Florida's Saltwater Bonanza

Florida's Saltwater Bonanza

There can be little argument that our state is a saltwater fishing Eden. Regardless of the fish you prefer to target, the Sunshine State has it all. Let's have a closer look at some of this year's best bets!

by Marva Mitteer

It's June, it's hot, and it's time to smear on sunscreen and head to either coast of Florida for outstanding saltwater fishing. You name it - seatrout, redfish, snook, pompano, grouper, flounder, snappers, tripletails and all the other usual suspects can be found in their usual summer haunts. Let's explore some of the very best fishing options available to anglers during the warm summer months, starting with June.

TARPON STATEWIDE
Certainly tarpon will be high on most anglers' wish lists. In summer tarpon are abundant off beaches; in bays; throughout backcountry areas; near bridges and piers; and in passes, channels, surfs and river mouths from Key West to Pensacola on the Gulf Coast and north to Jacksonville on the Atlantic.

Since they are readily accessible to so many fishermen, tarpon are often described as the poor man's big game fish. Few, if any, species exhibit a more flamboyant battle when hooked. When hooked in depths of 12 feet or less, the silver king seems to spend more time above the surface than below it! In addition to their furious aerial acrobatics, tarpon make powerful runs and when near obstructions often attempt to cut your line.

Green or blue on its back, the tarpon is silver on its sides and belly and has a thick, powerful body. It also sports a forked tail and a long trailer at the end of its dorsal fin that is visible when the fish rolls on the water's surface.

Most of the tarpon you are likely to meet up with range in size from 40 to 75 pounds. However, fish from 100 to 150 pounds are certainly not uncommon in Sunshine State waters.

Basically, there's nothing a tarpon won't eat. In bay waters with slow-moving currents, many anglers use mullet heads or other cut baits, including ladyfish, catfish and pinfish. These are fished on the bottom while anglers wait for tarpon to pass by and gobble up an easy meal. Live-baiters can offer tarpon a variety of enticements, including jumbo shrimp, dollar-sized crabs, finger mullet, small ladyfish and frisky pinfish.

For fast action and an impressive aerial show, a pack of "schoolie" dolphin is hard to beat. Photo by Jimmy Jacobs

For throwing artificial lures, be advised that just about any plug, jig or spoon presently in your tackle box will draw strikes when tarpon are in an eating mood - which is just about always. A couple of favorite offerings are the Mirr-O-Lure 52M18 and 52M21. But any jerkbait, lipped plug or surface plug is also likely to work. In deep-water situations, nothing beats a 2- to 4-ounce jig with a Kelly green plastic tail, especially those recently manufactured jig models with throw-off weights.

A growing army of flyfishermen test their mettle against tarpon, and for good reason. In June and throughout the summer months the silver kings seldom let a streamer fly pass by without giving it attention.

In open-water situations, medium-weight baitcasting rigs and spinning rods are ideal. Both should be spooled with a minimum of 15-pound-test line with a 30-pound monofilament leader. Those fishing from or near bridges or piers should step up to a heavy-duty rod with 50-pound-test line. Wand-waving fly-rodders are advised to employ 10-weight fly rods with a minimum 16-pound-test tippet.

During these warm months, tarpon crowd into Boca Grande Pass, just south of Ft. Myers. This site has more tarpon per square inch than anywhere else in the world from May through early August.

In southeast Florida try the channels under the 100-mile bridge from Key Largo to Key West, or check out Government Cut in the main ship channel leading through Biscayne Bay to Miami.

Another option is to go light for smaller tarpon. There are few things more fun than hooking 15- to 30-pound silver kings on light spinning tackle or fly rods. To cash in on this type of action, you might want to concentrate on the north and south forks of the Sebastian River, where rolling tarpon are numerous in June.

On the west coast, beach areas from Marco Island to Sarasota are always productive at this time of year, as are the Sunshine Skyway Fishing Piers off St. Petersburg and the Gandy Bridge in Tampa Bay. These latter two sites are especially productive at night.

For the past decade or two, the flats just south of Homosassa have drawn fly-rodders from all over the globe in search of world-record-sized tarpon. Quite often they have not been disappointed.

For years, anglers have been releasing every tarpon they catch, since the fish are inedible and, with a photograph, a taxidermist can do a replica mount. If you do wish to keep a fish for any reason, you must have previously purchased a special $50 stamp.

