If you’ve been paying any attention to the fishing-focused, conservation landscape over the last half-decade, you’ve probably become quite familiar with the organization “Captains for Clean Water.” They’re responsible for a myriad of salt-water-focused conservation initiatives, but are best known for their ongoing fight to improve South Florida’s water quality crisis and stimulate Everglades Restoration (read more on that here). Who’s helping steer this battleship? None other than CFCW co-founder and Captain: Chris Wittman.

Alongside CFCW Executive Director, Cpt. Daniel Andrews, Chris has been a driving force for change in Florida’s fight for ecological protection and restoration and has become, more or less, a poster child for the efforts of ‘Captains’ over the years. However, while many may recognize him from his appearances on the congressional steps of DC, or rallies and fundraiser events across the lower 48, few actually know Chris’ story. That’s why, in this special Behind the Guides feature, presented by Costa Sunglasses’: King Tide, (learn more, HERE) we’ll be taking a look into the former life of Captain: Chris Wittman, and what events transpired to launch him from a polling platform to the podium to fight on the frontlines of one of the biggest saltwater conservation battles in our country’s history.

Flylords: For those who don’t know, who are you? 

Chris: My name is Chris Wittman, I was born and raised in Southwest Florida, and I am the Co-founder and Program Director of Captains for Clean Water.

Flylords: Going back to the beginning, what was your childhood in Southwest Florida like? 

Chris: I grew up on Sanibel Island, which is off the coast of Fort Myers, just North of Estero Island, which is actually where my mom grew up. My parents’ best friends, who also lived in Estero Island, owned multiple boat dealerships and marinas. So, as a kid, I was on one of those two islands and spent the majority of my time fishing on those boats, surfing, really you name it – all that mattered to me was that I was in the water. As early as I could remember, I loved fishing. A lot of my time as a kid was just spent cruising those islands on a skateboard or a bicycle with a fishing rod in hand exploring areas where I could find some fish. I still have vivid memories of catching a giant snook on a spoon with a spinning rod for the first time while walking the beach.

Photo of Chris (front) making his first casts at the age of 2 .

Flylords: When it came to fishing, who were some of your strongest influences growing up?

Chris: I’d have to say, [in terms of] who got me into the sport was my dad and my dad’s best friend, Frank Porter. My family didn’t own any fancy boats, so most of my fishing was where you could access on foot from the beach, or walking from canoe – stuff like that. However, my family’s best friend did own a marina and a lot of boats, so we would take trips to some of the barrier islands and fish, but neither one of them was a real hardcore or accomplished fisherman. They were just recreational.

They would tie a spoon on a spinning rod and go make a thousand casts and would catch redfish and snook and whatnot. They weren’t in it to catch fish, they just loved to be out there. I’d do little of that, but as a young kid I’d make a dozen or so casts and if I wasn’t catching fish, I’d walk down the beach with a cast net trying to get something to hand.

Photos of Chris in his teens and early 20’s, displaying catches from different fishing excursions.

As I got older got into fishing myself, some of my biggest professional influences were Jose Wejebe, and Flip Pallot – like many people. It’s wild to reflect on that because of my career path of being a fishing guide, I actually ended up becoming friends with a lot of the same people who were my idols as a child. Jose and I actually became friends and he became a mentor for me when I just started guiding. He took me under his wing and showed me the roadmap of how he went about it from guiding, to tournaments, to television. Still, years later, I’m buddies with Flip. We guide hunts together and fish when we can. That’s one thing that’s very special about fishing. What other career pursuits do people get to become friends with their idols or people that they looked up to as kids?

Flylords: What inevitably led you to become a fishing guide?

Chris: I loved the water so much. As a kid, I would get out of elementary school, ride my bike down to the causeway to Sanibel, take books out of my backpack and put them under the bridge, get a cast net to catch mullet and put them in my backpack, and take them up to the bait shop to sell to this guy. It’s funny, looking back, he definitely did not need my mullet. He was just entertaining a kid.

Additionally, my father was a contractor. He built homes and many of the homes he worked on were on the water. Growing up in the family business, I’d find myself framing trusses or a house and gazing down the water at the snook under the dock, or I’d just pass the time working, wondering what was out there. The water is where I was happiest, so once I figured out that I could make an ok living as a fishing guide and get to have that water be my office, it felt like the natural fit for me.

Chris and an old four-legged friend showing off a freshly landed snook. (Circa: 2001)

Flylords: From there, what did the process of becoming an official guide look like? 

