This is the time of year when saltwater angling is at its best all along the Sunshine State coast. Let's have a closer look at five of the favorite fish to target this year.
By Bud Reiter
For those who like a little salt with their angling, life doesn't get any better than during the period from early May through mid-July. It doesn't make much difference whether you are prowling the inshore, nearshore or offshore waters.
The chilly days of winter are gone, the spring blows have subsided, and the summer thunderstorms have yet to make their daily appearance. That pretty much means that Mother Nature will provide only a minimal level of interference with the day's angling plan. Combine that with warming waters, migrating baitfish and a host of predators that are more than ready to start some serious feeding, and it is hard to go wrong almost anywhere along the Sunshine State coast.
For those who want to chase the glamour species at well-known destinations, this is a fine time to do it. However, if you like to expand your angling horizons a bit, here are five destinations that can provide outstanding - albeit little publicized - angling opportunities this month.
BIG BEND BLACK DRUM
How often do shallow-water anglers get to sight-cast to tailing fish that easily run 25 to 50 pounds? Not too darned often! Unless, that is, the anglers happen to be prowling the oyster-rich shallows between the Steinhatchee River and Cedar Key during the early- to mid-summer months. Then they have an excellent shot at some outsized black drum.
"These big black drum have to be the most overlooked game fish in this area," says veteran guide and tournament angler Jim Romeka. "Maybe that's because they're not worth a hoot to eat and some people don't pay much attention to them. But when you stick a 40-pound-plus fish in a couple feet of water, you've got your hands full. And they are also a lot more challenging to catch than many people think."
Romeka should certainly know, since he spends a lot of time guiding in this area during the summer months. For the most part, he's looking to put his customers on trout and redfish. But that also puts him smack dab in the middle of big black drum country.
Capt. Jim Romeka hoists one of the giant black drum he takes from the knee-deep flats waters. Photo by Bud Reiter
"You find these big drum right back in the same oyster shallows that you find redfish and a lot of trout in this time of year," Romeka notes. "If you are fishing for trout and reds, you see drum. They will normally be tailing on shallow oyster bars near some type of shoreline, and mostly on the rising tide. All you have to do is look for those big dinner-plate-sized tails waving above the surface."
Once the fish are found, the challenge starts, because big tailing black drum can be discerning diners.
The basic procedure is to ease gently into casting range and present a bait to the head of the fish, dangling the offering by its nose until the fish takes it. That calls for casting accuracy, patience and the right bait.
In most areas, a shrimp hooked weedless does the job if you can get it to the fish's head. A small crab can also work. In the Cedar Key area, some anglers have found a small squid more effective. Romeka often prefers a 3 1/2-inch tube lure, since he feels that casting accuracy and presentation are more important than the bait used.
"If you put it in front of the fish, they eat it," Romeka assures us, "but they don't bite very hard. They just suck it in and can spit it out very quickly. You have to be on your toes, and quick with the rod. But once you get one of these big fish on in shallow water, it can be the highlight of the day."
Even if you do not connect, you are still right in the heart of trout and redfish country, so it is hardly a waste of time.
Jim Romeka can be reached at (904) 291-8052 to arrange a day of guided angling for black drum, speckled trout or redfish in the Big Bend area.
NEW PORT RICHEY GROUPER
Most anglers along Florida's Gulf of Mexico coast figure that a grouper trip needs to start with a long run offshore. If you happen to be in the New Port Richey area, however, the term "offshore" is defined a bit differently than most anglers are used to.
"There is enough deep water close to the coast in this area that you can catch grouper within two miles of Anclote Key," explains Capt. Kevin McMillen. "In a lot of cases, you don't have to run more than nine miles out, and during the early summer that is well within the reach of even a 16-foot flats boat."
McMillen isn't kidding about the skiff part. He actually found many of his best spots using a flats boat. He also has found that those spots for nearshore grouper have a lot in common.
"There are grouper in nearshore waters in this area virtually all year long," he notes, "but the peak periods for the maximum number of fish are in the early summer and then again in the early fall. But the spots they hold on are pretty subtle spots. If you are in 20 feet of water and see the bottom come up to 18 feet and looking like live bottom and then drop back to 20 feet, that's a potential spot. Some of these aren't very big. My house has more square feet of floor space than some of my better grouper spots do, and I don't have a big house.
"The key is to have a quality depthfinder and pay a lot of attention to it, because a lot of these spots are easy to overlook."
Once these small sites are located, you need to be geared properly, and that often means heavier tackle than would be used in deeper water.
A "shallow water" grouper is never far from a hole, while one in deeper water can be. Fishing shallow requires gear in the 50- to 80-pound range if you are to keep the fish out of its rocky lair. Lighter tackle of under 30-pound test may have a place in 50 feet of water, but it is too light for nearshore grouper. You have to hammer them from the start!
As for the choice of bait, McMillen believes that cut ladyfish, lizardfish, blue runner, sardine and squid are the best. That takes the active fish. When the bite slows, try live pinfish, pigfish or ocean perch.
Also, be certain that you have thoroughly covered the structure, no matter how small it is. That may require re-anchoring several times, even on a 40-foot-square patch of bottom.
It's a bit of work, but it is certainly worth it if you want to catch keeper
grouper within a short run of the shore. This piece of the coast provides one place where you can do it at this time of year.
Capt. Kevin McMillen specializes in nearshore grouper and can be reached for charter service at (727) 942-8446.
SANTA ROSA SOUND TROUT
The Pensacola area is not one of the most talked about trout hotspots in the state, but maybe it should be.
