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Secret Sanctuaries

Angling opportunity springs fertile in hidden wonderlands

By: David A. Brown,

Seek and ye shall find. That's a good piece of advice for those intrigued by those tiny, tucked-away sanctuaries scattered throughout West Central Florida's mangrove swamps.

From Tampa Bay to Charlotte Harbor, those willing to invest the time and effort may find angling nirvana in one of the hidden spots. From small creeks dead-ending in small pools to bona fide saltwater lagoons, opportunities for secluded fishing exist off the beaten path, yet often surprisingly close to well-traveled fishing lanes. 

Capt. Geoff Page of Venice, Fla., has spent a lot of time exploring these hidden sanctuaries. For initial scouting, he suggests reviewing aerial perspectives. "There are a lot of those little spots that are landlocked except for little tidal creeks," he said. "That's where a satellite map comes in handy.

"You can tell the depth in most of them by the tint of color on the map - darker blue is deeper water rather than the lighter color of sand in shallow spots."

Lacking an overhead perception, anglers can still spot the telltale signs of a potential inner sanctum. Some are natural, some manmade. All may point to something really special.

"Sometimes you just see a little notch in the mangroves - maybe a little pruned path where someone has gone through with hedge clippers to clear the overhanging branches a little to make it easier to pass through," Page said. "Also, on an outgoing tide, you might see a bar built up about 20 yards from the shoreline. It won't be like a (typical) piece of the shoreline, it'll be all by itself out in the open.

"Look around and you'll usually find a little creek that dumps out through the mangroves. Then you have to do the dirty work, put on your wading booties and go crash through the bushes to see what's in there."

Be sure to protect yourself during the expedition. Warm clothing and chest waders help during winter, but warmer months bring hordes of mosquitoes that delight in ambushing adventurous types who forget their insect repellant. 

All access

Because it's difficult to foretell the size of a creek's inner pool - or predict fish location in familiar spots - you may need to fish farther or deeper than you'd care to wade. Given the limited entry space, your best bet is a kayak. Light, sturdy and easy to transport, a sit-on-top model allows for quick mounting and dismounting as needs arise.

"The advantage of taking a kayak is that you can get around in case the spot has soft, mucky bottom," Page observed. "You and a buddy can take a 2-seater and then, if you know the spot is wadable, you can both bail out and walk it. Or one of you can wade, while the other paddles around to find fish."

Often a creek's confines close in so tightly that you'll have to lay your kayak paddle lengthwise along the bow and pull yourself through by gripping the muddy mangrove roots. Some may prefer walking and dragging the kayak behind them, but when the canopy dips low, sitting atop the skinny vessel creates a more compact profile for easier clearance.

Sometimes you'll be heading to a backwater creek that's farther than you'd care to paddle - and certainly farther than you'll want to wade. You'll reduce your trip time by loading your kayak onto the deck of a flats or bay boat, running to your spot and offloading the stealth device for a short approach.

"Kayaks are great for scouting, especially when you run a long way in a bay boat, and the opportunity presents itself to get into a (creek)," Page said. "You may not be able to get in there in a bay boat, but you can strap a kayak right onto your deck and when you get to the spot, you just slide it off and go."

When it's right

Timing matters in creek exploration, but just how much depends on what you want to accomplish.

Page explains: "For your first exploration, you don't want to go on a really low tide because there may not be any fish in there. But if you do go on low tide, that will show you what the bottom is like. If there is water in there on a low tide, you may find fish in there."

Summer sees big water flow that allows fish round-the-clock access to all but the most meager of creek holes. Conversely, winter's extreme lows often push the place bone dry. Deep lagoons will maintain a certain number of fish through the low periods.

High tides don't necessarily close off the creeks; you can still pass. But from an operational standpoint, flood stages decrease your access to the fish by allowing them to push far back under the safety of overhanging foliage.  

A high outgoing tide presents the ideal scenario as the ponds still hold a lot of water, but the fish will be moving away from shoreline structure and into easily reached areas. Top baits include light lead head jigs with shad tails or soft jerkbaits, gold spoons, synthetic shrimp and topwaters.

The thing about these secret sanctuaries is that their seclusion tends to obscure the passage of time. That may be a pleasant thought from a relaxation perspective, but be sure to file a float plan with someone back home. It's not easy to find these spots when you're looking for them, so just imagine how hard it would be for someone to locate you if you were late returning home.

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