Chris: I had to ease my way in at first. I didn’t have any financial safety net, so I started doing stuff part-time when I could – a lot of it even before I owned my own boat. I was a decent enough angler, so I would go on other people’s boats and teach them how to fish. That really started through my connection with the Porters, who owned Bonita Boat Center. They would sell boats to people who maybe had just moved [to Florida] and I would go out and show them the area and show them how to fish, what kind of rods and reels they should buy, just general advice. That was my first step into giving guidance to people on how to be successful out there. As far as being a Captain and being a guide, it was not until the year 2000 that I started guiding, and pretty quickly within a couple of years, I became full-time.

Chris (left) with a monster Permit and a happy client (circa: 2004).

Flylords: How’d your first season as a full-time guide go? 

Chris: Oh, it was not flawless, and definitely came with a learning curve. I think the biggest of which, was learning how to deal with different people and conditions. It’s one thing for you to be able to go out and catch fish, but another to navigate different personalities and their vision of success. Is it fish? Is it the total experience? Being able to identify what that is and then provide that to your client takes experience. That’s something you learn and you craft. It’s not all about catching fish. It’s providing the experience that your customer is looking for. Many times, I’ve had clients whose definition of success was just to get on a boat to decompress and talk to me about whatever I was into. They just wanted to unplug from a very stressful job, whether we caught fish or not was totally irrelevant to those guys.

My first few years I was just eager to perfect that, and so I was pretty broad in what I would take as far as the trip. I would take people sightseeing, I would take people out to the beach to go shelling. I would take people who were hardcore anglers out fishing for snook, redfish, and tarpon, or take families who had never caught a fish before out fishing. I took people out to spread their loved one’s ashes. I remember taking people out to see waterfront real estate by boat. Whatever I could do to make money and be out there, I would do.

Flylords: How did your career progress from there? 

Chris: It wasn’t until I really matured as a guide that I started to boil that down to what I wanted to do and the type of business that I wanted to create. That’s when Jose came in. What intrigued me about fishing was perfecting being a technical fisherman. It was about perfecting patterning fish, what was happening. I quickly realized what I really wanted in a customer or client was an angler who came here specifically to fish, who built their trip around fishing. They were here 10 days and fishing 8 of them; versus the vacationer who was here and was playing golf one day and was like, “Oh, we should maybe go fishing tomorrow.” There’s a place and a need for a captain and guide in all of those scenarios, but I wanted to cater to smaller parties, one or two people, who were looking to do more technical fishing and who were with me to fish and fish hard. By the time I was in my 10th year, it was, “These are my clients and this is my program,” and I didn’t stray much from there.

Flylords: What were some of the toughest challenges you faced when getting to that 10-year mark?

Chris: I think coming back to understanding the desires of the client and recognizing that not every client is out there for the same thing. Then, to approach the trip that you’re building around that, and not around what you personally want to do. Understanding their level of ability, skill set, whatever it is, is important. In the beginning, I made plenty of mistakes when I wanted to go catch this big snook out of the mangroves and run a long way to do it in hard-to-reach places. When, actually, the people that I was with probably would’ve been happier not running for an hour in rough water and getting beat up to go get broken off by a big snook that they couldn’t turn, and would’ve rather been fishing near the boat ramp and catching trout.

There are things like that that just as a young guy, you start to identify. That’s ultimately what led me to start to identify that I wanted clients who can go do the things that I want to do. I don’t want to go a half mile from the boat ramp and trout fish. It’s not challenging to me. I’m not going to enjoy that as a guide. That’s what led me to realize that I need to build a client base and a model that wants to go do what I want to do as a guide and separate myself from the other stuff that isn’t as appealing or challenging to me – otherwise, I was going to burn out fast.

Another thing that was tricky for me was not recognizing red flags. In the beginning, I was hungry and willing to take every trip. I quickly started learning to identify when to pull the plug and not try to force a trip, whether it was bad weather or just bad omens.

I can remember one time I had a client who had called me to book fly-fishing for tarpon relatively early in my career, probably five to eight years in. He called me and said, “I want to catch a tarpon on the fly. I’ve never caught tarpon on the fly.” So, I booked him for five days. It started when he would call me every two weeks to check and ask questions – which was fine at first. As we got closer, it was like a couple times a week, asking questions like, “What about this rod? What about this type of line?” I’d tell him, “Look, if you have a certain rod you want to bring, you can bring it. But we’re going to be throwing 10 to 12 weights, floating lines, and some intermediate tips, but I’ll have everything you need.”

