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10
Sep

Trip 6: A Day at Delnor Wiggins Pass State Park

Written by Ryan S.

Another swing, another homerun. I’m fully aware that one of these days, we’re going to set out to do something for Do Florida Right and our luck is going to run dry. The truck won’t start, it’s going to pour rain the whole time, our canoe is going to straight up sink in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico (why it’ll be out there I’m not sure). Our sun up to sundown trip to Delnor Wiggins Pass State Park was not that day, however, it was just another in a ever growing list of days that I will fondly recall when I am an old man of 84 laying in a hospital bed. From start to finish, it was another day that leaves you wondering, “how in the world did I get so lucky?” Maybe we are on the right side of karma because of our positive chi that we stockpile during the week. Maybe we really are just that lucky. Maybe the universe just likes to reward people who get off their ass and try to make their day great.  Either way, this day at Wiggins Pass firmly cemented the park as my favorite beach after years of leading the pack.

 

Wiggins Pass holds a special place in my heart, and not just because of its otherworldy beauty. It is also one of the first beaches that we ever went in Naples. I was married at a spot just inside the pass. My wedding photos were at least attempted there. I even proposed to my wife there right on the beach in front of parking area 3. It’s no mistake that all of these major events in my life took place there. The park is widely recognized as one of the best beaches in Florida and frequently gets a nod as one of the nation’s top beaches. The noteworthy beach is only a small part of the allure. There are miles of scenic beachfront trails, dozens of shady picnic areas nestled parallel to the beach that are each unique yet postcard worthy, and the pass naturally draws a tremendous variety of wildlife. Despite all of this, the beach is rarely crowded, especially compared to any typical beach from Miami to Cape Cod on any given day in the summer. Holiday weekends and beautiful weekends during February through April may be exceptions to that rule, when sometimes there will be a line of 50 cars waiting to get in to stake their claim at 8am when the park opens.

Our day began way earlier than either of us were ready for on a Saturday. Around sun up, we woke up with the goal of being at the park for the opening of the gates at 8am. Being on Florida time, we arrived at our destination just before 9 after getting lost in Wal Mart picking up some gear for the day for over an hour. We were slightly worried that someone would have stolen our secret spot, a not-so-secret spot up at the north of end of parking area 5. This northernmost beachfront picnic area is set under some large tangled sea grapes that provides seclusion and shade for the whole day. It can accommodate a large group of people, as I found at on my 25th birthday with a memorable barbeque day. We brought a mountain of gear that included fishing poles, coolers, grilling equipment, beach stuff, a canoe, and high hopes.

After unloading all of that stuff, we brought our fishing gear and high hopes down to the pass where we scoped out a good spot. We saw a knowledgeable old timer posted up outside the pass and a number of other people fishing the inside, but after scanning the water for a minute we found the perfect spot. A shallow sandbar that extended 50 yards off shore from the south side of the pass was looking particularly fishy, so we set up on the beach leaving nothing but shallow water in front of us. Ryan Y began setting us up for live bait and I set out with a small 5 foot cast net to complete the other half of the equation. The size of the cast net isn’t that important to the story, except for on the first throw when the net got a bit tangled and only opened half way, I still caught nearly 30 perfect palm sized greenbacks. Snook candy. It’s going to be a good day. That throw turned out to be the worst throw of the day, with every subsequent throw netting 100+ baits. Because we only had a non-aerated 5 gallon bucket, we could only support about 20 baits at a time, and even then we had to keep changing the water. We threw back 95% of the bait we caught that day which drove the birds absolutely nuts, and that’s after providing bait for half the beach fisherman that day. With bait a non-issue, we began fishing. The thick school of bait swimming around in crystal clear foot deep water provided a spectacular display, especially when schools of snook rolled through corralling the bait into Rorschach like shapes.  The snook were easy to spot from a distance as well, because the dark shadows caused by the bait had perfect circles of sandy bottom spread throughout them. And at the center of each circle? Florida’s most prized gamefish—the snook. The snook moved through the school of bait as hundreds of silvery fish darted left and right in unison to avoid becoming breakfast, looking more like a single organism than hundreds of thousands of individuals. With the abundance of meal offerings, it took a little while before the snook found the one swimming funny with the stylish hook in its lip, but they did eventually find them. Throughout the morning, we caught around a dozen snook, most in the 18 inch range, and none getting significantly larger than 20 inches; far from the slot keeper size of 28 to 33 inches. We saw a few behemoths swim through and we placed offerings conveniently a few feet in front of their noses, but they didn’t get to be 40” long by acting like their impetuous youth and voraciously attacking everything that fell in front of them. While we would have loved to have caught a snook for lunch that fell in that impossibly small 5 inch range, all of the 30 inchers stayed cautiously away.

