I am truly lucky — I live on a saltwater canal. With 190 miles of saltwater canals in Charlotte County, so do a lot of others. But most of those canalfront residents — both newbies and longtime anglers alike — don’t know how to fish off their own docks. This week, let’s take a look at some semi-random thoughts that might help you catch more fish in your own backyard.
Time of the season
The number of fish in our local canals varies hugely with the time of year. Canal fishing is very slow in the summer. Fresh water runoff and high water temperatures push fish out toward the Gulf. Winter is the best time to fish the canals. There are plenty of fish in most of them from November to March.
Not created equal
No two canals are the same, and because of that some canals will be much fishier than others. Water flow, distance from the Harbor, depth and surrounding structure make a big difference in both species and numbers of fish that will be found in a particular canal. In general, you want more flow, closer to the Harbor, deeper and with more structure.
Go away, Mr. Kitty
To catch fewer catfish and more game or table fish, fish structure. Cast to the neighbor’s dock or boat, or any pilings at all. The mangrove edges that some canals have are also fish-holders. Fishing out in the middle is usually no good — that bare, muddy bottom is just what catfish and stingrays like.
Use as little weight as possible, or none if you can get away with it. The bait drifting or sinking slowly and more naturally will get more bites from fish like snook and mangrove snapper. Sometimes a bobber works well too. Now, if you’re targeting bottom fish like black drum, feel free to ignore this particular bit of advice.
Underwater lights are very popular, but few people understand how to fish them. Don’t cast at the fish you see. They’re tempting targets, but they almost never eat. If it’s your dock, stand in the opposite corner of the yard and cast to the edge of the light, not through it. That’s where big fish attack litle fish that have been blinded by the light.
Who needs bait?
Yes, shrimp will catch fish in the canals — but lures can be amazing, especially if you only have time to get in a couple dozen casts. A small lipped plug such as a Storm Twitch Stick or Rapala X-Rap is a great option. Shad tails or spoons also work. Topwaters can be amazing too, especially at dawn and dusk or if you have a school of jacks swim through.
In the winter months, you can keep shrimp alive in a bucket hanging off the dock, sometimes for days. Make sure the bucket has holes all around the sides for plenty of water flow. The lower in the water your bucket is, the better. Sinking it by adding a fist-size rock is a good plan — it will get more water flowing through and your shrimp won’t boil in the sun.
It’s not a trotline
Don’t cast a line out and leave it while you go inside to watch the game. Bad things can happen: A bird could get tangled in the line, a boat could go by and get snagged, a fish could pull your rod into the water, etc. Besides, it’s illegal to fish unattended gear in salt water. Sure, the CCSO patrol boat probably won’t come by your dock … but it might.
A well-stocked dock
There are a few things that you should have to make your dock fishing experiences less of a hassle. First, a long-handled net is a must, so you don’t have to lay on the dock to reach a fish. Rod holders keep your hands free for adult beverages and hook more fish that most will give them credit for. A measuring stick (I have a wooden yardstick on mine) helps with recording your conquests. You also need pliers, a catfish grabber (boy, do you need that), a flashlight and an umbrella. It’s also a good plan to have bug spray, a citronella candle or a Thermacell.
Your dock, your rules
Actually, no. Although a lot of people think that way (“I spent all this money, and I’m gonna keep any fish I want to!”), there’s a word for those people. Since I can’t use it in print, let’s just call them jerks. There’s no such thing as “backyard rules.” You either follow the law or you’re a poacher, plain and simple — and a poacher is nothing but a thief. Leave a future for your kids and grandkids.
Robert Lugiewicz is the manager of Fishin’ Frank’s Bait & Tackle, located at 4425-D Tamiami Trail in Charlotte Harbor. Call 941-625-3888 for more information about the shop or for local fishing info, or visit them online at FishinFranks.com.