Sports

Fishing the Estero River in southwest Florida by kayak a serene experience

We hadn’t kayaked very far up the Estero River when the noise from Tamiami Trail disappeared.

Surrounded on both sides of the steeply banked river by ancient oak trees, the rumbling of cars and trucks was replaced by the splashes of jumping mullet and the live shiners that we cast under overhanging branches and adjacent to fallen limbs.

It seemed that this is what the river must’ve looked and sounded like long before the first Spanish explorers came to southwest Florida. And that is why Capt. Justin Stuller, the manager of Estero River Outfitters, still loves exploring the river that he grew up on, whether he’s fishing from or simply paddling a kayak or canoe.

Not all of the Estero is untouched by humans, as there are scattered homes and docks and a few bridges along the upper part, and some housing developments along the saltwater stretches as the river winds its way west into Estero Bay, which has access to the Gulf of Mexico through Big Carlos Pass at the southern end of Fort Myers Beach.

We launched our kayaks at Stuller’s family run business ( www.esteroriveroutfitters.com), which was started by his parents in 1977 where the Estero River flows under Tamiami Trail. Stuller, his brothers and their wives offer dozens of rental kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards as well as new paddle craft and accessories for sale. There’s also a tackle store featuring rods and reels, saltwater and freshwater lures, and live bait such as shiners, worms, pinfish, crabs and shrimp.

The river is brackish where we put in, and Stuller, who in addition to guiding kayak anglers also offers inshore and offshore trips in his bay boat, said we’d probably catch largemouth bass and possibly some snook.

I was fishing with Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau communications manager Ray Sarracino and Glenn Sapir, who was an outdoors magazine editor in New York before handling publications for the National Shooting Sports Foundation in Connecticut. Sapir and his wife, Nancy, were in nearby Bonita Springs for a few weeks so I jumped at the opportunity to fish with my longtime outdoors writer friend and mentor.

Stuller put us in some of his rental Hobie MirageDrive kayaks, which are pedaled instead of paddled. Having our hands free made fishing much easier and more productive with Stuller’s light spinning rods spooled with braided line and monofilament leaders.

As we pedaled up river, we’d stop to cast our shiners or troll them past likely ambush spots. All of the river looks fishable, although Stuller would often tell us to cast to a specific spot where he knows fish usually hang out.

“You get little limestone springs all around,” Stuller said, stopping in the middle of the narrow river. “If you look along the bank behind me, that’s a big chunk of limestone there. And two, three feet under the water, there’s probably a big ledge that hangs out under that big oak tree. That gives a lot of structure for the fish to sit under.”

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Sarracino was the first to connect with a bass, reeling the fish alongside his kayak where Stuller was waiting to remove the hook before handing the bass back to Sarracino so he could release it.

Then Sapir, who’d had a couple of bites from bass and gar, connected with a hefty largemouth that took him into some sunken timber. Sapir patiently kept pressure on the fish, which eventually swam out from the potential snag, allowing Sapir to quickly reel it to the surface and land it before the bass had a chance to change its mind.

I had a few bites from gar, a prehistoric fish with a long, pointed tooth-filled mouth. I’d feel the hit and start to reel, only to have the gar rip the shiner off the hook. After those misses, I quickly set the hook on the next bite and reeled up the head of my shiner.

As the four of us conversed while pedaling and fishing along the river, and made room for paddlers in rental kayaks, Stuller pointed out another spot that usually produced fish. I cast over, felt something slam my shiner and reeled in a fat largemouth.

That fish was later followed by a gar that I managed to hook in the tip of its toothy mouth. I let Stuller carefully unhook the fish with his pliers and send it back to its home in a peaceful river that has withstood the ever-changing landscape all around it.

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