It seems like I say the same thing in every column this time of year, but another cold front just passed through the area yesterday. This one brought rain, wind and a big drop in both water and air temps. Every year (starting in February) we try to “will” spring (and springtime fishing) to arrive here early to save us from the horrible winters we are subject to. Every year, we get some great weather and great fishing early, and everyone says “Spring is here!”
Then Mother Nature puts us in our place again and again. As I write this, it’s 2:58 p.m. on March 20th. In exactly three hours, it will officially be spring. But I don’t think I’ll rush right out and fish. Luckily, I had blocked out the first part of my week to take care of some other business. I didn’t have to cancel any trips, change schedules or pole anyone around in a 15- to 20-mph wind. So, it worked out just right for a change.
I don’t need to listen to a meteorologist or look at a calendar to know its spring. Nor do I have to stand outside and feel the temperature changes, or see how much pollen has accumulated on the tiki bar out back. What is one thing that happens every spring in our waters? Come on, you know this.
Whitebait shows up, right? (Whitebait is a term used that includes different types of small baitfish in our area.) Sure, the days start getting a little longer and the water temps go up. But it’s not really spring until the bait makes an appearance here in our neighborhood. How do I find out about the whitebait showing up around here? I don’t have to read about it, I don’t have to hear about it through the grapevine. I don’t even have to take the boat out and go look for it.
No, all I have to do is go to a ramp and take a slow drive-through at the end of a day. I’ll see somebody throwing their leftover bait to all the begging birds (mostly pelicans), right under the posted signs that tell them not to feed the birds. Or even better still, they just dump their leftovers on the ramp and road as they pull the boat out of the water while draining their bait tanks. It’s great! We get to step on the still-alive and flippin’ bait as we walk to the car, and then run over them when we back the trailer down.
Ahhh, the wonderful signs of spring. Just last week I had a client ask me about all the baitfish on the ramp as we had to tippy-toe through them to get to my boat. I told him that it doesn’t rain cats and dogs here in Southwest Florida — it rains whitebait. Honestly, I said it’s just very astute conservation tactics and common sense hard at work. I hope he speaks sarcasm.
What does all this whitebait business mean to the fly guys and gals? It means that it is time to take the 10 through 12 weights off the rack. Spray them down with a little Reel Magic and clean them up until they are nice and shiny. Check the drag on the big reels and stretch the fly line. Replace all your leaders and check to make sure that all the welded loops on the fly lines are not cracked or worn. Also check your bigger flies. Take them out of the box and make sure the hooks haven’t rusted during the long dormant storage time.
Why do all that? Tarpon, that’s why. Some tarpon have been around the passes and backwaters since February, and a couple of weeks ago the pass had a lot of tarpon in it. The tarpon were doing what tarpon do, rolling around, splashing and doing tarpon stuff. I haven’t been down south to look yet, but I’m sure there are probably tarpon at Knapp’s Point.
Now, don’t put the 6 and 8 weights away yet. The redfish and snook have been pretty good and will get better as temps warms and tides get better. The tarpon won’t be consistent for a while yet, but, you are going to start seeing them. It won’t hurt to have a big rod rigged and on the boat, so get ready just in case.
The arrival of the bait also means that we can start to slowly wean ourselves off the smaller shrimp and crab patterns that we have been throwing this winter. I did say slowly. Like the 6 and 8 weights, don’t put them away for the season — but you can start throwing more baitfish style patterns along with the shrimp and crabs.
Anchovy, pilchard and finger mullet patterns will become more of the go-to for a while, until the pass crabs start their spawning drifts on the tides of summer. Don’t forget that snook, redfish, trout and all of our fishy friends in the Charlotte Harbor area like those little bite-size crabs as much as the tarpon.
I had to leave the house to run a couple of errands and just got back to the column. OK, now it’s officially spring! Also, it’s blowing 18 mph and is cooling down quick. Between the full moon, temps down in the 50s tonight, and winds of 15 to 20 mph forecast for tomorrow, I’m really glad I don’t have a trip for a couple of days. But, after that — hey it’s springtime. Get out and throw a fly!
Capt. Rex Gudgel is a fly fishing guide in the Boca Grande area and an International Federation of Fly Fishers Master Certified casting instructor. If you’d like to get casting lessons, book a trip or just need more fly fishing info, contact him at 706-254-3504 or visit BocaGrandeSlamFlyFishing.com or CastWithRex.com.