April 19, 2023
By Dr. Jason Halfen
Inshore angling is the most common and popular way to experience the excitement of saltwater fishing. Whether pursued from the beaches or on the flats, in mangrove-lined lagoons or roseau cane marshes, prized inshore gamefish from speckled sea trout to redfish, snook, striped bass and tarpon beckon anglers to the shallows as the sun warms waters from their wintertime lows. Indeed, the fleeting weeks of spring are some of the best times to stretch a line in preparation for a long season ahead.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
During the cold winter months, many inshore gamefish gravitate toward creeks and deep-water areas with soft, muddy substrates. This general movement occurs in part because the darker sediment will hold heat from the sun and create a slightly warmer environment for the fish. In addition, inshore gamefish diets frequently pivot away from baitfish, favoring crustaceans and other prey items that are concentrated in these areas.
As inshore waters warm in the spring, gamefish spread out from their wintering locations to invade the shallows as their metabolic needs increase and their aggressive, predatory instincts awaken. Emerging grasses, shallow rock, sand flats, oyster beds and prominent points that deflect near-shore current are all deserving of your attention now. During spring, inshore predator diets begin to include more finfish, and as a result, hard-bottomed habitats become more important areas than the muddy sediments that concentrate fish during the winter months.
TACTICS AND TARGETS
Schools of aggressive speckled sea trout frequently use hard cover, including rockpiles and shell beds, as ambush points when hunting prey. Spring is a great time to target these nearshore trout with a flashy hard lure—such as the LiveTarget Sardine Twitchbait or a 1/2-ounce lipless rattlebait, which can be used to tempt trout throughout the water column.
Aggressive, start-and-stop cadences are effective at eliciting strikes from these toothy predators. Wading shallow sand flats can also be exceptionally productive for trout in the spring. Do a bit of scouting before getting your feet wet, using bird activity to help you locate large pods of baitfish being pushed to the surface by hungry predators below.
Wading skinny waters provides you with the advantage of exceptional stealth in an environment where waves slapping against the hull or an errant dropped pair of pliers can scatter bait and trout alike.
Long casts are critical here, so launch a lively action soft plastic like Z-Man's 4-inch DieZel MinnowZ rigged on a 1/4-ounce Z-Man Trout Eye jighead. The ElaZtech polymer found in Z-Man soft baits is exceptionally stretchy and durable. As such, it easily withstands the array of sharp teeth found in hungry trout mouths, while the prominent, oversized eye found on Trout Eye jigs provides a highly-visible target to draw the attention of feeding gamefish.
Like speckled trout, snook winter in deep areas within rivers and back bays. As waters begin to warm in early spring, these popular predators stage in predictable locations along the way to the passes and major river inlets where spawning will occur—starting as early as April in Florida waters. While snook are somewhat dormant during the cold winter months, the caloric energy needed to support this transition, and to finish the development of reproductive tissues, has these predators feeding heavily on baitfish.
Pilchards are a main forage food source for snook this time of year. The hatch bait from the previous summer is now 3 to 5 inches long and plentiful in spring around grass flats, inside the passes and key structures, such as bridges and reefs.
Lures that match the profile, action and size of the bait present is key to catching highly visual predators like snook, who spend much of their life cycles in the gin-clear Gulf of Mexico waters.
The 3 1/2-inch LiveTarget Sardine Swimbait is an outstanding choice. Weighing in at 1/2 ounce, this exceptionally realistic soft-plastic swimbait supports long casts that put your bait in front of more fish per day and reduce the chances of spooking fish. Alternate between a slow, swimming retrieve and one with erratic snap-jigging action to trigger snook anywhere across the activity spectrum.
From the Outer Banks of North Carolina, down to Florida, across to the salt marshes of Louisiana and down the Texas coast, redfish hold the distinction of being one of the most popular and widely targeted inshore gamefish. Target early-season reds near shallow grasses where fish are often seen tailing while foraging for crustaceans or along windblown points and shorelines where wave action disorients baitfish and gives reds a distinct feeding advantage.
Launching a 1/2-ounce bladed jig dressed with a soft-plastic trailer is a great way to comb water and locate actively feeding reds. Retrieve the lure at such a pace that you can feel the metal blade pulsating while still maintaining occasional contact with cover such as grass, shell beds, or even the sandy substrate on the bottom.
A slower presentation, like a soft plastic minnow or shrimp-imitating lure suspended beneath a popping cork, will put more fish in the boat after you’ve picked off the more active reds in the school.
A 7-foot, fast-action, graphite spinning rod will get quite a workout when chasing inshore predators in the spring. Choose a medium-power rod when targeting smaller species like trout or flounder. A medium-heavy rod excels for puppy reds and snook, while a heavy-power rod is perfect for bull reds, oversized snook or even apex inshore species like striped bass or tarpon.
Equip the rod with a 3000- or 4000-series spinning reel, spooled with 30-pound-test braided line and finished with a 6-foot leader of 12- or 15-pound-test fluorocarbon leader. Join the main line to the leader with a compact, robust FG knot for exceptional performance as the union passes through the rod guides.
Spring is here, and just as the warm breezes and gentle showers awaken your yard and garden, rising temperatures awaken saltwater predators, too.