ESPN Outdoors Saltwater Christmas features the "must do" saltwater fishing excursions along the coasts of the United States. Between now and year's end, we'll present a bucket list of fishing trips any angler would love to receive.
Floridians rarely see snow for Christmas, but the beautiful white sands of Fort De Soto's North Beach more than merit the top rankings this area consistently receives. Bolstering this ambient attraction is a multiplicity of angling opportunity for those who like fishing on foot, in a boat or from piers.
During the Civil War, Mullet Key and neighboring Egmont Key served as Union blockade post tasked with preventing Confederate supplies from entering Tampa Bay. More than 30 years after the War Between the States, Mullet Key gained official military status when the construction of a fort began in November 1898 during the Spanish-American War. Named for Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto, Fort De Soto was dedicated on April 4, 1890.
Serving as a subpost to Egmont Key's Fort Dade, Fort De Soto saw U.S. military presence during WWI and WWII. Ultimately, the fort never fired on an enemy and Pinellas County bought the property in 1948. Dedication as a county park came on May 1, 1963.
In 1978, Fort De Soto's 12-inch mortar battery was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Large stone slabs, the weathered remnants of a 3-inch gun battery destroyed by a 1921 hurricane, break the surf in front of the fort. Markers indicate the original building locations and a Quartermaster Storehouse Museum presents historical summaries. Visitors will also find a tall, narrow monument marking the U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey's mean low benchmark.
A rustic old fort with cannons long retired attracts plenty of visitors, but the Southern Pinellas County destination known as "Fort De Soto" offers one of Florida's most photogenic, family-friendly fishing destinations.
Located just outside the northern boundary of Tampa Bay, a quintet of interconnected coastal islands (See Island Life)
collectively called Fort De Soto blend Old Florida history with pristine Gulf of Mexico beaches, a secluded campground and fantastic fishing. The result is an island escape that thrills tourists and locals year-round.
For angling diversity, you'll be hard-pressed to top Fort De Soto's mix of inshore, coastal and offshore species. Seasons vary the mix, but the combination of leeward backwaters, expansive grass beds and rejuvenating water flow make this a highly dependable location.
So much so, that when I needed a cover shot for my book project with cable TV host Capt. Bill Miller ("Fish Smart Catch More!"), we chose the Fort De Soto area.
It was a chilly February morning and hardly ideal fishing conditions, but our local host, Capt. Rob Gorta, advised us that redfish gather in the deeper troughs behind The Reefs a smattering of mangrove islands just across Bunces Pass off the north end of Fort De Soto's main landmass, Mullet Key.
The low winter tide forced us to stake out the boat and proceed to the sweet spot on foot. True to form, the reds were lying in potholes amid lush sea grass and a nice 26-incher made his mama proud by gracing the book's cover.
"Fort De Soto is probably one of the most consistent places on the north side of Tampa Bay," Miller said. "You have the combination of beautiful grass flats, the mangrove island and a series of channels and all of that is flushed by Tampa Bay and Bunces Pass. It's great habitat with great tidal flushing, plus there's not a lot of development so you don't get that run-off."
Convenience is key at Fort De Soto, as a spacious launch ramp with shower/restroom pavilions (north end of Madelaine Key) provides boaters access to fertile inshore flats and backwaters, as well as coastal and offshore waters (including the Egmont Ship Channel accessing Tampa Bay). Meanwhile, Bay Pier reaches toward the mouth of Tampa Bay and Gulf Pier stretches into the Gulf of Mexico.
Here's a look at local angling opportunities:
The shallows surrounding the Fort De Soto area hold lots of thick, fertile sea grass interspersed with sandy potholes. Work this prime inshore habitat with jigs, soft plastic jerk baits and artificial shrimp for snook, redfish, speckled trout, ladyfish and jack crevalle. Early mornings often yield great topwater action with big "gator" trout.
When high tides flood mangrove edges, fish live pilchards ("whitebait") or threadfin herring ("greenbacks") tight to the cover and get ready to pull a snook away from the line-busting roots. Redfish will gobble live baits, or chunks of freshly cut greenbacks.
During winter's extreme low tides, kayaking or wading to fish gathering in deeper cuts and depressions can present a bonanza of opportunity. Likewise, wading the warm summer surf yields tremendous action when snook gather along Gulf beaches to spawn.
Fort De Soto's piers attract a variety of fish including cobia, mangrove snapper, sheepshead, redfish, speckled trout, Spanish mackerel, kingfish and jack crevalle.
Floating or free-lining live shrimp and baitfish (pinfish, greenbacks, whitebait) will tempt many of the more mobile species, while fishing next to the pilings yields snapper and sheepshead. (Both like shrimp, while cut sardines work well on snapper and fiddler crabs or fresh oyster meat charms sheepshead.)
When mackerel follow bait schools near the piers on incoming tides, casting silver spoons on 6-foot fluorocarbon leaders behind 2-ounce weights does the trick.
Pompano will bite keel-weighted yellow, white or pink jigs made by Doc's Goofy Jigs, Silly Willy or Love Lures. You'll also catch pomps by walking the long stretches of beach on either side of the piers.
An effective trick here is to trim the tail off a white or yellow grub, hook it on a 1/16-ounce lead head jig and cast into the surf. No retrieve is needed; just let the natural wave action tumble the lure to resemble a sand flea. Fishing natural or plastic sand fleas on light Carolina rigs is a no-brainer.
Schools of tarpon swim the Egmont Channel on Mullet Key's south side and along the western beach during the summer months. Crabs, greenbacks and pinfish are the top baits. King and Spanish mackerel seekers do well by slow-trolling this area with live baits during spring and fall. Other likelies include cobia, sharks, bonita and big jack crevalle.
From the Fort De Soto boat ramp at the northwest corner of Madelaine Key, Bunces Pass provides direct access to the Gulf of Mexico.
Spring and fall finds dependable kingfish action over reefs and wrecks in 20-plus feet, as well as in the Egmont Channel and southward. Deeper structure farther west offers grouper, snapper and amberjack action.
Keeper grouper also abound in the Egmont Ship Channel running between Mullet Key and Egmont Key. Fishing live pinfish or dead sardines along the rocky edges will produce keeper gags, but trolling large diving plugs or jigs enables you to cover water and find active fish. Just follow the channel's contour with your bottom machine and keep the lures bouncing across the rocky environment.
No doubt, there are many ways to bend a rod in the Fort De Soto area. With such a range of species, you biggest challenge may simply be the decision on what to target. Oh well, life could be worse.
For a look at Fort De Soto's geographic makeup, see Island Life.