As I write this, it’s raining. It’s been raining all day, and it’s probably going to rain all night. We’re expecting to see several inches of precipitation, thanks to Tropical Storm Sally. That makes this topic a little tougher to focus on, but here goes: Welcome to the end of the rainy season.
Right now, the Peace River is within a few inches of minor flood stage. This is actually pretty typical for the tail end of the rains, because we often get lots of moisture from tropical weather systems in September. However, this has been an odd wet season, with many days having no rainfall in our area or in the central part of the state where the Peace originates.
As a result, water in the Harbor has been unusually clear all summer, with a lot less tannic water flowing into it. But it’s sure flowing now, and the Harbor is darker now than its been all year. (Just a reminder: Your inability to see a sandbar doesn’t mean it’s not there.) This dark water will stick around for a while yet, but it won’t really affect the changes that we have coming.
Now, it’s tricky to determine which of these changes happen because of the lack of rain and which happen for other reasons, such as the reduced photoperiod, a gradual cooling of our temperatures, and differences in where food sources can be found. So we’ll do the best we can, but the main thing to remember is that changes are happening.
One big change is that fish are looking for bigger meals. In fall and winter, food can be tougher to find. But right now, there’s a lot to eat. High water is pushing freshwater species such as tilapia and hoplo catfish down the rivers, and predators seem to know it. The pinfish that have been growing all summer have reached the size of your whole hand. Greenbacks and what few threadies are around have also been getting steadily larger.
All of that has the fish on the feed, and keyed in mostly on more substantial meals rather than snack-size morsels. It helps that temperatures are plenty warm, which means fish can digest more rapidly, but not quite so warm as they were a few weeks ago, which makes fish more willing to chase down lunch.
With so many different forage species out there, it can be hard to match the hatch. One way to resolve that problem is to carry a lot of different bait or lure options. They might ignore a quarter-ounce spoon but slam a one-ounce. They may not care about a white soft plastic but be all over root beer. Shrimp may get pecked apart by pinfish as redfish swim by, but those same reds might fight over a chunk of cut ladyfish. How do you find out? Put it out there and see what happens.
Where you find fish will also change to some degree. We’ve talked before about how snook will be moving in from the beaches and passes, now that their spawning duties are over for the year. Most anglers also know about the redfish schooling up this time of year, which has been a topic more than once in the magazine and on our Saturday morning radio show.
But they’re not the only fish on the move. Tarpon have also been following the bait wherever they find it. That means fewer of them in the passes but plenty scattered throughout the Harbor. They’re feeding extra hard, since they won’t be doing much eating over the cold, cold winter — they have to pack on their calories now, so they have enough to get through a long migration or months of lying in the bottom of a river bend.
Spanish mackerel have moved up into the Harbor this past week, and not just a few of them. The reports I got said there were schools all over from Cape Haze to Boca Grande Pass. That’s almost certainly a result of the massive amount of water coming out of the rivers, which is creating a little bloom of phytoplankton — basically, baitfish food.
When you kick off the food chain like that, it’s no surprise that hungry predators show up. Even a few kingfish have been spotted skyrocketing just offshore in the Gulf. More pelagics can’t be far behind, especially considering how warm the northern Gulf has been this summer.
Even bottom fish will be affected. They’ll be moving into shallower water, and actually have started already, with some keeper red grouper having been caught in only 60 feet of water in the last week or so. That will become less of a freak incident as the season progresses.
Basically, it’s a great time to be a fisherman in Southwest Florida. The afternoon thunderboomers are going to be less and less frequent, the temperature is going to go from stifling to just hot, and through it all the fish are going to be hungry and willing to play. What more could you ask for?
Robert Lugiewicz is the manager of Fishin’ Frank’s Bait & Tackle and a co-host of Radio WaterLine every Saturday from 7 to 9 a.m. on KIX 92.9 FM. Call 941-625-3888 for more information about the shop or for local fishing tips, or visit them online at FishinFranks.com.