Here in Southwest Florida, we don’t get too many leaves changing or frost on the car in the mornings when fall arrives. But we do see water temperatures drop by 10 to 15 degrees, and that brings changes to our fishery. The cooler temperatures will cause our fish to change their habits.
One of the species I like to target this time of year is Spanish mackerel. I look for these toothy critters mostly around the passes. Watch for birds diving; they are eating the same prey as the mackerel. Also, look for fish jumping, since mackerel will sometimes leap out of the water when feeding.
I use my trolling motor to sneak quietly into casting distance. I rig my rod with a short steel leader, and my favorite bait is a silver spoon. I just cast past the fish, then retrieve it pretty fast over the school. Now make sure to add a ball bearing swivel to your spoon, or it will twist your line and cause you a nasty wind knot.
Spanish mackerel are good table fare if you eat them soon after catching them. They don’t freeze well at all. Normally you will also catch jacks, ladyfish and bluefish. Keep the ladyfish for cutbait.
The water temperature drop will bring the snook back to the upper end of the Harbor, especially into the canal systems, in search of warmer water. They will also move up the rivers, since the darker water warms faster. I look for these fish around bridges, boat docks and the deeper cuts around mangrove islands.
Some of my favorite snook lures include Rapala X-raps, Storm WildEye Swim Shad, and bucktail jigs. For you natural bait guys and girls, pinfish, shrimp and cut mullet are hot. Remember that ladyfish I told you to keep? Cut it up in about one-inch chunks and use it for bait. Snook love it.
Keep in mind that as the water cools down, the fish become more lethargic. Slow down your presentation and make it easy to catch. With natural bait, just cast it out and let it soak.
Make sure to quickly release these fish. They are one of the more fragile species in our waters and will die if left out of the water for an extended time.
Sheepshead is the next target species, and they show up in good numbers with the cooling water temps. These striped bait bandits are one of the more tricky critters you will have the opportunity to catch in our waters. This member of the porgy family is equipped with a mouth full of teeth that make them very crafty at stripping your hook bare.
I mostly look for these black-and-white striped fish around pilings and concrete, and the reason for this is they love barnacles. They can also be found around oyster bars, mangrove trees and on the nearshore reefs.
My favorite bait for these fish is fiddler crabs, which are readily available at any good bait shop. I like to use a small eighth-ounce jighead. I prefer the jighead because as soon as the fish hits it, you will feel it.
Present your bait as close to the structure as you can. These fish usually hold tight to structure. The docks and railroad trestle around Placida are usually a great place to target these fish. Later in the season, they can be found in the upper end of the Harbor around Alligator Creek Reef and the docks and pilings in the canal systems.
By the way, for those of you used to fishing up north, this fish is nothing like the freshwater sheephead. Those are usually regarded as trash fish, but our sheepshead are great to eat.
Early in the fall, we have a lot of bait moving through our estuary so there will still be sharks and tarpon around. I look for these hard-pulling fish in the deeper holes in the Harbor. I like to use fresh cut mullet or ladyfish. Cast it out and just let it soak. If you see tarpon rolling, throw a DOA Bait Buster at them and just slowly retrieve it. If you have that ladyfish you caught while mackerel fishing nice and healthy in your livewell, just freeline it and hang on.
Target redfish on the mangrove shorelines in the deeper pockets on or near points. You can use crabs, cut ladyfish or cut mullet. And don’t forget shrimp — they usually won’t turn ‘em down. My favorite shrimp rig is a quarter-ounce Rockport Rattler jighead. Break the fan off the shrimp’s tail to disperse the smell, cast it and let it sit.
If you ladies and gentlemen have any questions about any of these techniques, come see me at Fishin’ Frank’s. And remember, get your kids hooked on fishing and they won’t be able to afford drugs.
Capt. Steve “Pegleg” Phillips owns and operates Southern Charm Charters, with his wife Heather as occasional first mate. If you’re wondering why his friends call him Pegleg, stop in at Fishin’ Frank’s and meet him. For charter info, contact him at 678-787-4750 or through his Facebook page at https://bit.ly/2vesgVn.