Sunshine State Saltwater Potpourri

Sunshine State Saltwater Potpourri

There are few countries in the world that offer the variety of saltwater fishing that is found in the state of Florida. Take a look at this grab bag of great angling before planning this summer's outings.

By Tony Clifton

If you have some time to kill, you could use it to make a list of all the various saltwater game fish that are found in Florida. But make certain you do indeed have plenty of time, because the list will be a lengthy and diverse one.

If, however, you'd rather catch some of those fish than just sit there listing them, here are a half-dozen locales where you'll find some hot action this month.

JACKSONVILLE TROUT
It may not be the best-kept secret in Florida, although it does vie for the title, but the St. Johns River in the Jacksonville area is one of the better spots for bagging "gator" trout in the 5-pound-and-up range. The May to June period is an excellent time to take advantage of the fishery. Not only have the water temperatures yet to reach the range that restricts big trout movement, but the annual pogy run up the coast also brings a lot of outsized ocean-going, trout with it. Also, the fish have a lot of room in which to roam in these waters.

The maze of back creeks and waterways in the Sisters Creek area is traditionally one of the more productive spots, as are the spartina grass flats along the Intracoastal Waterway in the Pine Island area. Additionally, local experts don't mind heading right downtown to find big trout.

"Some of the best gator trout fishing in Florida is in the Browns Creek area, around the Dames Point Bridge, and in Mill Cove," notes veteran area guide Jim Romeka. "There are a lot of deeper cuts and channels, along with a wealth of shallow grass that those big trout will move into to feed."

Jacksonville guide Jim Romeka is targeting gator trout this month in the Sisters Creek area. Photo by Tony Clifton

Although some anglers feel that warming temperatures restrict big trout feeding sprees to the morning and evening hours, Romeka doesn't buy it. He finds that tide is the biggest factor in connecting with outsized trout.

"You can catch trout right in the middle of the day," he explains, "if you catch the mid-point in the tide stage. This is when the water levels are right to stack the baitfish up along grass lines and tidal creek mouths. On the falling tide they are coming out, and on the rising tide they are heading in. The trout are following that bait, and when that bait stacks up on defined cover like that it's easier to find those trout. Just look for the bait."

Live bait, like jumbo shrimp or finger mullet, can be effective choices. But many big-trout experts are convinced that at this time of the year, noisy walking-type topwater baits draw more big trout than live bait. One drawback, however, is that there are times when gator trout just blow up on a topwater plug without taking it. When this happens, Romeka has a backup plan.

"Shift to a shallow-running sub-surface lure and twitch it like a topwater plug a foot or so under the surface," he advises. "When they just blow up on surface baits, they normally hit those."

Jim Romeka can be reached to arrange a day of guided trout fishing in the Jacksonville area by calling him at (904) 291-8052.

ST. AUGUSTINE BEACHES GRAB BAG
Offshore angling is normally the exclusive province of big offshore boats, but not during the May to June period and especially in the St. Augustine area. With pogy pods migrating north through shallow coastal waters, and shrimping activity occurring along the beaches, there is a bait buffet of awesome proportions that draws tarpon, smoker-sized kingfish and bull reds up to 40 pounds, as well as a plethora of sharks, Spanish mackerel, monster jack crevalle, and even an occasional sailfish. All of these species are then found in 30 to 45 feet of water within a half-mile of the First Coast beaches. Given the normally calm weather this area experiences during the early summer, that's well within reach of skiffs as small as the 16- and 17-foot range!

There are three primary ways to tap into this bonanza. For first-time anglers, just head out the St. Augustine Inlet and find a pogy pod. Pogies show up as dark brown spots on the water, and watching the pelicans often directs you to them. Pulling up to the pod using a trolling motor is a wise precaution, since outboard engines can spook the baitfish. Then, use a cast net to catch a few dozen of these baitfish. Next, drop a few of them down below the pod on large circle hooks with a couple ounces of weight. Use stout tackle in the 20- to 30-pound range, because monster redfish, tarpon and big jacks are likely to be clustered below the pod. Carry plenty of extra terminal tackle, because there will also be a lot of blacktip sharks that can cut off even heavy line.

