The Anna Maria Island Sun Newspaper

Vol. 10 No. 51 - September 22, 2010

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Late-season tarpon action explodes in Matlacha

From the September 15, 2010 Issue
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Brad Lowman battles a spectacular late-season
tarpon on the west side of Pine Island.

The sun was still under the horizon, and the dock lights cast dim shadows on the Matlacha canal as I arrived at Captain Joe Harley's house and began loading tackle, rods and cameras on his 18-foot homemade skiff. Harley, a musician and guide, grew up fishing the waters around Matlacha and Pine Island. He promised to show me some late season action on tarpon that inhabit the sound and the mangrove flats that ring Charlotte Harbor. Harley had assembled two boats with photographers, guides and top notch fly casters. We would be joined by Brad Lowman, manager of Flint Creek Outfitters in Ruskin and a frequent contributor to Fly Fishing in Saltwaters Magazine. On the second boat, Harley had enlisted his friend and fellow guide, Rich Osgood, photojournalist Sam Root and Scott Swartz, president of the Florida Fly-fishing School, located on nearby Pine Island.

We started on the shallow flats that run from Matlacha to Burnt Store Marina, a collection of thousands of small islands surrounded by verdant sea grass beds, replete with potholes, channels and oyster bars that teem with life. Both boats worked close together so that we could take advantage of opportunities to capture the action. I was the designated photographer in Harley's boat, while Root assumed the duties of videographer. We arrived on the first flat just as the sun was cresting the horizon behind a bank of grey clouds. After both guides had mounted their poling platforms, and Lowman and Swartz had stripped line from their 10-weight outfits, we began to see small tarpon roll to the surface and occasionally crash through schools of mullet that lined a small mangrove island.

Lowman was on his game that morning, making 80-foot pinpoint casts to rolling fish, but it was Swartz that was first to connect. After missing several short strikes, we watched as he set the hook on a 30-pound tarpon that made several acrobatic jumps before finally spitting the hook. Although the light was low, I managed to get several good jump shots while Root videoed the action. Both anglers got several other hits but were unable to get a firm hook up before we ran the myriad mangrove Islands to try shorelines near Burnt Store Marina. Unfortunately, a persistent east wind grew stronger, making the tarpon less likely to roll in the tea-colored water. After trying several other spots we decided to call it a day and concentrate our attention on the next day, which promised a much better weather forecast.

After lunch and a quick catnap in my waterfront room at the Sun and Moon Bed and Breakfast in Matlacha, I was treated to a sunset kayak adventure with proprietor Curt Peer. While the trip was a bit of a departure for a diehard flats angler used to fishing from a motor powered boat, the experience was extremely relaxing and peaceful. Gliding along a mangrove edge while the sun set in the west provided the perfect end to a day in one of my favorite parts of Florida.

The next morning we met at Harley's again with the promise of much better weather. The wind had died and the calm waters of Matlacha Pass were bathed in spectacular colors as the sun crested the horizon. Harley had decided on a shoreline on the east side of Little Pine Island, but passed it by when intuition led him in a different direction. The trip featured a run through Smokehouse Bay and Jug Creek depositing us on the west side of Pine Island. It wasn't long after he cut his engine and mounted the poling platform that the rest of us were convinced he had made the right decision. As far as we could see across the shallow flat, tarpon from 10 to 50 pounds were rolling to the surface in pods. Occasionally, one would tear a large hole in the water as it blasted a ladyfish or mullet. This time Lowman had the hot hand and was fast to a 25-pound tarpon that spent more time out of the water than in it. The acrobatic youngster made more than 15 jumps before we brought it to the boat for pictures and a quick release. For the next two hours, we poled to groups of fish, getting six bites, jumping four tarpon and landing two. It was fast and furious action that gave Root and I multiple opportunities at images and video footage. Osgood also had Swartz on the action, and even though they got a number of hits, the hook ups were hard to come by. When the action slowed, we returned to Jug Creek to cool off with lunch and iced tea at the Lazy Flamingo restaurant, a local favorite.

I had heard about late season tarpon, but had never had the opportunity to experience the action first hand. While tarpon fishing can be hit or miss, even when the fish are on a flat, the sheer excitement and explosive nature of tarpon will keep me coming back. As a consolation, Matlacha and Pine Island Sound provide excellent action on trout, reds, tripletail, snook and other species in the fall.

The action should stay hot until the first cold fronts hit in late October or early November, so take advantage of some of the state's best fishing in one of the most pristine environments you'll encounter. As a bonus, the fishing villages of Matlacha, Bokeelia, and Pineland are a photographer's and kayaker's dream.

Captain Joe Harley, Snooktown Charters 239-443-7412.

The Sun & Moon Inn 239-283-3192, 3962 N.W. Pine Island Rd., Matlacha, FL 33993,

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