Summer fishing in Florida – you really gotta want to be out there to tolerate the heat. Fish feel it too, so many anglers head for deeper offshore waters to dredge up their quarry. However, the deep fishing logic applies also to inshore pursuits, so set your course for the nearest grass bed and prepare for an arm-stretching bonanza.
The moderate weather of spring and fall sees plenty of dependable action over grass flats in two feet or less, while sunny winter days find reds, trout and others sitting super shallow to soak up the sun’s warming rays. However, when sweat saturates your T-shirt by 9 a.m., do not look for any self-respecting sport fish to spend its day shallower than four feet. Realistically, you’ll do better by working the 6- to 8-foot grass beds.
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With trout, bluefish, mackerel, jacks, cobia and sharks frequenting grass beds, the same basic attractions – feeding and shelter – apply as much in deep areas as in shallow. However, with summer surface temperatures tickling the 90s and relentless sun power blasting through the water column, that lush blanket of swaying green blades also serves as a beach umbrella for heat-weary fish.
You'll find these scenarios all along Florida's Gulf Coast, from the Panhandle's Santa Rosa Sound, to the rock grass beds off St. Marks; from Nature Coast hotspots like Homosassa and Chassahowitzka, down through Hernando Beach, Hudson and the Anclote/St. Joseph Sound area of northern Pinellas County. Continuing south, you find vast acreage of deep grass all along the Intracoastal Waterway, from Boca Ciega Bay, to Tampa Bay, Sarasota Bay and all throughout Charlotte Harbor and Pine Island Sound. Geography changes, but the principles remain constant – fish avoid the summer heat, but that doesn't stop their appetites.
Areas with good tidal flushing are especially fertile, as funneled current means maximum fish stimulation. Slack tide is really tough during the dog days of summer, but a strong incoming cycle will flush cooler, oxygenated water across the area, and that’s a fresh shot of rejuvenation that gets the scene jumping again.
Predators will be far more likely to feed at or near the surface at sunup and sundown, so keep a topwater plug handy. Subsurface baits (soft jerkbaits, swimbaits, twitchbaits and light spoons) quickly come into play as the day’s heat begins. By mid-morning, the fish will be committed to the deep, cool stuff.
Think of your fishing presentations like a mirror (reversed) image of the sun’s daily journey. The water’s surface represents the horizon, so the higher the sun ascends, the deeper your presentations should progress. And, once the sun starts descending, you can expect some of the fish to rise higher in the water column.
Wind drifting or motor drifting deep grass is a good way to locate productive areas. Once you find the fish, anchor, drop the PowerPole or stake out with a push pole or Cajun mud anchor. Here are a handful of strategies for connecting with those deep fish:
Popping corks or clacking corks provide anglers with a very strategic tactic for tempting fish over deep grass flats. Suspend a jig or soft jerkbait beneath the cork, cast the rig upwind of the target zone and retrieve it with sharp rod twitches. This creates a chugging noise that mimics surface feeding. Envious predators will rise in the water column to investigate the commotion and en route, they’ll spot the jig or jerkbait dancing through the water column.
Borrowing a tactic from bass anglers who need to reach lunkers holding beneath a lake’s weed mats, saltwater anglers can often stimulate reaction strikes by “punching” heavy rigs into grass beds. Weedless presentations are a must, so tie up a basic Texas rig with a soft jerkbait, tube or thick body grub on a 3/0-4/0 hook with a ¾- to 1-ounce bullet weight above the hook. Drop the rig toward the grass and when it races past resting fish, they’ll often snap at the sudden intruder.
Snag It and Rip It
Another bass tactic applicable to briny environs involves intentionally snagging the grass with exposed hook baits and then ripping the bait free to simulate a fleeing crab or baitfish. Crankbaits, twitchbaits, jigs – all fit this plan. Patience is key, as you have to make the right presentation at the right time in front of the right fish, but when it works, it’s a guaranteed hookup.
Food is the ultimate motivator, and one that will tempt a fish to temporarily forego comfort for feeding. A frozen chum block is never a bad idea, but you may want to advance the game by chopping fresh baitfish with kitchen shears. Live chummers will also stimulate brief, but intense feeding periods. Full-sized baitfish like threadfin herring and pilchards should be used sparingly, as too many large freebies will fill up the fish and diminish their feeding interest. Not surprisingly, slinging out one of those live baits on a small hook is a quick route to a bent rod.
However, juvenile “fry bait” – often seen “raining” at the surface – present a very effective tool for attraction. Grab several hundred of these tiny silver shards with your smallest cast net and pitch them by the dip net-full across the deep grass bed you fish. Predators will respond rapidly and highly aggressively to the sudden appearance of these mini morsels. Fling a hooked minnow, live shrimp or practically any subsurface artificial into the fray and you’ll find a willing taker. (Option: buy a block of frozen glass minnows at your local bait shop, thaw it on deck and toss handfuls of the shimmering forage over your target zone.)
The early-and-late rule is particularly important for summer fishing – as much for the angler’s well-being as their productivity. The danger of dehydration, heatstroke and sunburn looms large this time of year, so drink those fluids, lather on the high SPF sunscreen, wear protective clothing and just don’t overdo it on the water. Stay safe, fish where the fish are and you can expect hot action during summer’s heat.