If smoker kingfish are the target, rig those live pogies on a 3-foot wire leader with a pair of No. 4 extra-strong treble hooks - one through the nose and one skin-hooked lightly behind the anal fin. Slow-troll the bait around pogy pods or any tide lines in 30 to 45 feet of water.

Should you be fortunate enough to see a shrimp boat pulling its nets and sorting the catch, another option arises. When the shrimpers begin dumping their by-catch, they create a massive chum line that draws fish, especially tarpon and sharks, from miles around. Savvy anglers ease into the chum line and use long-handled dip nets to start scooping up the small sugar trout, which are the items that the soon-to-arrive tarpon relish. Inject them with air via a veterinarian syringe and toss them out under a float, and the tarpon will find them.

This fishery is complex and diverse, so the third option is to retain a guide for the first trip. Capt. Kevin Faver is not only highly skilled at this fishery, but he can also coordinate multiple guide parties. He can be reached at (904) 829-0027.

ST. LUCIE OFFSHORE BONANZA
June is an excellent month for southeast Florida anglers to head out of the St. Lucie Inlet and make the 15- to 25-minute run to the 120-foot drop just offshore. Load up on small scaled sardines before you set sail, and once you reach the drop set some baits out on down lines, while using others to set up a chum line.

Bonito should show up quickly to take the baits. Catch a few, then hook them up on heavy 50-pound-test outfits and drop them well back of the boat while it drifts along the drop.

Once all baits are out and a controlled drift is in progress, expect just about any game fish to show up. King mackerel and sailfish can be abundant and are looking for near-surface baits, as are

huge wahoo and barracudas. Drop some lines deeper and you are likely to encounter amberjacks, cubera snapper and bull sharks up to 200 pounds.

Don't be surprised if a blue marlin shows up and takes a keen interest in a live bonita set well back behind the boat. Should some of the bonito baits die before they get whacked, simply chop off the tail so that it doesn't spin in the current as it sinks, hook it up on a heavy rig with a big sinker, and bounce the bottom for monster snapper and sharks.

Most of the action will be in 85 to 120 feet of water, and a good bottom-recording depthfinder is a major asset. Good-looking bottom in that depth range is a magnet for large predators, and different game fish stack up at different depths above it. Stagger your baits from the surface to the bottom to encounter some of them.

While a bottom recorder is a must, don't ignore the surface. Dolphin can be thick around any floating weedline or other surface debris, and it is a good idea to make periodic scans with binoculars. When weeds are spotted, rig up some light spinning gear with live bait and you can load up with some of the tastiest fish around.

It's a true smorgasbord, and given the calm mornings the area normally experiences in June, plus the short run to the drop, it's one many local anglers don't want to miss.

MIDDLE KEYS BONEFISH AND PERMIT
Anglers who favor donning a pair of polarized glasses and stalking their quarry in shallow water find plenty of action in the middle Keys this month. This is one of the best months for both bonefish and permit to follow the rising tide onto shallow flats in search of crustaceans, bringing them into easy reach of both boaters and waders. While both species roam the length of the Keys, anglers have learned that the most consistent action occurs in the Middle Keys - roughly from Plantation Key to the Niles Channel, just south of Big Pine Key. Within that area, both the ocean and the bay sides can offer outstanding action on bonefish, while the ocean side has a big edge when it comes to permit. Just which side deserves your attention depends upon whether you are boating or wading.

Strong currents keep the ocean-side flats swept largely clean of silt and provide a solid hard-sand bottom for wading anglers. Numerous roadside cutouts allow waders to simply park the car and walk to the fish. Lesser currents on the bay side make the footing a bit dicey in some areas, and with the numerous smaller keys and offshore flats, this area is better handled by those with a shallow draft boat and a sturdy push pole.

