FORT MYERS BEACH -- Despite — or because of — the brisk northerly winds of winter, Southwest Florida’s Estero Bay is a superior recreational inshore fishing destination.
When the Gulf of Mexico turns into a chilly, frothy cauldron of Yoo-hoo, snook, redfish, black drum, sea trout, pompano, flounder, tarpon, sheepshead and sharks often seek the shelter of sun-warmed flats, mangrove shorelines and muddy creeks. Estero Bay is one of their prime wintertime spas.
“It’s a fully protected bay,” veteran Fort Myers light-tackle guide captain Rob Modys said. “On days with a small-craft advisory, you can slow-ride across and get in the lee side and there will actually be fish you can catch.”
It’s a short ride to the prime fishing grounds aboard Modys’ 22-foot bay boat from the dock at Fish-Tale Marina on Fort Myers Beach. The bay’s relatively small size — about 11,000 acres — shortens run time and increases available fishing time.
“If the fish aren’t in one end, it’s easier to go to the other end of the bay and do change-ups,” he said.
Modys and a customer recently caught and released a slot-sized snook on fly rod and three slot-sized redfish on jigs tipped with shrimp in a half-day trip amid brisk westerly winds — normally an unlikely occurrence since approaching low-pressure systems tend to shut down shallow-water fisheries until the barometer goes up again.
Ironically, the fly the snook chose to eat was an odd-looking orange-and-green, deer-hair pattern with cheek wings called a Strawboss tied by local angler Joe Mahler that’s reputed to be deadly for redfish. The reds ignored it that day, possibly because of the unsettled weather, and opted for shrimp threaded on a jig head. All fish were caught along the same protected mangrove shoreline on a rising tide. Surprisingly, neither angler nor guide hooked any sea trout.
Modys caters to plenty of family groups striving for any kind of inshore action. In these circumstances, he comes armed with plenty of live shrimp rigged beneath a popping cork that is drifted with the wind and current. The simple rig produces plenty of strikes from trout, reds, snook, ladyfish, jacks and bonnet head sharks.
Modys said Estero Bay has a resident population of tarpon in the five-to-50-pound range often found at the upper edges of creeks during the winter months. Like many, Modys revels in the topwater strike of a tarpon, so he favors baits such as the Rapala Skitter Walk, Heddon Zara Spook Junior and the Bomber Badonk A Donk to generate surface explosions. Best colors, he said, are anything with silver and white. For fly fishing, Modys prefers small purple and brownish bait patterns.
Although Modys and his customers don’t usually target flounder, sometimes they catch the tasty, flat fish while fishing with shrimp and popping corks near mangrove shorelines fringed by oyster bars with a strip of sand. He said the fishery has seemed to boom since the extended freeze of early 2010 killed thousands of snook around the region and state.
“We went from catching dinks to 14-to16-inch flounder,” he said.
Another tasty target is the sheepshead, a black-barred fish with miniature human-like incisors that gnaws on barnacles attached to mangroves, bridges and docks. Modys has very specific tactics for catching these delicious dinner entrees.
“Use a small number one or 1/0 circle hook with a piece of #3 split shot seven to eight inches above the hook,” he said. “Use the middle or tail of a shrimp completely covering the circle hook. And let ’em eat. If you try to go in with a jig, you are going to miss so much fish and lose so much bait.”
Many customers are so used to setting the hook when they feel a strike that Modys has to coach them to do the opposite when using circle hooks.
“I keep mumbling behind them, ‘don’t set, don’t set,’ ” he laughed. “Then I’ll say, ‘wind now!’ ”