Fishing heats up as AMI anglers count down to spring

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Fischer Stevens, 11, shows off a black drum he caught while visiting Anna Maria Island from Suffield, Connecticut, on school break. He grew up fishing with his grandfather, Dick Stevens of Holmes Beach, as did brother Chase, 13, who shows off a yellowtail jack. The family enjoyed fishing the bay waters and “can’t wait ’til next time.” Islander Photos: Richard “Dick” Stevens
Fischer Stevens, 11, shows off a black drum he caught while visiting Anna Maria Island from Suffield, Connecticut, on school break. He grew up fishing with his grandfather, Dick Stevens of Holmes Beach, as did brother Chase, 13, who shows off a yellowtail jack. The family enjoyed fishing the bay waters and “can’t wait ’til next time.” Islander Photos: Richard “Dick” Stevens
Rich Hunter of New Jersey, left, and Lauren Hunter and Al Lewis, both from Westerly, Rhode Island, show off a variety of fish they caught Feb. 28 on a charter fishing trip with Capt. Warren Girle. Using shrimp for bait, they have a triple tail, sheepshead and black drum.

Despite a few erratic weather patterns from the west, Anna Maria Island fishing is shaping up for an excellent spring bite.

Spotted seatrout are making a showing on the deeper grass flats in Tampa Bay and its inland waters to the east. The same applies to catch-and-release snook, which have made a bold showing in these areas.

Fishing structure in Tampa Bay is yielding fish, especially sheepshead. The Rod & Reel Pier recommends now is the time if you’re a sheepherder.

Fishing along the beaches of Anna Maria Island is another option as there are numerous whiting and pompano foraging on sand fleas up and down the shoreline. And don’t forget, black drum and redfish action is occurring around residential docks and canals. You might want to act quickly on that one though, as those fish are going to be dispersing as water temps rise.

Also, reports from offshore are boasting of large amberjacks, mangrove snapper, permit and catch-and-release gag grouper. Things are looking good.

More on the positive side, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced snook season will open May 1, but redfish will remain catch-and-release in order for the reds to recover from last year’s red tide impacts.

On my Southernaire fishing charters, clients are experiencing some of the goodness. With the arrival of white bait on the flats, the door to sport fishing for snook has opened wide. In fact, the door flew off the hinges. Morning rallies of catch-and-release snook are shaping up nicely, with 20-30 hookups in a morning.

After snook fishing, I’m patrolling deeper grass flats for spotted seatrout for the cooler. Some mornings are producing limits of legal-size fish — 15-20 inches. Other mornings are more tough, especially right after a front.

Switching to live shrimp as bait is providing action around rocks and docks, where large, pre-spawn sheepies are still available. Mixed in are mangrove snapper and some grunts. Ducking into the canals and fishing docks on the windier days is always a good bet for catch-and-release redfish action. While targeting the reds, I’m also seeing black drum and flounder.

Jim Malfese at the Rod & Reel Pier says the long-awaited arrival of the mass is finally occurring — and no, he’s not talking about tourists — he’s talking sheepshead.

That’s right, reserve your piling early and make sure you pick a good one. The older the better — choose one with a lot of barnacles and maybe a few oysters. The herd has arrived and the convict fish are grazing on any crustaceans they can gnaw with their big bucked-teeth. Live shrimp are a good option when combined with a sharp hook. Fiddler crabs, sand fleas and tubeworms are deadly, too. Remember, the bag limit for sheepies is eight per day per person and they have to be 12 inches to make it to the fillet table.

Capt. Aaron Lowman is fishing nearshore ledges and other structure in the Gulf of Mexico. The bite remains consistent on mangrove snapper, grunts and porgies, as well as tripletail and catch-and-release grouper. Live shrimp as bait is working. A little closer inshore and around the Tampa Bay wrecks and reefs, sheepshead are finding their way up to Lowman’s Carolina Skiff.

He’s also finding pompano, seatrout, bluefish and ladyfish present in Tampa Bay on deeper grass and channel edges. Lastly, Lowman is finding plenty of snook around mangroves and shallow grass flats to keep his clients reeling.

Capt. Warren Girle is working nearshore structure for sheepshead, as well as other Gulf species, including mangrove snapper, Key West grunts and porgies. Using live shrimp as bait combined with a knocker rig is proving to be successful for his clients.

Moving inshore, Girle is putting anglers on black drum and catch-and-release redfish around docks and oyster bars, where casting live shrimp is attracting fish to the hook. Mixed in are flounder and mangrove snapper for the coolers. When using artificials, Girle is doing well on pompano, spotted seatrout and jack crevalle. These fish are being found over deep grass areas and are striking soft plastics combined with a jig head.

Capt. David White of Anna Maria Charters is catching respectable numbers of catch-and-release snook while guiding anglers to the back country of Tampa Bay and beyond. Free-lining live shiners over shallow grass flats and mangrove islands is resulting in some extraordinary numbers of catch-and-release snook. Morning snook rallies of 30-40 fish are occurring when the conditions are right.

On deeper flats, White’s clients are catching spotted seatrout, as well as pompano and jack crevalle, by drifting and jigging. Moving offshore, White’s charters are hooking into mangrove snapper and grouper while bottom fishing in areas of 100 feet of water.

Capt. Jason Stock says big amberjack are his crowd-pleaser this week. With AJs in the 100-pound range, we can see why. This bite is consistent and a great option for those looking to pull on something big. For anglers in search of tablefare, Stock is putting them on mangrove snapper, as well as black fin tuna.

Lastly, permit are beginning to make a showing and Stock is starting to see approachable numbers offshore — and catching them, too.

Send high-resolution photos and fishing reports to fish@islander.org.

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