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Cause[way] for celebration: Sanibel Island's new mainland link a boon to anglers.

SINCE it was first conceived nearly half a century ago, the Sanibel Island Causeway has periodically been steeped in controversy. Locals blamed its 1963 completion, and the resultant spoil islands, for wiping out a lucrative scallop fishery in Pine Island Sound. The claims were that the design hindered tidal flow from the Gulf of Mexico into the sound and the lower Caloosahatchee River, lowering the salinity upstream from the structure. At the same time, however, the bridges and islands created excellent new fishing opportunities. Pilings provided structure for many fish and the islands offered easily accessible beach shorelines in the middle of the massive Caloosahatchee-Pine Island Sound estuary mouth. The 3-mile-long causeway soon became a magnet for anglers.

The recent redesign and replacement, which lasted more than three years and cost more than $120 million, stirred passions among proponents and opponents alike. Disruption caused by the project proved a major hindrance to anglers--especially shore fishermen--with its attendant access restrictions and the masses of construction personnel and equipment involved. But since its completion in the fall of 2007, the Sanibel Causeway has again become a major draw for anglers, from the first bridge's jumping off point at Punta Rassa on the mainland to the sandy shorelines on both sides of its endpoint, about a mile and a half from Sanibel's east end.

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Depending on the season, shore and wade anglers may encounter many species, including seatrout, redfish, bluefish, snook, pompano, Spanish and king mackerel, tarpon, cobia, sharks, ladyfish, jack crevalle and grouper. The thickets of bridge pilings are also known hangouts for goliath grouper, which must be released.

The combination of bridge structure, deep channels, sandbars, grassflats and occasional rip-rap shoreline provides every kind of marine environment a self-respecting Southwest Florida fish could want. The area produces abundant forage: shrimp, crabs and myriad baitfish. Going on up the food chain, smaller gamefish (and so-called nuisance fish, such as catfish) are fed on by the sharks, tarpon and grouper. The abundant ladyfish (I consider them a gamefish), especially, provide many a meal for larger predators, from trout and snook on up.

The Sanibel Causeway is a favorite Florida fishing destination for Michael Karas, a maritime artist from Okatie, South Carolina. "I can stand in one general spot and catch many species of fish," Karas says. He is also drawn by the fact that "you can have access to many good places without a boat ... No matter which way the wind is blowing you can fish one side or the other ... There's always someplace."

For George Close, a Wisconsin native and Southwest Florida snowbird, the causeway waters, especially near the toll booths, are "usually rather fishy." Close fishes the area often from November to late April. Common catches? Snook, reds, seatrout, ladyfish and pompano.

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For visitors from the mainland, the first spot to check out is actually located before the causeway. For several hundred yards leading up to the causeway toll booths, the south side of the road--McGregor Boulevard--lies only a few feet from the high water line on San Carlos Bay. Drivers may park on the shoulder out of the roadway, but should be careful of soft sand.

The so-called toll booth area is a large stretch of grassflats, bars and small channels that is wadeable for several hundred yards out from shore. The bottom varies from silt and muck to firm sand. A large sandbar bordered by a deep channel marks the outer edge. A minor channel also parallels much of this shoreline. The difference in depth is not dramatic--little more than a foot--but it is a good thing to keep in mind when wade fishing the incoming tide, especially in the winter when many of us wear waders because of the cooler water. It's best to confine wading times to the lower end of the tide (outgoing and incoming) to avoid getting cut off from shore by deep water. This is also a popular spot for kayak fishing. In the cooler months the outer channel can produce extraordinary numbers of seatrout, especially on an outgoing tide in the early morning or evening. Pompano, snook and reds are likely on the grassflats or in the inshore channels.

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The first causeway island presents good opportunities on both sides of the road. On the east (the left, heading toward Sanibel) side the bottom is mostly spoil dumpings, with a firm sand and gravel bottom. This area features good chances for bluefish, jacks and Spanish mackerel. On the west, the bottom is firm sand near the main channel. To the south there is gravel and sand close in, with grass and silt bottom in the deeper areas farther out. Rip-rap areas provide shoreline structure that attracts snook and reds on the high end of the tide.

One cautionary note: The deep channels between the causeway islands and between the islands and the Punta Rassa and Sanibel shorelines have powerful currents anytime there is a strong tidal flow. Waders fishing the edges of the channels should be very cautious about getting too close to the dropoffs.

Another thing to be aware of is that these waters hold many sharks, including blacktips, lemon sharks, hammerheads, bonnetheads and bulls. Do not take an unnecessary chance by wading with a stringer of fish. Carry fish you intend to keep to a cooler on shore.

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The best fishing areas on the second causeway island are located on the east side, approximately from the restrooms south and directly across the road on the west side. On the bottom half of the tide it is possible to wade a long way out on spoil dumpings here. Like the first island, the west side has more grass and soft bottom. The waters on the east side can produce good numbers of redfish and, especially in the evenings when there is a westerly breeze, large schools of seatrout and bluefish. Both causeway islands have ample free parking.

The shorelines at the Sanibel end of the causeway are also good fishing areas. There is ample parking on the east side at the Sanibel boat ramp. The parking fee is $2 per hour. Fishing is prohibited within 100 feet of the Sanibel ramp. Both shorelines are firm, sandy beaches sloping off to deep grassy-bottom channels. At certain times of the year it is possible to sight fish for snook in both Dlaces. Seatrout and ladyfish are also often plentiful, especially early and late.

