Capt. Gary Henderson, Florida

January 24th, 2005

Englewood, Lemon Bay and Stump Pass

By Captain Gary (Flats Dude) Henderson
Pretty scary stuff, if you ask me.

Along about 1528 A. D., Governor Panfilo de Naraez and Cabenza de Vaca, a couple of Spanish discoverers, went about to colonize North America from an earlier discovered harbor by Juan Ponce de León. However, one of our late hurricanes, sounds like to me, got caught up in the mainsail and blew them off course. Instead of arriving at Juan's harbor (what is now known as Charlotte Harbor), they landed five leagues (one league equals 2.6 statute, or legal miles) north on a barrier island, that is now Englewood, Florida. According to the Florida Township survey of 1896, Charlotte Harbor is exactly five leagues (thirteen miles) south of Stump Pass, one of today's premier snook fishing locations.

To further complicate matters, the two Spaniards didn't make the stop in Havana to re-supply the ships with food due to that particular storm that took them into the Gulf of Mexico. Then to make matters worse, they ran into real Florida natives... Indians. They really didn't take too kindly that the Spaniards were about to mess up their fishing, farming and hunting. (All of this journey can be read in a translation by Fanny Bandelier (1905), on a very interesting website I found as I began researching the history of Englewood, Lemon Bay and Stump Pass; three areas I've fished with positive results.) Here is the website.

Sorry, I didn't mean to get off on a history lesson, but the more I read of their misfortunes, the more I began to think back on one of the fishing trips I made to that beautiful place many years ago. I regret that I hadn't read this informative translation prior to the trip. I shall make the trip once again in the near future, and I'm sure the painting I now have stored in my memory will be realized after the eventual trip.

If I recall correctly, it was in the late seventies. I had been invited by an old, fishing friend to come down to Englewood. I remember the seductive words of Dr. Steve Garsey distinctly. "The snook are jumping in the boat!" That didn't take much arm twistin' for me to pack my tackle and join Steve and his family three hours to the southwest on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

I had fished the areas of Pine Island, Bokeelia (Bo-keel-ya), Jug Creek, Matlacha (Mat-la-shay) and Pejuan Cove. Areas that my dad and others had introduced me to, and some I had found on my own. All beautiful and strange, and all south of the area where I was about to meet up with Steve for three days, and mostly nights, of searching out the snook.

Five in the afternoon I arrived just east and north of Englewood. I drove a little slower now as I memorized the area. Quiet streets, old Florida folk waved at each vehicle that passed them as they sat on white-railed, front porches. Laid back, another day in paradise, swaying palms, the smells of the Gulf of Mexico wafted in the western sea breeze. "I should live here one day" I thought to myself. An old bridge that separated the mainland from the barrier island carried me to even narrower roads and slight paths that revealed glimpses, just past the mangroves, of Lemon Bay. The tide was coming in and the smaragdite-colored waters traveled under that bridge and through passes named Blind and Stump, filling the bay with waters from the Gulf. The moon would be full tonight, the spring tide running strong, and the snook would line the mangrove shoreline where long, finger-like docks, each with floodlights, reached out into the darkness of the bay. The snook would be there, waiting to ambush small baits and our plugs.

The sound of pea-gravel under the tires of my Blazer interrupts my daydream as I pull into the driveway of the Angler's Resort. "Very nice," as I looked for Steve's cottage number. Eighteen units sitting on the back-waters of the bay, each looking typically like the old-style Florida homes, only reduced in size.

After exchanging pleasantries, we go over our plan of attack scheduled early the next morning. The tide will change at three am, and we have to be there before the turn. High tide falling is best. The snook will gather under the docks and hide on the leeward side of pilings, then blast the mullet and shrimp that wash past them in the strong current as Lemon Bay washes out into the dark Gulf of Mexico.

Two-thirty finally came as I lay in bed watching the alarm clock. Anticipation was my insomnia, but I rarely sleep before one of these trips. Things to remember, important things not to forget…it was to be a new learning curve this very, early morning.

