CAPE CORAL — Like many kayak fishermen, Josh Harvel used to fish out of a boat. Then a friend introduced him to the light, shallow-running crafts that have become the fastest growing segment of the nation's water sports market.
"Once I started fishing out of a kayak, I couldn't go back to a boat," said Harvel, who now runs YakNitUp Kayak Charters out of Cape Coral. "The fishing was so much better."
Harvel's success is partly due to skill, partly due to location. Like any good fishing guide, the 33-year-old is on the water almost every day. The big schools of red drum move around, and the key to successful fishing is to know where the fish will be.
But Harvel also lives and works near one of the best kayak fishing areas in Florida — Charlotte Harbor. The 700-square-mile estuary, fed by the Peace, Myakka and Caloosahatchee rivers, is a major breeding ground for snook, redfish and trout.
Harvel usually fishes near Matlacha Pass, which in the language of the Calusa translates to "water to the chin." But a more accurate translation for the area Harvel fishes would be "water to the calf."
"The great advantage to fishing out of a kayak is that it enables you to get into spots where fishermen in powerboats cannot go," he said. "The only fishermen these fish ever see are in kayaks."
At low tide in the backwaters of Charlotte Harbor, even a beginner can see the "head" wakes of moving redfish.
Gliding silently along the mangrove-studded shoreline, Harvel scanned the water for drum, then let loose a soft-bodied plastic jig. The artificial lure landed in front of the school, and in seconds Harvel's rod bent under the pressure of a hooked fish.
"Got one," he said. But Harvel knew from the way the fish pulled that it was not a red.
Ten minutes later, he brought the brute alongside the kayak. The jack crevalle weighed close to 5 pounds. "Pound for pound, you won't find a better fighting fish," he said.
Harvell, who charters exclusively out of a kayak, gets inquiries from kayak fishermen from all around the state.
"Kayak fishermen know this area is the kind of place where you can spend a couple of days," he said. "I've been at this for years and still haven't fished everywhere that I want to."
Harvel fishes the northern end of a well-marked kayak trail called the Great Calusa Blueway. This 190-mile saltwater paddle trail winds through the mangrove islands and along the world class beaches of Lee County.
With a myriad of creeks and hidden bays, the Blueway is a place where an angler can spend a day casting the grass beds and never seen another fishermen.
Part of a greater, 1,600-mile paddling trail that runs the entire length of Florida's coastline, the Blueway has dozens of great day trips for paddlers with all levels of experience. Paddlers can log onto the trail's Web site and download maps and GPS coordinates. The trail is well-marked and easy to follow, which eliminates much of the guesswork when planning a fishing trip.
The trail is divided into three sections: Estero Bay, Pine Island Sound and the Caloosahatchee River.
Estero Bay, Florida's first aquatic preserve, hasn't changed much since the ancient Calusa paddled their dugout canoes through the maze of mangroves more than 1,000 years ago.
In Pine Island Sound, a favorite destination for boaters and fishermen, you won't have any problem finding a beach all to yourself on one of the Blueway's undeveloped barrier islands.
The trail's most recent addition, the Caloosahatchee, is another great place for light-tackle fishing, and if you are so inclined, bird-watching.
Harvel said learning to fish the Blueway is easy. The northernmost marker (No. 99) is located at Annie's Creek. As you head south, the numbers on the markers get smaller.
"The area between Annie's Creek and Big Dead Creek has some of the best fishing," he said. "There is a large shoal that runs parallel to the mainland that lots of game fish use as an ambush point. Fish anywhere between markers 99 to 89 and you will have luck."