Stephen Thomas of Anna Maria speared this 60-pound amberjack for grilling at home while freediving at a depth of 40 feet about 7 miles offshore of Anna Maria. Islander Photo: Richard “Dad” Thomas
Aaron Rapl, left, and Ryon Doll from Olathe, Kan., show off a double header of catch-and-release gag grouper. The big gags slammed these guys at the same time. The party, on charter with Capt. Larry McGuire, was using live pinfish in about 120 feet of water offshore of Anna Maria Island. They caught and released many more grouper and kept some big firetruck red grouper for the table.
Warmer days bring heat to fishing
Since we’ve had warm temperatures and light winds offshore, fishers are working as much as possible before winter weather sets in. The first official day of winter was Dec. 21.
Reports of keeper-size red grouper are coming in from as close as 10 miles off shore. For bait, live pinfish or shiners are the best choice, although frozen baits such as squid, threadfin herring and sardines are working, too.
Moving out 20 miles or more is resulting in catches of large red grouper, plenty of catch-and-release gag grouper and just-legal amberjack. Also, expect to encounter mangrove and red snapper. But remember, the red snapper season is still closed, so they are catch-and-release.
Moving inshore, flats fishers are using artificials to target spotted seatrout. Since water temps are still about 70 degrees, you can use topwater plugs either in the morning or evening to get action on big gator trout that are lurking on shallow flats. For sheer numbers of trout, try drifting deeper grass flats with soft plastics or suspending plugs.
Redfish and catch-and-release snook are gathering around docks and canals. Try using live select shrimp to get these fish to bite. For the reds, add a split shot to get your shrimp on the bottom. For the catch-and-release snook, simply free-line a big shrimp around a dock piling and hang on tight.
Capt. Warren Girle is fishing offshore structure with good results on a variety of species. Girle is anchoring over structure and then chumming with live shiners to attract a bite. Bonito and small Spanish mackerel are the first to react to Girle’s chum, skyrocketing and slashing at live shiners thrown around the boat. Once this is occurring, Girle is casting free-lined baits to the fish surface-feeding. Usually within seconds of the bait entering the water, the fight is on with either bonito or mackerel.
With all of this action going in, sharks are naturally attracted. Black tips of 50-75 pounds are feeding on chunks of mackerel or bonito free-lined on a shark leader behind the boat. Not only do these sharks peel a considerable amount of drag, but their acrobatic jumps are visually impressive for the angler.
Lastly, Girle is bottom fishing in sandy areas between structures to find flounder. By nose-hooking a shiner with a jighead on a knocker rig, Girle is catching flounder in the 20-inch range. He suggests carrying extra hardware due to all of the snags.
Jeff Medley at the Sunshine Skyway Bridge South Fishing Pier is seeing pier fishers using silver spoons and white jigs for mackerel, bonito and ladyfish. Keep in mind that the Spanish mackerel being caught are small, up to 15 inches. As for the bonito, expect fish about 8-10 pounds.
Pier fishers using live fiddler crabs are catching good numbers of sheepshead. Most fish are 1-2 pounds, although bigger ones are mixed in. You can also use live shrimp, but the best bite is occurring on fiddlers.
Anglers opting to use shrimp fished on the bottom are catching legal-size mangrove snapper and flounder. Both species are biting well although most are barely above keeper-size. While using shrimp, expect to catch Key West grunts, too.
Dave Sork at the Anna Maria City Pier is seeing a few mackerel being caught, although the better bite is definitely for flounder. Pier fishers using small white jigs at sunrise are getting moderate action on Spanish mackerel, but the bite isn’t lasting. Once it ends, pier fishers are switching to bottom rigs and dragging live shrimp around the perimeter of the pier to catch flounder. Flounder up to 15 inches are keeping pier fishers busy — and well fed.
Steve Oldham at Island Discount Tackler says fishers drifting the flats are catching decent numbers of spotted seatrout on DOA Cal jigs or DOA shrimp under a Cajun Thunder cork. For the bait, white is the color. If you’re using DOA shrimp, also try the glow color, which gets the same action as a white.
Bait fishers using live shrimp are targeting docks and piers for sheepshead. With increasing numbers of sheepies appearing daily, the bite should only get better.
Lastly, reports of fish moving into the canals of Bimini Bay and the surrounding area are increasing. Redfish, spotted seatrout and snook are migrating into these areas in advance of cooler weather.
Again, live shrimp is a great bait to target any of these species. Try targeting the entrances of canals for the trout. Add a split shot to your shrimp and let it swim toward the bottom. For the reds and snook, try working deep-water docks.
Jim Malfese at the Rod & Reel Pier says there are plenty of shiners schooling up around the pier, but the mackerel are not appearing. Pier fishers targeting mackerel are catching a stray bonito here and there and plenty of ladyfish.
With a shortage of mackerel, pier fishers can change tactics and bait fish with shrimp or fiddler crabs to get a bite. Casting these baits under the pier, fishers are hooking up sheepshead, black drum, redfish and flounder. Keeper-sizes of all of these species are being reeled up daily.
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