Fort De Soto is not only known for its award-winning beaches but also its blockbuster fishing.
By Terry Tomalin
When going through your checklist of great places to cast a line, Fort De Soto fishing has it all: easy access, good facilities, clean water and most important, hungry fish.
You won’t find a more family-friendly fishing destination in Florida, and with both shallow- and deep-water species to choose from, both the novice and experienced angler will find fishing challenging, yet rewarding.
The Gulf Pier
The Gulf Pier, the longest (more than 1,000 feet) of Fort De Soto’s two structures, is closer to the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico, hence its name. There is also a strong current, or tide, flowing through the pier, which means plenty of bait are moving around to keep the fish interested.
The shop at the entrance of the pier sells frozen bait, tackle, food and drinks, and it’s open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Budget conscious fishing families will find this pier their best choice – plenty of room and shelter from the sun – especially if they bring tackle and refreshments from home.
Because the pier has open-water access, anglers may catch everything from sheepshead to sharks. This is also the best place to see a dolphin. You’re likely to see one or two of these marine mammals cruise by in search of mullet.
The Bay Pier
The Bay Pier is shorter (500 feet) than the Gulf Pier, but it’s every bit as attractive to anglers. Because it is located closer to the sheltered waters of Tampa Bay, there is less current, which allows anglers to use lighter tackle and target the more common, inshore species like trout, redfish and snook.
Typical catches include Spanish mackerel, ladyfish, pompano, permit and even the occasional tarpon. While artificial lures (jigs, spoons and hard-bodied plugs) can be used, as usual, live bait is still the best choice.
Some anglers cast net for bait off the bridge, but this isn’t easy. A better choice is to bring along a weighted, gold-hook “Sabiki” rig, jig up your own bait while enjoying Fort De Soto fishing and “match the hatch.”
As with the Gulf Pier, spring and fall are the best times to fish. But the summer is good as well, and anglers fish all through the winter months as weather permits.
The top three inshore species – spotted sea trout, snook and redfish – all spend at least some part of their lives in the estuarine waters found on the back side of Fort De Soto. The sea grass beds, oyster bars and mangrove islands are prime fishing areas on the West Coast of Florida, and as an added benefit, you don’t have to have a boat to enjoy them.
All you need is an old pair of sneakers, a spinning rod and a bucket of shrimp to get started. Most anglers use light line – 8- to 12-pound test – a relatively small hook and a float to mark their bait.
Fish tend to congregate in the deep pockets or along the edges of channels where they find it easier to ambush prey. If possible, scope out the area you plan to fish at low tide and look for any unseen obstacles, then return and fish when the water is higher.
Fort De Soto is also a hotbed for kayak anglers. The light, maneuverable, plastic watercraft will take you into the shallow areas where powerboats dare not go. Sit-on-top kayaks are the ideal Fort De Soto fishing craft because they are easily transportable (they fit on most car roofs) and can be launched from virtually anywhere.
Most kayak fishermen carry two or three rods so they can fish with different artificial baits without having to stop and tie on a new lure.
For example, have one rod rigged with a top-water plug to cast around the mangrove roots for snook. Have another rod equipped with a soft-bodied jig to fish the grass beds for spotted sea trout. And finally, have a third rod ready to go with a gold spook to work the oyster bars for redfish.
If you don’t have your own kayak, rentals are available at the park. These user-friendly boats are available at Topwater Kayak Rentals (as you approach the island, turn right at the ranger station and the kayak rentals will be on the right). You’ll be up and paddling in minutes.
Fort De Soto Fishing: What You’ll Catch
Every spring and fall, anglers flock to the waters around Fort De Soto for the annual Spanish mackerel migration. These feisty fighters are literally caught by the dozens by even inexperienced anglers.
These “Spannies,” as they are called by local anglers, have sharp teeth and will slice through the light monofilament line that most anglers use like kite string. So to avoid getting cut off, increase the strength of your outfit by using 12 to 24 inches of heavier line as a leader.
A good rule of thumb: Double the weight of the line. For example, if you are fishing with 10-pound test, use a 20-pound test leader.
Don’t be surprised if you hook the Spanish mackerel’s larger cousin, the king mackerel, while you are fishing. The two species tend to run together.
Both fish will hit live or artificial baits. A lure favored by many mackerel fishermen is a simple silver spoon, available at most mom-and-pop bait shops. Buy several, for chances are you will lose a few before the day is out.
While You're There
Stephen Leatherman, aka Dr. Beach, picked Fort De Soto as America’s Best Beach in 2005 and America’s Top Beach in 2008 and 2009 by TripAdvisor for several reasons -- sure, it has three miles of unspoiled sand and water, but it also has enough recreational options to keep the whole family satisfied.
Besides the twin fishing piers, Fort De Soto also has an 800-foot boat launching facility with 11 floating docks. Located nearby is a 238-site, full-service camping area with water, electricity, restrooms, showers, washers, dryers, play grounds and a camp store.
Fort De Soto Park also has a 7-mile, 12-foot wide asphalt recreation trail for bikers and inline skaters that connects the campground with the north and east beach swim centers and the historic fort. Birders and hikers will enjoy miles of nature trails, and a new 2.25-mile canoe/kayak trail offers a rare glimpse into the world of a mangrove estuary.
Odds & Ends
Fort De Soto requires all fishermen to have a saltwater fishing license. Fishing licenses are available at most sporting goods stores or online at myfwc.com/license. You may also purchase a license over the phone at 1-888-FISH-FLORIDA (347-4356). License activation is immediate and permanent license will be mailed with 48 hours.