Reel Time: The miracle of Matlacha

Captain Joe Harley with a baby tarpon caught in Matlacha Pass. - Rusty Chinnis | Sun

Matlacha is a piece of Old Florida that has been spared, in large part, because it isn’t situated on the Gulf of Mexico. That may be important to a lot of snowbirds, but to anglers, it’s situated in one of the most productive estuaries in Florida. Still, weather can play a critical part in an angler’s success, and that was the case as a warm Indian summer had dissolved into a sudden cold front. Fortunately, Captain Joe Harley had encountered these conditions before and only had to access his memory bank from years past to come up with a plan.

After a long search, Harley spotted a large concentration of mullet on a flat near Deer Stop Key. He looks for the mullet because he knows that redfish usually accompany them. Rick Hess, who’s fly had for the most part gone unmolested during our morning search for fish, was the first to notice the swirl and nervous water that often indicate the presence of redfish. Making a cast to the area, he hooked a red that quickly took him into his backing. Hess was fishing a gold spoon fly, an attractor pattern Harley prefers for reds when he’s not sight fishing. After a short but intense fight, we were able to lead the red to the boat for a picture and quick release.

Harley’s favorite patterns when sight fishing include deer hair streamers, clousers and seaducers. Waters in the fall, winter and spring are generally clear enough to sight cast to reds, although that wasn’t the case that first day. At times, schools of mullet and redfish can cloud up the water in the areas where the redfish are prowling for crabs and small fish. Under these conditions, sight fishing can be tough. This is the time to blind cast into the murky water or cast to disturbances or nervous water.

When the first intense cold fronts hit southwest Florida the high winds and temperature drops will shut down the tarpon fishing on the open flats.  Most of the baby tarpon that leave the flats and retire to their winter haunts can be found in deep man-made canals. Fortunately, many of the wintering spots are protected bays and backcountry lakes with muddy bottoms that hold fish through the winter. The large resident tarpon retreat to either the rivers or just deeper waters. Fronts or fall and winter warm spells can provide sight fishing for large laid up tarpon.

Over the two days, we fished conditions that went from extremely challenging to passable and with the years of experience at his disposal, Harley put us on tarpon, redfish and a big snook. These were a couple of days I might have passed on had they not been planned months in advance. As it turned out, Harley transformed lemons into lemonade.

Harley’s skiff was built by a Pine Island native boat builder and lifelong friend. His boat is extremely wide, stable and has a very shallow draft. The design allows Harley to run and fish in waters from Matlacha Pass (including Pine Island, Useppa and Charlotte Harbor) to Boca Grande. Harley can be reached at 239-443-7412.

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