It’s impossible to tell a Cabbage Key fishing tale which I’m about to do without first appropriately describing the 100-acre island. In fact, you rarely read about Cabbage Key without seeing it described as “old Florida.” A purist might grumble that Old Florida didn’t have ferry boats taking up to 700 people a day to eat at the Cabbage Key Restaurant, rumored to be the inspiration of Jimmy Buffett’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” And Old Florida didn’t have multi-million-dollar homes on it and surrounding islands.
But given Florida’s rapid growth and development, it is a marvel that Cabbage Key retains so much original rustic charm. Its trademark water tower has hosted an osprey nest since my wife and I started visiting in the 1970s. Wildlife is abundant, including a variety of wading birds, manatees, dolphins, otters and some of the largest gopher tortoises you will ever see. Pine Island Sound, which surrounds it, is an estuary long famed for fabulous fishing that, while it may face growth challenges, remains a natural wonder.
My wife and I have visited with pleasure many times through the years, staying at the famous centrepiece home built in the 1930s by the son of Mary Roberts Rinehart, once-popular author of “The Bat” and other mysteries. Transformed into a restaurant-lodge, it endures as a remnant of another era.
But for me, fishing has been the lure to visit Cabbage Key. In particular, our trips in March last year and this were especially memorable for unexpected reasons.
The plan both years was to rendezvous with my sister, Trish, and, brother-in-law, Mike, who would cruise from Tampa Bay on their 30-foot vessel, the Nauti Lady. Joining them both years for the three-day voyage was my cousin, Brett, from Key West. All three are skilled boaters, and Brett is a superb angler.
In turn, my wife Lenora and I would trailer my 15-foot boat from Lutz to the Pineland Marina, where you can count on courteous service, and motor across to the island. Both the trips were planned to coincide with Brett’s birthday and Trish’s spring break from her teaching job. Because the Nauti Lady must stick to the channels, our intention was to use my center console for fishing expeditions and exploring.
But March is temperamental.
A year ago, a howling cold front forced Lenora and I to leave my boat at the marina and take the ferry from Pineland to Cabbage Key. We had arranged to stay at the well-appointed Harborview Cottage, which had plenty of bedrooms for all of us.
The wind settled down enough the next day to enable Lenora, Brett and I to fish with Capt. Cory McGuire of Falling Tides Charters (www.fallingtidecharters.com). He warned us the cold would make for tough fishing, but we still had a wonderful morning, catching numerous redfish, including enough keepers for dinner. Cory also dropped us at Pineland Marina so I could pick up my boat, that with the falling winds now could be taken across.
The weather continued to ease, and we were able to do some flats fishing on our own, catching trout not far from the lodge. But the highlight was boating to Cayo Costa State Park, as natural a barrier island to be found on Southwest Florida, with nine miles of undeveloped beach. It is renowned for shelling – if you like walking with your head down. But why miss the sights? The 2,426-acre park offers natural uplands, hammocks and mangrove forests. Only primitive camping is allowed. There are some cabins, but no electricity or water.
Despite the initial rough weather last year, we so enjoyed the trip we sought to duplicate it this year, thinking our turn with nasty weather was a one-time deal. But March tricked us again.
Though the weather was mild when Lenora and I boated across to gather with the family at the Harborview, it poured during the night, and by morning, it had turned cold and blustery. Much to our disappointment, Cory had to cancel our fishing trip. Also, it was too rough to venture to Cayo Costa on my boat so as fate would have it, we had to experience Cabbage Key as we might not have done otherwise. And it was a joy.
The one-mile nature trail winds through beautiful tropical vegetation: mangroves, buttonwood, Poinciana, strangler fig, sabal palms and many other species. Mosquito spray would be a must during warm weather, but the trail is a treat for nature-lovers. You also can climb the water tower stairs for a stunning panoramic view.
Because Mike is virtually a gourmet cook, we usually prepare our meals and are out on the water during lunch. But being stuck ashore, we decided to lunch at the restaurant and were delighted by the hamburgers and grouper sandwiches, the friendly service and the laid-back atmosphere in the screened-in room.
