The Intracoastal Waterway, or ICW as we often informally call it, is a channel that allows boats to navigate in calmer and safer inshore waters. The ICW runs for about 3,000 miles, from Boston to south Texas. The section I’m talking about today is much shorter: From Lemon Bay to Boca Grande Pass.
The minimum depth of the ICW is supposed to be 12 feet, though reality suggests that isn’t always the case in our area. However, since many of the local areas the channel runs through used to be only a couple feet deep (or less), creating the ICW required significant dredging through our naturally shallow estuary.
The changes in water flow caused many other things to change, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about. I’ll leave that for Capt. Van to dig into some other day. What I want to discuss is why you might want to fish the ICW, and how to do so successfully.
There are two reasons the ICW is attractive to fish. The first is water depth. As I and the other WaterLine writers may have mentioned before, fish often seek out deeper water when it gets chilly. Deeper water holds a little more heat because water is a great insulator. When the flats drop to 55 degrees on a 45-degree night, the ICW channel might stay above 60. That’s a huge difference when you depend on your environment to regulate your temperature.
The second reason fish hang out in the ICW is structure. Mostly we’re talking about bridges and docks, but the dropoff of the channel itself can be a draw as well. I’m assuming you already know why fish like structure, so for now we’ll just say there’s lots of it here — and that’s a good thing, from a fishing perspective.
In addition to lots of fish, there’s lots of boat traffic. After all, the ICW wasn’t meant to be a fishing honeyhole. It was meant to be a highway on the sea. Pay attention to that, and always be aware of what’s coming up next.
This is like parking along the interstate, so don’t get upset when other boats come past you. Especially in a smaller boat, this might make it tough to stay in position tough due to wakes from other boats. But don’t yell, and don’t get upset. Just look for a quieter spot.
Most of the time, we’re fishing from a drifting boat. Controlling your drift is important, so don’t just kill the motor. You need to be able to move quickly, just in case. Wind and tide will sometimes push you where you don’t want to be. If that’s the case, those fancy GPS-enabled trolling motors that will lock you on a spot are very handy.
Don’t have one? An old-fashioned anchor will work to hold you in place, but if you’re hooking to the bottom, be sure you’re not in the way of passing traffic. Watch this closely around bridges. Anchoring in the wrong spot can put you in real danger.
Among my favorite areas in this section of the ICW are the docks on the bay side of Boca Grande (Gasparilla Island, if you want to be specific). The ones to the north are just a short jaunt from the Placida boat ramp, which causes them to be overlooked and underfished (who wants to fish near the boat ramp?).
The bridges and docks will hold a variety of fish species this time of year, including snook, redfish, mangrove snapper, black drum, flounder, pompano and of course sheepshead. You might catch any of these using a variety of techniques, but since we’re keeping this simple, I’m only going to discuss a couple basic methods.
Shrimp are far and away the best bait choice right now. Our local gamefish have been chowing away on whitebait all summer, but once the water temperature drops below 70, they do a major 180 and start feeding on crustaceans. The reports are that we have a very good shrimp run around Gasparilla and Placida over the past couple weeks, with huge numbers moving on the tides. Feed the fish what they’re eating.
Generally, you’re going to find more fish feeding low in the water column (remember, deeper water is a little warmer). So keeping your baits on or near the bottom is ideal. I don’t want to anchor it in one spot, though. A bait that’s moving more naturally with the current is more likely to be eaten by a gamefish. Pin it in place, and that gives the catfish and toadfish time to find it.
My rig usually is very basic: 30-pound fluorocarbon leader, a hook appropriate to the size shrimp I have, and a splitshot sinker a couple inches above the bait. If you want, you can swap the hook and sinker for a jighead. An eighth- or quarter-ounce is usually enough, but I’m ready to go up to as much as half an ounce around bridges where the current is stronger. Be ready to re-rig as conditions change.
Sometimes I get a wild hair and use a banana jig (silly jig) instead, especially if I want to target pompano or flounder. These are too heavy to drift in the current, so instead I hop them along the bottom. I usually tip them with something: A whole shrimp, a shrimp chunk, a Gulp bait, a piece of Fish Bites, a soft plastic fluke. When I get really nutty, I’ll swap out the banana jig for a bucktail.
There’s no need to get up early for this style of fishing. The sheepshead and flounder like it cold, but the redfish, snook and snapper are best after it’s warmed up a little. However, all of them will feed more aggressively when the water is a few degrees warmer, and there are also fewer boats from noon to sunset than from dawn to noon. I’d suggest going out after lunch.
By the way, you should always carry a good landing net for fishing the ICW. You’re close to the Gulf, and sometimes bigger boys will show up to play — fish such as cobia and gag grouper. Besides, the net is the best way to get a sheepie into the boat without breaking your rod.
The ICW offers lots of action, lots of choices, and you can fish it with whatever boat you have. Now get out there and enjoy the rest of 2018.
Robert Lugiewicz is the manager of Fishin’ Frank’s Bait & Tackle, located at 4425-D Tamiami Trail in Charlotte Harbor and at 14531 N. Cleveland Ave. in North Fort Myers. Call 941-625-3888 for more information about the shop or for local fishing info, or visit them online at FishinFranks.com.