Sweet Spots: 4 Picks for Fall Florida Fishing

Sweet Spots: 4 Picks for Fall Florida Fishing
Current that keeps the water a bit cooler and shade to block the sun’s rays make the St. Johns River a good bet for fall largemouths.

Here are the best bets in September for outstanding Florida fishing action.

If the truth be told, September is not the easiest month for catching fish in the Sunshine State. As we endure the closing weeks of summer, fishing is often much akin to sitting in a sauna. It is hot, sweaty and uncomfortable. Unless the fish are feeding heavily, the discomfort increases in proportion to how slow the bites are coming.

That said, you don’t have to abandon the sport to wait on fall’s cooling arrival. Rather, you need to focus on options that are more or less immune to the slow action of the dog days of summer. Here, we take a look at an option in each of the four quadrants of Florida that continue to offer fine chances to put some fish in the boat.

Whether you fish saltwater or freshwater these places should offer some satisfying action this month.

NORTHWEST SHEEPSHEAD

Destin, FL

While some anglers think of sheepshead just as nuisance bait stealers, those fishermen probably have never hooked into a sizeable specimen of this species. Even with the bigger fish the rule of thumb still applies — for sheepshead you want to set the hook before they bite. That’s because their take is often subtle and you only realize you had a bite when you discover your bait missing. The bottom line is, you have to pay close attention when targeting these striped bandits.

In September, just like the rest of the year, you can expect to find the sheepshead around submerged cover and especially dock or bridge pilings. The barnacles on those structures are a staple of the appetites of these fish. Their formidable set of grinding teeth are ideal for busting up such shellfish.

florida fishing You have to pay close attention when targeting sheepshead. (Shutterstock image)

One of the best places to find sheepshead this month in this part of the Florida Panhandle is beneath the U.S. Highway 98 bridge that spans the inlet from Destin over to Okaloosa Island. In September, expect to find the water quite clear in the pass, with visibility down to 5 or 6 feet. At times you may even spot the striped fish milling about the pilings, offering sight casting options.

Another advantage of fishing this month, is that school is back in session and the family vacation season has ended. While there will be boat traffic, it won’t resemble a California freeway like it often does earlier in the summer.

The best baits for the sheepshead are live fiddler crabs or shrimp. You want to rig those on fish-finder rig, with just enough weight to overcome any current coming through the pass. Toss the rig right up against the pilings and let it sink on a tight line. If you let the line go slack, you’ll likely never will feel the sheepshead taking it.

Sheepshead in the 1- to 1 1/2-pound range are likely to be encountered, but you also can expect some of the fish to run from 3 to 5 pounds. It is best to have at least a medium-heavy action rod with 15-pound-test or heavier line.

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The fish will try to take your rig into the pilings and you’ll need backbone in the rod, and line heavy enough to horse a 5-pounder out into the open water. Another reason for heavier gear is you may find yourself attached to a big redfish, since those drum are also in the pass at this time of year too.

If you want to try the action with a guide, Capt. Sid Little runs Lil Lucky of Destin (lillucky.com) guide service and knows this fishing well.

NORTHEAST/CENTRAL LARGEMOUTH BASS

St. Johns River

In the late summer largemouth bass often become lethargic in the heat and can be tough to catch. But, there are a couple of things that ameliorate that situation. One is having current that keeps the water a bit cooler and the other is shade to block some of the late summer sun’s rays. Both of those can be found on the St. Johns River.

As for current, this is a river, so the water always is moving. The shade here is abundant in the form of lily pad fields that stretch along much of the shore of the main river and its backwaters. Expect to find the bass along the edge of these fields in the morning and back up under the vegetation as the day heats up.

A good area to target is from the southern outlet of Lake George upstream to the Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Area. But, since the river is 300 miles long, flowing south to north, there are plenty of other areas holding largemouths as well.

A good tactic for early in the day is to run a spinnerbait along the edge of the pad fields, covering a lot of water. If this isn’t producing bites, try switching off to plastic jerkbaits or trick-style worms. As the day begins to warm, the chances of hooking up improve, if you switch off to live-bait tactics. That is especially true if it’s a real lunker you are after.

florida fishing A spinnerbait along the edge of pad fields can be productive.

The bait of choice is wild river shiners. A number of bait shops along the river sell these baitfish. Don’t skimp when it comes to size. Baits in the 6- to 8-inch range are ideal for avoiding small bass and attracting bigger fish. Those bigger bass can easily top the 8-pound mark.

