Gary Laughlin holds up the 32-inch redfish he caught on a top-water plug while fishing on an early morning charter with guide Capt. Warren Girle.
Fishers benefit from migratory species invasion
Inshore waters just off the beaches of Anna Maria Island have been invaded by schools of migratory species — Spanish mackerel, ladyfish, bonito, blue runners and jack crevalle.
If you’re an experienced fisher, you can tell from a distance what type of school you’re looking at just by the eruption on the top of the water. For instance, Spanish mackerel will torpedo clear out of the water to chase bait, while bonito roll on the top, similar to tarpon.
No matter what kind of school you pull up to in a boat, the fishing technique is basically the same. If you have a full live-well of shiners, you’ll be able to catch every species mentioned. And you can produce the same results using lures, a silver spoon or white jigs.
If you find you’re not catching even though you think you’re doing everything right, try looking at what bait the school of fish is feeding on. Typically if mackerel or bonito are feeding on glass minnows, it’s harder to get them to eat your bait. They seem to dial in on the minnows and don’t much care for anything else. If this happens, you can wait until they’re done and then present your bait, or you can scale down to a small crappie jig that mimics a glass minnow.
Remember, among all of this activity in the water from all of these different migratory species, also comes the blacktip and spinner sharks.
Watch for sharks patrolling the edges of mackerel and bonito schools waiting for an easy meal because fishing these schools can be some of the best catch-and-release shark fishing you’ll experience.
These sharks are abundant, aggressive and hungry. What an ideal combination. Most of these sharks are in the 5- to 6-foot range but, bigger sharks, such as bulls and hammerheads, are not uncommon. Gear up accordingly.
Gag grouper season officially opened Sept. 16 and will run through Nov. 16. Targeting gag grouper in water depths of 100-120 feet is producing keeper fish. Moving close to shore, fishers are still catching keeper fish, although just barely. Most inshore gags are still juvenile in size. Near the last week of the gag season, we should see some bigger fish migrating into shallower water for the winter. Remember, the minimum size for gag grouper is 22 inches and you can keep two per person.
Dave Sork at the Anna Maria City Pier is seeing the early-morning Spanish mackerel bite improving by the day. Large schools of Spanish sardines have engulfed the pier, which in turn is luring in the macks. You also can expect to hook up ladyfish, jack crevalle and skip jack while on the mack attack.
Flounder also are making an appearance at the pier. Sork recommends using Spanish sardines or white bait to entice these flat fish to bite your hook. And try casting out and dragging your bait back to the pier on the bottom. Also, keep in mind that flounder like to hang around structures. You may want to try casting under the pier and dragging the bait out.
Guide Capt. Mark Johnston of Just Reel charters is catching redfish around mangrove islands on high tides. He likes to slowly and quietly sneak up to his spot, anchor and then begin chumming with live shiners to attract the redfish to the boat. Slot-size fish and bigger have been the norm.
Mangrove snapper are getting a good look at the inside of Johnston’s boat, too. Fishing by small boat wrecks and bridges, Johnston is free-lining live shiners or shrimp for mangrove snapper with good results. “Shallow-water fishing for snapper is fun,” says Johnston. “But you have to be stealthy. Those little snapper are smart and will stop biting after 10 or 15 minutes.” If this happens, Johnston likes to scale down his leader size as well as hook size. He also feels that shrimp are working better than shiners right now.
On the Gulf side of the Island, Johnston is catching Spanish mackerel, blue runners, bonito and ladyfish. Again, Johnston likes to anchor and chum with live bait to get the fish behind the boat. A long shank hook with some 30-pound fluorocarbon will suffice for a rig.
Dave Cochran at the Rod & Reel Pier says he’s seeing pier fishers hook a few black drum under the pier. Redfish are being caught there, too. Live select shrimp are the ticket to lure these two tasty species to your hook. Mangrove snapper are around the pilings of the pier. Small shiners or live shrimp are producing the bite, although most of the snapper are on the small side.
