If you’ve been paying attention to the fishing reports over the last six weeks or so, you’ve probably noticed that we’ve had a lot of good things to say about the offshore action — at least when the winds have allowed anglers to get out there.
You may have been reading these reports and cursing your decision to buy an inshore-capable boat, since you can’t take it out on the open waters of the Gulf.
But I have good news for you: There are spots out there that are just a short hop and skip from the beach, and it’s often possible to get to those spots safely in boats that are far from “offshore capable” — flats skiffs, pontoon boats, even kayaks.
And I have even better news for you: These aren’t secret spots. Their locations are available to anyone who wants them. That’s why they’re called public reefs.
Now, on these reefs, you have to manage your expectations. A lot of newer anglers here have the idea that they need only go out on the Gulf and drop baits down to haul up all the grouper and red snapper they want. Once upon a time, that may have been true.
But it’s not the 1800s anymore. We’ve been fishing these waters pretty hard for the last 150 years, and now if you want to reliably catch those high-value targets, you need to go a lot farther offshore than you really should in your little boat.
Don’t fret. There are plenty of other smaller fish you can catch out there, and they’re just as tasty as their better-known relatives. Since they’re smaller, you won’t need to invest in a bunch of heavy-duty tackle either. The gear you use for redfish and snook will do just fine.
You will need to learn a new rig, though. It’s called a porgy rig, and it’s fortunately easy to tie. You’ll want a leader about 6 or 8 feet long to start with. I use 30-pound test fluorocarbon, which is tough but thin (thin is important for this rig).
Start by tying a dropper loop in the end of the line. If you don’t know how to tie a dropper loop, that’s what local tackle shops are for. If yours won’t or can’t teach you, Fishin’ Frank’s can. Then tie another dropper loop about 12 to 18 inches above the first. Each loop should be about 6 to 10 inches long.
Now you can slide a bank sinker onto the lower loop and an inline circle hook onto the upper loop. Sounds easy? It is — but you might need someone to show you the first time.
Most of the time, an ounce or two of weight is sufficient. And that inline circle hook is non-negotiable. The law requires you to use one when when you’re catching snapper of any kind.
There are lot of different baits you could put on that circle hook, but I like shrimp and squid. Everything likes eating shrimp, but sometimes there are lots of little fish that will peck your baits apart. Squid is a lot tougher, and most fish in the Gulf like it just fine.
What are you going to catch? Well, the species will vary from reef to reef and day to day, but common catches include mangrove and lane snapper, grunts, porgies, sheepshead, black sea bass and squirrelfish. All of them are delicious, and some of them don’t even have bag or size limits. I’m not saying you should fill the freezer, but usually everybody will get a couple of great meals out of the trip.
If you happen to have a bigger rod (like something that would be suitable for tarpon), you have more options for catching cool fish on these reefs. Freeline a live or frozen baitfish out there and you might hook a kingfish, cobia, barracuda, amberjack, little tunny or blackfin tuna.
OK, you’re probably wondering where these places are. There are too many to list here. Instead, go to https://goo.gl/mMseDT and you can download a list along with coordinates. Some of my favorites include Mary’s, Helen’s, Novak and Tremblay. You’ll need to check listings for both Charlotte and Lee counties.
This kind of reef fishing is a lot less serious than hardcore grouper digging. It’s great fun for kids from 3 to 92, partly because you’re always in sight of land if you’re apprehensive about taking the boat too far out or worried about getting seasick. Think of it as Reef Fishing Lite, and just focus on having a good time.
Robert Lugiewicz is the manager of Fishin’ Frank’s Bait & Tackle, located at 4425-D Tamiami Trail in Charlotte Harbor and at 14531 N. Cleveland Ave. in North Fort Myers. Call 941-625-3888 for more information about the shop or for local fishing info, or visit them online at FishinFranks.com.