Reel Time: Memories of Matlacha

Reel Time: Memories of Matlacha
One of the colorful businesses of Matlacha. - Rusty Chinnis | Sun

No one who lives on the coast of Florida has escaped the fury of a hurricane in one form or another. Here on the Suncoast, we’ve managed to dodge the worst of the damage that these increasingly frequent and powerful storms bring, both to those of us who live here and the unique habitat we treasure.

Now, for the second time in the last two decades, a hurricane (Charley, then Ian) that was predicted to impact us directly devastated an area less than two hours to our south. As we were spared, one of Florida’s most prized angling destinations has been forever altered by what is being called one of the most powerful and damaging storms ever. 

As I ponder the unimaginable tragedy that the inhabitants of this region are living through, my thoughts keep returning to memories of better times, as a boat rises to a plane, Smokehouse Bay’s labyrinth of mangrove-lined channels stretching out in the distance to Matlacha Pass. The feel of the soft southwest Florida breeze in my hair causing me to remove my cap and lift my gaze to the promise of the day ahead. This is how I will forever remember Pine Island, Matlacha, Cayo Costa and the myriad islands that dot Pine Island Sound and Charlotte Harbor. I first visited this area in the early 90s and it instantly became my favorite “travel” destination. Just an hour and a half south of our home waters of Sarasota Bay and Anna Maria Sound, these communities and the waters that surround them were among the finest examples of an “Old Florida” that is quickly disappearing. Located seven miles south of fabled Boca Grande Pass, Matlacha and Pine Island are bookmarked by the aquatic preserves that bear their name and Little Pine Island, an uninhabited, 4,700-acre island. These unique communities still hadn’t been spoiled by development and Matlacha’s streets were lined with quaint, brightly-colored homes, businesses and art galleries. On Pine Island, the communities of St. James City, Bokeelia and Pineland featured only one traffic signal. Conspicuously absent were the shopping malls and high rises that blight much of Florida’s coastal landscape. With a little imagination, anglers could visualize a seascape reminiscent of what the first settlers might have found then. 

While the history of Matlacha spans less than a hundred years, Pine Island’s first documented settlers, the Calusa, are thought to have inhabited the island from approximately 30 AD until just after 1513 when the Spanish conquistador, Ponce de Leon, arrived. Anglers who have fished these rich waters could visualize the clear waters and their vast seagrass beds as the Calusa might have. Even these first settlers experienced devastating storms, as is evidenced by artifacts found on their mounds in Pineland, which is the site of a museum and interpretive center. While there is a history of destructive storms constantly altering the resilient marine landscape, recovery is now impeded by “civilization” that taxes these waters with sewage, agricultural runoff and the thousand other cuts that development has brought in its wake.

This is a cautionary tale reminding us to take care of our habitat and waters so that when they are impacted by a hurricane, they have a better chance at recovery. That’s also why it’s urgent that Island residents and anglers be part of the solution by working with advocacy groups like Suncoast Waterkeeper. You have an opportunity to hear about the work they are doing and support their efforts by attending their annual fundraiser, Brunch For The Bay, at the Bradenton Yacht Club this Saturday, Oct. 15. The continued health of the area we love depends on our commitment to action.