Fishing 101: Before catching fish, you must have bait

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David Bittick, left, Josh Treeful, Halle and Gary Bittick and Bryan and Maddie Faria, all visiting Anna Maria Island from Texas, show off their dinner catch. The group fished July 4 nearshore with shiners and found success on spotted seatrout with Capt. Warren Girle.
Sunrise sets the tone for the early morning bait catch June 26 for writer Capt. Danny Stasny, operator of Southernaire fishing charters.
Mike Collins of St. Petersburg shows off a mutton snapper caught July 5 while targeting yellowtail snapper with Capt. Jason Stock.

Bait was on my mind.

As I left my house to go to the boat at 4:45 a.m., the temperature was already a balmy 80 degrees. And, to be honest, that felt cool compared to what I knew the rest of the day would bring.

In the dark, I pulled my truck into the Mainsail Marina in Holmes Beach and commenced to unload and prepare the boat for another charter and another day of fishing.

After loading the rods, nets, chum and ice, I untied my 23-foot C Hawk from the dock and made my way into Anna Maria Sound. Everything was quiet and peaceful, aside from the light hum of my Yamaha 4-stroke engine.

As I pulled away from the marina and exited the “no wake” zone, I gently pushed on the throttle and brought the boat up on plane. I reached 20 knots and the boat leveled out nicely. I felt the warm air press against me, cooling the sweat on my face and T-shirt. I pushed through the darkness en route to the grass flats with anticipation of loading my bait well.

Now it was 5:45 a.m. and I eased the boat onto the flat to set anchor and start chumming. Heat lightning was flashing to the west, illuminating large clouds that looked like far-away mountains in the Gulf of Mexico. I wondered if a storm was coming, but hadn’t seen anything on the weather radar, so I continued to chum.

The sun was going to rise in a few minutes and the sky took on a sequence of beautiful pastels — blue, pink and purple. In the twilight, I could see the surface of the bay beginning to dimple where I was throwing the chum. The shiners were beginning to show. Simultaneously, small groups of seagulls flew east from their roosting spots on the beach as they headed into the bay to catch breakfast.

It was time to throw the net.

I gathered my 10-foot cast net in my hand by the horn, folded it once and spun half the net over my shoulder. With a small piece of the lead line between my teeth, I let the shouldered part of the net gently slide down into my right hand, securing another piece of the lead line between my index finger and thumb.

Now I was ready. With a half spin of my body for momentum, I threw the net into the air. As it opened into almost a perfect circle, it peeled into the water. I waited a moment to let it sink, then began to pull on the line. As the line went tight, I would feel the bait darting in the net, sending a vibration to my hand.

I got it.

I gently pulled the net over the boat’s gunwale and cleared it into the bait well. Shiners, threadfin herring and pinfish began falling into the well, flipping and skipping, figuring out their new surroundings. “Not bad for the first throw,” I thought. “It’s not always that easy.”

I needed more bait so I repeated this process three more times. Then it was time to clean the boat and pick up my clients.

As I cleaned the seagrass from the deck, I saw pinfish, small crabs and even a pipefish on the deck, waiting for me to put them back in the water. There were some dead shiners and threadfins there, which, after being thrown overboard, were quickly devoured by juvenile snapper and ravenous pinfish.

I sat and watched this occur for a moment before realizing it was nearing 7 a.m., which was when I was supposed to be at the dock to pick up my charter. I pulled anchor and idled away from the flat to the channel. Now, back on plane, I skipped along the surface of the bay toward the marina, satisfied I was ready for the day.

It was time to go fishing. Another great day on the water stretched ahead of me.

Capt. Jason Stock is fishing offshore wrecks, reefs and hard bottom. While fishing reefs and hard bottom, Stock is catching a variety of snappers, including mangrove, yellowtails and mutton snapper. Fishing around the offshore wrecks is proving good action for Stock, especially on permit and goliath grouper.

Moving inshore, Stock is targeting catch-and-release snook. Casting live shiners along mangrove shorelines where lush seagrass is present is resulting in linesiders up to 30 inches for Stock’s clients.

Capt. Rick Gross of Fishy Business Charters also is targeting catch-and-release snook, working shorelines throughout southern Tampa Bay. Rallies of fish exceeding 30 or more hook ups in an hour are not uncommon this time of year when fishing with Gross. For bait, live shiners are unbeatable. Casting these bait around mangrove edges or oyster bars is producing instant gratification for Gross and his clients. Most snook hookups are 20-30 inches.

For anglers looking to catch fish for dinner, Gross is leading clients to mangrove snapper, redfish and flounder. All three species are being caught by casting live shiners under and around residential docks. To put a respectable number of fish in the box, Gross is moving from dock to dock.

Capt. Warren Girle is putting clients on mangrove snapper around the artificial reefs. Bottom fishing with live shiners is resulting in mangrove snapper up to 16 inches. While targeting snapper, Girle is hooking up with juvenile grouper, Key West grunts, cobia and an occasional flounder.

In the backcountry of Sarasota Bay, Girle is finding spotted seatrout to be quite plentiful. Casting live shiners under a popping cork around deep grass flats is producing slot and under-slot fish. Mixed in with the trout are ladyfish and Spanish mackerel.

Capt. Aaron Lowman is working the rocks and docks for mangrove snapper and flounder. Casting live shiners combined with a split shot around docks is producing some nice catches for Lowman’s clients, especially on the flounder. Changing to a slightly heavier rig — a 1/2-ounce knocker rig — is working for the mangrove snapper around rock piles in Tampa Bay.

Other species being caught in Tampa Bay include gag grouper, Spanish mackerel and ladyfish.

On the flats of Terra Ceia and Miguel Bay, Lowman is attracting numerous catch-and-release snook to the boat. Live, free-lined shiners are his bait of choice. Chumming with live baits is a crucial aid in getting these fish to bite. It not only gets them in the mood, but as they strike the surface to eat a chummer, they give up their location, which enables the angler to cast to them.

Capt. David White of Anna Maria Charters is spending most of his week fishing offshore. Baits such as live shiners, pinfish and threadfin herring, are producing good action in depths of 130-160 feet of water. Species such as American red snapper, African pompano, yellowtail and mangrove snapper are being caught — just to name a few.

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