To Sanibel and Back

The Sanibel Causeway is reached by taking Summerlin Road and McGregor Boulevard from Fort Myers. From the Sanibel side, take Causeway Road. There are good restroom facilities on the islands, as well as picnic tables. For info contact the Sanibel Captiva Chamber of Commerce, www.sanibel-captiva. org, (239) 472-1080. The chamber is located at the south end of Causeway Road.

There are two tackle shops on Sanibel that can provide good information, gear and bait: Norm Zeigler's Fly, Bait, and Tackle Shop, 2242 Periwinkle Way, (239) 472-6868, www. normzeiglersflyshop. com; and The Bait Box, 1041 Periwinkle Way, (239) 472-1618, www. thebaitbox.com.

Parking at the Sanibel boat ramp is $2 per hour. Parking at the Punta Rassa boat ramp, on the mainland is $5 per day.--N.Z.

Rigs for Shoreline Action

One of the most popular rigs on the Sanibel Causeway (any coastal causeway, for that matter) is a live shrimp suspended about 18 inches below a popping cork. Anglers who fish shrimp of cutbait on the bottom will pick up a lot more catfish. Free-swimming pinfish and greenbacks are also effective. Frozen threadfin herring sliced diagonally into three of four pieces are one of the most effective cutbaits for reds, seatrout, snook, jacks and bluefish. Ladyfish, mullet, Spanish mackerel and catfish tails, both whole and chunked, work well for sharks and tarpon.

Some locally popular artificials here include Love's Lures (especially white and chartreuse curly tails on red of white jigheads), Johnson Silver Minnows, Krocodiles, Gulp! (in many colors), Cast Champs, Yo-Zuris, D.O.A. Shrimp, Rapalas and many others.

Because most of the areas around the islands are easily wadeable, the causeway is also a first-rate flyfishing area. Top flies include red-and-black or chartreuse-and-white Clouser Minnows, Norm's Crystal Schminnows (tied with monofilament eyes for the shallows and dumbbell eyes for deeper pockets), green-and-white or yellow-and-white Lefty's Deceivers, green or tan Gurglers (especially over the shallow toll-booth grassflats) and white Puglisi-fiber Bay Anchovies. Most fly fishers here use a floating, weight-forward line.--N.Z

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Other FISHY CAUSEWAYS A lot of great fishing takes place alongside the roadways that cross Florida waters.

Some bridges feature walkways for fishermen; others are built near the remainders of old bridges now reserved as fishing piers. Spoil islands, too, function as great fishing destinations, often with room to spread out a picnic of grill.

HERE'S A QUICK SURVEY OF SOME:

OVERSEAS HIGHWAY, Florida Keys: Easily the longest, and arguably the fishiest, causeway in Florida. In particular, the 80-talle stretch between Islamorada and Key West features dozens of accessible bridges and some great shoreline wading. Tarpon, mangrove snapper, grouper, mackerel, bonefish and permit.

RICKENBACKER CAUSEWAY, Miami to Key Biscayne: The stretch of bridge beyond Rosenstiel School is a classic snook and winter shrimping spot. Mackerel and snapper are also caught.

SOUTHERH BLVD. BRIDGE, Palm Beach: Great snook fishing, especially at night.

STUART and JENSEN BEACH causeways, Hutchinson Island: Twin bridges crossing the Indian River Lagoon. Catwalks beneath Jensen bridge; spoil island wading at both sites; high railings on roadside offer limited fishing from above--though east side of Jensen bridge is convenient. Boat ramps and restrooms at each.

WABASSO CAUSEWAY, near Sebastian: County Road 510 crosses the Indian River. Boat ramp here; also plentiful wading for seatrout, redfish and sheepshead.

GEORGE CRADY BRIDGE FISHING PIER Amelia Island: A full-on state park fishing pier, pedestrians only, open 24 hours. What else could you ask for? Super spot for black drum, redfish, seatrout, whiting, flounder and virtually everything else that swims in Northeast Florida. Fee $2 per person.

BRYANT PATTON BRIDGE, Apalachicoia Bay: New causeway was built in 2004, but portions of the old one remain as terrific fishing destinations: two half-mile spans, one on St. George Island, the other on the mainland. October is prime for redfish. We covered the piers in a feature article in our October 2008 issue, "Drumline Days," by Bob Burgess.

FRED HOWARD PARK: Pinellas County Park with a 1-mile causeway, set to reopen fall of 2009, following repairs to the roadway (call 727-943-4081 for updates). Bridges and beaches offer great fishing for seatrout, redfish, sheepshead and others. Westernmost point of the causeway serves as the regulatory boundary for spotted seatrout management on the Florida Gulf Coast: North and west of this point, seatrout season is closed during February; south of there, it's closed November and December. Bag limits also differ: North of the causeway, it's 5 per person; south, it's 4.

SUNSHINE SKYWAY, Tampa Bay: Without doubt the most famously fishable causeway in Florida. The huge, elevated main roadway is off-limits, but sections of the old bridge remain, with great access to every fish that mores in and out of Tampa Bay: kingfish, grouper, tarpon, snook, Spanish mackerel, snapper, and lots more. North and south piers are accessible at $4 per vehicle, plus $4 per adult.
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Author:Zeigler, Norm
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2009
Words:1887
Previous Article:Redfish for all.
Next Article:Moving targets: draw a bead on fall reds and seatrout on the Intracoastal shallows.
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