May/June 2002

What's the Catch?

Fishing charters on the islands

“I’ve fished since I could walk,” says Tray Cooke, referring to his childhood along the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Cooke, who runs fishing charters out of Sanibel Marina, is typical of charter captains along the barrier islands of Southwest Florida. Although few started fishing here, they love fishing in local waters. Their enthusiasm is obvious.
Dozens of charter fishing captains operate out of Boca Grande, Pine Island, Captiva, Sanibel, Estero Island, and down to Marco Island. They serve the thousands of incurable anglers, both residents and visitors, who are attracted by the bounty of Southwest Florida’s gulf and back-bay waters.
    Richard Pinkett of Aurora, Ohio, who winters in Bonita Springs, frequently rents boats to go out on his own, but he admits that chartering an experienced captain is a better way to assure your catch. “These guys know the waters,” he says. “They are here year-round. They follow the currents. They know where the holes are and when the fish move to a different hole.”
And if you choose a captain who’s licensed by the Coast Guard and fully insured, such as those included in this article, your fishing trip is more likely to be safe as well as satisfying.
    Most of the captains didn’t start as charter operators, but evolved into it. For example, 40-year-old Capt. Cooke was a teaching golf pro at The Vines in Bonita and at South Seas Plantation on Captiva for eight years after moving to Southwest Florida. But he was driven to fish and to be his own boss, so in 1996, after fishing for himself from a boat he kept at South Seas, he started running charters out of Sanibel Marina.
    Cooke enjoys having families aboard. Teaching youngsters the fishing fundamentals is one of his favorite activities and he believes his experience teaching golf helps him work with the kids and get them excited, even when the fish are reluctant.
    Reluctant fish, though, are not a common problem. From the snook and redfish that run in the summer to the trout and sheepsheads that are prevalent in the cooler waters of the winter season, there are plenty to catch. Then there are tarpon, mackerel, and shark that migrate through the estuaries of Estero Bay, Pine Island Sound, and Charlotte Harbor. “Hook any of these varieties,” Cooke promises, “and you can have a fight on your hands.”
    Capt. Andy Boyette’s Go Fish Charters, based in Punta Gorda, offers tarpon trips, backcountry fishing, flats fishing, and other near-shore and inshore excursions. Boyette is very much at home in Charlotte Harbor and Boca Grande Pass, world famous for tarpon tournaments.
Hawkeye Charters, operated by Hawkeye Halper, calls Bokeelia his homeport. Located on the northern tip of Pine Island, he is well positioned to take advantage of the action in Pine Island Sound and north into Charlotte Harbor. Halper catches sea trout, snook, redfish, grouper, cobia, Spanish mackerel, tarpon, tripletail, and snapper—and he has the photos to prove it. He also offers a money-back guarantee: No catch, no pay.
    Another charter service that guarantees your experience is Satisfaction Guaranteed Fishing Charters on Marco Island. Capt. Brien Spina and his staff of three additional captains are regulars in the waters of Naples and the Ten Thousand Islands. Spina likes to net cast for live bait before heading to the backwater feeding grounds for snook and redfish. He also offers three-day, offshore fishing packages for grouper, snapper, cobia, shark, permit, king mackerel, and barracuda. Packages include hotel accommodations and shore lunches.
    Capt. Scott Hughes also operates his Blackwater Charters out of Marco Island. He runs fishing charters into the waters off Ft. Myers Beach, Sanibel, and beyond, where big tarpon can be plentiful. Hughes provides all bait, tackle (including fly rods and flies), and fishing licenses for up to four anglers.
    That’s pretty much the rule for charter operators. Most also provide plenty of ice but expect you to bring your own food and drink.
    That’s the case for Capt. Will Lasseigne, who operates the Ragin’ Cajun from Sanibel Harbor. As the name suggests, Lasseigne hails from Louisiana where he grew up on the shores of Bayou Lafource. His dad was a commercial fisherman and took Lasseigne along on fishing and crabbing trips. Lasseigne moved to Southwest Florida in 1994 and started his charter business on Sanibel.
    Lasseigne admits the 24-foot, Florida-built boat with a 200-horsepower engine isn’t named for him. “There’s a roller-coaster back in Louisiana that I used to ride when I was a kid. It was called the ‘Ragin’ Cajun.’ I thought it would be fun to name the boat after it,” he says with a chuckle. The Ragin’ Cajun is no roller-coaster ride, however; its shallow draft floats through the back bays. For Lasseigne, business peaks in the summer when the snook and redfish are feeding, and families are the most frequent tourists.
    It was on one of these family trips, Lasseigne says, that a passenger hooked a small mackerel on 12-pound test line near the Sanibel Causeway. As the teenage girl was reeling it in, there was a hit on the line. Something big took off with the catch and the line. After a spirited run that ended at marker No. 2, they finally boated the new catch—a 46 1/2-inch redfish weighing about 50 pounds.
    Capt. Cooke reports an adventure of another sort. One of the major mistakes passengers make in the winter is assuming the warmth and lack of wind at the dock will continue when the boat is moving, he says. He often has to return to the dock for a sweater or a jacket, or turn around to fish a windblown hat out of the water. Only once, however, has he seen the wind lift the wig off a passenger’s head. Unfortunately, it was not retrievable. Sunscreen anyone?
    If one tires of fishing, there is plenty of nature to watch and the pleasure of being on the water on a balmy Florida day is something you can count on. You might spot bottle-nosed dolphins, manatees, or even sea turtles; eagles or wood storks might fly overhead; and pelicans abound. In season, you might even see the flock of white pelicans that hangs out in the channel between Pine Island and Useppa Island.
    Then there is the shelling. As great as the shelling is on Sanibel and Captiva, which are accessible by car, the beaches along North Captiva and Cayo Costa can often be even better because the islands can be reached only by boat.
    Whether you are chartering to fish, to sightsee, or to shell, you need to contact your captain ahead of time for reservations and plan to board at the marina where your captain is berthed. While some captains will pick you up at other points, such as private docks and beaches, Capt. Lasseigne reports that there is an unwritten code that captains do not pick customers up at someone else’s home marina. That’s about the only rule that might get between you and a great time when you are fishing the bountiful waters of Southwest Florida.

William Ernest Waites is a freelance writer who lives in Ft. Myers.