A few hundred feet in the air, Captain Mark Futch cranes his neck back and gives me a thumbs up. I nod, smiling. It was my first time on a seaplane, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect; but with a longtime pilot behind the controls, our hour-long flight to Boca Grande for a day of fishing is shaping up to be quite the scenic adventure.
My friend Rey is in the seat behind me. To her, this is nothing new. She grew up in Boca Grande and has been fishing there since she was a kid. She also happens to be the pilot’s daughter.
I’ve fished before. And I’ve flown before. But we’re barely at our cruising altitude of 2,600 feet, and already it’s an experience unlike any other, one that started before I even boarded the plane.
At Signature Flight Support, the parking was just a stone’s throw away from the front door of the airport, and there were no lines, no random security screenings and no crowds. With its plush seating and complimentary beverages, it felt more like a hotel lobby. And when Futch arrived to pick us up, he didn’t linger in the cockpit and wait for us to board. He parked the plane, walked inside to greet us and escorted us to the aircraft. We were able to take off right away, and now here we are, soaring toward our destination.
The wings of the five-passenger Maule seaplane shudder ever so slightly, and a steady hum drowns out any other sound. I watch the toy-like scene below unfold. Raymond James Stadium. The Howard Frankland Bridge. Tropicana Field. Staring down at the snaking bodies of blue-jade water beneath us, it’s not hard to understand why Bay-area residents are so smitten with their habitat. With so many enticing destinations just a short stretch of ocean away, island hopping has long been a leisurely pursuit of choice among Florida’s pleasure-seeking residents. And Boca Grande, with its close proximity, throwback charm and laid-back lifestyle, is top of mind for those craving a rustic-inspired luxury getaway.
Located on Gasparilla Island, Boca Grande (Spanish for “big mouth”) lies halfway between Fort Myers and Sarasota. Famous for offering some of the best fishing in the country, Boca is also recognized as the tarpon fishing capital of the world, but you don’t have to be a reel enthusiast to get baited into falling in love with its storybook appearance and discreet demeanor.
To wander the quaint “fishing and resort” village is to take a step back into undisturbed Old Florida. Residents and visitors walk, bike or drive golf carts to get around, and not a single chain restaurant exists within the town’s limits. Years ago, when word that a Subway restaurant location might be opening there, residents and county officials quickly banded together to create a community plan prohibiting the eatery. Naturally, they succeeded. Parking meters are noticeably absent from its downtown streets, and iguanas are about as common as squirrels are in Tampa.
Over the years, Boca has become a premier destination for well-to-do Bay-area residents and fishing aficionados, while celebrities seem to be lured by the anonymity it permits them. Actress Katharine Hepburn was a regular visitor there for years, and the Bush family has vacationed there as well. Hollywood has taken advantage of its picturesque backdrop more than once, using it as the backdrop for several movies, including “Out of Time,” starring Denzel Washington.
Growing up, Futch spent summers in Boca with his grandparents. In 1972, he made it his home for the next 28 years before making the move to nearby Shell Creek. Since starting his business in 1987, he has carved out quite a niche among Boca enthusiasts.
“When I was a kid, it was a fishing village,” he says. “The industry on the island was commercial fishing and tarpon fishing. Now it has evolved into an exclusive enclave for the wealthy.”
The island’s draw has helped his business flourish, and he’s thankful for that.
Futch began flying at the age of 17. He’s logged more than 18,000 flight hours in seaplanes.
“Once you start flying these,” Futch says, “you get really spoiled by the freedom it gives you.”
And by “freedom” he means that he can land, well, just about anywhere he wants — given, of course, that he has the necessary clearance. While Futch offers the more conventional airport pick-up and drop-off option, he often picks his clients up at their private docks. It’s a list of clients that includes members of the Busch and Steinbrenner families, as well as other locally and internationally known celebrities, but Futch isn’t one to fly and tell. He also happens to be a third-generation tarpon guide — in 1995, he won first place in the World’s Richest Tarpon Tournament with a 123.6-pound tarpon, and from 1997-2001 he held the pass tourney record by catching a 200-pound tarpon. Futch has managed to establish an enviable career centered around three of his greatest passions: fishin’, flyin’ and Boca. Today promises to be a day filled with exactly that.
The drive from Tampa to Boca Grande usually takes two hours. But less than an hour later, our seaplane is hugging the coastline of the 7-mile long Gasparilla Island, circling above it like a bird seeking a spot on which to perch. Waterfront luxury homes and condos dot the perimeter of the island.
