Fishing in Florida’s Saltwater Flats

There’s no feeling like scoring a “slam” – hooking a trout, snook and redfish – in the seemingly endless saltwater flats of Florida’s West coast.

One minute you’re distracted by an Osprey soaring above the perfectly calm sea as the fishing line floats in the shadows beyond your flat-bottom boat. The next, the water is boiling with an angry game fish fighting to free itself of your rig.

Of course, the excitement is somewhat tempered when it’s not you, but your fishing buddy, who pulls in the coveted threesome (within the first few minutes on the water, no less) leaving you to catch a sorry collection of catfish and mangrove snapper the rest of the morning.

Norm Weston, the self-described “Fishin’ Magician” who led our expedition, can sympathize. He’s been angling the waters off the Pine Island Sound near Sanibel Island since 1974, and he’s seen the best of them get away.

“Some days you can’t stop catching ’em,” he says. “Some days they won’t bite. Just depends on the mood the fish are in.”

As the sun climbed over the mangrove forests where our boat was anchored, Weston warned us about fishing in the flats. The hardcore fly-fishermen (and yes, they’re mostly men) insist on wading through the waist-deep water until they arrive at the edge of the mangroves, where they begin casting.

The bull sharks that prowl the area aren’t pleased by the disturbance. Considered to be one of the most dangerous sharks, these blunt-nosed predators live in the estuaries and flats, feeding on everything from big game fish like tarpon to the tiny mullet, a baitfish. Their eating habits are versatile – and opportunistic.

From time to time, these bull sharks brush up against one of the purist anglers. “They mean business,” our fishing guide explained. Although none of Weston’s customers have been seriously hurt, it’s a risk he’d rather not to take.

Besides, there’s enough excitement in pulling fish into a boat to leave anyone with the jitters of residual adrenaline for the rest of their vacation. Before noon, I hooked an enormous redfish that took off like there was no tomorrow into the mangroves and had to be cut loose. My fishing partner nearly pulled in a record snook – as if she hadn’t already done enough damage for the day – but it escaped at the last minute.

“Some of the best fish I’ve ever caught from this boat were caught by 11-year-old girls,” joked Weston, referring to the fact that the men were striking out on this fishing trip. My fishing buddy smiled at the implication that she looked younger than she was; I fretted over the lack of fish.

Although Florida’s West coast isn’t exactly known for its cocktails – the drink of choice here, truth be told, is beer – you can find a respectable offering of mixed drinks at nearby hotels such as the Sanibel Inn. Out on the water, however, it’s strictly the six-pack crowd – and then, only for passengers. The drunken boating laws are strictly enforced in the flats.

We ended the day as we’d begun it: fishless. My companion, a catch-and-release kinda girl, set her fish free, while I dreamed about someday hooking that elusive angling trio.

Maybe next year I’ll have another shot at a flats “slam.”