‘Got to stop wishing, got to go fishing …’
“Down to rock bottom again.”
If Jimmy Buffett could have fished our local waters this past week, that line from “A Pirate Looks at Forty” would have had a different meaning. Whether you target bottom dwellers such as flounder and grouper or migratory fish such as Spanish mackerel and bonito, “rock bottom” is where you want to look.
Artificial or natural reef, rubble, rock pile, rip-rap, wreck, structure — no matter what you call it — it holds fish.
Most fish like to inhabit a comfortable environment where a viable food source exists. That means “structure.” Structures attract bait fish and other food sources such as small crustaceans and mollusks, which in turn attract predators. The predators, such as grouper and snapper, rely on an environment that provides ambush points for them to prey on their target. They also like having a place to hide in case a larger predator — shark or bottlenose dolphin — tries to eat them.
Plenty of food and a safe place to hide. Enough said.
Migratory species such as mackerel, cobia and amberjack also inhabit structures. They swim through the Gulf from one structure to the next, gorging themselves on bait fish. When the bait is gone, it’s time to move on.
Whether you’re looking for some fish for the table or for sport, try fishing some structures.
There are nautical charts available that contain a plethora of GPS numbers for reefs and wrecks in the local waters. My advice is get some structure in your life, and think like a fish.
Jonny Keyes of Island Discount Tackle says inshore fishing produced a mixed bag last week. Gag grouper are still abundant on near-shore structures, as well as in Tampa Bay. “Try trolling with a Mann’s Stretch 30 in gold and black,” Keyes suggests. “That seems to be the color of choice.”
On the shallow grass flats, trout and redfish have provided a consistent bite on low tides. Berkley Gulp on a jig head and top water plugs are producing keeper fish.
Around the canals of Key Royale, sheepshead are beginning to arrive. “There are still some Spanish mackerel along the beach,” Keyes added. “So don’t forget to carry some silver spoons in your tackle box.”
Capt. Mike Greig says the gag grouper bite out to 10 miles is still in full swing. While grouper fishing, Greig says he’s also been catching a few kingfish, some keeper cobia and mangrove snapper up to 20 inches.
“Always keep a flatline ready in case you see a big cobia curiously swimming toward the boat.” Greig adds. “You want to be ready when the opportunity presents itself.” Capt. Rick Gross of Fishy Business charters says “Beach fishing is where it’s at.” He says he’s fishing anywhere from within casting distances of the beach to 40-50 feet of water.
“Bonito and mackerel are a consistent bite out there right now,” Gross says. “They also provide an excellent fight on light tackle.”
For those looking to put some meat on the table, Gross has been catching keeper-size gag grouper, black sea bass and flounder up to 5 pounds.
“While fishing the near-shore structures, be ready to go through a lot of terminal tackle,” Gross says. “If you’re not losing some rigs, you’re not fishing the structure aggressively enough.”
You have to give a little to get a little, and if it means door-mat size flounder, it’s worth it.
Jim Malfese at the Rod & Reel Pier says sheepshead are beginning to show up at the pier. Sand fleas have been a good offering for the tasty convict fish, as well as fiddler crabs and fresh-cut shrimp.
“There are still a few flounder being caught,” says Malfese. “But they’ve been undersize.”
Spanish mackerel are being caught from the pier in the mornings and evenings on the moving tide. “Try crappie jigs and gotcha plugs,” he suggests. Malfese added that a lot of black tip sharks are being caught at night, and cut mullet or ladyfish is choice bait for that target.
Capt. Mark Howard of SumoTime Fishing Charters reports that the past week’s fall-like weather resulted in “red hot fishing.” Howard says, “Shiners are still around in the bay and at the Skyway piers. I haven’t made the switch to live shrimp, but will very soon.”
Anchoring up over the near-shore artificial reefs and chumming with shiners, cut bait or chum blocks helps to draw the fish to the back of your boat and fires up the bite. Catches of grouper, mackerel, bonito and huge flounder have been the result.
Howard says, “We caught door-mat-sized flounder to 24 inches in the sand just off the reef structure.” Howard says using a live shiner, pinfish, threadfin, or shrimp rigged on a 2/0 hook with a split-shot weight is the key to catching these tasty white-meat fillets.
“Looking forward, the tides will be favorable for fishing and the weather looks to stay moderate,” Howard says. “We should be able to enjoy the fall pattern until the real cold fronts come our way.”
Capt. Warren Girle reports his charters are working near-shore ledges and hard bottom for grouper and mangrove snapper. Live shiners have been a good offering to bring these fish to the boat. “We’ve been doing a lot of chumming,” Girle says. Also last week, Girle brought up cobia up to 38 inches and bonito in the 7- to 12-pound range.
Inshore catches for Girle included redfish up to 29 inches as well as gator trout. “Fish the skinny water for bigger trout.” Girle says. “Bluefish have invaded Sarasota Bay, so carry some extra jigs.”
Capt. Tom Chaya says he’s been fishing the beaches this past week. His catches included gag grouper, mangrove snapper, Spanish mackerel and flounder. Live bait such as shiners and threadfins are Chaya’s bait of choice for near shore beach fishing, but he occasionally uses cut bait for the snapper.
On the grass flats, Chaya is catching gator trout up to 26 inches. “Use a Berkley Gulp shrimp on a 1/4 ounce chartreuse jig head for best results,” Chaya says.
“The best trout bite has been from Terra Ceia Bay down to New Pass.” Chaya added.
Capt. Larry McGuire of Show Me The Fish Charters reported a bountiful catch over Thanksgiving. Perfect weather allowed great catches, filling the boat with gag, red and scamp grouper, amberjacks, mangrove, yellowtail and lane snappers, porgies, triggerfish, awesome cobia, sharks, barracudas and even a few stray kingfish.
McGuire also reported great action on gags, using live pinfish and sardines anywhere there are rocks or a nice ledge. McGuire says, “On the calmer days go for the gold further offshore, starting in about 110 feet for larger gags and huge firetruck red grouper, along with larger snapper and amber jacks.”
McGuire also added, “there are a lot of doormat flounder along the beaches within easy reach of a smaller boat and a school of cobia could show up anywhere.”
McGuire forecasts the bite will only improve and may peak if we get a freeze this winter. He added, “With some of the best gag grouper fishing of the year going on, now is the time to come out and get ya some! That’s what I am talking about.”
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