We all have those days when we would like to wet a line but just don’t feel like going through all the work is involved in taking the boat out for a day on the water. Or perhaps you look outside and notice that, like too many days in Southwest Florida, Mother Nature is throwing a fit about something.
Fortunately, if you live here, you either live on the water or you know somebody who does. Some of my most memorable fishing days have happened right in the back yard. The area we choose to call home has 190 miles of saltwater canals (almost 400 miles of canal shoreline) that at any given time of the year are just loaded with fish — yes, the same fish we spend hours upon hours and many, many gallons of gasoline chasing around the Harbor.
Think about it: In the winter when the water is cold, fish are looking for warmer water. What are the structures in your canal made from? Wood and concrete — which when the sun shines on it all day it gets warm, and therefore warms the water around it. And what grows all over those wooden posts and concrete walls? Barnacles and oysters, and yes, the shells are habitat for all those tasty treats that fish like to eat.
Add in some mangrove shoreline, a deep channel in the middle to go hide in when the tide goes out, all those big boats to hide under and ambush prey — and you have a perfect habitat for fish to call home. Canals are also narrow and the current is stronger, so fish can just sit and wait for something tasty to be swept right by them.
So now that we have established that canals provide a perfect place for fish to call home, how do you catch them? I hear it day In and day out at the tackle shop: “All I catch when I fish in the backyard is stupid catfish.” When I ask how they’re you fishing, I get the same answer: “Well, I walk out on my dock, put on a big weight and my dead shrimp from last year, and throw that thing out as far as I can.”
Well, guess what — at that point, you are pretty much fishing for catfish. They’re scavengers and happy roam around out there in the sand where there’s no structure and find some sort of scraps to eat. If you want to catch something else, you need a better plan.
First thing is to start with some fresh bait. Frozen is fine. I prefer live but as long as it smells like fresh seafood and not a restaurant dumpster, it will work. Shrimp is my preferred bait, but all the usual baits (crabs, mullet, threadfins, etc.) will work also; just go with what your confident in. Artificial baits can also work, so if you like them don’t be afraid to give them a shot.
The next thing is get rid of most of the weight. Use a small splitshot, a bobber, or (my favorite) a quarter-ounce jighead. If the bait is heavy enough to cast, you can also just free line it.
Before I walk out on the dock, I stand back away from it and cast around it a few times. Your footsteps cause vibrations, and fish have lateral lines which pick up vibration. Avoid casting a shadow over the water — these fish have been preyed on by birds all their lives, and a shadow above them spooks them instantly.
Once you have worked the dock thoroughly, gently walk out on the dock and start working the seawall, boat, or whatever other structure is downcurrent from you — remember, feeding predatory fish are always gonna sit facing upcurrent.
Which tide is better — incoming or outgoing? This depends on where your fishing and what time of year it is. If it’s summer, you want to fish the incoming because it’s pulling cooler water into the canal. In wintertime, fish the outgoing because it’s pulling warmer water out of the canal.
Fishing in the backyard canals can be some of the best fishing days you will have. Common catches include snook, redfish, mangrove snapper, black drum, jacks, sand bream, sheepshead — really, most of the fish you target in the Harbor except sharks and mackerel. If you have any questions, feel free to come by Fishin’ Frank’s and see me.
Remember, get your kids hooked on fishing and they won’t be able to afford drugs.