Multiple species rule at Manasota Key

Kevin Nakada displays a nice snook he caught among the mangroves that line parts of Lemon Bay off Southwest Florida’s Manasota Key.

MANASOTA KEY, Fla. — Under the predawn pitch-black sky, ripples tickling the plastic hulls of our kayaks provided the background sound to rhythmic back-and-forth swishes of the Hobies’ pedal drives. It was easy to pretend we were Navy SEALs, preparing to take out bad guys at oh-dark-thirty.

Instead, Hobie Kayaks’ Kevin Nakada and I were heading towards the Southwest Florida mangroves, where he had said good night the evening before to some overgrown snook—one of the most marvelous gamefish in the world. These silver torpedoes are known for smashing surface lures, jumping high out of the water and going on bulldog runs back into tangled roots.

I was Kevin’s wingman of sorts, reaching around behind me to extinguish the battery-powered anchor light when Kevin turned off his. We both started throwing surface lures, trying to get them as close to the gnarly roots and unforgiving branches of these marine estuary trees without tangling. The warm, moist air was almost cloying, but the excitement and anticipation of a savage surface strike put any discomfort far from notice.

We could hear vicious splashes along this dark treeline, but unfortunately, no big ones charged our lures until the sun had fully risen above the gray cloud cover. In Florida, a gray day is a great day to fish. Not only do the fish bite all day, the clouds spare you from the blazing sun.

I was invited to this press junket sponsored by Hobie along with Charlotte County tourism and the WannaB Inn on Manasota Key. Talk about clean, comfy accommodations — I shared a two-bedroom, two-bathroom cabin with a well-equipped kitchen right on the beach with Doug Olander, editor of Sportfish Magazine.

The inn consisted of a condo complex and several cabins and houses on the narrow spit of land called Manasota Key. One side featured crashing surf on the Gulf of Mexico; the other allowed us to easily launch kayaks into the mangrove-lined estuary that was part of Lemon Bay.

Although our early-morning attack was not fish-filled, we did start catching them after daylight. Kevin battled a jack crevalle that hit his Savage 4Play, a jointed, hard-plastic swimbait he cast up on a flat. I started off with a small gag grouper that hit a Scented Jerk ShadZ from Z-Man, rigged on a weighted hook.

I added a second gag and a hard-fighting sail cat catfish that hit the lure. I also had something nearly yank my spinning rod from my hands, immediately breaking the 20-pound leader. Later that day I landed a small snook and lost two much bigger ones on that lure in the Creole Croaker color, which featured a green top and silvery sides.

Meanwhile Kevin caught another jack, and then added a snook of about 10 pounds. He continued probing mangroves and caught several more smaller snook. That afternoon the current took my kayak near to where Kevin plunked his 4Play lure and a true giant of a snook—estimated about 25 pounds — crashed the plastic plug but didn’t hook up. Talk about exciting!

The coolest part of this trip might have been the many different species available and the ease of figuring out how to catch them, even for a guy (such as me) who rarely gets to fish salt water. We started and ended each day pitching into the mangroves, then spent the middle of the day casting on the shallow flats.

Writers and Hobie staff also caught redfish, speckled trout, a variety of snappers, pompano and some odd species such as the aptly named lizard fish. The area also hosts tarpon, and we saw a couple small ones breeching, although we didn’t hook up. The best time for tarpon is April through August. I bought an annual license that’s good until next October and definitely plan a return trip when thse big silver fish might be around.

We also had the opportunity to check out Hobie’s new 360 Drive available in their Pro Angler kayaks. I used a 14-footer all three days I fished, and this new drive is a mechanical marvel.

The standard Hobie Mirage drive has two flippers inspired by penguin wings that move back and forth in the water, propelling the kayak forward. The 360 Drive has a second handle above the one that controls the rudder. Twist this handle and it pivots the whole drive—you can actually move forwards, backwards and sideways with ease. This made it easy to get to lures that ended up wrapped in the mangrove branches. Ask me how I know.

Outdoors columnist Dave Mull lives in Paw Paw. Write to him at dave.sportfish.mull@gmail.com.