Regardless of which side one fishes, the equipment requirements are the same. A 6 1/2- to 7-foot medium-action spinning rig spooled with at least 220 yards of 8-pound-test line is ideal. The simplest terminal rig is the one favored by many guides - a 1/0 short-shanked offset bait-holder-type hook with a medium-sized shrimp threaded onto it. Remove the head and tail on the shrimp so that it won't twist on the cast. Another option is to tie on a spade-head "bonefish jig" and tip it with just a small piece of shrimp. Flyfishermen can also fare well with 8- and 9-weight outfits and small crab-imitating patterns.

Scan the shallow flats for fish. You normally see the shadow the fish casts on the bottom before actually seeing the fish. When you spot the bones, toss the bait a half-dozen feet ahead of it, and hang on. It's not brain surgery, but practice will make perfect.

If you would feel better with a bit of instruction, there are numerous guides available, and virtually any marina, bait and tackle shop, or motel has a list.

BIG BEND GROUPER
June is a peak month for grouper anywhere from Cedar Key to Steinahatchee. Experienced anglers start their search as shallow as 15 feet but won't hesitate to venture out to the 40-foot mark if the shallows aren't producing.

While trolling deep-diving lipped plugs has become popular in recent years, especially with anglers who haven't collected a lengthy list of GPS coordinates, veteran anglers spend time seeking out live bottom, offshore rocks and areas where there are sudden and significant depth changes. This requires a quality bottom recorder, but don't expect to see the fish. Instead, they are looking for what some term as "Swiss cheese." This is a jumbled bottom with open areas, which indicates sea fans, coral-like growths and other bottom features that are favored by grouper.

Once a potentially promising area is found, anglers anchor upcurrent and drop down some baits. If nothing happens within 15 minutes or so, they head to the next "live bottom" area. Find enough such structures, and at some point in the day you are likely to be hoisting grouper over the side.

Most anglers opt for 20- to 30-pound tackle, and the smart ones tie on 6 to 8 feet of 80-pound mono leader. That gives them a built-in margin of extra leader material that they can cut off when it becomes chaffed, without having to re-rig with a new leader.

Grouper aren't overly finicky when it comes to what baits they eat. Frozen mullet, squid or cigar minnows work. For those who can get them, however, live pinfish are often referred to as "grouper candy." It is a bait that grouper have a hard time turning down!

PANHANDLE POMPANO
Pompano may not rank very high on the list of Florida's glamour species, but few knowledgeable anglers would turn them down on the table. Fewer still disparage their sporting qualities after a bout with one on 6-pound spinning gear. For those who have become "pompanized," there are few places that offer a better opportunity to indulge in this obsession than the area around Port St. Joe during the month of June.

Pompano like sand fleas. Sand fleas live on sand beaches. The area around Port St. Joe abounds with a number of what are locally called "capes" that share distinctive and common characteristics. They are sections of clean, white sand beach that drop off to deeper water. The end of the St. Joe Peninsula is one of the better spots in the area, but not the only one.

Anywhere you find that clean sand abutting deeper water, even if it is only a small section of beach, you have found a spot that pompano are likely to gather in this month. In fact, the current Florida state record pompano - weighing 8 pounds, 4 ounces - was caught in St. Joe Bay in October of 1999.

Translating this opportunity into fish in the freezer is not difficult. Pompano like to feed right next to the shoreline, but they are somewhat spooky. Anglers place their boats a long cast off the shoreline drop. From that point, a 6 1/2- to 7-foot medium action spinning rod with 6-pound line can cast a jig a long way. The preferred jig is a 1/4-ounce to 1/2-ounce bucktail model, with a bullet-type head, in white or pink. Veteran anglers trim the jig dressing to just the end of the bend of the hook. Bigger isn't always better with pompano.

Given the clear water and the pompano's spooky nature, most anglers don't use a shock leader. But they also carry a generous supply of ji

gs to lose to the Spanish mackerel, bluefish and ladyfish that also gather.

While a bare jig is not a bad way to go, local experts often tip one with a sand flea and work it in a decidedly slow retrieve. Or once pompano are located, simply shift to a sand flea on a hook with just enough weight to get it to the target area.



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