SOUTH FLORIDA DOLPHIN
Another high jumper with an abundance of flash and dash is the tasty dolphin, found in all Florida offshore waters. Also known as dorado or mahi-mahi, these brilliantly colored fish are either bright blue and yellow or deep green and yellow when alive and fighting. Unfortunately, its beauty quickly fades to a grayish tint when the fish is caught and placed in an ice chest.

Schooling dolphin generally run from 2 or 3 pounds to 15 or 20. Larger fish, which tend to be loners, often reach 40 or 50 pounds for bulls and 30 to 40 pounds for cows. The all-tackle International Game Fish Association record stands at 87 pounds, while the largest ever taken by hook and line in Florida tipped the scales at an impressive 77 pounds, 12 ounces. Both bulls and cows have dorsal fins, running from head to tail. Males have very blunt heads, while females' heads are more rounded.

As sportfish taken on light or medium tackle, dolphin rate an A+ grade. They are extremely fast, strong and acrobatic fish that jump frequently when hooked.

Trollers for marlin or sailfish often connect with a dolphin that pounces on rigged baits or artificial trolling lures. Anglers specifically searching for dolphin schools look for diving birds, especially frigate birds. When you're pursuing this species, never pass up floating weedlines or any form of floating debris. Dolphin love to romp in the shade created by this type of flotsam.

A good tip to remember is that a school of dolphin can be kept close to the boat by allowing one hooked fish to stay in the water, or by tossing out cut bait as chum.

Live baits, as well as al

l manner of artificials (including plugs, jigs and spoons), draw strikes. Fly-rodders can get in on the act by casting small streamers or popping bugs.

Because it is such a short run to the Gulf Stream and blue water, anglers and charter boat skippers in the Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and Pompano Beach areas place the aggressive dolphin at the top of their target list.

While there are no size limits on dolphin, anglers are restricted to 10 fish per day.

FIRST COAST YELLOWFIN TUNA
Offshore fishermen from Daytona north to Jacksonville and Fernandina Beach might want to cash in on the northern migration of the yellowfin tuna in the summer. Also known as Allison tuna, they move through this region during June.

A creature of open waters, yellowfin tuna are often found near sharp dropoffs in the depths of the Atlantic basin.

Better plan on using heavy gear with 50- to 80-pound-test line when you're tackling these extremely strong bruisers, which frequently weigh from 100 to 200 pounds or more.

As the yellowfin's name implies, the fins of this tuna species are yellow. Its second dorsal and anal fins are quite tapered and elongated.

Most yellowfins are caught by accident or design by trollers using large lures or rigged baits. However, anglers who anchor on a reef near deep blue water can often bring the tuna to the boat by chumming with pilchards or other small baitfish.

If you are able to get yellowfins to within casting distance, they can be hooked on various artificial lures or streamer flies. With lighter tackle, anglers should be prepared for a long, hard fight, but nobody ever said the angling life was easy.

PERMIT IN NORTH FLORIDA
So much press has been devoted to glorifying the fishing for permit on the flats in the Florida Keys that many anglers probably have the idea that the fish is limited to those waters. Not true. As a matter of fact, these fish are found in all Florida waters on both coasts.

Equipped with a deep body, this silvery-colored gamester often weighs from 20 to 30 pounds. The world and Florida record is 56 pounds and a couple of ounces. When hooked in deeper waters, permit are strong and stubborn fighters.

It's hard to fool permit with artificial lures; the best baits for these fish are small live crabs. They also take live shrimp on occasion. Dead pieces of crab or lobster sometimes find takers, too.

Found in the surf, around inlets or passes, and near reefs, wrecks, bridges and piers, permit inhabit water along both coasts of the peninsula. A growing following of anglers in and around Tampa Bay target the fish, especially near the Howard Frankland and Gandy bridges, as well as around both ends of the Sunshine Skyway fishing piers. Wrecks and reefs in 30 to 100 feet of water all along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico are worth checking out.

For a change of pace this summer, why not add the permit to your list of prey species? Right now they are quite readily available.

PANHANDLE COBIA
Another change-of-pace fish that you might consider during the summer months is the powerful cobia, also known as ling, cabio, lemonfish and Chinese catfish.

