Rob Phelan and his wife, Sue, love their powerboat for weekend daytrips; but when it comes time to wet a line, they slip into their kayaks instead.
“The variety of species and abundance of fish—combined with the kayak giving you the opportunity to get closer to fish than in a boat—make for great times here,” says Rob, a Fort Myers, Florida-based transportation engineer who fished the 2010 Calusa Blueway Kayak Fishing Tournament.
The annual fall tourney, which always takes place the first weekend of November, is among the up-and-coming kayak events for anglers throughout the Southeastern United States, Midwest and Northeast. The 2010 tournament winner earned a fully rigged Hobie Mirage kayak. Others garnered cash prizes and gear.
The event showcases the allure of fishing Florida’s Lee County from a kayak, which is a year-round pastime for locals and a coveted activity of visiting anglers along the 190-mile Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail.
Waters here offer an unrivaled fishing experience, thanks to massive, shallow grass flats, bountiful access and, most importantly, a trophy case of gamefish species anglers worldwide seek.
The passes between Fort Myers and the Gulf of Mexico are home to the largest tarpon migration in the United States. Offshore reefs and the Gulf attract charter fishing and spear fishing enthusiasts—all while surrounded by a huge concentration of protected goliath grouper. The sandy shores and barrier islands offer pier and beach fishing for flounder; the estuaries behind those islands feature crafty snook, redfish and seatrout as well as sought-after cobia, tripletail and those tarpon.
It’s no wonder Field & Stream magazine named the area among the 25 hottest fishing spots in North America. Florida Sportsman magazine called Matlacha, a town on the Calusa Blueway, a top Florida hotspot for kayak fishing. Tournaments happen regularly, many of them for powerboaters, but the Calusa Blueway Kayak Fishing Tournament and its catch-and-release status appeal to tourists and locals who don’t want to impact the environment.
It’s no surprise to Josh Harvel, who fishes—and wins—enough tournaments a year he’s sponsored by Hobie Fishing kayaks. He also guides via his business Yak’in It Up Charters, based in Cape Coral, Florida, and is the volunteer organizer of the Calusa tournament for Lee County Parks and Recreation.
“I like tournaments [for] the competition, but kayak tournaments are more like a family of anglers rather than guys trying to one up each other. I like the camaraderie,” says Harvel. “It feels great to catch fish from a kayak.”
Plan Your Trip
The destination: The Calusa Blueway canoe and kayak trail meanders through Southwest Florida’s Lee County, behind the beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel. It’s on the Gulf Coast, half way between Tampa and Miami, and features natural beaches and vast back bays and tidal areas.
Visitor’s Guide: Get a free guide mailed to you by visiting www.fortmyers-sanibel.com. A partnership between the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau and Lonely Planet, a worldwide travel guide company, ensures the Visitor’s Guide will be super helpful in guiding your kayaking adventure.
Canoe/Kayak Resources: The Calusa Blueway is more than a marked paddling trail. Its free maps and website serve as a resource guide to rentals, outfitters, guides, routes and more. Visit www.calusablueway.com for more information.
Event: The Calusa Blueway Paddling Festival usually takes place the first weekend in November in the heart of Southwest Florida with races, a fishing tournament, on-water instruction, speakers, demonstrations, new-product testing, guided trips, socials and more. For additional details or to learn more, visit www.calusabluewaypaddlingfestival.com.
Kayaking the Calusa
When Cynthia Gilbert meets fellow Midwesterners along Southwest Florida’s shimmering shoreline, she watches them discover what she felt her first time in a kayak: Clear salt water as warm as a bath teeming with wildlife that—from a paddler’s perspective—is literally at bellybutton level.
Dolphins, manatees and otters frolic in protected shallows while shrieking osprey circle overhead and starfish and sponges grace the visible sand-and-grass bottom.
Kayakers and canoeists along these waterways surrounding the famed Sanibel Island and other Fort Myers-area communities easily can traverse through paradise along a paddling trail made for out-of-towners with free maps, an award-winning website, shore-hugging markers and a community that embraces visitors who arrive without boats or prior knowledge.
Paddlecraft, gear, experts and resources are this destination’s specialty—and they offer one of the most affordable blue-water charter experiences in the United States, even during the height of sunny winter when the mercury stay steady in the 70s and 80s and no one even considers owning foul-weather gear.
