There may be somewhere in Florida where there are more snook per square foot than at Captiva Island, but if so I've not visited there. Captiva was where I learned to catch snook, back in the days when the most effective tactic known was drifting Redfish Pass with a live pinfish just off bottom — and that method did produce some monsters in its day.
These days, the sardine age has arrived, and most guides and expert anglers depend on finding snook shallow along the edge of the vast flats of Pine Island Sound or along the strikingly beautiful beaches here and getting them into a biting mood by chumming with scaled sardines, a flat-sided, silvery baitfish that seems to be snook candy.
One morning on a recent visit, I strolled out on the fishing dock at South Seas Island Resort and was greeted by not dozens but hundreds of fish, stacked like cordwood under the span and all around it. And as if on signal, when a big school of glass minnows rode the incoming tide past the dock, all those fish went bonkers; the water turned white, and snook were doing headstands in the air all over the shoreline.
These were not the giants I found later in a swash hole along the beach — most were 3 to 4 pounds — but it's a great sign that the future of snooking is bright here despite the 2010 freeze.
Of course, if you're not looking for snook you can always take a kayak or a flats boat and ease along the beach, where plenty of rolling tarpon will greet you from May through September — they particularly like to hang around the break line where the darker water from the sound meets the clear water of the Gulf — and so do Spanish mackerel, ladyfish, jacks and blues among other species.
On the inside, places like Rock Channel are famed as trout holes, and Pine Island trout are often big, lanky yellowmouths. There are also lots of potholes around the many mangrove islands here, all of them likely stops for snook — and for redfish as summer turns to fall.
In short, it's gamefish central, and the islands — Captiva on the north, Sanibel on the south, and Blind Pass dividing them — are one of Florida's greatest treasures.
Ding Daring National Wildlife Refuge, on the Sanibel end, offers a look at Florida the way it used to be, with gators, deer and an amazing variety of birds including roseate spoonbills, which look sort of like miniature pink flamingoes.
Of course, you don't need to go to the refuge to see every variety of shorebird Florida has to offer — the abundant fish populations and healthy supply of crustaceans and other beach critters provide a continuing feast for the waders; they are perhaps more abundant and less wild here than anywhere in the state, making it a bird-watchers paradise.
If you're a beach person, the beaches here are some of the prettiest in the state, with a very gentle shelf that makes them great for kids — and for those nervous about some of the larger sea critters in deeper water. They also have the unique distinction of being near the top world-wide for those who love to collect sea shells — some 400 varieties have been found here, along with the occasional fossil manatee bone or horse tooth. In many places, the stacks of shells are 2 feet deep.
There are also world-class resorts on both islands. Perhaps the crown jewel is South Seas Island Resort, which has just undergone a $140 million makeover. The resort covers the entire northern tip of Captiva, stretching some 2 miles up to Redfish Pass.
On the west side is the beach, on the east side Pine Island Sound, and in between every imaginable sort of accommodation from 5,000-square-foot beach houses to one-bedroom condos, every one of them an easy walk to the beach. The resort was devastated by Hurricane Charley and was out of business for more than a year. But the restoration gave the new owners a chance for refocus as well as rebuild.
"We went from being a luxury resort mostly for couples to a family-friendly place where kids will want to come year after year," marketing manager Daniel Smock said. "We've got mini golf, kayaks, a swimming attraction with slides, nature trails, day care and a lot more, and many added activities that are supervised, allowing parents to drop off their kids and spend a little time on their own, as well."
Oh, yeah — kids eat free in summer. That's a big mistake if my grandkids show up, but that's the deal.
And that dock with all the snook? It's right out front where the pass meets the sound, and you don't need a license to fish there because it's covered by a dock permit. Take plenty of tackle.