You want to rig these live baits a couple of feet under a float, but with minimal or no weight on the line. Cast the rig right up against the edge of the pad line. Ideally, the bait then seeks cover by swimming under the edge of the vegetation. Of course, that’s also where the largemouths are hanging out in the shade.

When the cork goes under, give the bass a couple of counts to get the big bait firmly in its mouth before setting the hook. You’ll note I said “goes under.” When a largemouth takes the bait the float darts downward. If, however, the cork starts running across the surface, it’s probably time to move. That is the signature bite of a bowfin (mudfish), which are also abundant in the same type of habitat.

For more information on bass fishing on this part of the St. Johns or to book a day of guided fishing, contact Capt. Rick Rawlins at Highland Park Fish Camp at highlandparkfishcamp.com

SOUTHEAST SUNSHINE BASS

Ida to Osborne Chain of Lakes

The Lake Ida to Osborne Chain consists of 670 acres of small lakes along the E-4 Canal (Lake Ida Canal) stretching from 120-acre Lake Ida in the south at Delray Beach, north to 380 acre Lake Osborne at Lake Worth. Along the way the 17 miles of fishable canal also passes through 50 acre Lake Eden, 6 acre Lake Constantino and 20 acre Lake Leisureville.

These waters are home to largemouth bass, bluegill, redear sunfish and a host of exotic species that include butterfly peacock bass, clown knife fish, Mayan cichlids, oscars and spotted tilapia. But, in September we are entering the beginning of the best time of year to catch hybrid bass in these lakes.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission stocks lakes Eden, Ida and Osborne annually with these crosses between striped and white bass. The result are sterile eating machines, known locally as sunshine bass.

Sunshine bass travel in schools and feed on small minnows, particularly shad, but they will take any small fish they can catch. Often early in the day or just before dusk these schools push baitfish to the surface, creating a feeding frenzy.

Targeting such events with small topwater lures, inline spinners, spoons or jigs can lead to some crazy, fast fishing action. Most of the fish are likely to be in the 1- to 2-pound range, but 5- or 6-pounders are possible. The state record for hybrids is more than 16 pounds, so the possibility of a real trophy exists.

If you prefer to use natural baits for the sunshine bass, live shad are hard to beat. Another option is to bait up with either live or dead shrimp.

Access to this complex of waters can be found at Lake Ida East Park on the southern end, or John Prince Park on Lake Osborne at the north end.

SOUTHWEST TARPON

Matlacha, FL

Targeting the glamor species of tarpon on Pine Island Sound and Matlacha Pass on Florida’s southwest coast is action tailor made for the hot weather of late summer. This is a time of year that offers a couple of great options for catching these fish in the vicinity of Fort Myers.

Pine Island Sound runs down the western shore of its namesake island, separating that body of land from Sanibel, Captiva, North Captiva and Cayo Costa islands. To the east, Matlacha Pass divides Pine Island from the mainland. Both these bodies of water have options for tarpon.

Although the area is noted for a spring and early summer migration of big tarpon off the beaches, inside the sound there’s also a resident population of silver kings that range from babies of just a few pounds up to 100-plus-pound adults. In fact, Capt. Joe Harley of Snooktown Charters (snooktown.com) targets these fish every month of the year except February.

His favorite option is sight casting the bigger fish on the open flats of Pine Island Sound, and particularly by fly fishing. The places he looks for them are along the edges of grass flats that drop down into slightly deeper channels. Those channels usually range from 4 to 8 feet deep.

As for lures, he likes toad-style flies because of their neutral buoyance that suspends them in the water column. Whether he opts for dark or light colors depends on the water clarity. Often the water in the sound is gin clear, making sighting the fish easy.For clients that want to throw spinning gear, Capt. Harley ties on 10-inch plastic worms in either white or black colors. These are rigged Texas style. Regardless of what you are throwing, the idea is to get the lure beyond and in front of the tarpon, then retrieve it across his travel lane a couple of feet in front of the fish.

When winds pick up making the fishing on the open sound impossible, Capt. Harley heads into the backwater areas on either side of Pines Island. In this maze of cuts, creeks and lakes he concentrates on the mangrove shore lines, looking for baby tarpon rolling. Once spotted, those are targeted with the same lures. These fish run from 10 pounds up to about 30.

When casting in these backwater reaches, don’t be too surprised if you end up hooked to a snook or redfish. Those two species often inhabit the same areas as the smaller tarpon.

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