“They can take a class and go with a guide for the first time out to get local knowledge, which is so important on the water in a new place, and once they have that down, they can go wherever there is water,” says Gilbert, who jokes she has “dual citizenship” as owner/guide/instructor of Chicago Kayak in the Windy City and Kayak Southwest Florida in Bonita Springs, Florida.
Bonita—just southeast of Sanibel—is one of nearly a dozen communities nestled along the Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail, a 190-mile meandering water trail designed to get visitors and locals alike into the more than 230-square-miles of inland waterways Lee County, Florida, offers.
Boaters here consist of sailors, anglers, trawler-lovers, day-tripping powerboaters, windsurfers, standup paddleboarders, personal watercraft fans and, of course, kayakers and canoeists. The Naples-Fort Myers area boasts not only one of the highest boat ownership per capita ratios in the Sunshine State, but also nation-wide, according to registration statistics. With the average water depth only four feet, powerboaters are likely to miss out on Mother Nature’s front-row seating. Paddlers get the best view.
The region is becoming known as a paddlesport hotspot. The annual Calusa Blueway Paddling Festival—most recently held November 3-6, 2010—draws visitors from 18 states, Canada and Germany for guided kayak trips, clinics, races, speakers, demonstrations, fishing tournaments and more activities than you’ve probably thought of (geocaching, anyone?) for kayakers and canoeists.
“For me it’s about the nature, the peace—you get to stop and see what’s going on and get into a whole other world back to nature,” says Theresa Roake, who attends every Calusa Blueway Paddling Festival and also volunteers at the event.
“If you’re looking for the Old Florida experience on the water, kayaking is the answer,” says Roake, who, with husband Steve, summers on a 41-foot boat in the Chicago and Great Lakes area but lives the rest of the year with sailboats and kayaks in Cape Coral, Florida. “You get out in the mangroves, and you forget everything else exists.”
More than two dozen outfitters (kayak-speak for “place to rent your boat and gear”) are set up in Lee County along the Calusa Blueway. Rates and equipment styles are as varied as the experience a kayaker desires. Many are geared towards newcomers to paddlesports.
Brian Houston likens learning to paddle to “going for a walk.” The Captiva Island-based kayak instructor has taken out 8- to 80-year-olds who have enjoyed the water without exerting themselves or feeling overwhelmed.
Manufacturers and outfitters have grown smart about making the sport accessible to newbies as kayaking’s popularity has grown. Boats are lighter and more stable. Paddles are ergonomically correct. Seat backs are as comfortable as easy chairs. Biceps aren’t the focus. When taught properly—and Houston can teach anyone paddling basics in five minutes—your whole body helps propel the boat.
Once someone glides through Pine Island Sound, they find themselves up close with a Discovery Channel-style experience, says Houston, a naturalist, guide and instructor for Adventure Sea Kayaks based at ’Tween Waters Inn on Captiva and also a manufacturer’s representative for Epic Kayaks who does special events nationwide.
“Today it was otters and manatees. Yesterday it was bull sharks in a foot and a half of water, dolphins and more manatees,” he says. “There’s the constant chorus of cicadas and the array of birds.”
There’s also confidence of knowing where you are and feeling safe in waters you may just be visiting.
The Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail’s maps are set up to provide more than nautical knowledge. They offer write ups on where to go, what you’ll see, where you can get out and where you’ll find markers. Mangroves—the primary shoreline tree in these subtropics—clump into islands, offering protection from winter breezes and a maze to navigate.
The trail also serves to unite paddlers and their groups. Local clubs welcome tourists to join them on sunset trips and even overnighters. Many outfitters trailer boats to launch sites to rent to tourists who want to tag along.
“People are very friendly here, with a number of clubs welcoming people to come along,” says Roake, whose husband gave her a kayak for Christmas six years ago and who belongs to several clubs now.
The resources outfitters provide, plus the trail itself and the atmosphere of welcoming paddlers, all combine to make the Sanibel-Fort Myers area a headliner for anyone looking to experience canoeing and kayaking along the Gulf of Mexico, says Nancy MacPhee, a Fort Myers-based regional director with the Florida Paddling Trails Association.
“The FPTA enjoys the heightened awareness the Calusa Blueway Paddling Festival provides. The Calusa Blueway serves as a model to other communities because it’s such a successful paddling trail. And it’s so easy for visitors to come enjoy.”