Published November 2023
Pine Island has the distinction of being the largest Island in Florida and it is made from the same type of coral rock as the rest of Florida. Surrounding Pine Island, you will find mangrove forest and several aquatic preserves.
Four distinct bodies of water surround Pine Island. To the north is Charlotte Harbor, to the east is Matlacha Pass, on the south is San Carlos Bay and on the west between Pine Island and the barrier islands is Pine Island Sound.
Each body of water presents its own challenges, beauty, and rich history. Exploring each can be a rewarding experience, that is if you take your time and do a little research before heading out. Here is a bit of background on each of these distinct waterways to get you started.
On the eastern shores of Pine Island is Matlacha Pass. Back in the 1880’s it was called Metlochat Sound when the Chief Engineer of the United States Army was looking for safe passages on the west coast of Florida. In his report back to Washington he described the middle channel as “tortuous and impassable for vessels of more than 2–foot draught.”
The 1880 report concluded its finding by noting that, “No expenditure for dredging any of its channels would be justified by the present trade.” So Metlochat Sound remained an undeveloped waterway.
Up until a bridge was built in 1928 locals would wade across this middle section at low tide to get to Pine Island. Today this middle section is the home to Matlacha and its many small shops and restaurants.
Matlacha serves as the dividing line between the north and south sections of Matlacha Pass. Both the north and south sides are populated by many small islands. Some of these islands are protected by the Matlacha Pass National Wildlife Refuge. Boaters traversing these waters will find a variety of seasonal nesting birds and a large assortment of native plants.
The protected islands are managed by the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. The U.S. Department of the Interior Fish and Wildlife Service issued a Comprehensive Conservation Plan and Environmental Assessment Pine Island, Matlacha Pass, Island Bay, and Caloosahatchee National Wildlife Refuges Charlotte and Lee Counties, Florida in May of 2010. This report which can be found online provides great information on what you will see and a place to learn the names of many of the islands around Pine Island.
The south end of Matlacha Pass has never been dredged. The navigation aids mark the natural flow of the shallow waters. The many twists and turns can be a challenge to new boaters and many local boat rental companies discourage renters from attempting these waters. Some charts are noted: “local knowledge required.”
In the north end of Matlacha Pass boaters will find the waterways easier to navigate as it leads you north to Charlotte Harbor and around Bokeelia to Pine Island Sound.
At the top of Pine Island, the Matlacha Pass Channel skirts Charlotte Harbor and leads boaters to the entrance to Charlotte Harbor between Boca Grande and Cayo Costa. From here boaters have many options.
To the east boaters can explore Charlotte Harbor and head up the Peace River. Traveling north takes you into Gasparilla Sound and on up toward Tampa. Continuing west leads you out to the Gulf of Mexico. Turning south boaters can explore Pine Island Sound.
Pine Island Sound
Pine Island Sound has a rich history and fishing has been a major part of it. In the center of the sound Useppa Island and Cabbage Key are popular destinations. Many other islands, although currently uninhabited, have interesting backgrounds. These islands are owned privately or by a governmental body so exploring them is prohibited.
South of Useppa Island you can find the remains of a set of historic fishing shacks that have been preserved. Like many pieces of history, they were almost all lost to hurricanes, fire, and desire by some to just tear them down. Local preservationist worked to save the remaining ones and in 1991 managed to get them listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The barrier islands on the west of Pine Island Sound, Sanibel, Captiva, North Captiva, and Cayo Costa provide boaters with a variety of places to dock and explore. One of the best-preserved beaches can be found on Cayo Costa. Although at one time development of the island was undertaken there has been no commercial development on the island’s beach. The result is visitors will find a unique and pristine waterfront experience.
Navigation of Pine Island Sound became easier in the 1960’s when the Federal government invested in extending the Intracoastal Waterway through the area. Construction of this portion of the Gulf Coast Intracoastal Waterway began in 1960 and consisted of dredging navigable channels where needed. This stretch of the Intracoastal system runs from the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River in San Carlos Bay up to Tampa.
Boaters undertaking the journey around The Great Loop often use Pine Island Sound and the many small bays as a place to stop and rest and relax for a day or two. Local boaters also use these protected bays as a place to drop anchor and enjoy and afternoon.
San Carlos Bay
San Carlos Bay is the body of water at the south end of Pine Island and serves as the southern entrance to the area’s waters from the Gulf of Mexico. On the north end of San Carlos Bay, you find the convergence of the Caloosahatchee River, Matlacha Pass and Pine Island Sound.
Prior to 1960’s and the opening of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway most boats were not able to cross the northern part of the bay. Boats heading south in Pine Island Sound had to run down the northeast end of Sanibel Island, past Point Ybel, and then across the bay to the channel in the center of San Carlos Bay before heading back north to either Matlacha Pass, or the Caloosahatchee River.
This detour was required due to a large shoal in San Carlos Bay at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River between Punta Rasa and St. James City. At best during high tide the water depth across the shoal was two feet, making passage impossible.
The work to build the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway through this area created a mile long channel that was originally 100 feet wide and 9 feet deep. This passage shorted the trip for the many coal barges that had to navigate up the Caloosahatchee River to the power plant located where the Caloosahatchee and Orange rivers meet.
This passage soon was to be known as the Miserable Mile by the barge captains. The tide, wind and currents would occasionally push one of the barges crossways in the channel blocking boat traffic, sometimes for days. Even NOAA took notice of the issues in this passage and all published charts of the area included this warning, “Strong currents are encountered, especially during the ebb of spring tide between “2A” and “8”.”
Today boaters can still find this dredged channel miserable as there is no posted speed limit. Meaning you can experience large wakes as you meet and pass oncoming vessels. Even with a current width approaching 200 feet with the shoal on either side there is not much room to maneuver to avoid large boat wakes.
Paddle Craft Paradise
Visitors to Pine Island who are paddle craft enthusiasts can enjoy exploring the waters on the many miles of marked trails found on The Great Calusa Blueway. There are several dedicated paddle craft launch ramps on Pine Island where boats can access the Blueway.
The trails can take you from Cayo Costa, across Pine Island Sound, trough Bokeelia, down Matlacha Pass and across to Ft. Myers or back up the barrier islands. Maps of the trails are available locally at various establishments, and online at www.CalusaBlueway.com.
No matter how you elect to enjoy the waters around Pine Island please remember to do so safely. If you are new to boating you might find these waters challenging. If your boating experience has been limited to inland lakes and rivers you will quickly find the effect of tides, winds and the current to be a challenge. So be prepared.
Consider obtaining and studying some local charts. The Lee County SWFL Waterway Boaters Guide is a great reference tool and is free at many locations. The guide is available online at: http://swflwaterways.com. Talk to local boaters as they are happy to share their knowledge of the waters. Go out with a local charter boat captain, they know the waters and have lots of “secret” fishing spots to take you to. And yes, please consider taking a local safe boating course.
Stay safe on the water.
Thomas E. Dawson