Whether from a boat, a pier or the shore, Florida saltwater fishing includes countless places to chase inshore fish.
How can anyone live in Florida and not go fishing at least once a year? Superb coastal fishing is within an easy 90-minute drive for everyone who lives here, from Pensacola to Fernandina Beach.
For those in the Panhandle, one great place to fish is St. George Island. This 22-mile-long barrier island is located outside Apalachicola Bay. More than 100 species of fish inhabit the bay.
Folks can fish from the beach on the south side of the island, or go around to the north side to the fishing pier. The pier juts out 600 feet into the water, providing access for any of the Apalachicola Bay species. Even better, there’s no fee for fishing on the pier.
On the pier, bait a Christmas tree rig with live shrimp or shiners to catch any number of species, including speckled trout, flounder, sheepshead, black drum, pompano and Spanish mackerel. Those targeting pompano should try light jigs and popping corks. For black drum, experiment with live baits, such as shrimp or squid; spoons and jigs also work. Spanish mackerel love live bait.
In the surf, expect to find whiting, flounder, redfish, speckled trout, pompano, bluefish, Spanish mackerel and sharks. One effective way to fish the beach is to thread line through a pyramid weight and attach a swivel. On the other end on the swivel, attach a monofilament leader 18 to 20 inches long, with a hook to the end of the leader.
This allows line to pass freely through the weight and prevents bait from tangling up with the sinker. Another variation on this theme is to put the bait between rod and the sinker. Tie a three-way swivel to the line coming from the rod without threading the line though a weight. Then attach the leader to the second ring of the swivel. On the remaining ring, tie a line for the weight.
Many live or formerly live baits will work with these rigs, such as chunks of mullet and squid, and live or frozen shrimp, or pinfish. At the edge of the water, folks can find sand fleas, pale tan arthropods that resemble cat and dog fleas, but are about the size of the last joint of a thumb.
For saltwater lures, go to bass-fishing tackle. Spoons and topwater plugs work in saltwater, too. Both gold and silver spoons will catch redfish and trout. Just cast the spoon out and bring it back with a steady retrieve. Topwater plugs will catch everything from ladyfish to tarpon and trout to redfish, and occasionally even cobia, bluefish and croaker. Try plugs, such as the Devil’s Horse, Zara Spook or Mirrolure, and don’t forget that old standby — spinnerbaits.
On the east coast from St. Augustine to the Palm Coast area, early summer can be a good time for speckled trout, as water temperature is increasing and trout are becoming more active.
St. Augustine trout seem to hit better in the morning, especially on topwater rigs. The best time to fish for them, however, is at high tide, regardless of time of day, catching both redfish and trout.
As water temperature rises, trout have increasing interest in topwater baits, such as a Cajun Thunder with a live shrimp or a Bass Assassin underneath it. Another possibility is a MirroLure Top Dog.
One recommended place is Pellicer Flats, located about 12 miles north of Palm Coast, although it can be difficult getting in and out. The flats are full of oyster beds and big trout, but be careful with tides, because larger boats can get marooned if the tide goes out.
Another top spot is the flats across from Devil’s Elbow at Crescent Beach. Work topwater plugs across the oysters. Access to this area is from Devil’s Elbow Fishing Resort at Crescent Beach.
This area is similar in many ways to Pellicer Flats; there are lots of oyster beds, where trout lie in ambush. Gator trout like 2 to 4 feet of water with deeper water nearby, and they’ll lay on the back side of oyster beds much like redfish. For schooling trout, look on the flats in 2 to 4 feet of water.
In both areas, the color of jigs matters. Try chartreuse, and a red head with a white body, during midday on days with a good sun. Early in the morning, late in the afternoon or on days with a solid overcast, use black, especially black with gold sides and an orange belly. For some reason, those colors seem to work really well.
Over on the west coast, Tampa Bay is a good place for snook. Generally snook don’t move any farther north than the 14 degree Centigrade winter isotherm. That’s about Cape Canaveral on the east coast and New Port Richey on the west coast. During periods of warm winters, they start moving north; after several warm winters snook may be as far north as St. Joe Bay, which is up near Apalachicola. But it only takes one or two freezes to knock them back.
