Southwest Florida’s beaches are famous as places to bask in the sun and enjoy a little low-key surf. People headed to our shores often bring sunscreen, beach towels and umbrellas. Not as many tote fishing rods — but maybe they should, because local beaches offer some really good fishing opportunities.
There are a lot of ways to fish the beaches. The best method depends on how rough the water is and also what you’re trying to catch. Generally, very rough or very calm surf is less productive. A bit of wave action is good because it’s easier for fish to hunt in somewhat murky water. The waves will uncover buried treasures such as burrowing shellfish, and smaller fish will have a harder time spotting an approaching predator.
Time and tide matter as well. Ideally, it’s best to be there when there aren’t many other beachgoers. The fish are always there, but they act most naturally when they’re not disturbed. Early mornings and late evenings are best for this. Also, a higher tide will draw more fish close to shore because that’s when there’s more food available. If you can combine a high tide with moderate surf at dawn — well, that’s just about perfect.
When the surf is light, almost any artificial lure can be successful. But as the waves build, some baits become less effective. Topwaters in particular can be hard to work. Most fish will feed deeper anyway, so lures that stay near the bottom (bucktail jigs, heavy spoons, crankbaits, etc.) tend to be better choices. Silly jigs are also very good, since they do a great job of imitating the sand-diving crustaceans that so many beach fish feed on.
Natural baits are also popular. On some beaches, sand fleas can be caught on site. These and other sand dwellers are usually less common or absent on beaches that have been renourished recently. Renourishment buries them and their habitat. Because of this, renourished beaches often attract a lot fewer fish. If there are no sand fleas or coquinas (the tiny clams that bury into the sand after a wave washes ashore), you should probably consider a different beach altogether.
If there are no fleas, or even if there are, live or frozen shrimp are an excellent surf-fishing bait. You can use cutbait, which will sometimes get picked up by redfish and small sharks, but more than likely you’ll end up hooking catfish or stingrays. If you don’t want to carry actual bait with you since it’s a little messy, Fishbites is a good alternative.
Fishing natural bait usually involves simple bottom rigs. A small pyramid sinker, just enough to keep your bait more or less in place, is enough. You can set that up like a porgy rig or use a three-way swivel. Either way, the sinker is at the end of your line and the bait is a foot or so above it. That will allow the bait to move around some with the current and help fish find it more easily.
When the waves are small and barely crashing, a small egg sinker rigged Carolina style is fine. On the calmest days, just a splitshot will do the job. Remember, the weight doesn’t really need to be an anchor. It’s just needs to keep the bait on the bottom, where the fish are feeding.
I recommend carrying all of these options, because you never know exactly what the surf is going to look like until you’re actually looking it. Plus, sometimes there’s a rip current underwater that can carry your bait along even when the waves are no big deal.
Carrying all these things can be a pain. A beach cart or backpack will make doing so much easier. However, even then it doesn’t make good sense to bring too much stuff. Think about how you can simplify what you take with you. The lighter your bag or cart, the better off you’ll be. Trim it down to just what you need.
What can you expect to catch? Well, that’s something that changes with the time of year. Right now, straddled by summer and fall, we’re seeing a lot of snook and big redfish feeding along our beaches. Spanish mackerel are just starting to show up around pods of baitfish alongside jacks and bluefish. By November, that will all be gone — but the pompano, flounder and whiting that we’re just starting to see will be more abundant.
The best part of local surf fishing is that you don’t need any specialized tackle. The 10- to 16-foot surf rods used on the Atlantic coast are not needed, since you’re not trying to heave out past the breakers. Most of our fish will be within 50 feet of shore — a lot of them will be traveling right along the first dropoff. With so much action so close to the beach, your standard snook, trout and redfish tackle is all you need.
So the next time the family wants to go to the beach, while they’re grabbing all their junk, you go grab a rod. It’ll be worth the effort.
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.