During these conversations, his experience changed from “I’ve never caught tarpon on fly,” to, “Well, I’ve caught Tarpon, but not any big ones.” What was happening was this guy was reading a bunch of magazines and was telling me what he thought I wanted to hear. When it was time to fish, he showed up to get on this little skiff with him and a buddy and he had a duffel bag that I could have fit inside of – full of store-bought flies and lines and reels. I think he had 12 rods.

I fished him for two days, and for two days, he couldn’t get the belly out of the rod tip. We had fish swimming 30 feet from the boat that he couldn’t feed. We had low tides and I decided to take them over to some flats to try to catch some tailing redfish like, “Look, maybe you won’t have to cast as far here.” About two hours into that third day, he had so many shots at redfish that he just couldn’t make happen. Don’t get me wrong, it’s totally fine to not be a proficient angler – that’s why many people get a guide in the first place. But, about a couple of hours into that third day, after days of not listening to my instructions, he looked at me and said, “This fishery is just not what it’s cracked up to be.”

I remember clear as day, and I probably shouldn’t have done this, but I was young and cocky; I climbed down the poling platform and asked to see his rod. I took it, made a false cast, dropped the fly in front of a redfish, hooked it, handed him the rod with a fish on, and made him reel it in. I then took him back to the dock and told him I didn’t think we were going to be able to fish for the next couple of days. He was not happy with me. I shouldn’t have handled it that way, but I learned a lot from that experience.

Flylords: When in your guiding career would you say you began to realize there were some serious problems with the fishery that needed to be addressed?

Chris: When I was in my 11th year guiding, I had really followed in the footsteps of what Jose had laid out for me. At that point, I was traveling and doing redfish tournaments for the ESPN Redfish Cup. At the beginning of that point in my career, I really began to recognize the impacts of habitat loss because of water management and water quality. But I didn’t yet recognize it as something that had to change right away. I recognized it as things were changing and I had to adapt. It was a pretty naive way to look at it.

Chris in his competition days.

I can remember at one point, one of my best clients was more aware of the issues with water management around the sugar industry than I was, and he was from Ohio. He came down here every single year and fished with me for 30+ days a year. We would be having these huge discharges from Lake O, and he was asking me questions that I did not have the answers to.

My response at that time was, “Yeah, it’s a problem, but there’s nothing we can do about it.” I mean, at that point, there was a plan in place for 10 years of to do something about it, but I wasn’t aware of it, and it really wasn’t working. My method of dealing with it was to fish areas away from the affected areas. The oyster bars and grass flats I fished as a kid were dead and didn’t exist anymore. Lots of the places I grew up fishing were now deserts…

I guess it wasn’t until I came back from filming the first season of a TV show that I was producing in the spring of 2016. I came back to a water crisis, charters being canceled, hotels and restaurants being empty, and a devastated ecosystem. A young fishing guide, Daniel Andrews, who’s the other founder of the organization, came to me and said, “Something has to change and we need to figure out what we can do about it.”  That was a six-year guide telling me, in my 20th year, that we needed to do something. It should have been the other way around, but it wasn’t. That’s when the lightbulb went off.

Very quickly, we realized the faulty view that many of us had, which was knowing about this big problem and thinking we couldn’t do anything about it, when in reality, we were the only ones who could actually do something.

Flylords: What role does conservation participation play in a guide’s job?

Chris: The biggest role that conservation plays in the act of guiding is working towards the sustainability of the resource that your guiding career depends upon. Guiding is a platform for you to educate people on the importance of that resource. You’ve got people captive on your boat that are experiencing something that you love that they’re creating memories on. There’s no better time to get people to understand that the experience that they’re having is not infinite and fragile. While they’re out there experiencing it, this is the best time for you to tell them about joining an effort to protect that fishery or to make that fishery better or sustainable or right down to practices: whether that’s handling practices, how you’re treating fish, not keeping everything you catch, or just demonstrating catch and release. You have an obligation and an opportunity as a guide to not just guide them to that experience, but to guide them to be a steward of every resource they touch that day after.

CFCW Co-founder, Cpt. Daniel Andrews (left) and Chris (right), putting in time on the water to collect some local data.

Flylords: What did the early days of Captains for Clean Waters look like?

Chris: It started with Daniel and I in 2016. Then, the career that I had built was very high-end technical fishing. So, you got a single guy or two guys pay $1200 a day to come fish, and they want to fish for 8-10 days straight. However, you can’t do that when there’s a water crisis going on. They’re not out there to sightsee – when you can’t see six inches into the water because the water’s so crappy, you can’t sight-fish. So, immediately, we had a lot of time on our hands. That’s when we started asking questions. We started calling scientists. We started going to policy makers whom we had connections with. We were pretty naive at that point and very pissed off. We wanted answers.


