Fishing with Captain Joe HarleyFrom the September 16, 2009 Issue
SUN PHOTO/RUSTY CHINNIS
Captain Joe Harley shows a red caught near Bokeelia.
Smokehouse Bay, Two Pines, The Rock Hole, Jug Creek. The names alone convey some of the magic and mystery of Matlacha and Pine Island, situated just south of Charlotte Harbor. Anglers, photographers, kayakers and nature lovers alike will find some of Florida’s most productive and picturesque waters, shallow in depth but deep in tradition and diversity. This past week I had the pleasure of fishing with a new friend, Captain Joe Harley, and reacquainting with one of my favorite destinations, The Sun & Moon Resort in Matlacha.
I had met Harley a few years back when he was working at a now defunct fly shop. When he called to invite me to come down and try fishing for juvenile tarpon and redfish I was quick to accept his offer. The only problem was that it took me a couple of months to finally make the trip happen. Because of some prior commitments, I missed the best of the tarpon bite, but that didn’t keep Harley from showing me some heart-stopping action that I’ll remember for years to come.
I made the trip to Matlacha late one afternoon, leaving time to scout Pine Island and Bokeelia for a future photography shoot. After a cold beer and appetizers at the nearby Tarpon Lodge, I returned to the Sun & Moon for a beautiful sunset from my second story room. Situated right on the water, this unique accommodation has a bird’s eye view of one of the most pristine mangrove forests in Florida.
Harley met me at 6:30 the next morning for the short ride to his boat on a Matlacha canal. Ideally situated just minutes from some of the best fishing in the area, it was a short and scenic ride to the mangrove forests near the southern end of the Burnt Store Bar on the edges of Charlotte Harbor.
The ride through the mangrove channels and lakes was worth the price of admission, and when Harley finally took the boat off plane and mounted the poling platform, it was hard putting the camera down and picking up the fly rod. Unfortunately, the tarpon were not inclined to roll enough to get a good presentation. They were there, but since the water temperature had started to cool from the summer highs just a few weeks earlier, they only showed occasionally.
We stayed with the tarpon for about an hour before Harley elected to run to some other areas to see if they might be more productive. Once again I was treated to a scenic ride as we made our way through the sinuous creeks in Smokehouse Bay and Jug Creek before we rounded the north end of Pine Island and headed south along the shoreline near Pineland. We found the tarpon to be present, but not showing at a number of places along the west side of the Island. However, we did find a large school of redfish as we made our way south. After we determined that the tarpon were not a viable option, we reversed course and began to hunt redfish in the shallow grass flats. Although we were finding scattered redfish in just a couple of feet of water, Harley decided to keep moving in a search for more fish, a decision that would bear fruit at our last stop of the day.
On a shoreline near Bokeelia Harley stopped to work some pot holes. Suddenly in the distance we saw the distinct “humped up” water that marked a school of foraging redfish. Although the school was easy to spot, it was hard to follow as the school dropped into deep holes before showing up over shallow grass. Harley worked hard putting me in the path of the school numerous times in what proved to be a frustrating attempt at getting hooked up. On at least six occasions, I had fish chase the fly, hit it, but fail to stay on the line. Just as quickly as the school appeared, it disappeared as the tide slacked. Harley suggested we take a break and get some gas and a cold drink and return when the tide started back in. I agreed and we stopped at the nearby Pineland Marina for 45 minutes before returning to the flat.
It took us about 35 minutes to find the fish again, but when we did it was one of the most amazing sights I had ever seen. From the west, a school of redfish that must have been 500 strong moved toward us in an apparent feeding frenzy. As the school pushed closer and closer, we watched in awe as pinfish, small pompano and mullet fled in terror as redfish crashed everything in sight, including the deer hair fly that I cast in their path. After hooking and landing several fish that were in the 30-plus-inch range I took to the poling platform while Harley landed a large red.
The school was so aggressive that I made a reference to using a top water popper, and Harley immediately encouraged me to tie one on. I cut off the deer hair fly, quickly tied on a chartreuse popper and waited as Harley positioned me perfectly for a presentation. I waited until the school was 10 feet away and launched a cast right in the middle of the bull reds. It only took one pop for a fish to erupt on the fly and the whole school to explode. It was one of the most exciting presentations I’ve made in 25 years of fly fishing. After that fish, it was high fives and time to return to the dock so Harley could prepare for a gig with his band.
The next morning we were joined by Captain Rick Grassett and Captain Gregg McKee and once again got the cold shoulder from the tarpon. Even though we were fishing only half a day and the tide was high and against us, Harley was able to find the school of redfish and get one for Grassett. I assumed photographic duties that day thanks to McKee’s help.
If you haven’t experienced Matlacha and Pine Island you owe it to yourself to see one of Florida’s treasures. Harley knows the area intimately and is the perfect guide. For accommodations Curt and the crew at the Sun & Moon make a special place even more memorable.
When You Go:
Captain Joe Harley: Snooktown Charters- 239-443-7412
The Sun & Moon: www.sunandmoon.net (239) 283-3192