Cape Romano

Don Belzowski

One of the best campsites we’ve ever pitched a tent on has to be our stay at Big Morgan Island on Cape Romano.  Cape Romano is south of Caxambas Pass right under Marco Island on the southwest tip of Florida.  Cape Romano is actually a group of barrier islands including Helen Key, Fred Key, Kice Island, Big Morgan Island and, of course, Cape Romano IslandAlthough the interior is the typical mangrove environment of the Ten Thousand Islands, the gulfside beaches are fine white sand with a rich variety of shells, driftwood and grasses.

Camping World

Depending on the weather we would consider this trip fairly easy.  Our first visit was a day-long exploration of the area in preparation for a longer visit.  We left the Caxambas marina, crossed the pass and were into the shelter of the islands shortly.  We passed Fred Key and paddled Snook Hole Channel to the Morgan River.  Then we took a small creek into the northern end of Morgan Bay and found our way to Big Morgan Island and the Gulf.  Without any further looking we knew this was our campsite!  A snow white sand beach site well above the high tide line, a deep fish-loaded creek in front of our beach with access to the Gulf, plenty of driftwood and a light breeze off of the Gulf to keep down any potential bug problems.  Later we would see as we explored the Gulf shoreline that as nice as our site was almost anywhere along the coast would have been excellent.  Cape Romano is beach camping at its best.  After a bit more exploring we returned to the marina excited about the trip to come.

For our next departure we needed a safe place to leave our trucks while we were gone and found the Calusa Island Marina in Goodland.  They have a launch ramp and would allow us to park our trucks inside the locked facility for ten bucks!  They were very accommodating, have a clean neat marina with a ships’ store for last minute ice and bait.  Although this is a farther paddle to Cape Romano it allowed us to fish and explore the islands around Coon Key Pass.  We set out from the marina and immediately hooked up on some fish so we hung around and enjoyed the action for a while.

Leaving the islands and the fish we came out into Gullivan Bay southeast of Helen Key and headed for Blind Pass.  This is fairly open water and wind might make it a bit of a rough paddle if it came out of the south or east.  Depending on the wind we could have gone around the northern side of Helen Key–which is exactly what we did have to do on the return trip!

When we reached Blind Pass we headed south on the Morgan River and immediately hooked up with a big snook.  We had released all of our other fish but this one went into the cooler for dinner!  Retracing our earlier route through Morgan Bay we reached our Big Morgan Island campsite, set up for the night and gathered driftwood for an evening fire.  The weather was cool with a light breeze and it was still early so we explored the island.  The beaches are all soft white sand unlike the shell sand of the east coast but they were littered with an interesting variety of shells, sponges and sea fans–most of which were in excellent condition.

Back at camp we started our fire, cleaned the snook and fire-grilled him for one of the best wild campsite dinners we have ever had.  We dusted the filets with some spices, sprayed them with a little cooking oil and held the filets over a very hot fire in a flat folding wire mesh grilling basket we had picked up for just this opportunity.  With fresh roasted vegetables as a side we were stuffed and done for the day.  That evening before dinner we heard snook popping bait in the mangroves of the creek and a few casts of a surface lure nailed a large snook which was released.  We hooked up with a couple more but didn’t land them.  Still–lots of fun.

The next day we travelled south along the gulf coast and came to a channel where Morgan Bay emptied into the Gulf.  The interesting thing is that on our navigation chart this opening isn’t there!  Cape Romano is a barrier island and the coastline constantly shifts due to tides, storms and waves.  Channels open that weren’t there before and disappear just as quickly.  The creek at our campsite does not empty into the gulf on our charts but does in the real world.  But all of this could change again.  We made this trip before Hurricane Wilma came through the area and we imagine the coastline changed dramatically!

All along this coast were excellent locations to camp.  Cape Romano is not part of Everglades National Park and to the best of our knowledge there are no permit requirements–at least there weren’t any when we made the trip.   But the cities of Marco Island and Naples are very close and a short trip by powerboat.  We made the trip on a weekend and saw other boats and a few pwc’s but they were no problem.  But if you want the best chance of solitude try to make the trip on weekdays to avoid the crowd as much as you can.

We fished our way down the coast and caught a variety of different fish–none large but fun just the same.  Along the way we saw remnants of old pilings that probably supported fish houses for the commercial fishing industry in the past.  One piling structure looked intact and inviting but all access had been removed.  Finally, at the southern tip of the Cape we came upon a very strange building built on concrete pilings.  You’ll see a photograph in the web gallery at the end of the article but the building is completely white and looks like a series of interconnected concrete igloos serving as the dwelling’s individual rooms all raised above the ground on the pilings.  Unfortunately the building was a ruin.  From the best we could find out at the time this was a private home built in about 1972.  The land is unincorporated and no permits appeared to have been necessary back when it was built.  But barrier islands are very unstable and the pilings apparently never found solid footing so the sea and time undermined the structure and it partially collapsed.  It was interesting to explore and easy to see why someone might wish to live here however misguided the project appeared to be.

We only did a two night trip so we decided the next day to explore the back bays for more fishing opportunities before we had to leave.  We saw a lot of action but didn’t hook up.  The bays were very shallow and were spooking fish before we could cast to them.  Mostly they were just mullet but we did raise some much bigger fish we never identified.

Our trip back was a bit windy once out of the islands so we took the north side of Helen Key for shelter.  We were a bit gritty from the sand and salt, sunburned and a little tired but already looking to explore the parts of the islands we did not get to see.  Especially interesting to us would be to explore the Gullivan Bay side of Cape Romano Island.  There is a deep channel there and shallow flats that promise great fishing.

When we return to see what Wilma did and fish the flats we will be sure to post our trip here ON THE WILD SIDE!

Map of Cape Romano Area