A dozen snook of any size by noon is a fun day by most any standard, but by far the most rewarding part of the morning came around 10:30 when a young father and daughter came walking by. We asked how they fared, which from the body language of the little girl, not so good. We offered up some of our bait and pointed to the snook swimming all over the sandbar, and although it took a little convincing from dad to daughter, before too long they were rigged up with snook swimming all around the bait. After about 15 minutes and a nice conversation with the guy who had just moved back to Naples from Chicago after growing up just down the road, my line starts screaming. I ran toward my rod which was staked in a pvc holder, and the little 8 year old girl nearly beat me there (has it been that long since I retired from rugby?). I grabbed the fishing pole, reeled a few times to make sure the hook was set, and handed the rod off to the 4 ft tall expert to land her first snook. She did a masterful job keeping the rod tip up, and the monsterous 15” snook was flopping around on the beach in no time. Dad was grinning, the little girl was smiling, and I was beaming like an idiot as I lipped the fish and gave it to the pair. We snapped a few pictures on dad’s phone, and the pair grabbed their gear to head back with the little girl asking for reassurance that they wouldn’t be late to the birthday party. 

With our success, people began fishing closer and closer to us—normally something that is generally frowned upon, but when you are fishing a few hundred yards of beach with 20 other people, there’s bound to be some nearby neighbors. Plus, we didn’t mind. In fact, a delightfully polite and nosy 10 year old boy asked what we were using for bait, and in no time he was using our bait to connect on his first snook of the day, one that I’m pretty sure was bigger than any we caught. A young couple with small kids next to us couldn’t resist the offer of free snook candy, and they too dragged a few snook on to the beach. We even had random passers-by catching fish, with a curious recent Floridian of a month stepping into to help out when my line got slammed as I was unhooking another snook. I encouraged him to grab the rod before the fish got off, and he landed the snook in short order giving me the rare opportunity to have two live snook attached to either thumb—my first such double header. Around 12:30, we had to leave the fish biting, but we refilled the bait bucket one more time and left it behind so that our new friends could continue their success.

Our next stop of the day was at a little known hard-bottom reef down by the south end of parking area 2 inside the park. Our first trip out there was an ardous one. Rven though the reef is only 50 meters off shore in 10 feet of water, we forgot our fins and my snorkel and mask in the truck which my wife had just borrowed. We made the reconnaissance trip regardless, and scoped out a decent area to explore. Within 30 minutes, Hilary had returned, and two close friends, Mike and Lisa, had also arrived. Mike joined us for our snorkeling adventure while the girls headed back to our base camp at parking area 5 to guard against a surprise pirate attack. And tan.  We swam out again, this time with the proper gear, and chased some sheepshead, grunt, small reef fish, and even a sea robin around through a stringy white substance I’m praying wasn’t fish sperm or a deadly amoeba. I suppose given the choice between the two, the fish sperm would be the lesser of the evils. I’m still here typing and I’m not pregnant (is that how it works?), so presumably it was neither. Around the time we got out there, darker clouds began circling, drastically reducing the visibility. We still managed a few good shots as the sun poked through, but eventually the declining visibility drove us out.

