Sunshine State Super Saltwater Summer

These destinations can provide some of the top action for salt water in Florida in the coming months. Make your plans for some great fishing right now! (June 2009)

Tarpon like the one Capt. Mike Smith is hoisting are common in Captiva Pass during a summer "hill" tide.
Photo by Polly Dean.

In offshore waters of the westernmost portion of the Panhandle, big brutish amberjacks can bend even the stoutest of rods. Farther down the Gulf Coast around the passes and beaches of Captiva and Sanibel islands, huge tarpon make their appearance this time of year and for those throwing a line in the southernmost waters of our state, the bonefish of the Middle Keys can make a reel sizzle this month.

SANIBEL TARPON
The month of June traditionally marks the end of school and the welcome arrival of the laid-back lazy days of summer that lie ahead. But to the southern Gulf Coast fishermen of Pine Island Sound, lazy days of summer are not a reality. Here, tarpon fever prevails in full force and there is nothing laid-back about it!

No angler is immune to the rush of adrenaline that flows when one of these monster silver fish inhales a bait or lure, making the line go tight and then performs its acrobatic series of jumps. During the excitement, the lucky angler on the other end of the line must know when to hang on tight and most importantly, when to lower the rod and "bow" to the mighty fish.

Captains Mark Westra and Mike Smith are native to southwest Florida and between them have over 65 years of experience fishing the waters throughout Ft. Myers and Pine Island Sound. They are good friends and by combining their resources and knowledge, the two captains know how and where to put anglers on fish. Locating big tarpon is certainly part of their expertise.

The two captains met our party of four anglers at the Punta Rassa public boat ramp at the east end of the causeway to Sanibel Island. It was early morning and showing signs of being another blistering day. The captains had already been on the water filling their livewells with threadfin shad.

I boarded Capt. Westra's boat with Florida Game & Fish editor Jimmy Jacobs and within minutes, we were heading to the Gulf of Mexico, just outside of Sanibel Island in search of rolling tarpon. Capt. Smith and his anglers Ken Freel and Ron Sinfelt were following close behind.

The island's white beaches were still well in sight when Smith radioed to let us know that they had spotted some tarpon. Westra had just turned our boat around when we saw that Ken Freel already was hooked up! The huge silver fish gave one leap and Freel bowed to it, but in a flash, the fish was gone. We all got a good look at the fish that weighed at least 100 pounds!

In quick succession, we hooked up and lost three more big silver kings. In each instance, one of the anglers held the fish for several jumps before they threw the hook.

When Ron Sinfelt got a second chance that morning to hook a big tarpon, a battle was on. The fight lasted well over an hour with dozens of leaps and Sinfelt bowing each time. He got the tarpon close to the boat several times, but each time the big fish was able to make another run.

Finally, Capt. Smith tightened the drag slightly to aid the angler, but instead the tarpon took advantage and with its last break from the boat, the line went slack and the fish was free. Sinfelt fought a long, hard battle, but the silver king came out on top again.

On average, only a quarter to a third of tarpon "jumped" are brought to the boat. Perhaps this is the reason that at the end of a day of hunting tarpon, the fishing is most often described by the number of 'poons that are hooked or "jumped," rather than caught.

During a midday lunch break, our group rehashed the morning hookups and the fact that all of our fish got away. Capt. Smith was forthcoming with a couple of tips to explain that situation.

Always be ready," he cautioned.

That seems like an obvious point, but one that needed emphasizing. These big fish can grab the bait within arm's reach of the boat and one should be alert and ready so as not to be taken by surprise. That happened to us several times.

When not bowing to the fish when it takes to the air, Smith emphasized keeping pressure on the fish.

"Don't baby them. Whip the fish early," he advised.

That's why Smith doesn't crank the boat and follow a hooked tarpon. The fish will tire sooner if it has to fight the angler and the drag of the boat at the same time. A short fight is better for the fish and the angler. A tarpon that is landed quickly recovers quicker. A shorter battle also lessens the chance of bull sharks, which are common in the area, from making a meal of an exhausted tarpon.

The afternoon tactics for tarpon were slightly different from the morning trip. It was the day before the new moon and we were able to take advantage of what the captains referred to as the "hill tide." During the three-day periods before and after a new or full moon the higher tides funnel crabs through the passes or cuts between the islands. The tide had been incoming all morning and now it had turned, pouring out into the Gulf, dragging the crabs with it.

We made a few drifts through Captiva Pass, the cut between North Captiva and Cayo Costa islands, scooping up the 2- to 3-inch crabs with small hand nets. These "pass" crabs were just beneath the surface swimming amongst the floating sea grass flushing through the cut. After a few drifts, we had plenty in the livewell.

Tarpon were rolling in the pass. We alternately anchored and cast and also drifted, tight-lining our crabs.

Capt. Smith believes in staying flexible depending on conditions. When the tide is moving, he may let the crab float freely, and when the water is slow, he may go to a float setup with the crab about 3 or 4 feet below the float. He also suggests throwing the bait along the floating weedlines.

The 'poons found the crabs just as enticing as the shad, and we jumped several more big ones just off Captiva Island that afternoon.

Capt. Mike Smith of Mangrove Island Charters specializes in light tackle and fly-fishing for snook, tarpon and redfish. For more details, visit his Web site at www.mangroveislandcharters.com, or call him at (239) 573-3474.

