their clientele affected. Though the Fort Myers Beach area now has more than 75 percent of the accommodations (14,549 rooms) it had before Ian hit, according to the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau, the absence of open condominiums has hurt, captains say.

“We’re talking about a couple hundred families who lived there. I had a lot of clients who stayed there. They tell me they’re just on hold right now,” said Argiro. But Argiro and other chart captains are grateful for what the have. They are booking trips, the fish are biting and more access is opening by the month. “We never thought something like this would happen to us,” Argiro said. “But we’re pretty resilient. Things are definitely getting better.”

Editor’s Note: Consider a trip to Fort Myers Beach. The fishing has been excellent, and the captains would appreciate your business. The Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau has a handy guide of places to stay to help plan your journey. So go on. The fish are biting.