This is a migratory species that draws only marginal angler interest statewide, but it is popular in the Big Bend and Panhandle area of the Gulf Coast during the annual ling run. Fishermen literally turn out in droves to test their light- or medium-weight tackle and stamina against fish that usually weigh between 20 and 50 pounds but may run twice that size. The all-tackle world record is 135 pounds, 9 ounces.

In open water the cobia makes long runs. If it's near underwater or surface structures, you can bet the egg money that it tries to wrap the line around the obstructions.

Cobia are brown or dark gray above and whitish on the underside; they have a dark stripe running from the gills to the base of the tail. In the water, the cobia often looks much like a shark. Cobia are certainly not bashful or spooky. Many times they actually swim around boats, seemingly curious as to what's going on.

During the summer months, you are likely to stumble across cobia in a wide variety of locales, from the shallow surf to deep-water reefs and wrecks. Cobia are often seen swimming with rays, and occasionally they're observed mixed in with tarpon. These fish love to hang out around navigation markers, buoys and crab traps as well.

Cobia are not particularly choosy about baits. Pinfish, finger mullet, cigar minnows, grunts, shrimp, crabs, dead fish and squid all attract strikes. In the artificial-lure category, jigs, spoons, lipped plugs, surface lures and tube lures all produce. Fly-fishing buffs can connect on these fish with poppers or large streamer flies.

Be forewarned that you should never bring a "green" cobia into a boat. Such a fresh fish has so much fight left in it that it is likely to go nuts and smash anything that's not nailed down. Watching one tear up everything in sight during this frenzy is truly an awesome sight but one you do not want to see more than once.

Although cobia do not hold up well in a freezer, they are excellent when smoked. Freshly cut cobia steaks are appetizing baked or broiled. When cut into fingers, the meat fries up golden and tastes dandy.

Those planning to keep a cobia for dinner are advised that it must measure a minimum of 33 inches from its nose to the fork of its tail. The daily limit is two fish per person.

OFFSHORE REEFS FOR AMBERJACKS
Another powerhouse found on reefs and wrecks, in depths ranging from fairly shallow to 200 or more feet, is the greater amberjack. These fish average from 30 to 50 pounds.

Offshore grouper anglers catch most jacks. This fish can be a savior for charter boat skippers on either the west or east coast of Florida when grouper are off their feed for one reason or another. Amberjacks inhabit the same structures and are usually willing to enter into a fray with anybody anytime.

A situation arose off Panama City Beach several years ago when my husband, Herb Allen, then outdoors editor of the Tampa Tribune, and Bob Peel of Syracuse, N.Y., joined another pair of anglers to fish a reef within sight of land.

Two anglers were using live pinfish for bait, while my Herb and another angler lowered 2-ounce Salty Dog jigs. No sooner had the live and artificial baits reached bottom when the first amberjack was on. These brutes, some of the toughest fish, pound for pound, that swim, had all four fishermen crying "uncle" within an hour.

Peel, a veteran angler who had fished worldwide for just about every finny foe except am

berjack, was forced to quit after his third was landed and released. Seems his tennis-elbow pain was flaring up and being severely aggravated by his struggles.

"I've got to rest a minute," Peel sighed after releasing his third. "I never knew any fish got this tough."

Before pulling off the reef that day, the quartet bested 18 amberjacks weighing between 30 and 40 pounds each.

Not a particularly colorful fish, the jack is brownish on its back, fading to white at its belly. It has a dark line that starts at its eye and extends to the base of its dorsal fin.

This punishing fighter powers deep and makes fairly long runs. Equipped with an unusual amount of stamina, good-sized amberjacks often battle anglers for an hour or more.

When preparing for amberjack warfare, keep in mind that 100-pounders are not that uncommon and a few grow to 140 and 150 pounds. Most folks use live baits or jigs on 50-pound-class tackle. However, experienced light-tackle and fly-rod enthusiasts can often get into the act, since other jacks sometimes follow a hooked cousin to boatside. Jacks frequently can be drawn to the surface by chumming too. Once lured there, they are fair game for plugs of all types, spoons, jigs, and fly-rod streamers or poppers.

Current regulations limit anglers to one amberjack per day measuring at least 48 inches from its nose to the fork of its tail.



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