Spanish mackerel are coming by the pier in packs, ravaging light-tackle fishers as they pass by. Small, white crappie jigs and silver spoons are working to get that bite going.
Capt. Rick Gross of Fishy Business charters is targeting redfish and spotted sea trout on the grass flats of Lower Tampa Bay and upper Sarasota Bay. “Its nice when we can find the schools,” Gross says, referring to redfish. “But even when we can’t, we’re still locating fish by chumming with live shiners.” On the lower tides, Gross likes to look around large, shallow grass flats and oyster bars for schools of redfish.
Spotted sea trout in the slot-size are being caught aboard Gross’ boat although sometimes his clients have to reel up a dozen in order to get a keeper. “Most of the spotted sea trout roaming the flats are small, but there are bigger ones mixed in,” says Gross.
Mangrove snapper in the 12- to 14-inch range are hitting small shiners weighted with a split shot. Any small structure in either of the bays is holding fish. Gross suggests chumming with shiners to get the mangos chewing behind the boat.
Last, but not least, you guessed it: Gross is catching Spanish mackerel just off the beaches of Anna Maria Island using shiners for bait. He likes to call the big ones “baseball bats” because of their shape. To attain this status, the mackerel must be considerably long, as well as fattened up from gorging themselves on bait. “There are as many as you want out there,” says Gross.
Capt. Warren Girle is taking advantage of calm seas and fishing offshore for mangrove snapper. Fish to 18 inches are being caught on live shiners. While offshore, Girle is encountering schools of Spanish mackerel and blue runners. Moving in a little closer on nearshore structure, Girle is catching keeper flounder. Again, live shiners dragged on the bottom are producing this bite.
Inshore, Girle is still targeting schools of redfish with good results, drifting shallow grass flats in search of disturbed water — a disruption on the surface resulting from movement across the flat. On a calm day, these schools stick out like a sore thumb. Don’t be fooled by a school of mullet, as sometimes they look the same as redfish. As of this week, Girle is catching redfish up to 34 inches.
Spotted sea trout are still abundant on deeper flats. In the early morning, Girle is using top-water baits, such as the Sebile Stick shad and the Rapala Skitterwalk. As the sun gets higher in the sky, Girle switches to plastic baits on a jig head. He’s getting good results using the Exude Dart by Mister Twister.
Jeff Medley at the south bait shop on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge Fishing Piers says, “Everyone is happy to see that Spanish mackerel are back.”
Schools of hungry macks have begun a full assault of the bait pods lingering at the pier. Threadfin herring and scaled sardines are literally jumping out of the water to escape the razor-sharp teeth of the ravenous mackerel. All methods of mackerel-style fishing are working. Silver spoons, Gotcha plugs, white crappie jigs and, of course, live bait are producing a bite.
“If you throw 10 times,” says Medley, “eight out of 10 times will result in a mackerel.”
Along with the catch of mackerel are jack crevalle and ladyfish.
And pier fishers are enjoying a great mangrove snapper bite. Fish up to 18 inches are being caught under the pier using cut bait or live shrimp. Fishers using shrimp are coming up with an occasional sheepshead or flounder.
Capt. Sam Kimball of Legend Charters is offshore fishing in water depths of 100-120 feet. With calm seas, greater distances offshore are attainable, resulting in a wider variety of species.
To start, Kimball is catching three different varieties of snapper. Mangrove, yellowtail and lane snapper are proving to be abundant on deeper ledges and structure. Mangrove snapper up to 5 pounds are being reeled up, as well as respectable sizes of yellowtails and lanes.
Gag grouper action is on fire on the deeper ledges. Limits of gag grouper are being caught on both live shiners and live pinfish.
Catch-and-release red snapper fishing is still going strong, too. Fish in the 7-pound range are the average, and live shiners and pinfish are the ticket to a hook up.
Moving up in the water column, banded rudderfish are patrolling offshore structures. A lot of times, you’ll get bit on the drop to the bottom for grouper, says Kimball, ’cause halfway down it’s hit by a banded rudderfish. “These little guys fight hard and aren’t bad for dinner, either,” says Kimball.
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