The refuge is named for Jay Norwood Darling, a nationally syndicated editorial cartoonist from the first half of the 20th century. He twice won Pulitzer Prizes for his work and in 1934 President Franklin Roosevelt appointed him the director of the U.S. Biological Survey, the forerunner agency of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Darling spent many vacation days on Sanibel. When President Harry Truman signed the legislation to establish the refuge on Sanibel, it naturally followed that it would be Darling’s namesake.
The 6,400-acre NWR stretches from Tarpon Bay on the east to the northern tip of Buck Key near Captiva Island. There also are a couple of isolated tracts on Sanibel proper.
Visitors can traverse portions of the NWR via foot and bicycle trails, canoe trails or on the vehicle Wildlife Drive. A large portion of the area between the wildlife drive and Sanibel Captiva Road is closed to all access, except on designated trails.
The area is composed of mangrove islands and shallow lakes connected by a maze of tidal creeks. The shores teem with waterfowl and wading birds, while the waters are alive with redfish, seatrout and baby tarpon. But, the main draw for anglers is the abundant snook population in these shallow waters.
The snook often are found up under the edge of the overhanging mangroves, ready to pounce on unsuspecting forage that passes by. Unlike many saltwater species that tend to be constantly on the move, snook find ambush points and usually hold in one place.
Another place to look for the snook is around the culverts running under the Wildlife Drive. The fish often target these areas when the tide is moving current through the structures.
Tossing lures or flies up against or under those edges can provoke vicious strikes. Jig-and-plastic trailers or topwater plugs work, as do streamer fly patterns like Clouser Minnows or Lefty’s Deceivers.
For anglers, the best way to tackle these waters is via kayaks. You might ask why paddle to the fishing, rather than just going by boat? The answer is two-fold. First, the water in much of Ding Darling is only 18 inches to 2 feet deep at high tide, dropping to barely 6 inches on the ebb. Even the skinniest running flats boats have trouble negotiating the area.
Secondly, some of the best waters along the north side of the Wildlife Drive and to the north of Wofford Key are limited to paddling and poling only. No motor boats are allowed.
Kayak anglers can launch from several places along the Wildlife Drive or at Tarpon Bay Recreation Area.
When it comes to kayak fishing, using a Hobie Pro Angler series boat is ideal. The higher seat on these sit-on-top models provide a better view of the water, and it is possible to stand in them, especially when using an H-bar to lean on while fishing.
The MirageDrive hands-free pedal system also makes these boats great for fishing. You can propel and guide the craft while never having to quit fishing. It also is possible to hold your position in current. The MirageDrive system can be easily raised when getting into very shallow water as well.
Another new option on these boats is the Power-Pole Micro, a remote-controlled, battery-powered anchoring system that works with the push of a button. The power pole is easy to use, and holds solid, even on harder bottom surfaces.
It’s not very useful to talk about how good a piece of equipment can be, if it’s not possible to try it out. Fortunately, at Ding Darling there’s a way to practically sample the Hobie MirageDrive.
Captiva Kayak Company & Wildside Adventures near McCarthy’s Marina on Captiva Island at the north end of the NWR is one of the few outfitters that offers rentals of the Hobie boats with the MirageDrive.