Sunshine State Saltwater Frenzy

Florida offers a wide variety of angling options in the brine. Here are a few of these you should not skip this summer! (June 2006)

Redfish in the Indian River Lagoon often grow to gargantuan sizes.
Photo by Capt. Rodney Smith.

In the summer months, the Florida peninsula offers a potpourri of great options for fishing in salt water. Regardless of where you head, something is biting. But of course, some places are better than others. Here's a look at some that provide exceptional angling this season.

SUNSHINE SKYWAY

A Mixed Bag

Let's start off this survey of a handful of Florida's brightest summer angling opportunities by visiting the Sunshine Skyway Piers at the mouth of Tampa Bay. These two piers were left after the center span of the 40-plus-year-old Sunshine Skyway Bridge was removed. The rubble from the span was then placed in strategic locations around the fishing piers as artificial reefs.

The old twin highway spans now compose a 3/4-mile pier from the north side and another 1 1/2-mile pier on the south side of Tampa Bay. Both these structures offer the unique chance to experience offshore angling with the convenience of driving your vehicle right to the spot you plan to do your fishing. Few places offer shore-bound anglers a better shot at targeting Goliath grouper, king mackerel, tarpon, snook, seabass and other offshore species.

This area is renowned for its excellent early-summer Spanish and king mackerel fishery, which often dominates the attention of Skyway anglers. There can't be many things more thrilling for a fisherman to witness than a "smoker" kingfish skyrocketing skyward when taking a live bait being fished on the surface. Well, perhaps thousands of frenzied Spanish mackerel jumping and diving through schools of baitfish under swarming flocks of terns and gulls can match it!

The largest kingfish earn their nickname of smokers by quickly stripping 200 or more yards of line off a medium to large spinning rod and reel, so you better prepare for a fast and furious battle when targeting these speedsters. Spanish mackerel are delicious, but also quite a challenge on light tackle. They must have excellent eyesight because you need to match the size of whatever bait these toothy critters are chasing. Also, if you use too heavy a leader or too much terminal tackle, they'll turn their noses away from your offerings.

No matter which of these fish you're after, summer is a particularly great time to fish from these piers. For more information on fishing them, visit www.skywaypiers.com.

PANHANDLE BEACHES

Spotted Seatrout

When summer arrives on Florida's Panhandle, anglers have a number of excellent choices to explore while trying to locate productive spotted seatrout waters. Starting at Apalachicola Bay and then heading west on U.S. Highway 98 toward Pensacola, you'll find hundreds of miles of Gulf of Mexico coastline and backwater shorelines to fish. You can choose between fishing from numerous bridges, piers, and causeways or from miles of empty beaches.

The St. Joe Bay area is a sure spot for good numbers of seatrout in the 2- to 4-pound range. One local area to start your piscatorial search would be around the George G. Tapper Bridge, which spans the Gulf County Canal. This canal runs five miles inland, connecting the bay to the Intracoastal Waterway.

During summer, the mouth of the canal is a popular spot for anglers targeting spotted seatrout. Fishermen often cast to the deeper parts of the canal using the tidal current to slowly drift live baits. The shallow flats just north of the canal entrance are productive for wading anglers casting plastic baits, bucktails or live bait.

The Mexico Beach Public Pier lies in the middle of Mexico Beach at the end of 37th Street. This is a good place to catch seatrout in the summer as well as in spring and fall.

Heading farther west toward Destin, you can fish from many empty beaches along the Gulf's Emerald Coast. This is one of my personal favorite places anywhere in Florida to fish -- for a couple of reasons. It has breathtaking beauty, with plenty of spots to pull off along the beach side of the road. These have paths or boardwalks leading across the dunes for easy access to the water. Freshwater ponds paved with lily pads and bordered with coastal forest sidle right up next to these white beaches and emerald-green waters.

Along with seatrout, anglers standing on these pristine beaches can catch a wide variety of species, including pompano, whiting, redfish, mackerel, flounder and cobia.

To investigate yet another diversified hotspot, follow the signs to the St. Andrews State Recreation Area at Panama City. There you'll find fishing piers on both the Gulf of Mexico and Grand Lagoon, plus some pretty good jetty fishing in St. Andrews Pass. The bay pier in particular puts anglers within reach of excellent seatrout angling all summer long.

Casting small bucktail jigs or jig and plastic grub combos on light spinning or casting tackle is a deadly method to produce consistent catches of spotted seatrout. This fishing is easy, and you can cover more water casting a jig, therefore creating more opportunities to catch trout.

The real trick to jig fishing is to keep your lure in the depth of water where the fish are feeding. This you can accomplish by varying the speed of your retrieve or the weight and size of your jig.

In less than 5 feet of water, I generally recommend a 1/4-ounce jig for seatrout. While exploring deeper water, I cast a 3/8- or 1/2-ounce jig. When targeting seatrout, you tend to get better action and productivity from jigs this size when using a smaller-diameter line with a 12- to 18-inch leader of 20-pound monofilament.

Not only do the Panhandle beaches provide many productive fishing areas, this is also one of the more beautiful and less traveled regions of Florida. But after the fleet of hurricanes that visited Florida the past couple of years, access to some of your favorite old spots may have been altered by beach erosion, storm surge or wind damage. Check with a local bait and tackle shop while you plan your fishing trip.

MERRITT ISLAND

Redfish

By the time early June arrives, with its long tropical days and towering thunderheads, you can pretty much bet redfish can be caught from the vast majority of flats up and down Florida's coastlines. But few places offer anglers more of a feeling of "old Florida" and Mother Nature's pure wonderment than the Banana River, Indian River and Mosquito lagoons.

