Here we are again: We made it through another hot and stormy Southwest Florida summer. Now, the winds are changing, the days are shorter, the tides are lower — and yes, the fish species are changing too. It’s time to put away all that shark and tarpon gear and start sizing down your equipment to get ready for the fish of fall. While you’re at it, you might want to break out that jacket tucked way in the back of your closet.
Spotted sea trout might be our most popular cool-weather fish. When the water temperature starts falling into the 70s, trout start to school up on grassflats and on the edges of sandbars. Places like Turtle Bay, the grassflats around Pirate Harbor, Jug Creek Shoals. Bull Bay and just about anyplace in the Harbor that has a mix of sand and grass will attract good numbers of trout.
One of the best ways to target these fish is with a popping cork. I prefer a a quarter-ounce jighead and live shrimp, but if live bait ain’t your thing, a DOA or Gulp shrimp will do just fine. Two or three feet of 20-pound fluorocarbon leader completes the rig.
Make a long cast and pop the cork very aggressively two or three times. Let the float sit until the ripples settle and then repeat the pops. If you make several casts with no luck, move 50 yards and try it again. Trout aren’t a true schooling fish, but they do often hang out in loose groups. When you catch one, anchor the boat and work that area thoroughly.
If the popping cork isn’t doing the trick, then try a Gulp or paddletail on a jighead without the cork. Bounce a Gulp along the bottom; the paddletail, just cast and bring in in with a slow steady retrieve.
While you’re on the flats, how about targeting redfish? We have redfish in the Harbor all year, but in the fall they show up in big numbers. We’re actually near the end of that time of year, so it’s a good idea to get on the reds now before the larger ones head offshore for the winter.
These hard-pulling drum like mangrove-lined flats with oyster bars and deeper potholes readily available. Unless you have boat with a very shallow draft, be careful pursuing redfish in skinny water — you might find yourself stuck.
Some of my favorite baits for these fish are blue crabs, pinfish, larger shrimp and cut mullet. Cast your bait into a deeper mangrove pockets or pothole and let it sit. Redfish feed mostly with their noses. Half-ounce jigheads are good for holding the bait in one spot, and you might bump your leader up to 30-pound fluoro around the oysters and barnacles.
Once the reds are off to the Gulf, the sheepshead action should be getting really good. These toothy bait-stealing critters can make even the best of us look bad, robbing us time after time. Success with these fish requires finesse and patience.
Sheepshead primarily feed on hard-shelled prey — not hard to figure out once you catch one and it smiles at you with that mouth full of crustacean-crunching teeth. You will generally find these fish around structures such as bridges and docks with a lot of barnacles growing on them. They also will hang out around deeper mangrove shorelines.
One of the most productive ways to catch these fish is to fish vertically around bridge pilings or docks with a drop shot rig. In this technique, your hook is above the sinker. Keeping tension on the line. As soon as a fish grabs your bait, you will feel it — and as soon as you feel the bite, set the hook. If you don’t, he’s gone.
Some of my favorite baits for these fish are fiddler crabs and sand fleas. They will also eat shrimp. Use a heavier No. 4 or No. 6 hook, because they will bite right through a thin wire hook. Bring plenty of bait, because you will need it before you get the hang of catching these bandits.
The last fall fish I would like to discuss is cobia — one of my personal favorites. Usually cobia will start showing up on the Alligator Creek and Cape Haze reefs in late October. They’re big, powerful fish, so I’d suggest a 5000 series reel with 30-pound braid and at least a 10-20 pound rod.
The best way I have found to catch these fish is to get over the structure and drop a bait straight down, with just enough weight to get it to the bottom. Some of my favorite baits for cobia are blue crabs and large shrimp, but you can also use cut bait such as frozen threadfins, mullet or ladyfish. I find it best to target cobia early in the morning before the boat traffic gets heavy.
If you have any questions about any of these fish or the methods I mentioned, please stop by Fishin’ Franks and I’ll be more than happy to help you figure it out. And remember to get your kids hooked on fishing so 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.