Futch brings the Maule down gracefully, and it skims the water’s surface for a few seconds before coming to a gradual halt at a dock near the Pink Elephant restaurant along Boca Grande Bayou, an area known to locals as “the Pink Elephant docks.”
As we step off the plane, fourth-generation fishing guide Captain Rob Hayes awaits.
“Nice to meet you,” he says in his Southern drawl as he smiles and shakes my hand. He wears Crocs on his feet and his profession on his face — even when he removes his sunglasses, their outline is still there, perfectly marked by his frequent exposure to Florida’s beaming sun.
After a lunch of fried grouper fingers at downtown Boca’s famous Temptation restaurant (which Futch tells me is where he proposed his wife more than 30 years ago), Hayes helps Rey and I onto his 20-foot-long flats boat, Last Buffalo — a name he chose because there are only a handful of fourth-generation guides still around.
“There’s really only four of us left that are still doing it in Boca, out of one hundred and something guides,” he says. “It’s sort of a dying generation.”
Hayes has been a guide for more than a decade, but he’s been fishing Boca’s waters much of his life. Specializing in tarpon fishing and back bay fishing, he could probably navigate the winding waterways blindfolded, and a day of fishing with him almost always leads to more bites than you can reel in, whether it’s snook, redfish, trout or tarpon, if the season’s right (April to July, sometimes longer).
“September and October are our best months for redfish,” he says. “You catch one after the other — and I mean 60 to 70 redfish.”
A member of the Boca Grande Fishing Guide Association, Hayes offers daily fishing trips year-round for up to three people at a time. He supplied everything — rods, reels, a variety of bait, ice and water. All guests need to bring is sunscreen.
Whether you’re an experienced fisherman or you’ve never cast a line in your life, with Boca’s ecologically sensitive, hard-to-access areas, enlisting an experienced guide who’s familiar with the land has its advantages. Plus, it’s a surefire way to enjoy the serene scene and the almost-always-perfect weather.
Last Buffalo’s bait tank is filled with shrimp and white bait, writhing and glittering in the afternoon sun. The weather has cooled as the day has progressed, and the tide is a little lower than usual, which Hayes says could affect how much the fish are biting. Generally, early November is a great time to catch some snook, he says, but when it gets a little chilly like this they tend to bite less frequently.
“We’ll still catch some fish though,” he says.
Whether or not they’ll be “keeper snook” is another story. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, in order to harvest a snook that’s caught during season in the gulf, it must measure between 28 and 33 inches from the lip to the top of the tail. Only one per person can be harvested — fishing speak for kept, cooked and eaten.
Over the next couple of hours, Hayes guides us from location to location, zipping past mangroves and mansions with private docks. The juxtaposition of these stately homes, standing amid such a naturally rustic environment appears to be part of Boca’s draw. I imagine residents stepping out onto their docks and boarding their boats for a day of fishing, then returning home to enjoy their catch in lavish outdoor kitchens, sipping on the finest of wines and sleeping on sheets sewn with the highest of thread counts.
Hayes baits my hook when necessary and casts my line toward areas he think will warrant a nibble from an unsuspecting snook or redfish. As I gain confidence, I begin to cast the line myself, though admittedly it ends up tangled in mangroves more often than not. Nonetheless, between Rey and I we manage to wrestle up a ladyfish and several snook, one of which I even get to hold for a moment with my bare hands. None of our fish end up being large enough to keep, but we’re glad that, despite the challenging weather, Hayes has found a few spots where fish are taking the bait.
There’s a peace and quiet out here that is nearly impossible to come by in everyday life. When I look around at one of the bluest skies I’ve ever seen and a row of homes that belong on the front page of Architectural Digest, I couldn’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be.
And suddenly, Boca’s appeal becomes even more apparent. I have no idea what time it is. And I couldn’t care less.
Boca Grande has done it again. One more fish caught on its hook.
GET ON BOARD:
Captain Mark Futch offers charter service from Tampa Bay to Boca, with pickup and drop-off available from almost any Bay-area airport or waterway. To book, call (941) 964-0234.
Fourth-generation fishing guide Captain Rob Hayes offers daily fishing trips year-round, plus tarpon fishing during the season (April through July). Four, six and eight-hour trips available. For more information or to book, call (941) 697-5247 or (941) 815-6120 or visit hayesbocagrandefishing.com.