"Santa Rosa Sound is one of the best trout fisheries in Florida, although not a lot of people have heard of it," agrees veteran Pensacola guide Wes Rozier. "It won't produce as many 7-pound-plus trout as some of the well-known areas might, but when it comes to quality fish in the 2- to 6-pound range I'd put it up against just about any other spot in the state."
Located at the mouth of Escambia Bay and right next to Pensacola proper, the sound is the meeting point between fresh and salt water. During June, that alone makes it a top trout prospect, as this is the type of terrain that big trout migrate to when they leave their river haunts to spawn and this beginning of the spawning season. For Rozier, however, there is another key factor, and that can be summed up in one word - grass.
"Submerged grassbeds are premier cover for trout," he says. "They provide the kind of clean water that trout love, the cover they need, and the baitfish they feed on. Unlike a lot of other areas in this part of the state, Santa Rosa Sound is loaded with grass. You can run from one end of the sound to the other and there are good grassbeds on both sides. It is perfect trout habitat."
The vegetation Rozier refers to is a thin-bladed grass that normally grows little more than a foot off the bottom and is locally called "snake grass" or "eelgrass." Large beds grow almost to the shoreline and sometimes extend as much as 40 yards out to the first significant drop to deeper channels. At that point, lack of light penetration prohibits growth. From May through early July, this is where trout anglers want to concentrate. Just which portions of the grass to focus on depends upon light levels.
If you are looking to tangle with larger trout, the dimmer the light is, the shallower you want to be. In fact, early and late in the day - or all day if it is cloudy with an approaching storm front - savvy anglers are fishing the shallow shoreline side of the grass in 2 to 3 feet of water. The baitfish run as shallow as they can to escape predators, and when the light is low the bigger trout are right with the forage. Find the bait in shallow grass and you find the larger trout under these conditions.
Under brighter midday conditions, concentrate on the outer portions of the grassbeds in 4 to 7 feet of water. The smaller school-sized trout tend to favor this depth range much of the time, while the bigger trout retreat to it when bright light arrives.
When you're probing shallow grass in dim light, it is hard to beat an aggressive topwater plug this time of year. A chugging-type lure in bone or blue-backed chrome finish is a local favorite, but walking-type stickbaits and twin propeller plugs also produce. Don't overlook shallow-running minnow-like stickbaits either. When twitched six inches under the surface, they can be deadly.
On deeper grass lines, soft-plastic jigs are top choices, and many local experts prefer to fish them under a rattling cork.
Capt. Wes Rozier specializes in putting his clients on seatrout in Santa Rosa Sound. He can be contacted at (850) 457-7476.
CENTRAL FLORIDA DOLPHIN
Anglers fishing out of Port Canaveral, Ponce Inlet and Sebastian Inlet can find a gold and green bonanza this month as dolphin stack up in the blue waters outside the inlets.
In this case, blue water can start at the 90- to 100-foot-depth line. Also, given that the May to June period is normally a relatively placid one, that means even bay boat anglers can get to the action since long runs are not required.
Once you hit the clear blue water, you can narrow your search down to a few specific situations. Finding weedlines, changes in water color or temperature, and tide rips is the key to locating dolphin. One item that should never be bypassed is any piece of floating debris. Even a single small plank on the surface can draw dolphin like a mall draws teenagers.
These dolphin are available in all sizes, from "peanut grade" right on up to those big broad-shouldered, square-headed bulls that garner a lot of attention at the dock. Savvy anglers include some 20- to 30-pound-test trolling rigs sporting appropriate high-speed lures in their angling arsenals to use as the primary offerings.
At the same time, they also have a handful of light spinning rigs spooled with 8- to 10-pound mono and adorned with bucktails or soft-plastic jigs in the 1/4- to 3/8-ounce range. Large schools of peanut dolphin can rampage through the area suddenly, and using the lighter rigs is an effective and sporty way to put some of these tasty little rascals in the fish box.
One tactic that my angling circle of friends often adopt is to troll the heavier rigs, but if a piece of debris is spotted but doesn't yield a bull, we pull those lines in and circle back to cast around the flotsam with the lighter gear. If the peanuts are present, you soon know it. If you keep one hooked fish in the water, the rest of the school normally stays around it, so don't be in hurry to boat the dolphin. Allow everybody aboard to grab a rod to get in on the action before boating that first fish.
FIRST COAST FLOUNDER
If the dolphin are out of reach and you still need some fish for the skillet, the maze of tidal creeks from Fernandina to Matanzas Inlet can offer some excellent flounder fishing this month. Additionally, you are likely to have a lot of the best spots to yourself. The area has so much to offer that many anglers are ignoring the tasty flatfish.
These won't be the big doormats that show in the fall, but in terms of sheer numbers of keeper fish of up to 5 pounds, this is one of the best months of the year to fill the cooler. It's also one of the easiest times to find them.
If there is an almost failsafe pattern, it is to move into a small tidal creek off the main waterway on the last hour of the falling tide. The best creeks are those that are lined with Spartina grass and a ridge of oyster beds sitting just off it.
On a rising tide, the flounder push as close to that grass edge as they can get. When the water drops, however, they reposition on the outside edge of that exposed oyster ridge. They can be sitting ducks during the last hour of the ebb, the slack, and the first hour of the flood. Local experts put their boats as close to the oyster edge as practical and work
their baits parallel to it. Mud minnows and finger mullet on a bare 1/8- to 1/4-ounce jighead are top choices, but plastic grub tails can be almost as effective. One overlooked lure is a 3 1/2-inch hard-plastic jerkbait. It can ride right over the oyster shells, and flounder will nail it!
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