Quick quiz: What do the following three things have in common? A floating coconut. A blade of turtle grass. The Great Barrier Reef. If you said they’re all structure, you get a gold star.
If you hang around fishermen for more than a few minutes, you’re likely to hear the word “structure.” It’s a technical term for almost anything in the water. I’m oversimplifying, but that’s pretty much the case. Structure is important to fish for two big reasons. First, they can use it to hide from things that want to eat them. Second, because smaller creatures use structure to hide, it’s a great place to find a meal.
Anglers usually focus on large-scale structure. Inshore, that would include docks, bridge pilings, mangroves, oyster bars, sandholes and artificial reefs.
Dropoffs — the edges of boating channels, the troughs that run parallel to the beaches, limestone ledges out in the Gulf — are another form of structure that sometimes get overlooked. Hungry predators will sit on the deeper side waiting for unwary prey to pass overhead. This is a strategy that gets much better when there’s current flowing, sweeping little fish and shrimp over the drop.
Offshore, most people immediately think of reefs and wrecks as structure. These megastructures do draw in fish, and lots of them. But they also draw in fishermen, because they’re relatively easy to find. If you want to have your own spots, it pays to get intimate with your bottom machine, because a lot of offshore bottom structure is very subtle.
Areas of exposed limestone often have hundreds or thousands of small caves, just big enough for a grouper to call home. This type of structure is often called “Swiss cheese” bottom, and it’s incredibly productive to fish these places. Even something as simple as a patch of exposed flat rock can be enough to hold a surprisingly large number of fish in the Gulf’s sandy desert. But you’ll never locate Swiss cheese bottom, much less bare rock, if you’re looking for a sunken U-boat.
Structure doesn’t have to be on the bottom. Crab trap markers, floating grass or seaweed, and even changes in water color can be called structure, particularly when you’re offshore in open water. Anglers with bluewater experience will tell you that something as apparently insignificant as a floating board is often a fish magnet. When there’s no place to hide, baitfish will utilize anything.
Actually, every time you go out on the water, you take structure with you. The moment you turn off your engine, your boat becomes structure. Sometimes fish will seek shelter under or next to your hull when predators are nearby. Cobia and barracuda are especially drawn to a boat that’s anchored or drifting. The ‘cudas will run circles around you, but the cobes will sit right below the hull. When that happens, just drop a chunk of cutbait over and hang on.
Most fish like structure, but it helps to know the habits of the fish you’re targeting since different species use structure in different ways. Some fish like to get right in the thick of structure: Red grouper and snook, for example. Others, such as flounder and redfish, prefer to sit on the edges.
Generally speaking, actively feeding fish will face into the current and hang out on the upcurrent side of whatever structure they’re on. Then there are a few fish that will sit on the downcurrent side of structure, especially pilings or bridge abutments which create fairly large eddies. They’re usually not feeding aggressively; instead, they’re taking advantage of the calmer water to rest. But if you offer a bait that’s not moving fast — say, a shrimp under a cork — it wouldn’t be a huge surprise for an opportunistic fish to grab it.
Water flow is always a good thing to look for, and when you find it working in conjunction with structure, the results can be outstanding. Mangrove shorelines hold a lot of fish, but where a creek mouth flows out through the trees the bite is often much better. The creek can be tiny, with just barely a ripple visible, but the effect can be huge.
We could talk for hours about the specifics of structure and how each species relates to it, but I’m going to save that for another day. The point is to get you thinking about how fish see the world around them so you can start trying to see things through their eyes. Once you start doing that, you’ll be amazed at how much your fishing will improve — and you can bet that’s not a bad thing.
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.