Sheep herding season starts up in earnest
Well, it’s that time again— the sheep herding has begun.
Respectable numbers of convict fish are being reported throughout our region. Most of the nearshore reefs are holding fish, as well as any other rock pile in the bay and in the shallows of the Gulf of Mexico. Even the local fishing piers are reporting solid numbers of fish being caught.
I’m finding the bite in depths of 10-20 feet of water over artificial reefs and rock piles. Dropping live shrimp on a knocker rig is resulting in sheepies up to 7 pounds — most being 3 pounds or so. Limits of fish are attainable, although if you’ve ever filleted sheepies, you know that cleaning a limit takes some time. Keep your knife sharpener close by.
Mixed in with the sheepshead are mangrove snapper, flounder, black drum and Key West grunts. All of these species fall neatly into place in the cooler, as well as into the pan of hot grease.
When in need of a break from catching sheepshead, I’m switching tactics over to jig fishing. With a couple of warm days and water temps rising slightly, small jigs tipped with shrimp are resulting in pompano, bluefish, ladyfish and black drum. Fishing along beach and the deeper grass flats is where this bite is. The blues and ladies provide great light-tackle action. The pompano also are a great adversary on light tackle and they are a delicacy on the plate.
The recreational harvest season for snook reopened March 1 in Florida Gulf of Mexico state and adjacent federal waters, including Everglades National Park and Monroe County. In the Gulf, anglers can keep one snook per day no less than 28 inches or more than 33 inches in length. The length is measured from the most forward point of the head with the mouth closed to the farthest tip of the tail with the tail pinched while the fish is lying on its side. A snook stamp, along with a saltwater fishing license, is required to keep snook, unless the angler is exempt from the license requirements. Only hook-and-line gear is allowed when targeting or harvesting snook. The season will remain open through April 30.
Capt. Warren Girle is fishing offshore structure with good results. By anchoring over structure in water depths of 40-50 feet, Girle is leading his clients to hogfish up to 6 pounds, caught on bottom rigs baited with live shrimp. Mixed in with the hogfish are porgies, Key West grunts and plenty of juvenile grouper.
Moving inshore, Girle is again working over structure. In depths of 20 feet or less, he’s finding an abundance of sheepshead. Live shrimp fished in a bottom rig is resulting in sheepies up to 5 pounds on average with larger fish mixed in. Girle also is catching mangrove snapper and flounder in the same areas.
Finally, on the flats of Sarasota Bay, Girle is finding an assortment of inshore species — pompano, redfish, black drum and spotted seatrout. For the reds and black drum, Girle is casting live shrimp into sandy potholes to find a bite. For the pompano and trout, a small jig tipped with shrimp for scent is the ticket.
Capt. Rick Gross of Fishy Business Charters is fishing structure in Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. He’s finding nearshore reefs and rock piles producing respectable numbers of sheepshead. Again, live shrimp fished on a knocker rig results in fish in the 5-pound range. While targeting sheepshead, Gross is finding mangrove snapper, Key West grunts and flounder readily taking baits.
Moving inshore, Gross is still catching keeper-size redfish around docks and residential canals. By casting Berkley Gulp shrimp, Gross is finding a lot of small reds and an occasional slot-fish. This provides good action, as well as a couple of reds for dinner.
Capt. Aaron Lowman at Island Discount Tackle in Holmes Beach is working the nearshore structure, resulting in a variety of inshore reef species. Sheepshead are abundant around rock piles, reefs and docks in our surrounding waters. Mangrove snapper, black drum, Key West grunts and flounder are on the feed in these same areas.
On deeper grass flats, Lowman is finding pompano, as well as bluefish and ladyfish. All three species are being taken on small jigs tipped with shrimp for scent. Trout also are being found in these areas, but not in abundance.
Finally, on windy days, Lowman is taking refuge and fishing residential canals and docks. Live shrimp cast under the docks brings redfish and black drum to the boat.
Jim Malfese at the Rod & Reel Pier says sheepshead are dominating the bite. Pier fishers using live shrimp for bait are catching near limits on the morning tides at the pier. Sheepshead up to 21 inches are being caught, although most are 12-15 inches. Other baits for sheepies include sand fleas, fiddler crabs and tubeworms, although shrimp is producing the best bite.
While targeting sheepies, pier fishers are finding black drum and flounder. Both found amongst the sheepies under the pier and around pilings.
Capt. Mark Howard of SumoTime fishing charters reports a productive week with many species biting in spite of the cold and foggy wintertime weather. Sheepshead, spotted seatrout, mangrove snapper, redfish and bonnethead sharks are providing exciting action and tasty fillets for Howard’s clients.
While sheepshead have been the main focus of Howard’s recent charters, mangrove snapper are gathering for their spawn over artificial reefs, docks, and hard structure in open water. Howard says the key to catching these fish is to learn to feel the subtle bite as they nibble the bait. Howard suggests employing a gentle sweeping pull to set the hook.
Bonnethead sharks are thick on the sand bars just off deep-water drops. On a recent charter, Howard’s snowbird clients had fun battling these cousins of the hammerhead shark. He’s using small chunks of cut bait and small split shot to get the bait to the bottom. After pictures, the sharks are released to fight another day, adds Howard.
Looking forward, this week’s tides should provide some excellent opportunities to land some fish.
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