During late May, snook may still be off the beaches as they are moving into their summer habitat. They’re either getting ready to spawn or are starting to actively spawn, moving in and around the passes and along the beaches to feed. Find them anywhere there’s a pass. At that time they’re fattening up, and they’ll eat anything and everything; feeding is all they care about.
The fish are looking less for water of a particular depth, and more for moving water. Look around the Egmont Key area and at all the small passes, such as John’s Pass and the passes in Sarasota Bay.
During this period anglers catch snook on artificial baits, including Exude Darts in sunlight crystal color. Also try Top Dogs, Zara Spooks or anything else that’s silver.
A variety of live baits work well, too. Out on the flats and in the open water, along the drops and edges, the best thing to use is white bait, such as sardines and greenbacks. However, be very careful about handling mature female snook for release.Another thing to remember is that when fish are as hungry, they’re inclined to take bait so aggressively that they’re gut hooked, even with artificial baits. Instead of trying to dig the hook out of the fish, just cut the line. The survival rate of fish with a hook in its gullet is much higher than the survival rate of fish that have had the hook removed.
For the sake of hands, be very careful about handling snook around the gills. The gill plates are very sharp and can slice hands if not careful.
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Anglers who make it to Key West in early summer are in for a treat. Not only is it prime tarpon time, it’s also prime time for a number of other species. And although the Keys are vulnerable to hurricanes, the water generally isn’t warm enough to spawn any big storms this early.
Despite the summer heat, the calmer days of June mean good sight fishing for tarpon. Anglers who fly fish for tarpon this time of year typically use a shrimp pattern known as a cockroach. The body is streamlined on the hook and there are feathers that resemble the antennae of a shrimp. Usually they have a brown body, and sometimes people put artificial “eyes” on them.
Another pattern anglers’ use is a “toad” pattern with either feathers or a rabbit fur tail that undulates in the water as it’s retrieved. Pattern colors are red and black, purple and black, or lime green and black.
Those preferring to sight fish with live bait should try casting a small live blue crab at a tarpon. A crab between the size of a quarter and a half dollar is ideal. Sometimes they’ll also go for lures, such as a Yozuri Crystal Minnow. A Crystal Minnow is a good imitation of a mullet, which is also a good live bait for tarpon.
One phenomenon that takes place this time of year is what locals refer to as the “worm hatch.” A tiny little worm called the Palolo worm lives in soft sponges around Key West. Once a year, on the full moon, either at the end of May or the first part of June, those worms hatch out for the purpose of reproduction. It usually happens on an outgoing tide, which means that it’s falling toward the Atlantic side, typically in the evening. As water rushes across the flats, it moves those worms into the channels and over the flats, and tarpon are waiting at those points to intercept these worms. The hatch lasts about two days, and tarpon are absolutely enthralled with those things as a food source. Hundreds of tarpon thrash around on the surface eating those worms. When all this is going on, just watch and enjoy it. Tarpon rarely will take any bait offered to them during this time.
Within a couple of days of the end of the worm hatch, folks won’t see nearly as many tarpon as had been there prior to the worm hatch. Through the end of June anglers can still find some tarpon, but as the summer progresses their number diminishes as they move up the coast.
Tarpon isn’t the only species anglers target on the flats in June. At this point in the year it’s still possible to catch bonefish on the flats. Bone fishing is primarily in the very early morning or the late evening, because the water temperature has gone up on the flats in the middle of the day.
Regardless of where you go, there is some great inshore saltwater fishing available within a short drive. Just do a little bit of research and head out for some summer fun.
Boca Grande is known as the tarpon fishing capital of the world. Tarpon season in the Boca Grande Pass runs from May through July, with many other species of fish are available all year. If you want to fish inshore, you can expect to find snook, grouper and redfish, as well as other backwater species.
More than 100 years ago — in February 1909 — officers of the Boca Grande Land Company decided to construct a hotel and resort on Gasparilla Island, a small barrier island where the town of Boca Grande is located. Construction was completed in 1913, and the Gasparilla Inn & Club (the-gasparilla-inn.com) has been a popular destination ever since. The Inn still survives today, and is one of the largest remaining resort hotels remaining in Florida.
Fishing charter and guide services are available through the Inn, so if you come for a visit, allow some time for fishing. Guides can accommodate everyone from novice anglers to avid tarpon anglers.