This fishing road trip begins with bass at Walt Disney World and ends with tarpon, snook and redfish on sunny Tampa Bay.
By Todd Smith
It’s December. For those in northern states that means cold and snow—the kind of weather you want to escape from. Maybe you’ve been planning to take the family on a holiday vacation or perhaps you have your eye on a winter break getaway with the kids. If Florida’s not yet on your destination list, it should be. Few states offer as much warm sunshine and family fun. From white sand beaches to major attractions, like Walt Disney World and the Universal Orlando Resort, Florida has it all. And if you like to fish, few states are better.
Want to make some family memories? Pack up the kids and head to Orlando where you can enjoy (and even fish) at the Walt Disney World Resort. But don’t stop there. Just a short drive away the saltwater fishing, beaches, and outdoor fun of Tampa await. Here’s a fishing road trip the whole family can enjoy, with lots of adventures along the way to keep everyone happy.
Few people visiting Walt Disney World in Orlando are aware that you can actually fish the bass filled lakes right in the heart of the theme park itself. Best of all, the Disney folks make it super easy by offering a variety of options.
Guided fishing adventures can be taken on a 21-foot pontoon boat, which accommodates up to five guests or you can book a tournament-style bass boat for one or two people. Book a 2-hour or 4-hour fishing trip and let the guide do the rest. They supply everything you need—rods, reels, baits, the works. Solo anglers can also book an entire afternoon trip at reduced rates.
Fishing excursions are available out of a number of marinas, so you have plenty of options depending on where you’re staying. Reservations can be made up to 180 days in advance. All you have to do is call (407) 939-BASS or (407) 939-2277 and they’ll set you and your kids up for some memorable fishing fun.
Want to go it alone? Grab a rod and cash in on the well-stocked opportunities right off the dock. All casting-rod fishing gear can be rented from the Fishin' Hole at Ol' Man Island at Disney's Port Orleans Resort—Riverside. Note: all fishing at Disney World is catch-and-release only.
After a few days in Orlando, you’ll be ready for a change of pace, so grab a rental car if you need one (there are a number of locations near the Convention Center,) then head west.
Following several days at the ICAST fishing show in Orlando, my daughter, Kelsey, flew in to join me for a little father-daughter road trip. The drive to Tampa is just under 90 minutes from the Orlando airport, but it’s like traveling to a whole different Florida.
If your schedule permits, you can hit the Butler Lakes chain along the way, where long-time Florida fishing writer, Frank Sargeant, says the bass fishing is good, but the chance to cruise the shoreline and check out the many celebrity homes along the water may be worth the visit all by itself.
The nearby Kissimmee River chain, which starts at the town of Kissimmee (right at Lake Tohopekaliga) and runs nearly 100 miles south to Lake Okeechobee, may offer the best chance in the state to catch a true Florida-strain bass according to Sargeant, with many fish in the 10-pound range caught and released every year.
My daughter and I were anxious to get to Tampa so we didn’t stop, but we’ll explore these destinations on our next trip down for sure.
Fishing With Captain Ray
With over 40 years of experience as a licensed guide, tournament fishermen and casting competition winner, Captain Ray Markham is an excellent instructor and can have anyone catching fish in minutes. Just be sure you book early as key months for tarpon and redfish fill up quickly. Contact: Capt. Ray Markham, (941) 723-2655, Ray.firstname.lastname@example.org, www.CaptainRayMarkham.com
On the day that we fished together, Ray told us to meet him at the Maximo boat ramp, so after our walk on the beach and a quick swim we hit the local Publix store near the park for sandwiches then headed to the boat ramp. When we arrived, Ray was just backing his boat in and a few minutes later we were headed out.
You can tell a lot about a guide by the way he keeps his equipment. Ray’s sleek flats boat and all of his fishing tackle were in tip-top shape and his easy style made us feel right at home from the moment we stepped on his boat.
The beauty of fishing Tampa Bay (and what keeps Ray excited about fishing there), is that the area offers so many options. While fishing is excellent year-round for sea trout, grouper and snook, if your heart is set on catching a tarpon, you’ll want to book during the key months of May through July, when the giant Silver Kings (most over 100 pounds) migrate north along St. Petersburg’s shores.
Redfish fans can find plenty of line-screaming action almost any time year-round, but the peak season runs from August through October with the biggest fish coming in September and October. This is when you can find bull redfish up to 40 inches in Tampa Bay’s shallow backwaters.
The spring and fall months are the peak times to catch Spanish and King mackerel and strong runs of pompano hit the area in the cooler months from September through May. In short, the game is always on here no matter when you visit, but hiring a guide like Ray will get you onto fish a lot quicker.
This was Kelsey’s first saltwater fishing experience and though she has spent many days with me fishing in the Adirondacks, she had never caught anything larger than a small trout. Ray remedied that in a hurry only minutes after we motored out of the harbor.
We were fishing along a mangrove choked shoreline, tossing 3-inch silver C.A.L. shad up into the shadowy holes where the mangroves hit the water (a perfect place for snook) then doing quick retrieves over big sandy potholes interspersed in the eelgrass. So, if we didn’t catch a snook, we’d have a good chance of getting a hefty sea trout to strike.