By then, we were resigned to being landlocked for most of the trip, but that evening Cory earned our eternal gratitude! He called to say the wind would be down a little in the morning and he’d take us out if we were willing, but warned fishing wouldn’t be easy.
“I figured you were getting cabin-fever,” he said.
Once again Cory provided a terrific experience. We had to move around a bit, but that only allowed us to better appreciate the beauty of Pine Island Sound, with its many mangrove islands, some with dwellings, but many pristine and lush expanses of seagrass beds. Despite the wind, the water was surprisingly clear.
Moreover, we caught fish; consistently, though nothing spectacular at first. When it warmed slightly, Cory took us to a hidden mangrove-lined creek, where the action was fast and furious. We caught numerous snook and some lunker trout. Lenora got the sole redfish of the day to give her an “inshore slam.”
A few of the snook were in the 28 to 33-inch legal “slot” and could be taken for the table, but Cory prefers to release every snook to help the sportfish recover from a devastating freeze a few years ago that killed thousands. Learning this elevated our already high regard for the engaging and astute captain.
Relaxing on our porch after our return to Cabbage Key that afternoon, we got a jarring lesson on the dangers faced by a dock master.
The Cabbage Key dock master tied up his boat near ours, and we usually exchanged a few words in the morning. He is amiable but as seems to be a requirement for the job, a bit crusty. He also is notably skillful at directing the sometimes-inexperienced boaters who must be safely moored.
As we watched him directing a huge cabin cruiser, the vessel suddenly powered ahead, slammed into the dock, splintering a piling and forcing him to jump into the frigid water. We raced down to find him clinging to the broken dock. When I asked if he was all right, he calmly replied, “I am having the time of my life.”
After being helped out of the water, he immediately began to instruct the wayward boat operator how to properly dock. It was, I thought, a remarkable demonstration of devotion to task.
Mike conjured up a wonderful last meal out of the redfish and trout, and the next morning we all went our separate ways, though the winds were higher than I like for my modest boat.
Fortunately, the few miles back to the marina are mostly behind mangroves islands. The trip was rough and wet, but the biggest threat I encountered on our return was a loose trailer winch I had improperly installed before the trip.
When that was fixed, we loaded up and headed for home, with more wonderful memories of Cabbage Key and Pine Island Sound — but also a resolution that next year’s trip should coincide with something other than Trish’s spring break and Brett’s birthday.
Interested in visiting, here’s more information!
The 100-acre Cabbage Key is island an absolutely enchanting getaway. Its centerpiece is a home built in the 1930s by the son of Mary Roberts Rinehart, once-popular author of “The Bat” and other mysteries. Transformed into a restaurant-lodge, it endures as a remnant of another era. Visitors leave signed dollar bills taped to walls of the restaurant and the adjoining bar. When they fall, they are collected and donated to the Mote Marine Institute.
Such environmental concerns characterize Cabbage Key, which has been thoughtfully managed by the Wells family since 1976. A number of cottages and homes have been added to the island through the years, but all with attention to retaining natural vegetation and shoreline.
The inn utilizes solar energy system and has a rainwater system that can store 25,000 gallons. Its trademark water tower has hosted an osprey nest since my wife and I started visiting in the 1970s.
Wildlife is abundant, including a variety of wading birds, manatees, dolphins, otters, and some of the largest gopher tortoises you will ever see.
Cabbage Key is more of an attraction than when we first visited, but it manages to accommodate the usual mid-day day crowds without unseemly bustle. People seem to switch into relax gear when they step ashore. (The restaurant is open for breakfast and dinner, but lunch draws most of the ferry boats and the crowds.)
It is easy to lament another tourist invasion of remote Florida, but it is impossible to fault anyone for wanting to experience this beautiful tropical paradise or the owners for wanting to responsibly share it, and with obvious respect for its history and ecology.