These brackish-water l

agoons parallel Florida's central east coast and are characterized by miles and miles of shallow, grass-covered flats, mangrove-lined shores and nearly endless, high-quality redfish habitat.

Famous for its giant schools of bull reds, this area was dubbed the Redfish Capital of the World in the 1990s. Anglers from all over have come to visit these waters and experience the unique thrill of sight-casting to schools of 500 or more huge redfish, some of them more than 4 feet long!

During summer, these impressive schools often hold along dropoffs at the edge of shallow flats, over submerged islands, or around sandbars.

The majority of visiting anglers hire local guides to help them find these fish. But even when you're teamed up with an excellent guide, finding these schools of oversize redfish can be challenging. The lagoons are vast and within them, the schools range widely. It's sure an incredible sight when you do find them!

But day-to-day targeting redfish in these lagoons is not that much different than from other areas in Florida. Start by looking for clean, shallow water that holds cruising fish you can sight-cast. The east shore directly across from Titusville and north and south of the mouth of Banana Creek, is one good choice on the Indian River Lagoon. The water there is often clear and holds a solid local population of reds.

Redfish often move from deeper water to feed on shallow flats, so it helps to keep your focus on where these areas meet. You may also want to go to a local tackle shop for more information. Folks operating these shops can be very helpful to visiting anglers.

The lagoons' average depth is just 3 feet. If you plan to trailer your boat here, be aware there are plenty of submerged sandbars and pilings to avoid.

Redfish are attracted by what I refer to as the Big Three S's -- sight, sound and smell. If you keep these in mind, you'll be a more successful angler, no matter where you're chasing reds.

Start by using one of two techniques. The first is casting soft-plastic baits rigged on either a jighead, or weedless style with a rattle inserted. With either one, apply a fish-attracting scent to the plastic bait.

The other is casting cut mullet or ladyfish chunks rigged on a 2/0 or 3/0 circle hook weighted with a split shot.

To contact guides for the Merritt Island area, visit www.irga.org, or www.floridaguidelines.com.

FLORIDA KEYS

Dolphin

Locally promoted in the Florida Keys as the perfect game fish, these neon-blue, gold and green fish are called mahi-mahi in the Pacific Ocean, dorado in the Caribbean Sea, and dolphin by those anglers fishing offshore along our Atlantic coast.

In the Florida Keys, dolphin can be caught year 'round. But in May and June each year, anglers by the droves flock to this area to experience a truly world-class dolphin fishery. These uniquely shaped and colored fish have earned anglers' respect for several reasons, including their tremendous strength, incredible leaping agility -- and their excellent taste.

Dolphin typically roam the deep, blue, warm waters near the Gulf Stream. They stay near sargassum weed, and love to hang near any other floating debris. These fish grow very fast and generally range in size from 5 to 55 pounds.

When you're fishing for dolphin, nothing's more exciting than sight-casting to schools of fish hanging near the surface around flotsam. During the late spring and summer months, so many dolphin migrate through these waters that it's possible to "run and gun" from one school to the next in search of the bigger fish.

The smaller dolphin are at times very aggressive and will swarm around your boat, waiting for you to drop any bait down to catch them. But the bigger fish more often hang down below the surface, waiting for a larger tidbit to grab.

Like the majority of species mentioned in this article, these fish have strict size and bag limits. For updated information on Florida's sport fishing regulations go to www.myfwc.com. For more on-line information on traveling to or fishing in the Keys, go to www.Fla-keys.com

TREASURE COAST

Mangrove Snapper

When the days grow longer and the summer starts sizzling, you can bet the mangrove snapper fishing begins to cook along Florida's Treasure Coast!

As ocean temperatures rise, a huge influx of mangrove snapper moves into these inshore waters. They migrate through inlets connecting the Indian River system to the Atlantic Ocean. They're also drawn by the massive schools of baitfish congregating around jetties, piers, docks and other structures. These snapper feast on mullet, pilchards, menhaden and mojarra, while preparing to spawn in late summer.

One of our favorite saltwater species, these scrappy critters are, pound for pound, some of the smartest and toughest fish to land on any tackle. Mangrove snapper are also a species that you might catch anywhere along this coast, at any time of year. All you need is to buy a couple of dozen live shrimp and head down to the nearest dock to wet a line, and you may catch yourself a couple of snappers.

But to catch mangrove snapper consistently, you need to start by studying their habits, and perhaps thinking a little like these finned critters. Mangrove snapper typically move about in loose schools of 30 or fewer, flowing in and out around open structure. Expect to find them around mangrove roots, docks, seawalls and marina pilings in search of an easy meal. They love to work together, swarming in to feed, then move on seconds later.

But unlike jack crevalle, which also frequently school up to work fast in an attack, mangrove snapper are much more sensitive to subtle nuisances. This makes them a little more difficult to outsmart, especially when you're fishing in clear water.

Through years of trail and error, successful anglers often find that when trying to outsmart any snapper, the adage, "Keep it simple!" holds true.

When rigging, keep your terminal tackle and leader diameter at a minimum. This can be a challenge because mangrove snapper so often feed in fast current and near structure. They're notorious for escaping after wrapping and cutting a line on barnacle-covered obstacles.

Whenever possible, it's best to use a long, light leader of 20-pound fluorocarbon, which is especially effective in clear water. Some anglers tie their hook right to their line to avoid any excess tackle. The size of your hook needs to fit the size of your bait, and be conservative. If you can keep your bait in their feeding zone by adding only a spit shot or two, you are better off.

A few important tips to remember when targeting mangrove snapper:

1) Keep your drag as tight as possible, 2) Target the moving water where they feed, and 3) Small baits often work best.

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