Steve's little aluminum boat puttered out and across Lemon Bay as the long-fingered docks came up to meet us in the looming fog. I thought how surreal it appeared with the full moon's glow. Nothing seemed to be as it was. Had I really awakened in time for all of this, or was I still lying in the warm bed at the cottage asleep and was only dreaming?

As Steve lowered the small trolling motor into the phosphorescent brine, he explained that I needed to cast my top-water plug past the light and pull it through, taunting the fish. I hadn't much experience in that type of accuracy, especially in the darkness. Several times I hit the lights, hoping not to break them. I cast several plugs on top of docks, snagging the boards and having to break them off. Fifteen or twenty times, then finally, after I had lost several dollars worth of Mirrolures, Creek Chubs and others, a slight amount of accuracy was learned, and I began to aim and hit in the pattern of water where I needed to reach the snook that could be heard crashing and throwing water from underneath the docks.

It sounded like night thunder in the early morning hours. Huge fish in the twenty-pound class nailing anything that went by their hiding places. Then suddenly one smoked the gray and white plug that passed him. Drag ripped from my reel and he was gone as quickly as I had set the hook. I firmly believe the first thing old mama snook teaches her young is a double half-hitch. Steve and I successfully landed three fish that morning. As the orange ball of the sun appeared on eastern horizon, it was time to return home and restock the many plugs that were lost.

At three the next morning, the sights and sounds were the same, but we went past the docks and on to Stump Pass to drift live, pig fish along the currents of the outgoing tide. We beached the skiff sideways. A full moon was directly above us illuminating the ribbon of white sand. The fog failed to cloak us, revealing a sky of ebony littered with a million stars. Back to the west and far over the gulf, a thunderhead towered in the darkness, lit externally by a ghost-white moon, then flashed sporadically by bolts of lightning that scattered from points high in the faraway storm.

A boat's engine was heard in the distance, and then came to rest on the point of the pass several hundred feet north of us. A few minutes pass and the dark shadow of a man walks behind us lit only by the overhead moon.


The next sound we heard was the scream of the drag from his bait-caster and the splashing, head-shake of a rather large snook exploded through film of the water. He walked past us again, returning to his boat to ice down the twenty-pound snook. Then again, with only one cast for each fish. I had a flashlight ready to reveal his lure of choice and when I lit it, he had secretly cupped it in his hand exposing it to no one. Back then, the limit on snook was four fish per person. On his fourth fish, he stopped and said, "I will only tell you guys that the lure is red and white." That's all that was said, then he puttered away. Later on that morning, Steve and I bought every style and brand of red and white, top-water lures in Englewood and surrounding areas.

The drive down there had taken three hours and the three days that I was there seemed to pass quicker than the drive. But it was Sunday and I had to return to the inner core of the State and leave Steve to another week of listening to "night thunder."

When I return to Lemon Bay and Stump Pass in the near future, I want to walk those areas on the beaches where it all started. I want to examine the site where the Native Americans of Florida once left footprints on that very sand where they harvested the once abundant fishes and clams. I want to listen to the waters and mangroves tell the story, if it will.

See y'all next week. ~ Capt. Gary

About Gary:

Gary grew up in central Florida and spent much of his youth fishing the lakes that dot the area. After moving a little closer to the coast, his interests changed from fresh to salt. Gary still visits his "roots" in the "lake behind the house."

He obtained his captain's license in the early '90's and fished the blue waters of the Atlantic for a little over twelve years. His interests in the beautiful shallow water flats in and around the famous Mosquito Lagoon came around twenty-five years ago. Even though Captain Gary doesn't professionally guide anymore, his respect of the waters will ever be present.

Gary began fly fishing and tying mostly saltwater patterns in the early '90's and has participated as a demo fly tier for the Federation of Fly Fishers on numerous occasions. He is a private fly casting and tying instructor and stained glass artist, creating mostly saltwater game fish in glass.

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