As we drove back to our base camp, those impending clouds became more and more ominous. By the time we returned, rain was a foregone conclusion. Regardless, we raced to the beach to try to catch some snook trying to fatten up before the storm. By then the tide had switched, and the fishing can be inconsistent at best as the barometer is sliding due to inclement weather. We had little success, and we could see that we were definitely about to get unloaded on from on high. Mike and Lisa took one look at the sky and decided they’d be on their way. We decided to rough it out, opting to wait it out in the car if it became necessary. We watched dark clouds, rain, and lightning envelop us from the north, south, and west. But then the strangest thing happened. As we ran for cover and hid amongst the sea grapes, the clouds stopped. Then they switched directions. In fact, we never really even got a drop of rain, even though we watched vicious lightning accosting the beach 2 miles to our north. Torrential rains saturated the beaches to our south. But for some reason, we never got as much as a splash.

Eventually, some of the clouds dissipated and others headed offshore, all the while we waited patiently for the sun and for Jeanine, Ryan Y’s very own pretty lady. When she arrived it was already late afternoon, and the 4 of us now sat around planning our next moves. The sad realization set in that we would have to cook the food we bought, as the manly men had failed on our mission to catch a dinner sized snook. Oh well. Adobo seasoned chicken thighs and spinach asiago sausages were a suitable substitute. Unfortunately, the fire starter we brought for the grill didn’t work like we’d expected, and the coals took a bit longer than expected to heat up. After a bit of waiting, Ryan and I decided we were going to do a quick paddle through the ripping current to the other side of the pass. The ladies took charge of the food, and we packed down the canoe with our rods, bucket, cast net, and a tackle bag.

Making it across the pass was not an easy task, but we planned it well and let the current push us straight onto the sandbar on the north side of the pass. This sandbar was not nearly as thick with bait. In fact, after a cursory search, the only bait on the north side that we saw birds attacking was a school of very small glass minnows. After some searching, I spotted a small school of finger mullet and set the net down on top of them. This yielded us about 10 good baits, which was fine considering the sun was setting, the food was cooking, and we were committed to a quick trip. A finger mullet went out attached to my line right on the edge of the sandbar, and in less than 20 seconds my rod was doubled over. The big shouldered bruiser started making short runs around on the sandbar while Ryan Y ran for the camera which was running the whole time. I muscled the fish to the shallows where we got our first look at our dinner; a beautiful 21” redfish. That first cast was the only one that brought in a fish, but couldn’t even be considered the highlight of the quick canoe trip. That honor has to go to the spectacular show that the sun afforded us as it dipped and ducked behind the massive storm clouds far off in the horizon. The pictures hardly do justice to the real thing—but they are pretty awesome in their own right.

Before too long, we paddled back with our prize to eat our already prepared chicken and sausage. We ate quick as daylight left us and twilight barged in. We had a ton of gear to get back to the truck, so we made haste as the rest of the beachgoers followed suit. A patient park ranger watched as we loaded our mountain of gear up into the truck. Just before the final shreds of daylight faded into the distant horizon, we were on our way out of the park gates that we had entered more than 11 hours ago. This would have been plenty for a great day, but there was one more surprise in store.

It’s good to know people. It just so happened that a good friend of ours is a world class chef with 5 Michelin stars under his belt, and he happened to be passing by our house on his way home from work. Being from the other side of the pond, Liam had never cleaned  or cooked a redfish before. We promised him a snook, but this was a good consolation prize. Liam brought with him his entire arsenal of chef stuff, including several knives forged deep in the caldera of an ancient Japanese volcano. Or something. He also brought his own basting spoon, which is good because ours were insufficient. Whatever the case, we were treated to a show as we filmed Liam slicing up this redfish into two nearly perfect fillets. The encore performance was a masterpiece consisting nothing more than some hot oil, salt, butter, and a redfish fillet.  Ryan Y tried his hand at this classic (French?) preparation, and actually knocked it out of the park despite some harsh criticism from his mentor. I’ve prepared redfish before, but this preparation was infinitely better than my best effort to date. It was no exaggeration to say that it was one of the better pieces of fish I’ve ever eaten, made all the better by the fact that we had caught it merely 2 hours prior to cap another stellar day.

 

The closing thoughts to this day will be brief: We are lucky. Every day that we are in Florida is an opportunity to go do something amazing. Whether you are here for a weekend or a lifetime, don’t forget to keep your eyes peeled, get yourself out there, and as always, do Florida right. 

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