Rat reds invade bay waters
If you haven’t noticed, the redfish bite this winter is extraordinary. Reports of fishers catching up to 30 redfish a day are common.
What’s interesting about this phenomenon is most of these fish are undersized. My group fished some local docks last week and we saw this first hand. Out of about 20 fish caught, only three were keepers. The rest are called “rat reds” or redfish that haven’t quite made it to the mandated keeper size of 18 inches. They are a lot of fun to catch — especially in the large numbers we’re seeing this winter. So if you’re having a hard time catching keeper reds this winter — don’t feel bad, we all are.
Jonny Keyes at Island Discount Tackle said reports of flounder in the backwater are coming into the tackle shop. Fishers using Berkley Gulp shrimp on a 3/8-ounce jig head get the best results. Fishing the canals and docks around Key Royale has also resulted in catches of sheepshead and redfish. “Live shrimp or fiddlers is the way to go,” Keyes said.
On the beachside, fishers using pompano jigs or live shrimp are catching whiting and ladyfish. “When targeting whiting,” Keyes said, “you want to fish the trough that runs parallel to the shoreline.”
Moving off the beaches, fishers heading offshore are producing catches of porgies, Key West grunts and some small red grouper.
Capt. Wayne Genthner of Wolfmouth Charters finished grouper season with limits of gags in the 12-pound range. Most of Genthner’s catch came from about 8 miles offshore. Preferred baits were frozen threadfins, cut in half and squid.
Moving inshore, Genthner is targeting sheepshead and redfish. Live shrimp has been the plan of attack for these backwater inhabitants.
Genthner is fishing the afternoons with good results. “That warmer water in the afternoon is the key for catching good numbers of fish,” he said.
Kim Shearer at Annie’s Bait & Tackle said she’s hearing reports of spotted sea trout caught in northern Sarasota Bay. Catching trout in the slot has not been uncommon, although bigger trout, “gators,” have been harder to find.
Fishers willing to do a little hiking are catching redfish up to 23 inches inside the Robinson Preserve in northwest Bradenton. Shearer suggested using live shrimp or Berkley Gulp to entice these “preserve” fish.
Jeff Medley at the Sunshine Skyway Bridge South Fishing Pier said the sheepshead bite has been consistent for more than a week. “Fishers using fiddler crabs and sand fleas have the best luck,” he said. “But live shrimp are working, too.”
Spotted sea trout are making a showing at the piers. Medley suggested using a live shrimp with a heavy split-shot, rigged two feet above the hook. “Throw it up current and let it drift back toward the bridge,” he said.
Capt. Warren Girle reported great numbers of redfish caught in Sarasota Bay. “We’re mainly fishing canals and docks,” Girle said. Earlier last week, Girle had a charter that caught 37 redfish. “That was the highlight of the week,” Girle said. “We were knocking the redfish stupid.”
Girle also commented on how many undersized redfish have inhabited the bay this year. “Out of the 37 reds, nine were keepers,” he said.
If it’s trout action you’re looking for, Girle is fishing in Sarasota Bay with good results. He said he’s been waiting until the afternoon for the water to warm up. Sea trout up to 24 inches have been caught using Mister Twister Exude Darts in golden-bream color.
Capt. Mark Howard of SumoTime Fishing Charters reported an exceptional winter redfish bite. On recent charters, his clients caught an average of 30 redfish per trip —with plenty of slot-sized fish mixed in. Howard entices the redfish to chew by using live shrimp rigged on a 2/0 circle hook with 30-pound fluorocarbon leader pegged with a No. 5 split-shot. In addition to redfish, Howard said, sheepshead and black drum also “come to the party.”
Howard suggests fishing the deep-water docks from the Manatee River to Longboat Key to find the fish. A 3-degree difference in the water temperature can make all the difference between exciting action and no bites, he said.
Speckled trout are biting in their wintertime haunts and Howard suggests looking for clean, moving water over deep grass to hook up these fine-tasting fish. “Try using the popping cork rigged with a jig and a Berkley Gulp to draw strikes,” he said.
Capt. Ray Markham reported limits of redfish from 22 to 27 inches, with a bunch of fish just under the slot, around 17 inches. “That’s a real good sign for later this year when these fish hit a growth spurt, pushing them over the minimum slot size,” Markham said.
Top producing lures for redfish are the CAL Shad in various forms of the night-glow colors, the MirrOlure Lil’ John soft-plastic jerk bait and the half-ounce gold Eppinger Rex Spoon. “These baits excel with redfish here,” Markham said.
On a recent charter, Mark Stephens of Lakeland, his 12-year-old grandson, Brenden and his friend, Weston, caught several nice reds, nearly a dozen flounder and some nice trout. All were caught on the CAL Shad.
“The rest of the winter will hopefully be mild and, if it is, this spring will be one to talk about. Lots of nice trout and redfish are around, and as soon as baitfish begin to show, we should be catching some monster trout. Some of the largest trout of the year generally show up here between late February and April,” Markham said.
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