I was talking with Austin Phelps the other day about how the fishing has been. He was mostly focused on the redfish since he was fishing a tournament, but he mentioned that he had come across something unusual — several schools of permit on the sandy flats of Gasparilla Sound.
That’s not the sort of thing most folks would expect to find in Charlotte Harbor. But then again, we have all sorts of oddball stuff that you might not think would be here.
Many of the newbie anglers who show up here from the frozen north assume we must catch grouper everywhere. They are disappointed to learn that the chances of getting a keeper grouper on Alligator Creek Reef are pretty close to zero. Once they learn this, they are then secure in the knowledge that catching grouper for the table requires a long run offshore.
Then, they are shocked to learn something that a lot of more experienced local fishermen have known all along: That there are keeper gags inshore. But they don’t like the artificial reefs, nor the 20-foot holes (which do attract baitfish, sharks and tarpon, but no bottom fish). Instead, they hang out around bridges along the ICW and small areas of natural rocky bottom — places that aren’t so easy to find, and are treasured secret honeyholes.
Now most anglers are aware that we have sawfish in the Harbor, but very few of them know how many used to be here. Historically, the estuaries on the west coast of Florida are sawfish nurseries, and Charlotte Harbor held many thousands of them — mostly juveniles up to about 8 feet. We’re starting to see a few show up again. Certainly there are enough that they’re getting caught more often. But I’d guess that we probably have 2 percent of the numbers we used to, so it’s still a long haul to rebuild their population.
We have an expectation of how redfish are supposed to use the Harbor. They grow up here, and about the time they hit the top of the slot (25 to 30 inches), they leave to live in the Gulf of Mexico. The departure happens in the fall, leaving us with a “rat season” all winter, when only small redfish can be found. Over the past few years, this pattern has been disrupted, and anglers are finding over-slot redfish on the end of their lines all year. Not in huge numbers, mind you — but all the same, odd to see.
No, not sea turtles — everybody knows we have them. But did you know we have a marine turtle with no flippers? In fact, it’s the turtle that Turtle Bay was named for. Diamondback terrapins are best known as the turtles in Maryland turtle soup, but they also live here in fair numbers.
There would be a whole lot more of them if not for blue crab traps. The turtles are attracted to the bait and also the crabs. They find their way in but can’t get out and end up drowning. Despite these highly abundant death traps, there are still parts of the Harbor with numerous terrapins. A friend of mine went looking for them last month and spotted about 20 in a day.
Gar at Placida
The rainy season is just getting underway. Among the many effects on our waters will be the “freshening” of the Harbor and the rivers push water through. (for more on those changes, see page 2 from last week.) Freshwater species — especially weaker swimmers like gar and armored catfish — will be showing up much farther down the Harbor than usual. Every year, there are a few gar caught at the Placida pier, just a few hundred yards away from the open waters of the Gulf.
Flounder like it fresh
Speaking of salinity changes, here’s an odd one: Flounder are very occasional catches for most local fishermen, but it seems like we have a lot more show up when the rivers are dumping huge amounts of fresh black water into the estuary. This is not the behavior you’d expect from a true saltwater fish that doesn’t like to swim up the river like snook, tarpon, redfish and even jacks — and yet, my best flounder days have been under just those circumstances.
Lack of seagrass
For all the time we spend talking about fishing grass flats, you might think that Charlotte Harbor was wall-to-wall carpeted with the stuff. But it’s not — not by a long shot. Most of the Harbor’s bottom is bare silt, mud or sand.
Seagrass is found only in shallow areas (generally less than 5 feet) where the water stays clear enough for photosynthesis year-round. That’s less than 10 percent of the Harbor. And, many areas that seem like they would be ideal remain stubbornly bare. Seagrass covers about 10,000 acres of the Harbor’s bottom. That’s not a whole lot.
You guys should know this, but there are tarpon here after the Fourth of July. They don’t gather in massive schools in Boca Grande Pass like they did in the spring, but they’re definitely here. Tarpon are tropical, and while it may get too hot for you to want to fish for them, it’s not too hot for them.
And if you want to skip the summer months, there will still be plenty of silver kings here through the fall. In fact, autumn might be the best time of year to fish for them. They’re hungry because they’re packing on calories to migrate, they’re in shallower water so they jump more and deep-dog less, and they’re not getting wrecked by big sharks. They’ll be here until serious cold fronts push them south.
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.