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The Ding Darling: A Gift from Mother Nature

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On: Wed, Oct 21, 2015 at 10:01AM | By: Captain Ron Kowalyk

One of the nation’s best known and beloved wildlife refuges has all the components of a great outdoor experience.

Established in 1945, it is one of the country’s foremost birding destinations. Jay Norwood ”Ding” Darling was the driving force in creating this pristine sanctuary. There are a number of ways to access the refuge. The complex includes a nature center and the Wildlife Drive and a tour bus available for group excursion.

Tarpon Bay is a section of the refuge which provides access to anglers on rental kayaks and canoes as well as a public boat ramp. There’s a $15 ramp fee with bait and tackle available. Lectures on the history, birding, and other refuge subjects are offered.

Wildlife abounds in the refuge with raccoons, black bears, rice rats, wild pigs, bobcats, marsh rabbits, river otters, and plenty of gators, crocodiles, and a variety snakes. Manatees hold a special place in the hearts of local visitors. Add in a combined population of two hundred and forty five species of birds.

Hiking the Wildlife Drive is a great way to exercise, get close to nature, and do some land captain fishing. There are no-motor “boat” zones, accessible from the Wildlife Drive, that offer a shot at snook, redfish, and occasional tarpon. Don’t overlook the invasive species with several cichlids eager to eat a variety of baits, flies, and smallish plugs. Canoeists and kayakers are welcome throughout the refuge; paddling is a primo way to get into the heart of the refuge and tour or fish in pristine areas. Old Florida at its best!

Power boat access is available all along the boundary of refuge on the Pine Island Sound shoreline. There’s a slow-speed zone starting approximatelya quarter-mile off the refuge boundary; a string of white informational buoys designate the slow-speed zone.

The grass flats bordering the refuge are prime sea trout, redfish, and tarpon haunts and a great place for fly fisherman to exercise their 7–8 wt. set up employing a vast selection of weighted flies. Clouser minnows in red and white are a go-to pattern. I’ve found some of my shrimp imitations in brown and orange, my “Cleveland Browns Special” bead head streamer, and an assortment of icicle chenille “shrimpies” in pink, root beer, or chartreuse, with a white bucktail wing to be my personal favorites. Red and white Whistlers streamer flies are good for all the top gamers in the refuge; simple is best.

Fly and artificial presentations reduce the kit needed to reconnoiter the many miles of mangrove forest canopy and work the verdant grass flats. If you want to keep livebaiting simple, shrimp under a popping cork or freelined, maybe tagged with a split shot for easy casting, is as good as it get.

Power boats are welcome; be sure to abide by the slow-speed and idle-speed zone designations. A trolling motor is an advantage if you want to poke along the mangrove edges. Poling can be even better when flyfishing or plugging the canopy or open grass flats. I have a flats and bay skiff without a troller and do pretty well just drifting. Since I usually have two to four anglers on my skiff I tend to stick to a spot and employ the five minute-plus rule, chumming, fishing, and then moving along. Sticking my “Polish Power-Pole”—a fiberglass tipped and PVC gizmo—manually keeps me on the spot. My buddy has a Cajun anchor, that heavy duty stainless steel pig sticker that he swears by. Yakkers and canoeists can find a whole mess of stick anchors as well, and they’re much more convenient than a conventional weighted anchor.

Gear selection is easy; if you fish the flats you’re already in the game. A medium-light action spinning setup comprised of a 7-ft. rod with 15–20 lb. braid with a generous length of 20–30 lb. fluorocarbon will fit the bill pretty much across the board. Fly gear again is typical flats action, a 9-ft. fast tapper 7–8 wt. with a weight forward redfish tapper is about ideal. My buddy Dick “Gunny” Tremblay, the “fly miester” and I have used this abridged style of rig and have even been able to fish gurgler flies and popper on the slow sink tip. I’m a mangler but Dick’s a master. “Good enough is prefect!”

You’ll want your digital camera at the ready because between the birds, bees, and alligators you’ll have some great photo ops. Your fish pictures can be pretty fair as well. Tread lightly, keep a sharp eye out for the amazing wildlife, and enjoy this special Southwest Florida fishing adventure.


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