Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Buttonwood Harbor is diverse and offers many fishing situations

Map of the Buttonwood Harbor area with launch site and islands names.
I've been fishing around Sarasota Bay since 1975.

Fly angler Norm Ferris with a Buttonwood redfish.
First time was at Buttonwood Harbor, an interesting area about midway up Longboat Key. Buttonwood Harbor is one of my favorite spots in Sarasota, possessing a variety of situations that produce a plethora of fish.

I run Southern Drawl Kayak Fishing ( and fish Buttonwood quite often.

Following is the first in a series of my favorite Sarasota Bay spots and how to fish them.


This is my favorite spot, an area I fish most. It's comprised of shallow grass flats, mangrove islands, channels, sand holes and deep grass. It offers many fishing situations which can pay off in most any situation.

Pompano often are plentiful around Buttonwood in winter.
The launch to Buttonwood Harbor is located midway up Longboat Key on the east side. It's difficult to pinpoint the location because it has no address. But there's an overflow parking area across the street from a public beach access. You can park there and launch your kayak through the mangroves. There's a small hotel/resort on the west side called The Beach (3465 Gulf of Mexico Dr.). The public beach access is located just north of The Beach. The kayak launch is directly across the street on the east side. There is ample parking.

The town of Longboat Key grades the launch a couple of times a year. However, rain often washes it out, making it somewhat precarious. Be careful. If you're launching before daylight, use a light so that you can watch your step.

Beginning fly angler Vinny Caruso caught a hefty trout.
There's a grass flat immediately in front of the launch. At times you can take redfish, spotted seatrout, snook and other species on the flat or along its edges. It's best to fish the flat at dawn and dusk with jigs, topwater plugs and jerk worms.

Be careful when paddling across the flat before daylight. Manatee like to sleep on the flat. Although they're docile animals, the can make quite a commotion when you paddle across them. I did that once and was amazed how easy it was for the surprised manatee to lift my kayak out of the water!

There are eight mangrove islands within the Buttonwood area. Two -- Whale Key and White Key -- are named. Whale Key is the easternmost island of the group. White Key is the northernmost. But I have named them all.

Beginning with White Key and running south, there are Black Key, Crabclaw Key, Red Key, Little Whale Key, Whale Key, Oyster Key and South Key. Most of my friends have learned the names so they know what I'm talking about when I discuss daily results.

My favorite area to fish is an grass edge on the south side of Whale Key. Redfish, snook and spotted seatrout. I like to fish this area November through April. It's particularly good to fish on a negative low tide. That's when I'll anchor the kayak and wade.

Fly fishing can be good along the edge. I will use a 7-weight rod, floating line and 9-foot leader. My go-to fly is my Gibby's Duster  Fly. Clouser Deep Minnows are a good choice, too. Any baitfish imitation will work.
It's along that edge where monster seatrout often will congregate. On one trip, a client of mine caught three huge trout from 6 to 7 1/2 pounds on topwater plugs. I had a morning where I caught several trout from 6 1/2 to 9 pounds on MirrOlure MirrOdines.

For redfish and snook, I like to use a MirrOlure Little John on a 1/16-ounce Norton Jig.

You can work the edge as far out as you can walk.

On the east side of Whale Key, there's a grass edge that's productive at times. There is a series of sand holes on the east edge of the grass that redfish, snook and trout like to hang out in at low tide. It can be a good area in which to sight-fish. Again, I like to anchor the kayak and wade.

When fishing sand holes, the MirrOlure Little John on a light jig works best.

Another good redfish area is on the south side of Red Key, a small island just north of the Buttonwood channel. This area is best a dawn. My lures of choice include a MirrOlure Top Pup or She Dog, Little John on a light jig or gold spoon.

The bay between Red, Crabclaw and Little Whale can be very productive on the incoming tide -- particularly if there are plenty of mullet on the flat.

A couple of years ago, I had Norm Ferris, a fly angler from South Carolina, out in Buttonwood. He wanted to catch a redfish on fly, but fish were few and far between. We fished a number of areas with little success.
After fishing behind White Key, we paddled south toward Crabclaw. As we turned the corner and looked in the bay between the trio (Crabclaw, Red and Little Whale), we saw a load of mullet. Ferris caught a pair of oversized reds in about 10 minutes.

I like to fish behind White Key to the north. Redfish love to patrol the flat at high tide. You'll also find a few snook there. Reds will also hang out on the edges of the flat at low tide.
Pompano, bluefish and Spanish mackerel are often caught in deeper areas just off the flats during fall, winter and early spring.

The main channel leading into Buttonwood from Sarasota Bay holds good numbers of seatrout, flounder, pompano and other species. I like to drift the edges there and cast jigs or MirrOdines.
Drifting any of the edges of many Buttonwood flats on the incoming tide usually results in plenty of seatrout and an occasional redfish.

Oh, there are a few tarpon in the area. About six years ago, I hooked a giant tarpon in front of South Key on a topwater plug. Tarpon often congregate there to feed on ladyfish, pilchards and whatever bait might be around.

I have also seen a few tarpon in the Buttonwood channels and out in front (east) of Whale Key.

I caught two permit along the south edge of Whale Key in the last year.

This past winter saw a remarkable run of pompano in the Buttonwood area. I found them in a large hole at low tide behind South Key and along the southern edge of Whale Key. We caught them on Clouser Deep Minnows (fly rod) and on MirrOdines.

Buttonwood is a large and diverse area. I fish it regularly and probably have more than 50 spots that I fish within an easy paddle.

If you're interested in the Big Two (redfish and snook), you want to concentrate on the flats, around mangroves or along the edges.

I prefer to fish the last two hours or a falling negative tide and the first couple of hours of the incoming.

If I'm searching for reds on the flats, one of the keys is mullet. Find the mullet and you'll likely find reds.
Clients often ask if the redfish are feeding on mullet?


But my theory is that the reds are feeding on whatever the mullet might be stirring up -- crabs, shrimp, worms, baitfish.

Just south of Whale Key and about 100 years off South Key is Helicopter Shoal. I've caught quite a few large seatrout along the edge of that shoal. At low tide, you can find trout and other species in sand holes atop the shoal and along the edges.

The deeper water off the east tip of the shoal hold good numbers of bluefish during the cooler months.
If you're interested in flounder, Buttonwood is the place. You can catch them year round, but you can actually target them in October and November. Just work sandy bottom off the edges of the flats with a D.O.A. CAL Jig and paddle tail or MirrOlure Little John on a jig head.

As you might have surmised, there's a lot of good fishing around Buttonwood Harbor. It's offers a myriad of fishing situations for a variety of species.

Good luck!

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