Fort De Soto Park at the southern tip of Pinellas County has been a playground for folks like me for 50 years now. I have been to the park probably at least 1,000 times since I moved to Florida in 1980.
When going through my checklist of great places to cast a line, Fort De Soto has it all: easy access, good facilities, clean water and most important, hungry fish.
You won't find a more family-friendly fishing destination in Florida, and with both shallow- and deep-water species to choose from, both the novice and experienced angler will find fishing challenging, yet rewarding.
Here are a few reasons why this county park, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary Saturday, is one of my favorite places:
The Gulf Pier: The longest (more than 1,000 feet) of Fort De Soto's two structures is closer to the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico, hence its name. There is also a strong current flowing through the pier, which means plenty of baitfish moving around to keep the predators interested.
The shop at the entrance of the pier sells frozen bait, tackle, food and drinks. Budget-conscious fishing families will find this pier their best choice — plenty of room and shelter from the sun — especially if they bring tackle and refreshments from home.
Because the pier has open-water access, anglers catch everything from sheepshead to sharks. This is also the best place to see a dolphin. You're likely to see one or two of these marine mammals cruise by in search of mullet.
THE BAY PIER: It may be shorter (500 feet) than the Gulf Pier, but it's every bit as attractive to anglers. Because it is located closer to the sheltered waters of Tampa Bay, there is less current, which allows anglers to use lighter tackle and target more common inshore species such as trout, redfish and snook.
Typical catches include Spanish mackerel, ladyfish, pompano, permit and even the occasional tarpon. While artificial lures (jigs, spoons and hard-bodied plugs) can be used, as usual, live bait is still the best choice.
Some anglers cast net for bait off the bridge, but this isn't easy. A better choice is to bring along a weighted, gold-hook "Sabiki" rig to jig up bait while fishing and "match the hatch."
WADE FISHING: The top three inshore species — spotted seatrout, snook and redfish — all spend at least some part of their lives in the estuarine waters found on the back side of Fort De Soto.
The sea grass beds, oyster bars and mangrove islands are prime fishing areas on the west coast of Florida, and as an added benefit, you don't need a boat to enjoy them.
All you need is a pair of old sneakers, a spinning rod and a bucket of shrimp to get started. Most anglers use light line (8- to 12-pound test), a relatively small hook and a float to mark their bait.
KAYAK FISHING: Fort De Soto is also a hotbed for kayak anglers. The light, maneuverable, plastic watercraft can take anglers into the shallow areas where powerboats dare not go. Sit-on-top kayaks are the ideal fishing craft because they are easily transportable (they fit on most car roofs) and can be launched from virtually anywhere.
Most kayak fishermen carry two or three rods so they can fish with different artificial baits without having to stop and tie on a new lure.
For example, have one rod rigged with a topwater plug to cast around the mangrove roots for snook. Have another rod equipped with a soft-bodied jig to fish the grass beds for spotted seatrout. And finally, have a third rod ready to go with a gold spoon to work the oyster bars for redfish.
If you don't have your own kayak, rentals are available at the park. These user-friendly boats are available at the park's concession stand. As you approach the island, turn right at the ranger station and the kayak rentals will be on the right.
OTHER HIGHLIGHTS: In addition to the twin fishing piers, Fort De Soto has an 800-foot boat launching facility with 11 floating docks. Located nearby is a 238-site, full-service camping area with water, electricity, rest rooms, showers, washers, dryers, playgrounds and a camp store.
Fort De Soto Park also has a 7-mile, 12-foot wide asphalt recreation trail for bikers and inline skaters that connects the campground with the north and east beach swim centers and the historic fort. Birders and hikers will enjoy miles of nature trails, and a new 2.25-mile canoe/kayak trail offers a rare glimpse into the world of a mangrove estuary.
Those are just a few reasons why I love Fort De Soto. But don't take my word for it. The park has free admission Saturday as it celebrates.
Go and see for yourself.