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Thursday, 08 March 2012 01:00

Fortress Florida Fort De Soto

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Fortress Florida Fort De Soto Photographs by Bill Howard

It’s the year 1898. The United States has become involved in a conflict with Cuba, which will eventually lead to the Spanish American War. The citizens of Tampa, Florida demand military defenses be constructed to protect the bay. Due to its close proximity to Cuba, Tampa has become the embarkation point for U.S. troops and supplies to the Caribbean war zones. Back in 1849, a young Brevet Colonel named Robert E. Lee had completed a study of the islands at the mouth of Tampa Bay (Egmont Key and Mullet Key).

The Army engineers recommended these two islands for military utilization, thereby prohibiting any private use or development. Forty-nine years later, the citizens of Tampa have their defenses. On April 4, 1900, the installation was named “Fort De Soto” after the Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto, who had come ashore some 360 years earlier to begin a conquest that would change the world.

Life on Fort De Soto in those early years was no picnic. Oppressive heat, a lack of fresh water and the ever-present mosquitoes made the island a living hell.  A 1908 report from the post quartermaster tells of the struggle with the deadly pests:  “The suffering of the men daily at work or drill has been greater than can be imagined by any who have not actually experienced it. There have been nights that the men have had no sleep due to mosquitoes in quarters, even though mosquito nets are used. At present, life for the men is a torture both night and day, and the mosquitoes have to be fought with a bush continuously whether at work or resting.” The Chief Surgeon of the Department of the Gulf stated, “If this post is to continue as a station, life for those concerned should be, at least, made bearable.” The Commander of the Department of the Gulf recommended that the sale of beer and light wines be permitted in the Post Exchange at Fort De Soto to add to the “contentment and discipline” of the garrison. Thankfully, the fort’s massive shore batteries never had to be fired in anger.  The garrison has long been dismissed, and most of the buildings are gone.  An invasion never came - or did it?

Fast forward to 2012: the invasion is in full swing, and has been for many years now. What invasion you ask? Kayak fishermen…

For more than 400 years, the Fort De Soto area has attracted a wide variety of visitors to its shores. Tocobaga Indians were some of the first, followed by Spanish explorers, pirates - the list goes on and on. Nowadays the park is a major kayak fishing destination. With miles and miles of very accessible coast line, it’s tailor-made for the sport. Whether you like chasing tailing redfish or tarpon off the beach, Fort De Soto has something for everyone. The largest park within the Pinellas County Park System, Fort De Soto Park consists of 1,136 acres made up of five interconnected islands (keys). Boasting attendance of more than 2.7 million visitors each year, it’s also home for more than 290 different species of birds, and is a major nesting area for loggerhead sea turtles.

Fort De Soto park map

Accompanying me this day were my good friends Greg Becker, Chris Peters, and Tom Akos. Our prey would be redfish. Big schools of reds call the flats of Fort De Soto home, and we were on a quest to find some of them. A large portion of the flats here are protected by a “No Motor Zone”. These zones were developed across Tampa Bay in order to protect the sea grass from the devastating effects of power boats. The two major counties bordering Tampa Bay, Hillsborough and Pinellas, each have different definitions of a “No Motor Zone”, but basically it’s a zone that if one is in a power boat, the motor must be off and trimmed up out of the water, or at the very least at idle speed. Prop scars take several years to heal, and can lead to damaging erosion of the flats. These zones can be safe havens for schools of redfish, and today was no different. Greg was the first to see them; a single tail waving in the air gave them away.

Stalking tailing redfish on Fort De Soto flats

There is nothing more exciting and frustrating than chasing tailing redfish. Make the wrong cast, move the wrong way, bang something against the kayak and its game over. And so was the case on this hunt. Either Greg or I moved the wrong way and this red was off like a rocket. Oh well, there will always be another one.

Continuing on, we quickly found the school of redfish again, and this time I was the first to strike. I noticed a strange movement in the water, made a quick cast of the Heddon “Super Spook, Jr.” topwater, and as soon as the lure hit the water it was “Fish on!” As I got the red closer to my kayak, I could see something was a bit out of the ordinary. The fish was tagged - my first tagged redfish!!

Kayak fisherman with tagged redfish

The Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) instituted a tagging program several years to study the growth and movement of various species of inshore fish. Each tag has phone and tag numbers to report the catch, so as soon as I got home I made the call and awaited a response. After all these years of fishing the waters of Tampa Bay, I had never caught one myself.

Releasing a tagged redfish

About a week went by before I received a phone call from an FWC biologist. They took my information on the catch, and told me it would be another week or so before they would get back with me. The other day I received a small package in the mail containing a T-shirt and information about my tagged fish. When the fish was tagged on Sept. 15, 2011, it measured 572 mm. I caught it on Dec. 31, 2011, and measured 635 mm. On the move for 107 days, it had only traveled .49 miles from the site where it was tagged. I would later learn from a friend of mine, who had also caught several tagged redfish in this area, that this school has not moved very much since being caught and tagged in September. And why would they? With very large areas designated as “No Motor Zones” the fish can be relatively undisturbed. These areas offer acres of lush sea grass that afford inshore game fish all the forage they could ever need.

Not too long ago, the park at Fort De Soto was under threat of being shut down. With ever-shrinking budgets, the cost of keeping the park open was under fire. But just like the soldiers that used to man this installation, the citizens of Pinellas County made their voices heard, demanding that ways be found to keep this historical fort open to the public. Entry fees are now charged to get in, and you have to pay to use the boat ramp. When you look at the bottom line, it’s well worth the price of admission. Life has certainly gotten better here. There are no more mosquitoes (although we still have the heat in the summer), and the threat of invasions has long since disappeared, with one exception - the kayak fishing invasion that comes every weekend.

fishing Fort De Soto

Last modified on Wednesday, 07 March 2012 07:47


-1 # jpcorrigan 2012-03-08 06:14
Great history lession, thanks. I traveled from Punta Gorda and fished Ft. Desoto for the first time last weekend. Unfortunatly, the wind was 40 knots but I did manage a few trout. I'm looking forward to the, yak invation, tournament this up coming weekend. The park it a great destination and plan on returning again.
# Leroy 2012-03-08 21:50
Excellent article
# BigFlyReel 2012-03-09 06:35
Great day fishing, and a great article about a world-class kayak fishing destination! Well done, Bill!
# imnohero 2012-09-17 15:46
Nice article. Now I want to get to Florida really bad.

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