In betweeners: ’tween fronts, ’tween fishing seasons
Fishing around Anna Maria Island is heating up, especially between cold fronts. With temps in the 80s and light winds, we have the perfect recipe for a successful day on the water.
Typically, the water is clea — so clear in fact that you can easily see the bottom on the nearshore and offshore reefs. In conditions like this, it’s nice to just look over the side of the boat and watch the fish navigate the structure. Much can be learned by taking the time to explore the reef acitivity.
The same applies on the flats — where you can memorize the terrain — a helpful exercise for future flats fishing.
Finally, now is the time to get out on the water and enjoy the sunshine — the fish seem to enjoy it, too.
On my own adventures, I’m finding good numbers of fish along the beaches. Pompano are responding to small jigs tipped with a piece of fresh-cut shrimp. The tower helps spot schools of fish, which we then circle and cast. If you can place a jig in front of the fish, they’ll probably eat. You also can expect to catch a number of bluefish and mackerel, which is entertaining between pompano bites.
Structure in Tampa Bay is proving prosperous for sheepshead, Key West grunts and mangrove snapper. The sheepshead bite is gradually improving. I’m noticing many fish staging up on sandy bottoms adjacent to structure. In a couple of weeks, all of these fish will arrive on the reefs to spawn. As of now, fish 1-3 pounds are the norm, although 5 pounders are attainable.
As for the grunts and snapper, you may need to search to find keeper-sizes. Just about every rock in the bay has snapper on it, but most are 8-10 inches.
Finally, bonnethead and blacktip sharks are infesting the shallows along the Gulf beaches. Most of these fish are 3-4 feet long and are responding to shrimp and fresh-cut chunks of ladyfish. If you’re sight-casting, try chumming to keep them in the mood.
Capt. Warren Girle is fishing offshore when the weather permits. Girle is venturing anywhere from 1-6 miles in search of reefs and ledges, where the key is finding structure that isn’t covered with schools of spottail pinfish, the “sailor’s choice.”
These schools can hold fish by the thousands, ready to nibble every bait you try to drop. Girle is avoiding the spottails and managing to find a great bite on mangrove snapper, hogfish, porgies and Key West grunts on live shrimp paired with a light fluorocarbon leader, a small split shot, and a 3/0 circle hook. A light leader of 15- or 20-pound fluorocarbon is key in targeting these species, especially hogfish.
Girle is catching keeper-size catch-and-release gag grouper as well as juvenile red grouper on fresh-cut pieces of either threadfin herring or shiners. When targeting these fish, Girle is rigging an egg sinker that slides directly to the eye of the circle hook — you might know this as a knocker rig.
On the flats, Girle is finding schools of pompano in depths of 5-7 feet of water. Small jigs tipped with shrimp are an excellent way to put a limit of these tasty fish in the cooler. Mixed in with the pomps are bluefish, ladyfish, mackerel and spotted seatrout.
Capt. Aaron Lowman at Island Discount Tackle is still finding rallies of pompano along the beaches of Anna Maria Island southward to New Pass. Small jigs tipped with shrimp are providing a bite. Along with pomps, expect the usual suspects of jacks, ladyfish, mackerel and bluefish.
If you’re looking for mangrove snapper, Lowman says just about every piece of structure from lower Tampa Bay to Sarasota Bay is holding fish, although the snapper are running small. For bait, you can’t go wrong with fresh shrimp.
Finally, sheepshead are steadily making an arrival and Lowman says docks, piers, reefs and wrecks are good places to look for the tasty convict fish.
Capt. Rick Gross of Fishy Business Charters is migrating out to nearshore structure to take advantage of the available reef species. In depths of 25-45 feet, Gross is finding plenty of fish to fill the box. Sheepshead in the 2- to 3-pound range are readily taking fresh-cut shrimp. Mixed in are porgies, triggerfish, Key West grunts and flounder. A great combination if you’re planning a fish fry.
To target them, Gross is using a 15- to 20-pound fluorocarbon leader with a small circle hook. For weight, Gross is placing a 1/2- to 1-ounce egg sinker above the swivel of the leader. Although you take the chance of breaking off occasionally with a light leader, Gross says more fish will bite.
On windy days, Gross is fishing rocks and docks in residential canals and sheltered areas in the back bays. On these adventures, Gross is tying into sheepshead, mangrove snapper, black drum and flounder, and keeper-size fish are going in the cooler.
Capt. Mark Howard of SumoTime charters reports good fishing — when the weather cooperates.
Fishing for redfish and black drum has been good with the targets feeding under deep-water docks where heavy barnacle growth holds more crabs and crustaceans to feed on. Rigging with a live shrimp and a split shot weight will get the bait in the strike zone and can result in redfish in the upper-slot range.
Sheepshead fishing is starting to get hot, as the bigger ones are now schooling on nearshore artificial reefs. Sheepshead to 5 pounds are coming over the gunnels on Howard’s recent charters.
Spotted seatrout fishing has been good with some nice-sized slot fish landed, including some that are gator-sized — more than 20 inches. A live shrimp rigged under a popping cork with a tiny split shot will get the bait down to the trout and keeps the bait away from the diving birds hoping to snatch it.
Howard predicts the cold fronts will continue but strength, frequency and duration will wane as the start of the spring pattern is just a few weeks away.
Jim Malfese at the Rod & Reel Pier says rallies of sheepshead and black drum are occurring. Pier fishers using live shrimp are catching keeper sizes of both species without too much hassle. A fish finder rig — an egg sinker, swivel, 18 inches of leader and a small hook, in that order — will hook up the pier sheepies. Bait up with shrimp and cast the rig under the pier on the side where the current is rushing toward you. Let the shrimp drift under the pier until it’s resting on the bottom, then close your bail, reel up the slack and wait for a bite.
Other catches occurring at the R&R include pompano, flounder, jacks, ladyfish, bonnethead sharks and even a palometa — rarely seen at the pier. All are responding to live shrimp or jigs tipped with shrimp.
Finally, it’s great to hear from Malfese again, and I look forward to seeing Bob Kilb’s smiling face. I’m sure all the locals are stoked to see the R&R back in action — on the deck and in the dining room.
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