Capt. Mark Westra of Flat Top Charters chases those same species in the Pine Island Sound region. H

e can be reached at (941) 543-5475.

PENSACOLA AMBERJACKS
The greater amberjack found in deeper waters off the Panhandle coast can make the hardiest of anglers weary from their powerful battles. Amberjacks average 20 to 40 pounds in the Gulf and a fish over 60 pounds isn't uncommon. The state record amberjack weighed in at 142 pounds! Pound for pound, these sturdy fish will tire an angler's arms after only one battle.

Schools of amberjack are typically found offshore in about 100 to 150 feet of water. They gather over wrecks, reefs and dropoffs.

Hefty gear is required to bring these big fish to the surface. A 6- to 6 1/2-foot medium/heavy-action rod and a sturdy reel loaded with 80-pound-test line is a good setup.

Many anglers use circle hooks that can take some getting used to. The main thing is to not set the hook. If you are feeling some bumps, actually lower the rod to let the fish have the bait, and hang on tight. In seconds, your rod will be bent in half and be prepared to use every bit of strength to reel the big jack up to the boat.

Live blue runners and bluefish are popular baits. Amberjack also take a pinfish, croaker or mullet. Use the largest of your available bait to hook the bigger fish. A big jack will eat a 3- or 4-pound baitfish.

The firm white meat of the amberjack is extremely popular table fare. The flavor is mild and easily adaptable to different recipes and cooking methods. Its popularity on the dining table has prompted stricter harvest regulations. One fish of at least 30 inches to the fork of the tail can be taken per day.

To book a day of charter fishing for amberjack out of Pensacola Beach, check out Lively's Gulf Charters online at www.livelysgulfcharters.com, or give them a call at (850) 932-5071,

MIDDLE KEYS BONEFISH
The Florida Keys are home to some of the largest bonefish in the world, and there is no better way to round out your summer angling than by having one of these mini-torpedoes on the end of your line! Ounce for ounce, bonefish are pure energy and when hooked are known to make an initial sprint of more than 100 yards!

Capt. Tom Seiling of Light'n Up Charters fishes out of Hawks Cay Marina in Duck Key. With 15 years of guiding to his credit, he knows how to put anglers on bonefish. Seiling targets bonefish in the area from Marathon east to Long Key, which is located about the midway point of the Florida Keys.

The first and greatest part of the challenge to catching a bonefish is to see one! They blend so perfectly with their surroundings that the ability has earned them the nickname of "gray ghost."

Anglers often first spot signs that a bonefish is in the area rather than initially seeing the actual fish. Look for anything moving, an area on the water's surface that looks different than the surrounding water. This can be a wake from a bonefish on the move or a disturbance from the tail of a feeding fish. In very shallow water, a "tailing" bonefish will have his tail sticking out of the water as he feeds nose down in the sand or grass looking for crustaceans.

White puffs of sand are other indicators that a bonefish has been poking around the bottom and disturbing the sandy sea floor. Look for basketball-sized puffs, but remember to take into account that the stained water is drifting with the current and the fish will be upcurrent a few feet from the visible cloud of sand.

Often the shadow that the bonefish casts on the bottom may be noticed before the actual fish is seen. Sunny conditions are necessary for this situation, and allow an angler to scan a greater variety of water depths looking for fish.

On the water with Capt. Seiling, he took advantage of the periods of sunshine to pole us through slightly deeper water. As a general rule, Seiling mentioned that when you do find a bonefish, stick with that water depth to finding more fish.

If you don't see bonefish to sight-cast to, try throwing your bait to the far side of any "potholes," those light-colored sandy depressions found within areas of turtle grass. Then retrieve your bait or lure across the hole. Bonefish sometimes hide on the edges of the turtle grass where they aren't easily seen.

Bonefish move up onto the shallow flats to feed, usually moving in with the incoming tide. They then leave the flat as the tide turns back out. You can usually find bonefish facing upcurrent or into the wind as they feed, whichever is strongest at the time.

Bonefish will frequent various flats at different tides. It is not uncommon to find bonefish in an area during the same tide phase on multiple days.

Bonefish prefer warm water temperatures, but in the August heat, the shallow flats may warm up too much for even their liking. If water gets into the upper 80s or higher, it may be best to hunt for bones in the early morning or evening.

The most popular bait for bonefish is a live shrimp or a live blue crab, just larger than a quarter. Cast the bait in front of a bonefish, or let it bounce slowly along the bottom. Bonefish rarely go up to grab something above them. Also, be sure to move the bait away from the fish, since it's not natural for prey to move toward its predator!

Jigs tipped with a shrimp also draw strikes. Try white, pink or tan jigheads weighing either 1/8 or 1/4 ounce, depending on water depth. If needed, you can go as light as 1/16 ounce or up to 3/8 ounce in more extreme water depths.

Bonefish are extremely popular with flyfishermen. The main hurdle for flyfishermen is to make that first cast count, especially if the fish is on the move. If the bonefish is cruising, cast several feet in front of his path and strip as he closes in. If the bonefish is nose down on the bottom, then you want to drop your fly just a few inches in front of him.

Flies that are tan or brown and resemble shrimp and crabs work well here. Keys' bonefish have seen many flies; so straying from the traditional patterns such as Gotchas and Bonefish Charlies may produce better results.

An 8- or 9-weight rod is perfect and don't be afraid to use a 10-weight if throwing heavier flies with lead or bead-chain eyes, especially to push a fly into a stiff wind.

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