At first, we were more scared and worried than pissed off, but the more we started learning about why we were in this situation, the more that fear transitioned to anger. After enough inquiry, we eventually ended up talking to scientists who had been working on this issue for 20 years. As we listened, we realized that there was this plan to fix it, but it was entrenched in political bureaucracy and the Big Sugar industry that was dictating policy. Hearing that was infuriating.

Meanwhile, they’re getting water management policies that prioritize irrigation and drainage for them at the expense of us, our fishery, our community, the Everglades, and tens of thousands of people. That’s when we really started to recognize the machine behind Big Sugar: the propaganda, misinformation, and confusion campaigns came here from the middle of the state to hold a closed-door press conference. We’re being given little pieces of seemingly factual information that they’re taking out of context to suggest the problem isn’t Big Sugar – all to distract from what’s really happening.

Arial image of algae blooms occuring due to effects of big sugar's unethical water control practices.
Aerial image of algae blooms occurring due to the effects of big sugar’s unethical water control practices.

Eventually, I snuck into one of those press conferences. It was in a really small room, like 15 by 20 foot room, and it was a PR team – not farmers, not scientists – a group of massive corporations and PR teams giving these little pieces of cherry-picked data. Then I started asking them questions. It didn’t take long before they shut the whole press conference down and the media left. There are powerful entities at play that are having this impact on us and it’s not by accident. This is prioritizing one industry over everyone else, and that’s when we really got pissed. That anger is what motivated us and still what motivates us today. This went from “my fishery is suffering” to a fight of right versus wrong.

Flylords: When was it that this became enough and you all felt you needed to step away from guiding and dedicate all resources towards this fight? 

Chris: For the first part of 2016, we were just chasing opportunities. We recognized there were serious forces at play working against us. At first, we would still guide when we could, but a lot of it was now spending time getting news agencies out on the water to see it, in hopes of generating awareness. We were doing it on our own dime and our own time. It wasn’t like, “Let’s build this organization,” but more so, “We have to get the word out about this. If everybody knew about this problem, something would be done to fix it.” After a few months of that, we came up with the name – Captains for Clean Water.

photo taken at the first ever 'Captains for Clean Water' meeting. (circa: 2016). Via: Captains for Clean Waters Facebook Page.
photo taken at the first ever ‘Captains for Clean Water’ meeting. (circa: 2016). Via: Captains for Clean Waters Facebook Page.

The same night we came up with the name, we put together a Facebook page and realized there were a lot of people like us who were affected, who didn’t know what to do. They were scared, angry, and felt they had no way to seek change. They wanted to see change. The day or two after that press conference that I snuck into, we called for a public meeting on our Facebook page at the local Bass Pro Shop. We expected maybe a dozen or so people would show up, but when we got there, we were in shock: In a line out the door, there were over 300 people waiting, including what seemed like every media outlet in Southwest Florida.

There was us, a couple of fishing guides who shared what we experienced, and we discussed what we saw with the propaganda and misinformation in that closed-door press conference. That was when the public became aware of Captains for Clean Water, but it was also when Big Sugar became aware. They didn’t know who Daniel and I were before that, but when we shut down the press conference, within an hour of that, there was a vehicle outside of my house taking pictures. They immediately wanted to figure out who we were, and that was the start of us realizing there was a tremendous amount of opportunity not to turn this into a movement. We had never seen that in our lives growing up and living here. If thought that if we could harness that and give it direction and push it, maybe we could start to affect change. We had no idea if we could pull it off or not, but we knew that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

So, we kept with it, and very organically, we kept putting out content about what we were seeing and hearing. That transitioned into agencies, public pressure, news stories running, the Army Corps of Engineers having to show up at a town hall where you got 1500 angry citizens. It was this firestorm of people who cared that kept us chasing opportunities. If there was an opportunity to speak to a news agency, an opportunity to get a reporter on a boat, meet with stakeholders, we took it. The more of those opportunities we took and chased, the less time there was to guide. It wasn’t like, “Hey, let’s stop guiding,” it was just more so we were chasing and weren’t quitting. If it ended up with us being broke and homeless, then so be it, but we were chasing it. It almost came close to that a couple of times, but with the support of our friends and family, we started looking at how to actually create an organization that can harness this and steer it, nurture it, and grow it.

Daniel (left) and Chris (right) attended a local rally at Fort Myers City Hall with Mayor Henderson, demonstrating for their cause. (circa: 2016).

