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Imperial River

The Imperial River in Bonita Springs is not one of the more popular fishing destinations in a region studded with prime fishing spots. But should you find yourself on or near the river and wondering where to begin, this page should help. 

While the Imperial River may not be a hotspot, it can certainly have its moments. Most of the spots listed below are inconsistent and might take some finagling to make work for you, but there is plenty of fun to be had in the process. My favorite part about the Imperial River is that I can load up a boat or canoe 1/4 mile from my home, launch from one of several spots, and chances are I'll have the river virtually to myself for much of the day.

The lower reaches of the river generally prove to be more productive for finding gamefish such as snook, redfish, and even tarpon, so that's where we'll begin. Seasonally, the Imperial river can offer much different fishing in the same spots due to the salinity of the river, primarily affected by inland rains. In the summer time, when the rains are at their strongest, massive amounts of freshwater flow into the river far to the east. This freshwater inevitably flushes out toward the gulf. This influx of freshwater can completely change the fish population except for a few species like snook and even tarpon who are comfortable in brackish water. 

With that said, if seeking saltwater gamefish in the Imperial, the summertime may not be the time for you. However in the winter, when the saltwater from the gulf has pushed its way upriver, snook, redfish, trout, mangrove snapper, and tarpon can all be found in various parts of the river. Starting at the westernmost point of the river at the channel that connects the Imperial to Fish Trap Bay, a patient angler can find a great snook fishery around the fast moving waters and abundant structure offered by the channel. Mangrove snapper can be found in the area as well, and during saltier times, other species will be happy to move through the channel on incoming and outgoing tides. Heading east from the channel, the docks on the south side of the river will almost certainly hold snook and trout leery of an easy meal.  

To my surprise, one spring morning I came across a large school of redfish patrolling the oysters near the bridge that goes under US 41. To reach this spot, head south from the Imperial/Fish Trap Bay spot following the channel markers. Just before you reach the US 41 bridge, make a left onto the mud flat to the north. It is seriously shallow in parts of this flat, so don't attempt this maneuver in much more than a proper flats boat or kayak. 

Heading east and upriver, the Imperial presents some interesting areas that can all be fishy at the right time. The average depth of the river is only about 5ft, yet there are several spots heading east the jump to 12 to 13 feet deep for a small section. These are all potential wintertime targets when snook are seeking warmer waters upriver. The first around the outside of the Big Bend (see map) region of the river. The depth jumps to 13 ft near the docks while the inside of the bend is a mere 3-4 ft dotted with structure. Soaking some large baits on the bottom here during the winter months might just land you the snook of your dreams. 

Just after the Big Bend heading east, there is a very fish spot on the river that is nothing more than a small pond attached to the river like it's holstered in place. Again, the depth drops sharply to around 12 feet here, and all sorts of interesting fish make their way into this little bay at different times. Usually I don't catch anything on a stop by here, but mangrove snapper, jack crevalle, and even juvenile bull sharks in late spring can be hooked in this curious spot. It is very small though, so if you see somewhere else there (me), move along until they're done. 

Continuing east, the next area of interest is around the Bonita Springs River Park(not Riverside Park in downtown Bonita Springs) just before you pass under US 41. Just to the west of the park is another of those sections that more than doubles in depth, and I for one can't wait to soak a big mullet head on the bottom this winter to see what comes my way. I'll be prepared with a Penn Battle 5000, 30lb braid, and 60lb leader. Look for the pink Adirondack chair bolted to the broken dock. I might be sitting in it pulling in a snook the size of me (6'4 225? Sure...).

The floating dock at the end of the boardwalk leading from the park is rumored to hold early morning snook and juvenile tarpon, presumably during the winter, but I've never been witness to such claims. My lack of proficiency at that spot doesn't slow down the dozens of locals and tourists who will soak a line, only catching catfish as far as I can tell in the mid day sun. I've cut a half dozen lures out of the trees there, so there's plenty of casting practice going on as well. My personal best haul was a Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnow 3D, a Bomber Long-A, a Heddon Super Spook Jr., and a Rapala Skitterwalk all in one stop. That's $25 worth of lures--not bad for a 10 minute stop! Consequently, if you've lost any of those lures at that spot, contact me and I'll be happy to return them to you if I still have them. 

There are snook lights that switch on at certain times of year which almost always bring the small snook, but as I've learned they can be incredibly hard to entice when you see dozens of them swimming back and forth. All of the lights that I know of are between River Park and Fish Trap Bay. You can't miss them!

East of US 41, the river continues to narrow and fishing spots become less scarce. The Imperial River Boat Ramp offers easy access just east of US 41. Small bait can usually be found swimming around in the shallows near the ramp which can be a lifesaver because there is no bait commercially available on the river or for a couple of miles around otherwise. There are sometimes snook swimming around around the docks at the ramp which can be a good opportunity for the angler on foot--anything else is likely to quickly spook them away. 

Further up river, the Riverpark in Bonita Springs on Old 41 has some brackish and freshwater fish swimming around most of the year. I have caught bass, snook, Mayan cichlid, and even been surprised to see a school of sheepshead picking at the rocks lining the riverbanks during the winter months. The docks attached to the park usually have something hiding under them, but I enjoy crossing the red footbridge over to the small island (barely) on the other side of the railroad tracks. There are some interesting features around here and persistence can result in a fun day of catching. 

 The final feature that I am aware of is the Bonita Grande Weir located not so coincidentally on Bonita Grande Rd. It is east of I-75 and is about as far east as you can go while still calling it the Imperial River. East of the weir (dam) it's really more of a canal that shoots straight to the east. At the weir, terrifically fun but surprisingly difficult fishing can be had any time the dam is flowing which is typically exclusively in the summer rainy season. The rains flood the canal to the east and flush most of the small bait fish down river and over the dam. It turns out that snook, gar, and bass are all pretty good at finding these spots too when they are on. At times, a snook can be landed on every cast. Other times, you'll hear the distinctive pop of snook gulping prey everywhere while your lure swims by unmolested. The best bet here is live bait, specifically shiners if you can find them. Estero River Outfitters is a bit of a drive but is rumored to keep them stocked. Rapala and Yo-Zuri style lures can also work here. Some days, there can be a half dozen people jockeying for the 1 pseudo-parking spot and a spot near the flow, while others you can pull in 20 undersized snook without seeing another soul. 


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