Sign Up for Fishing Lessons
Go fish. Around this corner of paradise that’s more than a card game. It’s a call to get out and enjoy the sport that put Florida on the map, and keeps it there. Yet, before you head out, do your homework—so your fish tales aren’t all about the ones that got away.
There are loads of education options, in addition to asking a friend or neighbor. Mike Fitterer at Sunshine Ace Hardware in Bonita Springs says he refers fishing gear customers to charter boat captains to “master the learning curve really quickly.”
But for customers interested only in the fundamentals, Fitterer handles the tutorials himself, one on one, with hopes of someday starting monthly classes with captains and manufacturers’ reps as guest speakers.
Fitterer stresses that casual anglers should understand that something big, such as a shark or tarpon, can take their hook by surprise. So they should always carry scissors to cut the line rather than have their reels destroyed by the heat of line racing away with the fish.
In Fort Myers, fishing lessons are included with the purchase of boats at Marina Mike’s. General manager Shawn Henderson says staffers who deliver boats also offer savvy tips on fishing spots, bait and techniques. The dealership also features fishing guides as guest speakers at occasional customer appreciation parties.
On Sanibel Island, would-be anglers of all ages can get the information they need at no charge at Whitney’s Bait & Tackle, where Capt. Whitney Jones has become an icon from more than 20 years in the field.
Capt. Jarrett Jones, one of Uncle Whitney’s guides, says staff can teach about knots, lures, rigging, baiting hooks, fly fishing and “the art of casting” and much more via charter excursions or right in the store. Jarrett Jones says his main safety tip is to always carry needle-nosed pliers to extract hooks. “We have a lot of fish here with big teeth,” he cautions.
He also offers a reel maintenance tip: Don’t clean saltwater reels with a high-pressure garden hose, which washes away internal lubricants. It’s better to use a dry cloth with a little WD-40.
Meanwhile, Norm Zeigler is a legend (“in my own mind,” he jokes) after 25 years on Sanibel and 45 years fly fishing. He offers a free hour of instruction (a $75 value) for customers who purchase a rod and reel from his eponymous fly, bait and tackle shop (Norm Zeigler’s Fly Shop). He books nearly a dozen of the area’s top guides, including Joe Mahler of Fort Myers, a certified fly casting instructor who Zeigler praises and says is patient with students. “Never pay anybody to yell at you,” says Zeigler.
Zeigler’s credentials set him apart. The veteran journalist has written books such as Snook on a Fly and Famous Fly Fishers, and invented Norm’s Crystal Schminnow—a fly that is half shrimp and half minnow—which is used around the world. His safety tips? Tamp down barbs on hooks, to reduce injury to fish as well as anglers; practice catch and release; and be careful with long, wispy fly rods around ceiling fans and doors.
Meanwhile, Cape Coral Yacht Club Community Park offers instructional fishing derbies for small fry every September. About 150 children, who got to keep the rods and reels, took part last year. This year’s Spring Break Fishing Camp, for ages 8 to 13, is March 17 and 19, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The $25 daily fee includes bait and equipment. It promises “fun and adventure” while campers learn how, when and where to catch fish and cast nets. Call 574-0806 to register.
Based in Estero and guiding freshwater anglers all over Southwest Florida, Debbie Hanson is a popular teacher at Bass Pro Shops’ classes for women, and elsewhere. Her safety tips include wearing life vests and having a Global Positioning System or personal locator beacon gear when on the water, staying hydrated and using polarized sunglasses and sunscreen.
“I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had some amazing fishing mentors who shared their time and knowledge with me throughout the years. I only hope that I can continue to keep paying it forward by helping others who have a true desire to learn and build on their skills,” she says. “That’s the best thing about our sport. No matter how much you think you know, there is always more you can learn.”
Jeff Lytle is the retired editorial page editor and TV host from the Naples Daily News. He now lives in Bonita Springs.