Despite what many first-time visitors assume, the Southwest Florida coast is not known for incredible blue-water fishing. You want to troll for marlin or bull dolphin? Go to Fort Lauderdale or Islamorada. The water on our coast is shallow for a long way out. Along the East Coast, you can be in 500 feet of water within sight of land. Here, it will take you all day to get to those depths.
But there are times when open-water big game species come within reach of our shores. There are a handful of sails here from April to July. Mahi start appearing in May. Reports are scattered: One guy will see a sail while he’s tarpon fishing off the beach. A charter captain will get a school of little mahi in his chum slick while he’s bottom fishing.
But it’s usually in late August that the “here-and-there” reports become fairly consistent. Why? Like so much of our local fishing, it’s all because of the weather. In this case, it’s mostly the rain.
Our rainy season has been pretty fitful this summer. But by the second half of August, it’s normally in full tilt, with daily showers dumping huge amounts of water on the areas drained by the Peace, Myakka and Caloosahatchee rivers. High nutrient flow from the rivers causes a huge and rapid increase in phytoplankton near the coast. The phytoplankton is food for baitfish — and wherever bait gathers, predators follow.
Wind also plays a role. Unless there’s a tropical something brewing, late August and early September are usually pretty calm, so more boats are on the water. Plus gag season is open, the snapper bite is good, and red grouper are plentiful. These factors conspire to get more people out to where pelagic predators roam, so this is when sightings peak.
It will be over by October when the rains dry up. The fish don’t really leave, they just move farther out to sea. You’ll have to run out 75 to 100 (or more!) miles to find them.
Trolling is the best method to target pelagics. Be aware you’re going to burn a bit of fuel to do this. Plan to run out to at least 15 miles, and 25 to 30 is probably better. Look for bait schools and troll near them, or around schools of little tunny or mackerel.
Diving birds are a good sign. Hovering frigate birds, despite their reputation as marlin-spotters, don’t mean much. Sea turtles, however, often indicate hard bottom or structure below. If you’re not seeing overt signs of life, troll around a reef, along a ledge, or near something floating (grass, driftwood, random garbage).
Pre-rigged squid skirts, poppers, cedar plugs and smokers from Billy Baits, Williamson and Sea Striker are easy to use, economical to purchase and highly effective. Pink is my first color choice, maybe with another color mixed in. Lime green (like a little mahi) is also good.
A trolling rod is different from a bottom fishing rod. They’re longer (6.5 to 7 feet) and have a much softer tip. The soft tip is important for two reasons: While you’re trolling, it’s common to pick up flotsam or jellyfish on the lure. When this happens, a soft tip will bend, giving you a visual cue that you need to unfoul your lure. Also, you need a bit of shock absorption when the lure gets hit, or else you’ll often rip the hook right out of the fish’s mouth.
Either conventional or spinning gear can be used. You don’t need a truly huge reel, but it should hold 300 yards of line (just in case a big kingfish or wahoo shows up). You can use braided line, but I prefer mono for the added shock absorption. If you use braid, a monofilament topshot of 10 to 50 yards is helpful. Some anglers like a couple hundred yards of braid at the bottom of the spool, to add line capacity of you hook a runner.
A lot of folks new to trolling want to set their drags far too tight. I get it — you’re thinking big fish, hard fight, gotta fight hard. But you can dial it back. You’re in open water, so where is that fish gonna go if you let him run? If you hook into a big one and are in danger of getting spooled, you can always give chase. A light drag will also help with not pulling the hook out of the fish. Trust me, it happens far more often than it should.
Don’t want to troll? Well, you can certainly try the dumb luck route. Mahi and sailfish will sometimes show up at random out around the reefs. This becomes much more likely when you’ve got a good chum slick going, but it can happen any time. Just have a spinning rod ready to cast a big single-hook spoon, bucktail jig or lipped plug (if you’re using treble hooks, mash the barbs down) at a passing sail. Mahi will take smaller versions of these lures or chunks of cutbait.
Like so many other opportunities, this one won’t stick around for long. If you want to give it a shot, don’t wait too long or the action will be all over. While you’re out there, be sure to watch your wake for schools of flying fish — they’re just really neat to see.
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.