Our inside fishing was hurt by past fish kills in many places. Fishing in the upper half of the Harbor was not affected by fish kills this past year, but Lemon Bay, Gasparilla Sound and Pine Island Sound were devastated. If you are experiencing tough fishing in the Harbor and bays, head west and try these Gulf fishing ideas.
We did lose fish and natural hard bottom outside in the Gulf, but it’s a big place and we do still have healthy areas. If you don’t find activity in your usual spots, try looking for new areas. We are optimistically looking forward to migratory fish returning to replenish our Gulf fisheries, and I expect we’ll enjoy some good action if we are smart about our game plans. Just don’t be too crafty for your own good!
Lemon Bay is my home port, and the local catching is way below par for me. I hear or read about how good it is, but the other captains I’m talking with are not happy with inside catches here either. We’re running outside if conditions allow or south to the Harbor if it’s too windy for the Gulf.
Now, I don’t want you to get the impression we have no fishing action inside. There are fish to catch, and most of what has been damaged is recovering. The rest will recover much faster than most believe. Many fish naturally go upstream in winter, and thus many avoided our red tide problems along the Intracoastal Waterway.
Snook, redfish, and trout greater than 20 inches are closed until at least May and maybe longer. If you like catch and release, this a great opportunity with less pressure on the fish. The folks who know what they’re doing and local guides are doing well, especially if they can capture minnows. It’s a rare chance to fish in spring without the meat hunters. Don’t miss it.
I’m concerned that baitfish will be a problem because of the red algae covering our seagrass beds. I’ve talked about this problem for decades, but it just gets worse. If this stuff dies soon and drifts onto our beautiful Gulf beaches for spring break and Easter, there will be a stinky mess to deal with. There is a real probability of this happening. Charlotte and Sarasota county authorities need to be prepared — you have been warned! Set up contingency plans for algae removal now before you get caught with another big smelly mess.
Minnows are showing up, but the algae is a nightmare with castnetting. The algae holds water and is extremely heavy to lift from the water. It’s difficult and time-consuming to separate the minnows and seaweed. Consider lures to avoid the mess and time of catching minnows. Also, don’t overlook live shrimp as a natural bait. They don’t work for trolling but are great while drifting or anchored.
Mackerel are showing up. This is the most fun and busiest action — my first choice for fun, productive fishing. Remember to use heavier leaders or light wire for macks. Longer shank hooks help also. Kastmaster-style spoons are perfect on light spinning rigs. Frozen chum is excellent to attract and hold always-moving mackerel. There were plenty of macks around the Boca Grande Pass area before the latest cold front, and they’ll soon return. They frequently cruise up into the Harbor as well.
With Spanish showing up, kings and everything else is sure to be close behind. This cold front, and any that may follow, will slow us down some. But I was hearing several reliable reports of tarpon showing up before this cold spell. It’s time to be sure you’re ready to enjoy the great fishing we’re famous for.
Remember that both mackerel are underfished and under-utilized by recreational anglers. Don’t overlook these fast and tasty fish if you’re going out. If you can’t swing the cost of a local experienced guide, invest some time at your favorite local bait shop to acquire the knowledge and gear required for a successful adventure.
Preparation is the key to success. Always match your gear selection to the size of your target. If you use quality gear, you’ll be presently surprised to catch larger fish on light gear. It requires skill and patience, but plenty of big fish are landed on lighter gear.
Spanish are usually found in larger schools, and this competition for dinner makes them aggressive feeders. Competition creates chaos and intense action. Be prepared and carry plenty of extra gear and lures. Don’t skimp on purchases — when these fish light up, you will not want to run out. Also keep in mind tackle shops will experience a run on limited supplies. Some who wait will be caught short!
Always carry plenty of ice to maintain the quality of your catch. Mackerel are great eating if they’re kept iced until they go in the pan. Don’t be fooled by nasty canned mackerel — it’s not the same fish! Cut out the bloodline from each fillet and enjoy. Share with family and friends; fresh fish is the best fish.
Most folks have forgotten or never experienced these migrations before. With so much closed, this is your best bet for fun, action and food. Don’t miss the boat. And remember, you can’t catch fish if you don’t go fishin’, so let’s go fishin’ soon.
Capt. Van Hubbard is a highly respected outdoor writer and fishing guide. He has been a professional USCG-licensed year-round guide since 1976, and has been fishing the Southwest Florida coast since 1981. Contact him at 941-468-4017 or VanHubbard@CaptVan.com.