Within less than a year, we created an actual 501(c)(3) organization. We knew that the pathway to this was education. The way to overcome the misinformation and propaganda that was being put out by Sugar to divide and confuse communities was to educate those communities on the truth, facts, and back it up with science. So we created an educational organization to do that, and a board of directors to provide us with oversight. We didn’t want there to be any doubts about our intentions and motives.

From there, we just kept our foot on the gas and built it. We never really had the resources to fight this fight, and I would say we still don’t. It’s a David versus Goliath type fight, and we’re always under gunned and outspent, but we have passion and anger fueling our entire team, and that’s something that our opposition could never buy.

expose campaign via Captains in Feb 2022, showcasing the latest "red tide" to occur in Southwest Florida due to policies a proposed bill would protect (the bill was killed, largely in part due to 'Captains' work)
Exposé campaign via Captains in Feb 2022, showcasing the latest “red tide” to occur in Southwest Florida due to policies a proposed bill would protect (the bill was killed, largely in part due to ‘Captains’ work)

Flylords: Where you are right now, do you think that you would ever be in a position to drive this kind of change had you not become a fishing guide?

Chris: No, definitely not. I think what fuels this organization and this effort to this day is passion, and that comes from losing something you love. The threat of losing the fishery, the reality of giving up your dream job, that’s what fuels us. We’re not going to quit. Once you’ve made those sacrifices and you’ve seen those losses, you’re not going to give up. So no, I don’t think either one of us could have done this to this affect without being a fishing guide. Because of that, we approached this effort totally out of the box. We did not understand NGO work, conservation organization, work structure, etc. All we understood was that we saw this need, and took our own unique approach to building the machine.

Flylords: What advice would you give to a young guide out there, facing similar issues with their fishery, but who’s unsure of where to start?

Chris: I would first start by asking them a question. Are they concerned or scared that the future of the resource they love is at stake? If they’re not, they should be. Then I would tell them that hindsight is 20/20. There’s nothing like a Monday morning quarterback. For me, I can speak from a point of experience. I built an entire career and was never involved in trying to save the very resource that was the foundation of my career and my way of life. It’s a poor approach to take. I had noticed these issues for a long time, but just felt like, “I’m one person, what can I do?” I was just sitting back and hoping that somebody would fix my problems.

The likelihood of someone else saving you or your fishery is slim to none. You’d better take the initiative and fight with everything you have, like you’re protecting your family or yourself. What I could provide to that person now, that I didn’t have, is proof that individual guides can be champions in creating change.

Take, for instance, people like Benny Blanco – a fishing guide in the Keys. He didn’t go to school to learn how to do this. He didn’t expect somebody else to know how to do it. Benny is one of the greatest champions that the fight for the Everglades has ever seen. There are people like Daniel Andrews, who, in his fifth year into guiding, came to somebody who’d been guiding there for three times that long to say “We need to do something.” There are people who are using platforms for something greater than just what it was built for. Companies like Costa Sunglasses are using their platform that was created to sell a product, but they’re using it to leverage their voice to drive a greater impact. I think it’s important to recognize that the reason progress is happening is because of others, besides Daniel and myself. It’s people like you, Benny, and companies like Costa. It is people that make up the greater part of the fight that are the reason success is happening. So, now we have a model that is proven effective, but it’s dependent on individual voices being the champion of a greater cause. It’s great to know that that model can be taken and applied by a 16-year-old in Alaska, Colorado, or California – so they don’t have to hope and wait for somebody else to save the place they love.

Thank you to Chris Wittman for dedicating his time to sit down with us for this interview. To learn more about Chris and his initiatives with Captains for Clean Water, check out their Website HERE to learn about upcoming projects, ways to donate, or how to get involved. Also, thank you to Costa Sunglasses for making our “Behind the Guides” series possible over the last 5 years. This year, Costa launched their most technologically advanced frames yet, the new: King Tide collection. Inspired by 40 years of innovation,  and available in sizes 6 and 8, the new King Tide frames feature non-skid holding and removable side panels for optimal viewing on and off the water. Learn more about King Tide HERE.

Behind the Cause: Costa’s Marlin Fly Project Taps into Conservation, Community Science, and Epic Fishing

Anglers Driving Change: Chris Wittman & Daniel Andrews – Captains for Clean Water









  1. Gratitude for Capt. Chris and guides like him for actively protecting our natural world. And a big thanks to Willis for a very well written piece and fascinating interview. Journalists are part of the fight, too.


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