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Fly fishing picking up popularity on Sanibel

By Staff | Jan 28, 2015

Sanibel’s Joe Mahler is a fly fishing casting instructor as well as an avid fly fisherman. Pictured here, Mahler fly fishes out of his kayak in Tarpon Bay. PHOTO PROVIDED

It’s a well-known fact that Sanibel and Captiva Islands have many attractions, such as its beaches, natural preservation and endless bike trails.

But there is another activity which has blossomed on the islands and interacts with what they provide, and that is the sport of fly fishing.

Fly fishing is instantly recognizable with the casting action fishermen use and it’s becoming a common site on each the shorelines of Sanibel and Captiva, as well on the bays and Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge.

Although fly fishing has been around for many decades, it’s a growing popular activity on Sanibel Island, which is quickly becoming known as a hotbed for the water sport.

There is also a group – the Sanibel Fly Fishers – in which fly fishermen of all skill levels can join in Sanibel. It is providing a prime opportunity to meet others and share information and stories of fly fishing from around the world.

One of many of Norm Zeigler’s fly fishing catches, a salmon. PHOTO PROVIDED

The growth of the Sanibel Fly Fishers Club has been substantial, after its creation in 2001 inside of Sanibel resident and fly fishing author Norm Zeigler’s living room.

“There were three of us who started the Sanibel Fly Fishers in my living room and our intention was to get into more contact with fly fishermen,” Zeigler said. “We had one meeting a month at my house and people started coming.”

As word spread about the Sanibel Fly Fishers, the number of attendees for the once-a-month meetings grew. Soon, they had to leave Zeigler’s living room in search for larger accommodations, which ended up being at the Sanibel Library.

“We grew from three to 15, then picked up slowly,” Zeigler said. “At the end of three years, we had 25 to 30 members. We decided to affiliate with the International Federation of Fly Fishers, which we still are today.”

The group attracted every skill-level of fly fishermen, from beginners to ones who have been fly fishing for 40 years. People from all over the nation also joined, which included full-time Sanibel residents, snowbirds who stayed three to five months on the island and fishermen who vacationed here for two to three weeks.

On average, the Sanibel Fly Fishers Club has about 50 to 60 people attend the monthly meeting, with over 250 on the email list to receive its newsletter.

Sanibel resident Joe Mahler, who is a fly fishing casting instructor and club member, said the growth of the Sanibel Fly Fishers is a good gauge of the rising popularity of the sport on the island.

“Sanibel is becoming popular as a destination for fly fishing, no doubt,” Mahler said. “I was President of the club a few years back and during that time, I got the opportunity to meet a lot people. It’s a good way to meet guys who love fly fishing. There’s always someone who wants to go fishing and bring a fishing buddy.”

Another opportunity the club provides is pairing fly fishers without boats with ones who have boats available on the island.

“Some guys don’t like fishing alone in their boat, so they can bring someone who doesn’t have one,” Mahler said. “It kills two birds with one stone.”

But a boat is not needed to fly fish on Sanibel-Captiva. Some of the best snook fishing in the summer can be had right on the beaches of the islands.

Which brings up another advantage of joining the Sanibel Fly Fishers and that’s no secrets.

“I insisted from the beginning, we don’t have secret fishing spots and everyone should share information,” Zeigler said. “Over the years, people have been pretty good at it.”

Fly fishing is an attractive option because it can be a much better alternative to catching fish than the common spinner and tackle way of fishing.

It’s effective because it delivers a smaller lure. The fish species around Sanibel mostly are eating shrimp, crab and bait fish. In the summer months, when the snook are spawning, they feed on smaller minnows.

“It’s hard to replicate that with conventional tackle,” Mahler said “Fly fishing delivers a much smaller lure.”

Sharing different ways to tie a fly lure is also a main activity during club meetings. Zeigler, who also owns Norm Zeigler’s Fly Shop on Sanibel and has written several books on fly fishing, invented his own fly lure, aptly named the Crystal Schminnow or also known as the Sanibel Schminnow.

“It’s part shrimp and part minnow,” Zeigler described his lure. “I invented it specifically for snook, but I’ve caught many other species on it, as well. It’s the most popular lure we sell here.”

The fly lures are constructed out of natural pieces, such as feathers. They are light and don’t make a sound when they land on the water.

The most recognizable aspect of fly fishing is the technique of casting. The reel is hardly used and only when a fish is hooked.

“Because you are casting a weightless fly, the weight being moved is weight of line,” Mahler said. “It is the exact opposite of conventional fishing. The rods are longer than a conventional rod, about a foot longer, because you need a longer lever for the casting action. It is actually physically easier than casting the spinner type of tackle.”

There is a train of thought that fly fishing is expensive, and it can be if one wants it to be. But Zeigler offers a starters kit which includes the rod, line, liter, reel and case for a very reasonable price of $139.

“If you want to buy top-notch rods, you can spend thousands of dollars, but you don’t need to,” Zeigler said. “It’s a false assumption that fly fishing is expensive, because it’s not.”

But it’s not just all fishing and stories which the Sanibel Fly Fishers embark on. Water conservation is a big concern of the club and it backs that up by donating much of their funds they collect from dues to conservation funds.

“Water quality been an ongoing fight since I moved here 20 years ago and long before I moved here,” said Zeigler, who was the president of the club for four years and currently is the conservation officer. “Fly fishers are quite good conservationists because they know how important water quality is.”

Fly fishing is an effective and fun way to catch just about every species of fish around Sanibel and Captiva Islands. If you like having fishing buddies to share that experience with, the Sanibel Fly Fishers is a group to check out, even if one is just beginning or have been fly fishing for decades.

The Sanibel Fly Fishers meet the first Thursday of every month at 7 p.m. at the Sanibel Library. An individual doesn’t need to be a member to attend the meetings.

So cast away and enjoy yet another prime activity in paradise.