Kelsey’s rod soon bent over and after a few minutes of quick runs her first jack crevalle was brought to hand.
A little while later we motored east around Pinellas Point to a series of shallow reefs Ray likes to hit for sea trout. Here we were experimenting with some new 2.5-ounce sinking top-water poppers from Odin Lure Co. that allow you to inject fishing scent (“smack”) into the body of the lure to lay down a scent trail fish can’t resist. Sure enough, Ray hooked up on his very first cast and landed a huge sea trout. Kelsey and I traded turns catching and releasing fish as we fished our way back toward Maximo Park.
The tide was running hard when we passed under the bridge that separates St. Petersburgh from Palmetto and the southern portion of Tampa Bay. Ray nosed the boat up toward the massive pilings where the water churned and boiled. “Toss straight up toward the foot of those piles,” Ray offered, hoping one of us might tie into a tarpon, but there were no big boys hanging around that afternoon.
Steering west into the red glare of the setting sun, we had one more surprise that Ray’s sharp eyes caught before we saw them—a massive school of dolphin feeding and racing across the harbor. Backing the motor down we idled right up to the school and suddenly found ourselves surrounded by mothers with small babies, blowing and diving. The lights along the shoreline were just coming on as we idled back in to the boat ramp, the end of a perfect day on the water with my favorite fishing lady and our new friend, Ray.
Arriving in Tampa we found the downtown hopping with a lively riverfront walk, lots of restaurant choices and fun activities for everyone. The Hillsborough River runs right through the heart of town, so you can grab a rental bike and pedal along the water, explore it in a rental kayak, or simply head out on foot.
Looking for a fun excursion? Jump on one of the big yellow water taxis that takes visitors up and down the river and jump off at any of the 15 stops along the Tampa Riverwalk. It’s a fun, guided trip where you can kick back, enjoy a cold beverage and get a feel for the whole of Tampa itself. This is also a great trip to take in the evening when the city lights up.
Come nightfall, enjoy one of the many riverside eateries or venture out (as we did) to sample some of the fine dining options along the nearby beaches. We had a great dinner and caught a fabulous sunset at Oystercatchers. This restaurant is about 25 minutes from downtown, but it offers one of the best spots in the Tampa area for enjoying a great seafood and incredible sunsets. And since the restaurant is located on a quiet, out-of-the-way spot on the Hyatt’s property, you’ll feel like you’re escaping to your own private hideaway.
The nearby beaches of St. Petersburg are also easily reached and well worth visiting. The water here is shallow and clear (perfect for swimming) and you can wander for miles while cooling your feet in the warm waters of the Gulf. We spent a lovely morning strolling along the sugar-white sands at Fort de Soto Park. There is great nature watching to be found here, ruins of the old fort to explore, kayak rentals and more.
What really makes a trip to Tampa worthwhile for outdoor enthusiasts, however, is the fabulous saltwater fishing. We booked a half-day charter with Capt. Ray Markham and my only regret was that we didn’t book a longer stay in Tampa to fish more.
Ray grew up on one of the little barrier islands in Tampa Bay and he knows these waters like few others. He also knows where the fish are going to be depending on the tide and weather.
“I like to wait until I get closer to the fishing date to look at the fishing and weather to determine where the fishing will be best and what the weather conditions will be like,” Ray explained in an email prior to our trip, “because while some conditions favor one place, they may not favor another.”
Depending on the day, if he launches in St. Petersburg, Ray likes to head to Maximo Park near the southern tip of the city. The park has a nice boat ramp, plenty of parking, and it’s just off highway 275, so it’s easy to get to from Tampa or any of the surrounding areas. If he launches on the other side of Tampa Bay, Ray likes to run out of Palmetto, which is about 20 minutes south of Ruskin on the Manatee River.
Come prepared for your Florida fishing adventure with these essential pieces of gear.
It goes without saying that sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher) is mandatory here no matter what month you come to fish. I also like to wear a light UV protective long-sleeve shirt that breathes well. If it’s really hot, I can always roll the sleeves up.
I’m a big fan of Costa’s as I like the way their serious fishing styles wrap around the corners of my eyes to kill harmful glare. Their new Untangled Collection, which uses recycled fishing nets in the frame design, is definitely worth a hard look.
Want to score points with your guide? Don’t wear shoes that will mare the deck of his boat. Look for styles with a non-slip/non-marring sole. I recently tried a pair of Fin 2.0’s from Soft Science that are so light you’ll hardly know you have them on. And they provide excellent support for fighting fishing and moving around on wet decks.
While I love ballcaps, having a lightweight Buff along will keep your neck and ears from getting fried. I’m also a big fan of UV protective gloves that keep the backs of my hands covered.
I don’t go anywhere without a dry box for keeping my smartphone, wallet and keys from getting drenched or going overboard. The model 3250 Series from Otterbox is practically bullet proof. It seals totally to keep your valuables dry and it has slots molded right in that you can slip a strap through to secure the box to the gunwale of your canoe or anywhere you have a handy place to tie to on the boat.
Flats boats are not huge, so be judicious in what you bring on board. Ray has a cooler handy so it was easy to throw our sandwiches and drinks on ice. Just bring plenty of liquids and drink constantly as the sun can be fierce here almost any time of the year.