Hey, it’s fall! Let’s go catch some Spanish mackerel. No, wait — let’s go catch redfish instead. Oh, hold on … there are still tarpon here! But, then again, the snook in the ICW are pretty aggressive right now, and the trout are showing up on the flats, and there are sharks, kingfish, cobia, tripletail, etc. etc.
This is the time of year when it’s easy to second-guess (or third- or fourth-guess) what you should be doing out there on the water. With so many different species feeding and available to catch, you can drive yourself more than just a little nuts trying to figure out what you should be trying to catch — especially because the autumn action only lasts for so long.
For fishing when there are so many options, I have some basic advice: You should go out prepared for anything, but you need to have a plan and try to stick to it. With a plan, you’re not as likely to get distracted. That’s always important, but it gets much more important when there are potential distractions everywhere you look.
So let’s say the plan is redfish at the Turtle Bay bar. It’s a well-known community fishing hole that a lot of people are running to now to hunt schooling reds. If we head there and don’t have success pretty quickly, it would be very easy to abandon the plan and go after the Spanish mackerel that have been hanging around just inside and outside Boca Grande Pass.
Or, you can stick to the plan and go hunt redfish somewhere else. Maybe the tide just isn’t right yet. There are other spots to check out: The Bokeelia bar, Whidden Creek, the lower end of the west wall, even pop across the Harbor to Burnt Store. If they’re not eating at Turtle Bay, there’s a good chance they’re in one of those other areas — and if not, by the time you try them and then come back to Turtle Bay, they might have turned on there.
Still no reds? Then admit defeat and move on to doing something else. It shouldn’t be too difficult, since you brought tackle and rigs for catching whatever might be out there — right?
Now, we’re only human, and avoiding distraction is sometimes impossible. If we’re driving across the Harbor headed toward Burnt Store and we come across a couple acres of baitfish getting wrecked by jacks and Spanish mackerel, then the redfish can wait. Leaving a sure thing to chase after a possibility is a tough thing to do.
Knowing what to bring can be tough, especially in a smaller boat. You want to have the right gear to take advantage of whatever comes along, but not so much that you’re tripping over it. At a minimum, I want a basic redfish/snook setup (2500 to 4000 reel, 10- to 20-pound braid, 7ish-foot medium rod) and something more suitable for tarpon and sharks (5000 to 6500 reel, 50- to 65-pound braid, heavier rod).
Don’t forget to bring wire leader (pre-made or spooled piano wire) in case you end up fishing for toothy critters. A lot of potentially amazing trips end up being stories about the ones that got away for lack of some simple wire.
You might think you’d need a tackle shop’s worth of lures to go after so many different fish, but you really don’t. A handful of basics will do the job nicely. Gold spoons are a mainstay, so have some in the box. I want a couple different sizes, since sometimes it matters to the fish that the spoon be the same size as the bait they’re eating. Single hooks are easier to get out of fish without them ending up in you.
White or chartreuse bucktails are also excellent baitfish imitations that, like spoons, can be fished fast or slow and in a variety of depths. To round out the “must-haves,” quarter-ounce jigheads and a couple sizes and colors of soft plastic shad or jerkbaits need to be in the arsenal. These lures can imitate fish or shrimp, depending on how you fish them, and are easy to scent which only adds to their appeal.
Of course, you may wish to add other options. Hard jerkbaits, twitchbaits, topwaters — whatever you like. All of them have a good chance of catching fish. But if space is at a premium, you’ll do just fine sticking with a few proven choices.
How do you decide which fish to target? Well, you can simply pick your favorite and give it a shot. Or you can take a look at tides and weather and see whether your day seems like a day for the nearshore Gulf or if it would be better spent on a sheltered oyster bar. Sometimes you’ll pick wrong. That’s OK — you can always call an audible.
That’s the joy of fall fishing in Southwest Florida: If one fish isn’t cooperating, you can always try for something else — and then something else, and then something else. The value of a backup plan is readily apparent in this situation, and I try to always have one in my pocket.
For the next few weeks, we’re looking at the best fishing action of the year. In a place that is world-famous for fishing, that’s saying something. Make a plan, and get out and enjoy it.
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. For more information about the shop or for local fishing tips, call 941-625-3888 or visit FishinFranks.com.